CAD Report: What Xdesign Means for Solidworks Users
Dassault Systemes latest attempt to push Solidworks to the cloud signals the CAD giant’s plans for the software’s future.
For nearly a decade, Dassault Systemes has been trying to figure out a follow-up to Solidworks. The program may be the best selling MCAD software in the world, but Solidworks suffers from being firmly locked to only desktop computers running Windows. In this run-anywhere run-anytime world, Dassault determined it couldn’t port the venerable CAD system to iPhones, tablets, Web browsers, or even to Mac computers – as competitors like Autodesk (Fusion 360) and Onshape have done.
After Solidworks V6 failed to ship and the Solidworks Designer series was overpriced, the third attempt, Xdesign, might be the charm. Officially announced at Solidworks World 2016, Solidworks Xdesign is a browser-based 3D parametric design package. Eventually, Dassault wants Xdesign to have all the functions of a desktop Solidworks, something they admit will take several years to accomplish. In fact, they don’t expect Xdesign to ship until next year.
In this context, “browser-based” means Xdesign can run in any modern browser that runs on any modern operating system, including handheld and desktop devices running anything from Android to Windows. It operates 100% on Dassault’s servers, with graphics and user interaction handled by the Web browser employing WebGL and JaveScript code. It will require an always-on Internet connection; should the connection fail, Xdesign will probably operate in view-only mode.
When Dassault unveiled the alpha version of Xdesign earlier this year, they demo’ed a program that offers a lot of intelligence. Let’s start with sketching. As we draw with a stylus or finger, Xdesign uses technology from Dassault’s Industrial Designer to turn the scribbles into parametrized sketches. It recognizes and perfects shapes that look like circles and lines and then snaps together sketches that touch or nearly touch. (If you want to experience this right now, try the CatchBook beta from Siemens PLM for Android and Windows.)
Another feature is topology optimization. This is where the material making up parts in a design are minimized for specified loads. The idea is to use the least amount of material to manufacture a part that still holds up to requirements. (Altair’s solidThinking is probably the best known CAD software to undertake such analysis.)
A problem with topology optimization is that it usually results in weirdly alien-looking designs that are unmanufacturable, and so a second program is needed to limit designs to make sure that they can be actually made. (In Altair’s case, this is handled by OptiStruct.)
Xdesign will offer version branching so that parts can be modified along independent paths, and then merged later into the assembly. If this sounds like what Onshape has already accomplished, you’d be right.
Xdesign will also incorporate model-based design (MBD). For a number of years now, this has been considered the future of design, but has been hindered by its inherent complexity. MBD is where the 3D model becomes the repository for all needed data – primarily data that details how to manufacture the model. It’s intent is to eliminate all those 2D drawings that today we generate from 3D models. Instead, manufacturing data is stored in the model using 3D PMI (product manufacturing information), which other software reads, such as simple viewers and advanced CAM programs.
The drawback to MBD is that the necessarily single model becomes overwhelmed by all that attached data, looking much like a 3D version of too many attribute tags cluttering up an AutoCAD drawing. Dassault and third parties say they are working on filtering the data appropriately.
Another bout of Xdesign intelligence is found in Design Guidance, which suggests changes to existing models when the design requirements change. For example, if a model needs to handle a heavier load, only some parts need to change, and so Design Guidance points out the ones we need to redesign.
I don’t know what the launch of Xdesign means for the future of the trio of Solidworks Conceptual Design, Model Based Design, and Inspection Design, companion products that were released in just the last two years. From a Solidworks user’s point of view, the big flaw in Xdesign is precisely the same as that of the trio. Xdesign employs Dassault’s CGM kernel, making it incompatible with Solidworks Parasolid kernel (licensed from Siemens PLM). This makes it hard to translate drawings between them. Indeed, the trio could only send dumb solids to Solidworks. Dassault has promised that translation between Xdesign and Solidworks will be “best in class” – a claim I take with a grain of salt.
The other issue is that Xdesign uses Dassault’s ENOVIA database to store design files as data – referred to as “zero files” – which is not at all the same as Solidworks using individual files storing sketches, parts and assemblies. The idea behind zero files is that everything is stored in a single database file. From that database, parts are available Internet-wide, can be searched for more easily, data extracted more accurately and so on. However, the issue that doesn’t get discussed by Dassault is that, by storing models in its proprietary database, the company makes it extremely difficult for competitors to access them for translation.
The price and shipping date of Xdesign are unannounced, except that the software will be limited to Solidworks users who are on subscription. Dassault is quiet about the price for now because, I think, competitors Autodesk and Onshape charge $300 to $1,200/year, whereas Dassault would rather charge $2,280/year (as it did for Solidworks Conceptual Design) or more.
Xdesign starts a closed beta in May and is due to enter public beta before the end of 2016. We could expect it to ship in 2017. The official Web site (http://xdesign.solidworks.com) carries little information, unhappily.
