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In search of Elegance #3: DriveWorks Solo

Published 14 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: solidworks, in search of elegance, driveworks

Phillipe Starck’s 1980 Juicy Saliff for Alessi. Often seen as an iconic design. Is it elegant? As a form, yes, undoubtedly, it’s lines are clean and refreshing like the lemons that it juices. Is it an elegant product? No. It’s rubbish. It spills juice everywhere, skids all over the worktop and generally annoys the living crap out of almost everyone that buys one, unless they’re just putting it on a shelf. Now let’s look at something useful.

We’ve already talked about the concept I’m trying to get across here and taken a look at what Siemens has been up to with NX 7.0 and HD3D. For this post, I want to look at a much different vendor from Siemens, namely, DriveWorks. One of the benefits that I’ve had, doing this strange job that I do, is I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of people over the years and seen them develop new tools, new ideas and grow their businesses from the very beginning. One of those that always springs to mind is DriveWorks.

The British company is a provider of design automation tools the SolidWorks community. I believe I first met co-founder and CEO Glen Smith when he worked for a now-defunct SolidWorks reseller, back in the late nineties. The occasion of our meeting was a trip with him to visit a customer of that reseller who had adopted an automation system that Glen had developed for them to automate the design of some very complex automotive products (I won’t mention the name as many years have passed and they might have changed their strategy). I got to see the company get a presentation of the barebones of what would become DriveWorks, based on Access databases, Excel spreadsheets and a whole host of custom API programming done by Glen himself. That was over ten years ago now and the company DriveWorks, now headed up by Glen alongside co-founder and Vice President, Maria Sarkar, has been through all manner of changes, buy outs and strategic decisions that have brought the company to its current position as providing an integral part of SolidWorks’ offering (DriveWorksXpress) as well as it’s own products that are sold by resellers across the globe. It’s been a true delight to see a company grow and become highly successful from very humble beginnings.

Only a few months ago, I got a call to come up and see Glen, Maria and the team to talk about something they had brewing. Not even a Swine Flu scare kept me away (even if we all agreed not to bother with the usual handshake or hug), this team always have something interesting to say and always something interesting to show.

What they had to show was DriveWorks Solo, a system that bridges the gap between the DriveWorksXpress product that almost all SolidWorks users have as part of their solution, and the high-end, web-based DriveWorks Pro system. DriveWorks Solo is meant to find that sweet spot where an organisation can make heavy use of automation of its products, but doesn’t need all the bells and whistles. The product is sold on the web, supporting digitally and while it’s early days indeed, seats have been sold within days of its launch. So, how does DriveWorks Solo fit into this series of articles?

The answer is something like this.

Automation is something that, when you strip it back, makes a huge amount of sense for many design and engineering based organisations. While most won’t be able to automate everything, there are a great deal of organisations that have design and engineering resources tied up in repetitive work. Standardisation is something that many organisations took to heart ten years ago and the ability to create custom solutions for customers, based on a set of standard components, can give you a real advantage. Custom solution, but without having to redesign everything.

Parameter and input capture is relatively simple, as is rules definition.

While that’s true, being able to do that digitally is somewhat difficult. Using a standard parametric modelling system to try and automate the design of even the most modest sub-system or modular product can be very difficult. Its theoretically possible to do, but once you start to do it in anger, you’re generating one hell of a lot of data that can very quickly become messy.

What you need is a set of tools that allow you to do that, but in a sensible and efficient manner. Hence, Design automation technology. Many of the higher-end solutions (such as NX, Catia, Pro/E to some extent) have knowledge-based automation tool, but even these are incredibly complex processes and not attuned to the needs of the mainstream.

On the other hand, DriveWorks Solo most certainly is.

