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Surface Tension - SOLIDWORKS and Solid Edge Battle

Veteran SOLIDWORKS user evaluates, compares Solid Edge ST6 surfacing functionality

By Ryan Reid, June 11, 2014  

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to examine the differences between SOLIDWORKS 2014 and Solid Edge ST6 and their ability to accomplish surfacing tasks. Now, some get up their defenses when anyone compares two similar products. Anything different about one seems fair game in judging it over the other. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a SOLIDWORKS CSWP (certified SOLIDWORKS professional) and for the last 15 years have preferred SOLIDWORKS over other MCAD tools.

Although I have experienced other software packages, Solid Edge is one of the few that I allowed to slip through my grasp. Which is why until this article I had no opportunity to get my hands on it. Like other users, I had the general opinion that Solid Edge was a lesser version of SOLIDWORKS, somewhere there in the mix with Inventor and IronCAD, with SOLIDWORKS leading the group of mid-priced MCAD applications.

Solid Edge is Siemens PLM Software's younger stepbrother to NX, the flagship high-end CAD system, just as SOLIDWORKS is Dassault Systemes' little stepbrother to CATIA. Both Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS were developed by other companies, and then bought by the current owners. Both are positioned to sell to the same audience. This parallelism set the stage for a fair comparison.

How Solid Edge Differs from SOLIDWORKS

In recent years, Siemens developed a new technology called Synchronous Technology, which they applied to both Solid Edge and NX. In a simplified explanation, ST is a hybrid of direct modeling (push pull, non-parametric) and traditional history-based, parametric modeling. Over six releases, it has proven to be a powerful tool, and so is appreciated by those who use it.

It is, however, not ideal for surfacing; indeed, I had been advised by Siemens's representatives to not use synchronous workflows for surfacing. (I wish I had known this early in my evaluation.) For this comparison, I was left with using only "ordered modeling" (Solid Edge's terminology for traditional history-based modeling). The fact that direct modeling is not available for surfacing in Solid Edge makes this evaluation easier though, because it is also unavailable in SOLIDWORKS.

SOLIDWORKS does not offer any kind of direct modeling as a formal workflow. The software is pretty much focused solely on history-based modeling, and the functions used for that workflow. This may sound like a drawback, but it is one thing I appreciate about SOLIDWORKS: Dassault didn't try to reinvent the wheel within the native package (as do other MCAD vendors), and the majority of its customers are not asking for direct modeling. The company focuses on improving the core package of features.

In Solid Edge, I was impressed that it gives new users the opportunity to search for commands with the "Command Finder" tool at the bottom of the screen. It not only finds Solid Edge commands but also the aliases used by that other MCAD packages. A good example of this is that Solid Edge calls fillets "rounds." By searching for "fillets" in the Command Finder, I learn the terminology, and it shows me visually where the rounds feature is located in the program. SOLIDWORKS has a similar tool, but I can't say that it is as intuitive with aliases.

My Test Methodology

Now that this introduction is out of the way, we can get into the meat and potatoes of my experience. I research these key areas:

For this evaluation, I used a project that I completed recently in SOLIDWORKS. It is part of an old farm tractor grill that had been 3D scanned, and then given to me as a STEP file. Figure 1 shows the scan model in grey and the finished model in red.

Figure 1: The tractor grill as a 3D scan (left, in gray) and as a 3D solid (right, in red)

My task was to turn the STEP file into a 3D solid and then scale it down for a 3D print. The 3D print was intended to be part of a fully functional, half-scale model of this old timey tractor. It was no easy feat in SOLIDWORKS, though it wasn't terrible. With SOLIDWORKS, I had a functional workflow in about three hours. As the part was not intended to be easily changeable, I did not put a lot of design intent into it. To accomplish the task, I had about 100 features in all.

My plan is to import this model's surfaces into Solid Edge at various stages of completion, and then attempt to accomplish some of the tasks that were troublesome in SOLIDWORKS to establish a comparison between Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS.

User Interface

The most important aspect of a CAD package is how easy it makes it for me to accomplish the task at hand; also, how much time it takes to access the tools required for tasks. This is what I mean by "user interface" (UI). Now, the look of the software and how "modern" its buttons and screens look are – these all make for a more pleasant user experience. But a modern UI can be easily trumped by accomplishing tasks more efficiently with older interface styles. I find UI criteria is the one most likely to be swayed by personal experience, and so I do my best to avoid such prejudice.

For instance, filleting is often a limiting factor in MCAD. The tractor grill has one complex fillet that I wanted to check out in Solid Edge (see figure 2).

Figure 2: SOLIDWORKS-created surface fillet (at left); imported into Solid Edge without the fillet (center); Solid Edge's version of the fillet (right)

Notice that Solid Edge simplified the fillet a little more than SOLIDWORKS. It accomplished this through two fillet sections, instead of the three made by SOLIDWORKS. I would chalk that up as a substantive benefit.

While I am not a fan of the general layout of the Solid Edge fillet command, pictures in the options dialog box gave me great insight into what each option does. SOLIDWORKS tends to have a little more of the "try and fail" approach, but it gets the job done quicker when experienced users know which option to pick.

A face fillet in Solid Edge is, however, a little more ambiguous, because I did not see any more graphical explanations of the process. Maybe this is something that they will improve upon.

