Like many others, I was very excited by the announcement of SOLIDWORKS xDesign at SOLIDWORKS World 2016 in Dallas. I had played with other cloud CAD offerings but, being a diehard SOLIDWORKS user, I was holding out for its solution. I don’t think Gian Paolo Bassi had even left the stage by the time I had registered on the beta sign-up website from my tablet during the General Session.
I kept tabs on xDesign news for the next few months and noted a few user group meetings (mostly on the east coast) where xDesign demos were presented. And then, I heard nothing much for the next 18 months. Flash forward to the week before SOLIDWORKS World 2018, and I get an email, out of the blue, inviting me to join a small group of participants in a mini design challenge using xDesign. Our resulting models would be showcased during a segment of the third day general session. Of course, I leapt at the chance. We were given a brief 20-minute webinar on the guidelines for the challenge but no xDesign demo or tutorial – one thing the development team wanted to see was how intuitively we could adapt to using it.
I immediately waded in by modeling up some simple parts, multi-body components and assemblies to get a feel for the tools and the interface. Next, I advanced to building my standard “go to” model when trying out a new CAD application, a cast metal part from one of my drafting textbooks. This part requires a good range of sketch and modeling features to successfully create its final geometry. Following that, I started brainstorming on my contest entry – a robot gripper hand (how prescient of me if you’ve read the previous articles in this series).
Unfortunately, life got in the way at that point and I was unable to complete my challenge submission, but I was totally hooked on xDesign. While I was at SOLIDWORKS World 2018, I made a point of seeking out Divi Lohiya, the Product Program Manager for xDesign, to let him know of my eagerness to continue working with the xDesign Lighthouse team.
The Road to Milan…
My outreach paid off. During the last week of March, I received another email from Divi. I was being invited to participate in a slightly longer xDesign challenge. Participants would have three weeks to create their models this time around. And oh, by the way, in order to participate, you had to be available to travel to Milan, Italy (!) for the week of April 15th. Since I had already filed my IRS taxes, I didn’t have any other obstacles in my way (but just to be on the safe side, I did let my manager know there was a VERY slight chance I might be out for a week in mid-April).
For this design challenge, we had five topic areas to choose from, each topic aligning with one of the themes of the Dassault “Design in the Age of Experience” conference that was hosting the xDesign challenge in Milan. Being a former full-time (and current part-time) SOLIDWORKS instructor, it was only logical that I focused on the Education-themed topic. Specifically, I would model a personal waterjet machine – a versatile digital fabrication tool that is equally at home in the art studio, science lab or engineering classroom.
With my theme and project selected, my objective for this challenge was two-fold. Of course, I wanted to develop a compelling model to submit, but I also wanted to stress-test the software. To that end, I decided that my entry would be similar in design to my employer’s newest, small-format waterjet (you might recall seeing it in action in the “Shop Floor” area of this year’s SOLIDWORKS World Partner Pavilion).
Having already modeled many of its components and assemblies in SOLIDWORKS, I felt that this would be a perfect test of xDesign’s capabilities. I should stress that NONE of those SOLIDWORKS models were re-used or imported – everything in my submission was built natively in xDesign. These components include rotomolded plastics pieces, formed sheet metal, aluminum framing extrusions, metal castings with machined features, as well as traditional billet machined parts.
What I learned while working on my challenge submission
Over the course of the next three weeks, I put xDesign through its paces. In order to be as transparent as possible, I fully acknowledge that the SOLIDWORKS xDesign software is in its early stages and does not have the full feature set of its desktop counterpart. Nonetheless, I tried to model a variety of manufacturing methods to test the current limits and capabilities of SOLIDWORKS xDesign software. Additionally, these models also served as a test for whether or not a skilled SOLIDWORKS user could successfully transition to using xDesign. The following are some of the things I learned along the way.
The User Interface
The overall user interface is far more streamlined than in desktop SOLIDWORKS. A single ribbon menu along the bottom of the graphics area (similar to the command manager) is the sole method of accessing commands/functions. The Design Manager (shown below) is a flat structure and sketches are not absorbed into their respective features. Context-sensitive right mouse button (RMB) menus do not exist at all in xDesign. Instead, clicking on the three vertical dots in the right-hand column of the tree allows you to choose common functions (hide/show, edit, suppress/unsuppress, delete, rename)
Sketching and Features
Sketching was very similar to desktop SOLIDWORKS with almost all the core capabilities being in place with a couple of notable exceptions. Currently, there is no sketched ellipse or 2D sketch spline and no “Pierce Point” constraint. Additionally, the ability to copy/paste sketch geometry is missing but you can ctrl-drag sketch elements to duplicate them one at a time.
The initial set of modeling features are very robust and I was able to create some pretty intricate geometry, including a rotomolded plastic water tub and a pair of castings with machined features (all illustrated below). I was especially pleased with the shelling and filleting capabilities – I had expected these to be less mature than they were and was pleasantly surprised. The Direct Editing tools are also very strong and allowed me to develop workarounds to features that aren’t present yet, like a Parting Line Draft tool.
The SINGLE feature that I wish was there and isn’t just yet is the Hole Wizard. Admittedly, this is a complex feature to implement but it will be overwhelmingly received once it is – just about every component that I modeled had some form of tapped or counterbored hole and making endless circles with countless “equal radius” constraints in sketches soon grew tiring. Dimensional configurations (or at the very least, dimensions driven by equations) would rank a close second on my wishlist. My third wishlist item would be the ability to make components transparent. The pair of rubber bellows shown below would have benefited from those two features.
Working with Assemblies and Multi-Body Components
Building assemblies and mating components in xDesign is just as straightforward and intuitive as in desktop SOLIDWORKS. While the number of currently available mate types are not as wide ranging as desktop SOLIDWORKS, I expect this list to grow as the product develops. I should also note an important distinction between xDesign and desktop SOLIDWORKS. An xDesign document, called a “Physical Product,” can contain a mix of part features, multi-body components and assemblies – there are no separate “file” types. This allowed for some creative workarounds. For example, there is currently no ability to pattern components. However, I could model the component features in place and then pattern the body as a multi-body.
My completed submission and thoughts on xDesign
In the end, I created 35 documents including the Top Assembly, 3 unique sub-assemblies and 31 unique separate parts. I also submitted over a dozen enhancement requests. I had been using xDesign for the past three weeks, and I found it to be both exciting and frustrating simultaneously. I loved the “anywhere/any device” convenience of it. I accessed the 3D EXPERIENCE/xDesign platform from both my work and home PCs, my laptop while traveling and even my Amazon Fire tablet. Whenever a new idea or inspiration or workaround for a model hit me, I could act upon it immediately.
My chief frustrations came from the fact that, of course, not every function is going to be available. After all, desktop SOLIDWORKS has 22 years of development behind it whereas xDesign is brand new. However, I managed to leverage this as an opportunity to flex my creative muscles and dig into my SOLIDWORKS past – I tapped into my archive of SOLIDWORKS teaching models that I’ve built up over the past two decades to find examples of creative workarounds that we used “back in the day.” It was fun to revisit some of the methods used to solve what were then considered tricky modeling challenges.
In closing, I will honestly say that I’m just as excited for xDesign today as I was 22 years ago when I saw my first SOLIDWORKS demo. Cloud CAD is going to be a game changer, and the team that SOLIDWORKS and Dassault have assembled to bring us this new tool is a great bunch of highly motivated, incredibly talented and smart folks. Once you get your hands on xDesign, I’m sure that you’ll agree with me.