In conjunction with Xdesign, Dassault also announced Xdrive, a Dropbox-like app for Solidworks users that provides 5GB of free online storage. If Dassault follows other CAD vendors, larger storage spaces will be available for an annual fee.
Xdrive is meant to be the bridge between desktop Solidworks and Xdesign. It integrates eDrawings for viewing and marking up 3D models and 2D drawings, such as from Inventor, CATIA, Creo and Pro/E, Rhino, Solid Edge, and IFCs (used by BIM); this list is quite an expansion from earlier versions of eDrawings. Xdrive also offers collaboration and sharing with permissions, product search (using Dassault’s Exalead engine) and part replacement.
Xdrive starts beta testing in May, and then ships free this fall with Solidworks 2017 for users who are on subscription.
Solidworks as Platform
Dassault thinks in terms of platforms, such as its 3DExperience platform for its CGM- and ENOVIA-based software, and so it has also made Solidworks a platform. To be a platform, additional programs are needed to run on top, and so Dassault announced several.
This year’s hot buzzword is “IoT” and CAD vendors are scrambling to get onto the Internet of Things bandwagon. They envision IoT as a logical (and profitable) extension of their design software to the trillions of sensors that are supposed to be monitoring our world of tomorrow. Dassault IoT plans would see engineers use Solidworks for designing products, then employ Xively to connect with IoT devices and NetVibes for analyzing the data and automating responses.
Also new are:
- Solidworks PCB designs 3D printed circuit boards using PCBWorks software from Altium but packaged in a Solidworks-like interface.
- Part Supply uses Exalead’s 3D part recognition algorithms to search local networks and the Internet for parts, thereby reducing the time designers need to model parts from scratch.
- Solidworks Make lets designers offer products on their Web sites that customers can personalize, which are then 3D printed.
- Solidworks Visualization is the well-known Bunkspeed rendering program integrated into Solidworks and included free with Solidworks 2017 Professional or Premium subscriptions.
Offering these platform products makes third-party developers nervous as they wonder about future sales, as they aren’t official suppliers. Solidworks users aren’t necessarily keen either, especially if they prefer other add-ons on the marketplace. To reassure both groups, Dassault emphasizes that their offerings are optional or provide fewer functions.
Unlike Autodesk, Dassault promises to continue selling perpetual licenses “for years to come,” which sounds like Dassault will one day terminate them. Newly announced this year are term licenses so that companies can rent Solidworks for three or more months at a time.
What’s New in Solidworks 2017
As is typical for Dassault, each year they show off the features they plan to add to the next release of Solidworks, which then ships later in the year. It’s kind of nice customers get to see what’s new even before beta testers do. Here are a few of them.
Chamfers and fillets will become flexible as we will be able to toggle between them without redoing the feature. Chamfers gain multiple distances in a single chamfer, as well as variable sizes. In addition, the hole wizard will gain the ability to create holes with multiple diameters and with different treatments at either end.
Sketches can be wrapped onto one or more surfaces, and 3D curves can be offset on surfaces. Enclosed sketches can be filled with a translucent color to make them easier to see. Similarly, cut edges in section views can be bolded to stand out. Speaking of sections, the removed portion of a section can be shown with transparency, making it easier to visualize the entire assembly.
Although Solidworks might be headed towards MBE, Dassault is still improving generated drawings. Detail views can have jagged boundary lines, while drawings can be mirrored without first mirroring the source part.
The Treehouse will automatically import all associated drawings and gain the ability to print and export the model’s structure. When opening files from other CAD programs, the files can be referenced (seen) but not imported (to avoid making the drawing heavy). After non-Solidworks models are imported, they keep their feature and mate references after we make changes to the assembly. Solidworks 2017 enters beta in June, and is due to ship this fall.
Despite starting work on the Next Generation of Solidworks back in 2007, Dassault managed to place themselves well behind Onshape and Autodesk by engaging in a series of false starts. But it seems Dassault has finally figured out its roadmap: Solidworks is for the current generation and will continue to run only on the desktop; Xdesign is for the next generation and will run only on the cloud.
Dassault promises all of the functionality of Solidworks in Xdesign, yet they hint at diverging this development path. I expect Xdesign will be as capable, but that it will of necessity diverge from Solidworks as it incorporates functions from CATIA and Dassault’s other 3DExperience software. While Dassault promises excellent interoperability between Solidworks and Xdesign, the company has in the past failed to accomplish this rather crucial task. There are hints that there may be other X-apps, and I expect Xdesign to replace interim products like Conceptual Designer and Industrial Designer.
I recommend that Solidworks users consider Xdesign to be just as unique a software product as Onshape, while new customers and CATIA users could consider employing Xdesign as their browser-based design companion.
Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD in his weekly upFront.eZine news-letter. He is the author of many articles and books about AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other graphics software. He maintains the WorldCAD Access blog at www.worldcadaccess.com.