Some quick points on other user interface differences between the two:

Figure 3: SOLIDWORKS version of mouse gestures (at left); mouse gesture interface in Solid Edge (at right)

Power

The second in my criteria is the software's power, of which there are two primary aspects. The first is capability: Does the MCAD program have the features required to accomplish the task? Many times, these solutions have different versions of the same feature. But to make software powerful is to give users the tools to allow their design imagination to come to fruition, without substantial effort of workarounds and frustration. This usually is limited by the feature set allotted to the task at hand. If I can't create a feature the way that I want it to look in surfacing, then no other criteria matters.

The second is closely connected: flexibility. I lump this in with power because it showcases the thought involved in creating the software. No one feature can do it all, so varying levels of the same type of feature are often required to give a broader palette of options. Sometimes these feature sets are a necessity of software, and sometimes they are an option to support different shapes or to simplify the feature tree.

I tested capability and flexibility when modeling the front portion of the grill., I needed to create a loft between the two surfaces shown in figure 4.

Figure 4: The loft needed between two surfaces

As can be seen, I easily made the front face in SOLIDWORKS by applying a simple loft command to the two edges, and using the guide rail that's highlighted in purple. This gave me a surface quickly. This may not be ideal for someone who wants more precise control of the surface, but for me it got the job done fast. Later, down the road, I had to add some more features to accommodate this simplicity, but no extra sketches were needed.

In the example above, there is a gap between the purple guide curve and one of the profiles. I used the loft tool for this and had no problem. I was, however, able to duplicate the problem that I had in Solid Edge by using the boundary tool in SOLIDWORKS. The situation is that BlueSurf and Boundary both require profiles and guide curves to be connected. I had to create sketches to fully define the boundary before getting the surface that I required. The sweep tool in Solid Edge allowed for a bit more flexibility, but I was still not able to create an exact duplicate of the SOLIDWORKS surface. SOLIDWORK's flexibility and broader feature set here made a substantial difference to me in favor of SOLIDWORKS.

I will admit that Solid Edge focuses on curves very intelligently. (Keep in mind that a "spline" in SOLIDWORKS is a "curve" in Solid Edge.) It has many features in curve creation that I would like to see incorporated into SOLIDWORKS. For example, tracing or freehand curve generation takes the freehand mouse-drawn lines and converts them to smooth two-point curves. Solid Edge simplifies curves very easily, and modifies the curve intent without modifying any other controlling vertex.

Many other Solid Edge curve features can be duplicated in SOLIDWORKS. Some Solid Edge curve features seem to facilitate the preferred workflows of Solid Edge. Figure 5 shows some of the different types of curves that Solid Edge can create.

Figure 5: Commands for working with curves in Solid Edge

Solid Edge does not currently have a 3D sketch environment. It connects 2D sketches with curves. Because "curves" are more prevalent in Solid Edge than in SOLIDWORKS, I will point out that 3D curves are controlled differently than standard sketches in terms of constraints. A 3D curve is more of a feature than a sketch entity inside one 3D sketch environment that you would expect in most other MCAD programs. This can lead to inconsistent workflows in controlling constraints; I consider a curve to be part of a sketch. Tangency and curvature are controlled in Solid Edge by editing the 3D curve feature, not a 3D sketch entity. I can see the benefit to this in programming stability, but because I rarely have problems in SOLIDWORKS with that particular stability, it is hard for me to see this as a positive for Solid Edge. Nor can I say its a negative, either. This is just one of those things that is different between the two.

Some quick points on differences in power and features between the two MCAD programs:

Stability

The third criteria that I consider important is the stability of the software, of which there are two aspects.

The first part is the stability of geometry, specifically projected and linked geometry. I have experienced a substantial amount of frustration in this area with some software packages. This is often evident when I roll a seemingly healthy feature tree up to the beginning and then back down again - only to get errors. This creates unnecessary re-work and frustration for me. I grant that much of this can be minimized with proper modeling techniques, but nonetheless it showcases the software's lack of stability. Both of these MCAD packages are based on the same kernel, and so stability is similar. Solid Edge lacks the freeze feature bar in SOLIDWORKS, which is awesome for large feature tree models.

The second part of stability is lack of software crashes. Anybody who works with SOLIDWORKS probably knows these pains, as it is one of the more finicky CAD solutions. I have to have things just right and do my modeling within a set of experience-driven rules to avoid crashing SOLIDWORKS; usually these are duplicable and so what not to do is easily understood. I did not crash Solid Edge once, but this does not prove that it is immortal.

Conclusion

I was really hoping that Solid Edge would wow me and show me something that I haven't seen before. Although there are a few sparkles in Solid Edge, I was hoping that Synchronous Technology would bring a different perspective to surfacing. After finding out that it was never intended to support advanced surfacing, all I could do was compare the traditional tools. From that perspective, my opinion is that Solid Edge needs to create revolutionary features to overtake SOLIDWORKS in the field of surfacing. Maybe they need to try to find a way to harness Synchronous Technology for this or expand its toolset. Either way, my take is that Solid Edge ST6 is an improving but lagging MCAD surfacing technology compared to SOLIDWORKS 2014.

If I could give Siemens PLM advice about Solid Edge, I would say that they need to create some disruptive surfacing technology. They have the idea right with Synchronous Technology but they need execute the same mindset on the surfacing side.

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About the Author

  Ryan Reid is a CAD administrator with over 12 years experience in mechanical design with Autodesk software. He is also certified in SOLIDWORKS. More…

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