The team has completely reworked the interface to build a system that runs within the SolidWorks UI. It steps you through the process of capturing a starting assembly, identifying the parameters and rules that drive the automation, then building a user interface on top of it, making it possible for anyone to jump into the system and create a customised product or sub-system, using performance and customer inputs, and have the system generate not only the 3D description, but also the supporting documentation in terms of drawings. None of the custom programming, none of the consultancy, none of the painstaking rework of existing products. It’s designed to be done by the designer or engineer and maintained by the same.

DriveWorks Solo gives you the ability to create a UI for automation, making it much easier to deploy and make use of.

The benefits that an organisation can derive from this are many fold. By automating design (without impacting other work), you have the chance to both remove the drudgery of repetitive work by your team, and can have them working on the ‘non-automatable’ (yes, I made that word up) parts of a design project, finding new areas for exploration and new potential. It’s done easily, cost effectively and could bring huge benefits to many SolidWorks users.

To my mind, that’s an incredibly elegant solution. It’s easy to use assuming you understand how your products are defined, it’s affordable and can pay real benefits. Benefits to both your personal productivity – who doesn’t prefer working on the challenging product, rather than the crappy-same-soup-reheated-work. And of course, for business in terms of more productivity, greater potential for innovation.

There you go, another example of how things should be. I wonder what’s next. Stay tuned to find out…

NB: We took an in-depth look at DriveWorks Solo in the September issue, which is available here.

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In search of Elegance #2: Siemens NX 7.0 + HD3D

Published 14 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: visualisation, nx, solid edge, synchronous technology, teamcenter, in search of elegance, check-mate, issue management, nx 7.0

Consider the single speed bicycle – it’s a seemingly complex arrangement of steel tubes, mechanical linkages, spoken wheels, gearing, pneumatic types, valves, rubber tyres and bearings. but when time optimises that combination, you reach something that provides transportation for millions, cheaply and efficiently.

I thought I’d start off with this first in my series of Elegance posts, as it’s fresh off the wire and brand new and all shiny. If you look at Siemens’ product portfolio, there’s an interesting dynamic. Solid Edge gains all of the marketing noise, all of the marketing push – after all, it’s the company’s mainstream offering to market. But behind this, there’s always NX, something I personally find much more appealing and interesting. Why?

Because it’s one of those systems that’s been around for so long that it does almost everything you could ever imagine. What Siemens are facing is the simple fact that while NX’s power lies in its long history, it’s problems also find their root cause in the same.

That said, there’s been a concerted effort that predates the Siemens acquisition, to bring NX up to speed. The work done on the user interface in NX2 (I think) has been progressed over the last four or five years and the system looks and feels fresh, but with all that technology behind it that allows you to define some very complex products. NX users spread across a huge range of industry sectors, but product complexity (in terms of assembly size), process complexity (in terms of development and manufacture) and form complexity (in terms of the shapes the users are defining) seem to unit them.

The big news for the NX 7.0 release is split into two areas. Of course, there’s extension of the Synchronous Technology that has been the big headline grabber for Siemens PLM over the past two years. Within NX, Sync Tech’s impact has been much lower key when you look at the grand scheme of things – much of this is down to the fact that with NX, you don’t have the bifurcating decision to go history-based or non-history-based as you do within Edge. NX is more refined and more flexible than that.

Yes, you can completely blow the history away or you can choose to use those more freeform modelling tools as part of a history-based part, recording each action, so its entirely traceable, repeatable and editable (this, I suspect, is how Edge will end up too – but that’s purely speculation). That’s a good example of this elegance we’re talking about. Sync tech isn’t a panacea for everything. It’s a technology that is best suited to solving specific design or more accurately, geometry creation and editing problems. Whether that’s down to working with dumb native data or working with highly complex feature-based parts, where you need to execute a seemingly small tweak, but doing so will require huge amounts of rework.

Sync Tech aside, the thing I’m most fascinated by is the introduction of HD3D or to give it its full moniker, High Definition 3D and this is a truly elegant solution – not necessarily because it’s new technology (which it isn’t) but the manner in which the various component parts have been put together and implemented to solve a very complex issue relating to buried data (both geometric and metadata) and issue resolution workflow. Let’s look at those two very quickly.

