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Part 5: Getting an Edge Over SolidWorks

Solid Edge with its Synchronous Technology has an advantage when it comes to changing parts. Its history-less environment does away with rebuild errors, the bane of a SolidWorks session. Solid Edge does have room for improvement, such as with surfacing, but this SolidWorks user finds it worthy of consideration.

By Chris McAndrew, January 25, 2013

(See Pt 1, Pt 2, Pt 3, Pt 4)

Anytime a firm chooses a CAD package, it’s a big deal. Acquiring the software, appropriate hardware, and additional training can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per station. Then there is the impact bad programs can have on organizational morale, or the products being designed. Engineers tend to have experience with existing software, and may not be keen on switching to a new (read: different) system. Managers are wise to consider how skills will transfer to the new system, before making a transition.

When I was asked to review Solid Edge ST5 (and compare it to SolidWorks), I jumped at the chance to try something new. I was especially interested in seeing how my 7+ years of learning and using SolidWorks would transfer to Synchronous Technology. (ST is the part of Solid Edge that is really different from SolidWorks; otherwise, most MCAD systems are roughly similar in functionality.)

I did not expect to immediately become an expert in Solid Edge, because it is powerful and robust software. But after using it for a few weeks, I was surprised at how easy it was to work with. To get up to speed, I ran through some of the built-in tutorials, and then had a hands-on training session provided by Siemens PLM Software at their headquarters in Huntsville AL.

In the end I found I could use Solid Edge ST for everything I needed in design, and in some instances it surpassed my expectations. My previous four reviews of different aspects of the software can be found here on CADdigest.com:

Installation and Performance

The installation process for Solid Edge went much smoother than anything I have experienced with SolidWorks. Other than a slight hiccup caused by the new Windows 8 operating system that I run on my computer (it limits write access to the Program Files folder), I was able to download and install Solid Edge with just a handful of clicks on a Confirm button.

Once installed, ST5 performed well. In more than a month of working with and reviewing the software, I never brought the computer to a grinding halt. With SolidWorks, I routinely have to force-quit the application - regardless of the version, hardware, or build. This difference surprised me, because both built on the same Parasolid kernel developed by Siemens.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that most of SolidWorks’ crashes occur while editing or rebuilding history or ordered features. These are not required in Solid Edge, and so this may be an explanation. Whatever the case, managing the performance and installation of Solid Edge ST5 was a breeze.

Layout and User Interface

Layout and user interface are critical to any software. With Solid Edge, both aspects were so intuitive and familiar that at times I forgot it was a new program. Many of the ribbon, toolbars, and menu buttons in the MCAD industry follow something of a standard, and so default options could at first glance be mistaken for another program entirely.

For instance, let’s take a look at the primary ribbon in Solid Edge and SolidWorks. The difference between the two is that the SolidWorks ribbon is dynamic, changing to reveal different selections depending on what is currently selected. Figure 1 shows the SolidWorks Sketch ribbon, which is the first one seen in creating any part. Figure 2 shows the equivalent ribbon in Solid Edge, which has all of the same sketch items as SolidWorks. When I started with Solid Edge, I realized that simply having the same basic icons and options made finding and editing things very easy.

Figure 1: SolidWorks sketch ribbon
Figure 2: Solid Edge ribbon

Unfortunately, my hands go to the "S" key, which brings up a shortcut menu in SolidWorks, and this does not have a Solid Edge equivalent. Even so, the Solid Edge system allows for lots of customizations. Menus and other UI features can be hidden or prominently displayed and after a few days of using a layout, new habits are easy to form.

Modeling and Editing in Synchronous Technology

Installing software and experiencing a familiar user interface is one thing; my main concern with Solid Edge was how easy it would be to design a variety of parts and assemblies. Here the two are very different: SolidWorks relies on history-based parametric modeling, while Solid Edge uses its home-grown Synchronous Technology. But the point to both is their ability to create and edit 3D designs.

Fancy name aside, the process of editing existing files and working with imported data in Solid Edge is very different from SolidWorks. Admittedly, initially I was nervous that I would not be able to figure out how to use the new software, but I found Synchronous Technology intuitive.

After a month, overall I found that it made it easier to work with files created by others, while providing the power to create new designs from scratch. After this time working with Solid Edge, I even began to change my thinking about how best to model parts.

The biggest surprise in moving from SolidWorks to Solid Edge was learning that there is no consideration for the order of features. Figure 3 shows a Solid Edge part with a series of commands on the left; in SolidWorks, this is generally referred to as the "feature tree."

