CAD Report: Inside Solid Edge ST9 and CatchBook
Latest release of Siemens PLM’s mid-range MCAD modeler tuned to suit SME customers.
In the past, Siemens has treated Solid Edge like it was being offered to big corporations, as Siemens is itself. However, for the suite’s latest release, Solid Edge ST9, the theme that comes across is an MCAD program that’s kinder to small design firms.
Prior to ST9, for example, Siemens required that database functions be implemented through Microsoft’s SharePoint, something small businesses aren’t keen to implement, let alone pay extra for. Now, data can instead be managed from inside Solid Edge. Rather than linking to an external SQL (Structured Query Language) database, ST9 uses the indexing system built into Windows. When we install ST9, it gives Windows the info it needs to search the metadata in Solid Edge files. Then, when we search for file names or drawing properties from inside Solid Edge, it returns suitable candidates.
The catch, of course, is that Windows Indexing gives us weaker data management than full blown SQL, but then many users may not be familiar with writing database queries and Windows Index is free. Similarly, Siemens made the revision manager more useful by adding release management. It’s powerful enough to let us start a new assembly from an existing one, modify it and still be able to track the parts of both assemblies.
That’s not to say that TeamCenter is forgotten, should your firm be big enough to use PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) or need the ability to manage data from other MCAD systems. New to ST9 is a single ribbon tab that handles all TeamCenter functions, as well as multiple revisions of every component.
Working Inside Assemblies
The “ST” in ST9 is short for Synchronous Technology, while the “9” means this is the ninth release of Solid Edge with the proprietary modeling technology. Ever since ST1, Solid Edge has offered two modeling modes: Ordered mode and Synchronous Technology mode. Ordered mode is like history mode in other MCAD systems, whereas Synchronous Technology is like direct modeling, coupled with ST’s ability to make intelligent guesses about what’s being modeled.
ST requires a different way of thinking, and I suspect uptake amongst the user base hasn’t been as great as Siemens hoped for. And so, ST9 makes it easier to use both modeling approaches through a new hybrid mode that displays the entire model as we work in synchronous mode.
In addition, ST9 offers new 3D modeling functions:
Contour flanges are ones that are created along a path and, in ST9, we can use geometry from other components to draw the path.
Taking a path, we can now sweep a shape along it to remove material, just like a milling operation. Better yet, the removal can sweep across two or more bodies. (See Figure 2.) The same feature is available for fillets and chamfers, so we are no longer limited to filleting a single body at a time. I wonder if Siemens will add more CNC-like simulations in future releases.
Multiple faces can be replaced by a single surface. And lots of parts can be replaced by a single body for purposes like determining overall volumes, calculating sizes of machine blanks and specifying keep-out areas around machinery.
When an assembly has two or more shapes that are identical, like bolts, we can now assign different data to each one. It works the other way around, too: ST9 creates BOMs and balloons automatically from the unique data in otherwise identical parts.
The new Isolate function dims parts in assemblies we’re not interested in. This isn’t new to MCAD but is new to ST9.
Competitors aren’t forgotten. When we import models from Solidworks, ST9 reads the associativity between parts and drawings. Fonts are provided so that text from AutoCAD drawings is displayed correctly. And when we export to DWG files, Solid Edge maps entities between the two formats. Sending models to 3D printers is less likely to be a disaster now that ST9 shows us 3D print previews, and we get to specify the conversion tolerance for STL exports.
Embracing the Cloud, Gingerly
Executives at Solid Edge have said they would never force the cloud on customers, reported to number 500,000 commercial users in 2014. This year, ST9 does embrace the cloud, but does so gingerly.
Solid Edge itself isn’t on the cloud, by which I mean an entire program running on a server hosted by Siemens. Instead, ST9 can be installed on any Windows computer we want. Then, we create an account that stores our license info online so that we can move the license from machine to machine, such as from desktop computer to laptop. It costs no more than existing node-locked licenses, but works only with ST9.
Also stored on the cloud are our program preferences, which let us reconfigure ST9 instantly when we move to that other workstation. Preferences include working units, dimension settings and user interface elements. This is not unlike having an account with Google or Opera that stores our bookmarks and data for use on other computers.