Visual Reporting: Take the average design and engineering organisation that’s fully adopted both 3D design and PLM. Within those two technologies you now have the ability to fully document a product. Not only it’s form and function, but the full gamut of information that relates to its development and its manufacture and further into its use lifecycle and eventual retirement. In short, that’s a crap lot of data. The problem is that unless you have a very intimate knowledge of where that data is, who created it and what you’re actually looking for, it’s very hard to get an idea of where a product is at. the 3D datasets contain the form, then these are linked to the metadata attached to each part, sub-assembly, sub-system in the form of documents, text, spreadsheets, pdfs etc etc etc. and to find both, you need, typically, to use two different systems – in the case of Siemens, that’s NX (or a 3D viewing technology) and Teamcenter and despite all of their best intentions, the two don’t exactly work together.

Here a visual report has been created based on weight, using customised ranges to define different categories of parts and sub-systems.

What HD3D does is provide a framework that’s delivered in both NX and Teamcenter, that allows you to use the graphically rich nature of 3D data to gain access to the metadata that’s underneath it, to explore and visualise that data, delve into details where needed and to filter it to gain the information you need. Whether that’s a peep at where development efforts are concentrating (by filtering and visualising parts or sub-assemblies under work – in itself derived from change status), what parts are being outsourced, where costs or weight are found (by filtering for parts within specific cost or mass ranges).

Customisable searches and filters allow you to find the information you want and filter out that you don’t need. Here, the Visual Reporting allows you to colour code the assembly by supplier, while the dialog shows you more detail.

What Siemens has done is take its experience with the JT format (for lightweight viewing and data manipulation), some of the technology it’s had for large scale visualisation and its master of data management with Teamcenter and build a technology that allows this to be done visually, efficiently and very cleanly indeed. Searches can be saved (there are presets delivered), but its possible to create custom searches and reports based on whatever search criteria you require. This allows you to load up, gain an idea of where things are at, based on your focus areas, then get to work. it’s a combination of some quite complex technologies that have been reworked into a very slick environment. One thing that’s key is just that: getting on with the job. This is the other focus for this first HD3D release.

Issue Management: When you have highly complex products and geographically dispersed and outsourced input into the development of those products, you have serious issues with data management. Not in terms of storing them within a database, but rather around the workflow relating to ensure that data is conforming to company requirements, whether thats in terms of geometry quality, ensuring compliance with company, customer or international standards. What NX 7.0 introduces is a workflow, backed up with better use of existing technology, to solve these types of issues. Siemens has, for sometime, had the NX Check Mate product. This has performed just these types of checks for a while. What Siemens has done is integrate these checks into the HD3D environment. you load up the assembly, run the checks and get back a very visual list of issues that it finds. The combination of visualisation tools and reporting allow you to work through those issues, find the problems that need to be addressed (whether that’s small faces that don’t match FEA requirements or PMI formatting issues doesn’t really matter).
It’s done very interactively and very efficiently.

The issue management tools built into HD3D inspect your product models, find potential problems and present them in a graphically rich environment that not only presents the information, but allows you to very quickly gain an understanding of the context in which they occur

What’s impressive from my perspective is that there are then tools available to move these issues you discover into a workflow to resolve them and progress the project forward. Essentially, an issue is identified through automated checks, you assigning it to the person or team responsible for its resolution and that then kicks off a change request (handled by Teamcenter) to progress and resolve it.

The CoverFlow style issue browser (top right) allows you to flick through issues, explore further. Clicking a part or issue tag (shown in a small red icon with a white cross) brings up further details.