Figure 3: Feature tree in Solid Edge

With my background, I am used to software seeing all of those protrusions, mirrors, and cuts as an ordered list of instructions of how to produce the final part. Experienced SolidWorks users are familiar with what I am saying, and will have their own stories about the times the bottom of the list grayed out or lit up in red. (This is due to rebuild errors from changing one of the first items in the list.) I found the colored warnings unintuitive - and annoying - especially when the first and last items had nothing to do with each other.

Solid Edge removing ordered features is what started to change my thinking about how to model a part.

In the past, with SolidWorks, I always had to keep in mind while building parts how they would be rebuilt and what might have to change. For instance, if there was an unspecified aspect I knew was undefined, or a feature likely to be altered during design iterations, I had to make sure they appeared at the end of the feature tree. (This way, if a small change is made, the entire part does not need to be rebuilt, keeping the chance for rebuild errors to a minimum.) With Solid Edge ST, the concern is eliminated, allowing me to focus instead on the best way to model the parts.

All this good news comes at a price. I found that for a handful of things Solid Edge does seem more difficult. Even though surfacing in SolidWorks was never my strongest skill, Solid Edge makes it no easier, and I found the features available left something to be desired. The Siemens PLM team is quick to point out that the upcoming ST 6 will offer major improvements to surfacing.

Finally, the shift in thinking is not an easy shift, requiring me to develop new patterns of thinking and habits of working. Coming from a similar system makes the learning curve easier. Should you be considering changing from SolidWorks to Solid Edge, then I suggest it would be wise to first take proper training and then allow extra time for the first few projects.

Communicating Design

Coming to the end of the design process is the important step of communicating designs by creating engineering prints. Comparing Solid Edge with SolidWorks is incomplete without a look at two-dimensional drafting and engineering print generation. On the surface, the two have many similarities; the one obvious difference is the jargon used for the files: Solid Edge has "draft files" where SolidWorks has "drawing files." Fortunately, they are the same thing, and both turn 3D designs into engineering prints. Both systems allow me to create 2D drawings from scratch, like an AutoCAD.

I have worked on projects where the only deliverable allowed was a set of 2D engineering prints; the 3D model was irrelevant. (I am sure other engineers can relate to this.) When something must be machined, it does not matter how creative the SolidWorks feature tree is, if it cannot be turned into a 2D print and machined correctly. Same goes for the most complex assemblies; unless all in the production process can work entirely from a 3D file, at some point engineering prints will be required.

When creating prints with Solid Edge, I realized the difference between history-based modeling and Synchronous Technology. An engineering print shows what the part should be, and not how it got to be that way; why would the order of the features matter? For instance, if a fillet feature comes before the hole feature, then in SolidWorks the engineering print looks the same. In Solid Edge, the software understands what the designer understands, and so the order of how something was created does not matter. The end result is what matters, and whether it is a 3D model or a 2D drawing Solid Edge is a tool used in the process.

Generally Solid Edge ST has all of the tools necessary to create great 2D prints. Standard callouts and markings are just a toolbar click away; Figures 4 and 5 show the default toolbars for Solid Edge. Engineering prints are never the fun portion of designing but they are necessary. Having all of the required annotations and dimensions made it possible to quickly put together engineering prints without wasting time. When it comes to 2D design, Solid Edge is easy to work with; I found going through almost no learning curve when making the transition from SolidWorks, because the two programs are so similar.

Figure 4: Solid Edge drawing diagram toolbar
Figure 5: Solid Edge drawing sketch toolbar
Final Thoughts on Solid Edge

I have spent to this point nearly 50 hours working with Solid Edge ST5, including 36 trainer-hours of direct training. These numbers pale in comparison to my experience with SolidWorks, but surprisingly I feel like a proficient Solid Edge user.

There are, of course, a handful of flashy add-ins for rendering and simulation with Solid Edge, but at the core the program is simply a tool for creating and communicating three-dimensional designs. It is not built for casual users, and those new to computer-aided design would be wise to take formal training. For experienced designers and engineers, however, Synchronous Technology helps to streamline the design process, thereby focusing efforts on engineering and design.

To anyone who has the opportunity, my suggestion is try out Solid Edge for a bit - especially when you come from other design systems. Getting up to speed does not take all that long, and the differences in Solid Edge due to Synchronous Technology are beneficial for both novice and experienced users.

For some, of course, a change is unnecessary should you be content with your CAD system creating simple designs. If you are a surfacing specialist, then I would wait for ST6 this summer to take a serious look at Solid Edge.

If, on the other hand, you are constantly working with imported data and making edits to models created by others, then Solid Edge ST will greatly reduce the time spent fixing errors, allowing you instead to focus on engineering and design.

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Christopher McAndrew develops and markets toys and children's products. He has a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from Tulane University. Chris writes the 3 Dimensional Engineer blog. More...

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