Conceptual design takes centre stage at Solidworks World 2013

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Held in Orlando, Florida, the 15th SolidWorks World event welcomed 4,500 delegates to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels and was the occasion for parent company Dassault Systèmes to announce its 2 millionth licence sold.

Further milestones included the announcement that the 3D ContentCentral sharing site registered its one millionth user and the introduction of My.SolidWorks, a new free service that aggregates company and community knowledge.

The most significant announcement, however, concerned the launch of a tool for conceptual and mechanical design called (logically enough) SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual.

The first app to be designed on and for the Dassault Systèmes 3DExperience Platform SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual is designed to be complementary to other SolidWorks products, allowing the user to capture ideas digitally, quickly create 3D concept models, get feedback from internal and external stakeholders, and easily manage multiple concepts before committing engineering time to build.

This announcement is part of a trend amongst CAD companies in addressing the conceptual phase of design with direct-editing programs that are easier to learn and use than typical parametric CAD software. Other products in this market include Autodesk Inventor Fusion, PTC's Creo/Direct and Solid Edge with Synchronous Technology.

Fielder Hiss, SolidWorks' vice president product management, explained the decision to concentrate on conceptual design, saying: "If you think of the concept process today, there are a lot of challenges: the ideas are not always captured digitally; it's often difficult to get concepts into 3D digitally; you need to get various approvals from various stakeholders, which can make communication and collaboration with them difficult. You also need to manage multiple concepts."

Hiss went on to outline the significance of the conceptual design phase and the ways in which it could be facilitated. He claimed that 31% of project time is spent working with concepts, with six conceptual iterations in any individual design and three out of four engineers engaged in that process. "SolidWorks is the best for detailed design," said Hiss, "but detailed design can limit some of the creativity necessary to the conceptual process.

Mechancial Conceptual takes these needs into account. It will allow you to capture ideas digitally, include multiple concepts and iterate through them as well as communicate and collaborate with stakeholders."

Mechanical Conceptual is designed to be instinctive to use, claimed Hiss. "It's smart," he said. "It's always saving designs and capturing iterations as you work. This is great because concepts are fundamentally iterative. It's easy to go back to a previous idea and develop it further. Evolving a concept is really where Mechanical Conceptual saves the most time.

Most of the time designers have to think about things like structure bill of materials [BOM], the bodies, the parts the assemblies and sub-assemblies. We're introducing a single modelling environment. This will allow users to evolve concepts from layouts to 3D geometry to parts and assemblies without ever considering the structure.

This is a natural way to do concept design. You think about organisation when you're further along and your thoughts are actually more organised and you know how you actually want to structure things. This flexibility eliminates wasted time in starting over and rework."

In addition, the application is designed to be social in nature, with social innovation capabilities built into its foundation. At any point, the designer can engage 'stakeholders' in the process by posting concepts to their private communities. These individuals are notified that there is a concept to review and can provide feedback using simple and familiar web concepts.

SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual is always connected to the design database and to other users. This gives us the ability to secure your data, prevent data loss from any crashes, and automatically save iterations of each concept. Users are always working together on the same design so that there is no time wasted, or confusion as to what is the latest version. When a team member makes a change, all users are updated in real time with the latest version.

While Dassault's Pascal Daloz made it clear that there are certainly going to be more and more 3D Experience products to come, SolidWorks CEO Bertrand Sicot was careful to point out that this new app-based approach would not have a negative impact on the core product, saying that such development, "will not be at the expense of — I shall repeat — will not be at the expense of SolidWorks".

In May of this year, SolidWorks will be working with select customers to beta test Mechanical Conceptual, with a full release expected in October – possibly at around the same time as SolidWorks 2014 is announced.

Talking of SolidWorks 2014, no SolidWorks World would be complete without some announcements of what is to be expected from the next release. This year, some of the promised features included: angular running dimensions; BOM enhancements; order independent transparency; SolidWorks electrical harness enhancements; CircuitWorks thermal properties and flow simulation link; bolt mapping; fixed length spline; Slots in hole wizard; modelling environment themes; Streamlined save as copy; eDrawings with augmented reality; sheet metal brackets with corner gussets; and lofted bend transitions.

Beyond the product-focused presentations, of course, SolidWorks World 2013 also featured a number of keynote speakers. One of the particular highlights in this regard included a presentation from Art Thompson, technical director of Sage Cheshire, the engineering team behind Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking leap from the edge of space. Thompson discussed how, with a design team of just 12 people in a process he likened to "having a five-year baby", Red Bull Team Stratos took the project from conception to design and execution.

Day two saw a focus on robotics, beginning with a fascinating talk from Professor Vijay Kumar, of the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, on his work creating swarms of agile aerial robots. These, he revealed can be used in construction, as well as search and rescue operations. He also went into detail on the robots' abilities to navigate obstacles via learned trajectories and the nature of their collaborative behaviour.

This, he revealed, was achieved by imitating the group behaviour of animals such as ants or flocks of starlings, whereby individual robots would act independently based on local information in order to achieve a collaborative effect.

Professor Kumar also showed some astonishing videos of the robots engaged in formation flying, building structures and even at one point playing the James Bond theme!

Even this was upstaged, however, by Elias Knubben, head of Corporate Bionic Projects at Festo, who demonstrated some of the concepts derived from the company's Bionic Learning Network. While Eureka has covered these topics before, it was impossible not to be impressed by the live demonstration of the Smart Bird as it flew just a few feet over the audience's heads.

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