A big plus of the move towards the cloud is ST9’s new support for online storages services: Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. This allows us to save our files online and then grant access to other computers and other users. ST9 is smart enough to lock online files when someone else is using them, as well as index the contents of online folders. There is also a new “pack and go” function that packages together the model file with all required support files into a single ZIP file or folder.
Solid Edge is, for the first time, available with a subscription license. In Canada, the price ranges from $120 per month to $600 per month, depending on the functions included. Siemens does not reveal the permanent license prices, but other CAD vendors price subscriptions at 1/3 the permanent price.
You can get demo versions of ST9 in two ways, after registering with Siemens. One way is to download the install file and then run it free for 45 days. The other way is to not install it; by this I mean that you can run Solid Edge in a compatible Web browser (like Chrome) for up to 20 hours using the Frame streaming facility.
The New Catchbook App
Siemens releasing a consumer-oriented app on Android, iOS, and Windows tablets is a bit of a surprise, especially as Catchbook isn’t just another AutoCAD 360 wanna-be for viewing or editing CAD drawings. Instead, Catchbook is meant to capture ideas on portable devices. The name comes from its ability to catch ideas as sketches in “books,” which are multi-page drawing sets.
Catchbook records curves as we sketch with a finger (or stylus), either as freeform or as connected lines and arcs. Catchbook can apply geometric constraints automatically (such as forcing lines to be horizontal or arcs to be connected), as well as dimension them. The app uses D-Cubed technology that Siemens crunched down to fit the restricted memory space of tablets, so no Internet access is needed.
The Catchbook user interface is minimal and offers actions that are unique to tablets, such as erasing by running a finger jig-jag over a curve. We edit a curve by touching it, which displays a pop-up menu with editing options (see Figure 3) – or else we can edit it directly using push-pull interactions. When we take photos with tablet’s camera, we can then sketch over the pictures, which are ghosted in the background.
Who is Catchbook meant for? I am terrible at sketching and, trained as an engineer, I stick to CAD for any kind of drawing. When I asked Siemens about the target market, they told me, “It is not necessarily a tool for designers, because they are experts in CAD and can do everything in CAD software. Catchbook resonates much better with people who can’t (or don’t want to) use CAD, but like to sketch their ideas.”
In its first release, Catchbook is oriented to the consumer market with consumer-like pricing. Irritatingly, however, the advanced features – parametrics and exports – are free for 30 days only after we give up our credit card number. Parametric drawing and dimensioning functions are CAD$5.49 a year, renewed automatically. Siemens asks us to cancel manually.
What about the connection to CAD? In this first release, I found the export process non-intuitive, as no button is visible. I needed to hold down my finger on a sketch (or a book) and then drag it to the “Share As” button that appeared. Only PNG is available as an export format, with the others shown as question marks. When I tapped one of the question marks, a dialog box told me to pay CAD$3.79 a year to export pages in DXF (to CAD systems), SVG (Web pages), or PDF (documents) formats; books are only exported as multi-page PDFs. Purchases are made through your account at the respective online store – Google Play, Apple Store or Microsoft Store.
I paid for the Android version, exported a page in DXF format to my Dropbox account and then opened the file in Solid Edge ST9 on my Windows 10 computer. The file name is constructed from the date and time of the export. Being a DXF file, I can open it in other CAD programs as well. Entities are imported as lines and splines, arcs and circles, and associative dimensions. Fills and freeform sketches are not translated.
I asked Siemens about their future plans for Catchbook, but they were coy. “We are focused on consumers so far, but ultimately we want to make a strong app for the [technical] industries we serve. Consumers are a proving ground as they have high usability expectations, but we want to add good connections to NX, Solid Edge, Teamcenter and so on.”
Logical additions could include access to symbol (block) libraries, importing DXF or PDF files as underlays and free exporters for Solid Edge and NX. I expect additional advanced functions to cost extra as Siemens has stated that they want the subscription income to pay for further development.
With this one product, Siemens is testing the consumer waters, repackaging their technology to small memory footprints and providing conceptual software for the pre-design phase.