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Comparing Direct Modeling in Solid Edge with SOLIDWORKS

By Chris McAndrew, April 24, 2014

When it comes to comparing direct modeling in Solid Edge with SOLIDWORKS, there is one fundamental question: Is Synchronous Technology good enough to put Solid Edge over the top?

The core of both programs is a CAD system tailored to engineers who need to create part designs and manufacturing drawings for projects that move to fabrication or manufacture. If everything were to go according to plan in which the first design is always usable, then I would put Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS neck and neck for their performance and capabilities. After all, both require the same knowledge of fundamental design and engineering.

When it comes to making changes on the fly, where many features must be directly edited at once, then Solid Edge has an advantage. In comparing Synchronous Technology to Instant3D (SOLIDWORKS’ version of direct modeling), Synchronous Technology makes complex edits in a simpler manner, reduces the impact caused by varying design techniques or imported geometry modeling, and ultimately reduces the time it takes to create a useful design.

To understand the difference between Synchronous Technology of Solid Edge and Instant3D in SOLIDWORKS, I should point out that Synchronous Technology does not work in an ordered fashion. In Solid Edge’s ordered mode, features rely on defined 2D sketches to build their geometry; the software reads them in order. Solid Edge has that ability, but it also has the ability to move into the Synchronous Technology environment in which we can drag and drop features, or make edits to solid bodies without relying on any underlying sketch. In SOLIDWORKS, Instant3D allows some of the same easy drag and drop techniques, but its reliance on an ordered feature environment becomes the limiting factor.

Moving Holes and Related Features

With Instant3D, simple edits are possible, but they look for the underlying geometry that needs to be edited; in contrast, Synchronous Technology looks at the whole part. The example shown below in figure 1 illustrates how Synchronous Technology edits a hole. The first difference in the process is that the relation between one hole and its mirrored partner is automatically recognized by Solid Edge. This recognition engine also finds relations to the boss through which the hole runs, and connected surfaces.

Figure 1: Moving a hole feature with Synchronous Technology automatically updates related geometry, even if it is not specifically linked

In SOLIDWORKS, using Instant 3D to move this hole will most likely edit to the boss - or may not! It depends on how the part was built, the order in which features appear and how sketches are dimensioned.

Feature Trees of Imported Parts

I find design differences most frustrating when working with files created by others. Even within one organization, I have yet to see true use of best design practices that are not altered by individuals. Most frustrating are fillets and chamfers added early in ordered environments; Synchronous Technology eliminates much of this headache.

Many projects I’ve worked on include some parts or designs from outside vendors, be it a mold base or an earlier design. These add to the complexity of imported geometry. Synchronous Technology deals with these differences and complexities well, because it looks at the end result of different design elements, reducing the impact and hassle created by incomplete information or thinking from other designers.

Imported geometry with more involved features, like cut or moved faces, exposes other differences between Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS. Figure 2 illustrates a feature tree from SOLIDWORKS that includes an imported file with a number of edits. Notice that each deleted face, moved face, and cut/extrude requires an additional feature.

Figure 2: A SOLIDWORKS feature tree is forced to include each step in the design process

 In Synchronous Technology, only the extrude/cut action would require a new feature. When it comes to deleted faces, the original face does not matter once it is deleted; instead Synchronous Technology looks at the new body the same way it looks at the imported solid: it’s still a single solid defined in 3D space.

More complex designs and assemblies further help to highlight this benefit, because the last edit made is not inherently influenced by earlier features. So what do I mean by 'not being inherently influenced by earlier features'? Take, for example, the feature list of a synchronous part shown in figure 3. At first, the various cutouts, rounds, and mirrors may appear to be ordered. Each one even has a number that implies the order in which they were created; but that number is only part of a unique naming purpose.

Figure 3: A Solid Edge feature list, the order of the list does not affect the resultant design

Take a look at Cutout 13. It is a completely independent hole, and even though it appears early in the list of features, it is possible to delete this cut (adding back the material) without requiring a full rebuild of the part (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Deleting a cut in Synchronous does not require updating or recalculating of unrelated features (regardless of where they fall in the feature tree)

In the SOLIDWORKS ordered environment, however, deleting this face would require a recalculation and rebuild of everything coming after the cut. This means for complex designs waiting around while my computer grinds frustratingly along.

Adding features at the end of this design makes the wait become longer and longer. Take a look in figure 5 at the feature statistics from a simple sheet metal design done in SOLIDWORKS. Highlighted are two related features. The sketch (Sketch24) is the underlying driving sketch for the bend (Sketched Bend4).

Figure 5: A look at the rebuild time of various features highlights the impact order can have on performance (note the 0.22 seconds of the unrelated Closed Corner1 that happens to follow the Sketch bend in the feature tree)

In this example, I edited the first feature and then let the whole part rebuild; the sketched bend, which is unaffected by other features, takes 0.11 seconds to rebuild. This is a miniscule amount of time that seems instantaneous in practice. When I edit the part, is this how long it takes to make the change? No, because the end of my feature tree goes in this order:

When I make an edit to the sketched bend, the rebuild time of 'just' 0.11seconds is immediately tripled, because the Closed Corner1 has to be rebuilt, which in turn has many child features on which it is based. Now, SOLIDWORKS now can do rebuilds from the effected feature onwards, so I don’t have to rebuild the Miter Flange, but the point is that I should not have to wait on this at all. For some users, this may not be a big deal, but when extrapolated over a year (or even a career’s worth of design) and the Synchronous Technology approach adds up to huge time savings.

Over in Solid Edge, can I also expect to wait 0.11 seconds. Well, there is more to it. If the bend relates to other features in any way, it will still require additional time to process. Synchronous Technology has some lag time as it needs to find the relations to other features. So, it is not instantaneous. But Solid Edge goes the extra mile in figuring out the affected portions independent of the build order.

Instant3D sometimes just adds the feature to the end of the feature tree, and so the whole process becomes a confusing mess of figuring out where in the feature tree to best move the feature. If things go right the first time and no redesign is needed, then this does not matter; but many parts have to be redesigned or revised at some point. This adds a layer of complexity to the upfront planning when working in SOLIDWORKS. I’ve worked only occasionally with massively assemblies, but even in medium complexity projects, such as injection molding tool design, the lag time can become frustrating.

Removing the ordered feature tree in Synchronous Technology means that designers can focus on what needs to be changed. This effectively eliminates the impact of CAD operators employing differing best practices.


With the differences I noted in this comparison, it may seem to you that SOLIDWORKS and Solid Edge work in entirely different ways. Although this is true to some extent, the systems are surprisingly similar. For instance, Synchronous Technology is not the only method of design in Solid Edge; the software still contains an ordered environment which functions great for a variety of designs.

When I am asked about making the transition from one software package to another, I like to point out how much they function and feel the same. Take a look at the images below in figures 6 and 7. Guess the CAD system from the few hints I show.

Figure 6: The ribbon for Synchronous Technology environment is surprisingly similar to SOLIDWORKS, making it easier to adopt

Figure 7: The design environment of Synchronous Technology is very similar to SOLIDWORKS

It is important to remember that even though Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS have a number of differences, at the core both are tools for engineers and designers. The difference is that Synchronous Technology adds a layer of intelligence to parts that makes direct editing more efficient. Rather than focusing on the order in which a design was created, you are free to focus on the end result and the functionality of the design.

In the end, Solid Edge with Synchronous Technology leaves more time for you to focus on solving complex engineering challenges - and less time trying to fight a software system from overly complicating basic tasks.

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About the Author

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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