This is an initial release but the promise it holds is phenomenal. None of this technology is new. Check-Mate, JT, Teamcenter and NX itself are existing technologies that have been combined, rationalised and delivered to create a solution to real engineering problems. Data burial and retrieval is a constant problem for many organizations. The data is there, but how you get at it is anyone’s guess. By providing a combination of rich graphical visualization backed up with clean efficient search tools, you can get the information you want, almost instantly. On the flip-side the issue management and resolution tools again do the same, take existing tools and redeploy them to create an environment where fundamental bottlenecks can be first identified, but then progressed through to resolution in a fully traceable environment.

To my mind, it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about with this Elegance idea. Stay tuned for the next part, when we look at the seemingly complex world of rules-based design automation and how DriveWorks Solo is changing how it’s done.

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In search of Elegance #1: An introduction

Published 14 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: in search of elegance, design tools, development trends, ease of use

Spotted this a while back. Recreation of a Saxon door lock (circa 5th and 6th century). Complex yes, but elegant. It serves the purposes of both keeping intruders out when you’re inside and just locking the door when you need it.

Something I’ve been thinking about over the last few months is the complexity of the systems available today. Feature creep is something that every vendor is facing. Apart from a handful, the majority of systems on the market are at least ten years old, relying on technology that was developed in the last millennium. Features have been rammed into every system on a 12 to 18 month cycle for nearly ten years. Ten major releases of new.. well… stuff. Stuff that does stuff slightly different or stuff that does things in exciting and new ways. But at the end of the day, it’s that.


While I’m as guilty as anyone else as being wowed by the latest and greatest technological advancement, the simple facts are that the technology we’re discussing is only a part of a designer, an engineer or a manufacturer’s toolbox. We could, if push comes to shove, do the job using a sheet of paper, a pencil and a rule/french curves. sure, it would be less efficient and more error prone, but that’s a simple fact.

These are tools – nothing more, nothing less.

And it’s now getting to the point where many users are looking at what they’ve invested in, both in terms of personal learning and often theirs or their employer’s cash in and wondering if they need it all. I recently attended a launch event by a major vendor and sat talking to some old friends that have been through the gamut of technology and asked, “Do you ever use any of the new enhancements?” The answer came back as I’d suspected it would. “Nope. I still use the system the same way I did in 1998.” While this is the atypical pessimistic British response, there’s some truth in it.

I dug a little further into their views. it turns out that battle hardened veterans will use new technology if is actually adds some value to their working practices – and that it seems, is something that’s missing. The hook that gets people using new enhancements. And how do they get hooked?

The simple answer is thus: Users adopt new features that make things easier.

Now, this might sound obvious, blatantly so in fact, but there’s more to “easier to use” than is immediately clear. Design and engineering is an inherently complex process, the definition of part forms is something that takes complex mathematics and geometry wrangling. All too often vendors obsess over removing user control over how geometry is created to the point where a reasonably intelligent chimp, persuaded with a bunch of bananas, could create geometry. That’s not what users seem to want. They want tools that are clean, efficient, solve an issue or challenge, but allow them to retain control over what’s happening.

To my mind, that’s not ease of use, that’s building elegance into an application.

So this is what I’ve been considering of late, elegance. And how stuffing new features into a product isn’t the best way forward for many users, but rather a reworking of things a system does, how it does it and how you gain better results, better workflows or a more efficient design process as a result.

What’s interesting is that there’s been a shift in how vendors are refocusing their development efforts. Some are being very vocal about the fact that they’re refocussed on improving existing tools and fixing what’s broken or clunky, while others are being much more subtle about it. Of course, there’s also a correlation between the vendors being noisey on the topic and the amount of criticism there’s been in their user community of the exact same subject.

So, over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about a few bits of technology, some new products and some examples of where elegance is becoming something all the more appealing than plain old ease of use.

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PTC UK Technology Forum 2009 – registration opens

Published 12 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: ptc, wildfire 5.0, productpoint, mathcad, ptcuser, pdmlink

Given the tag line, “Design without Barriers”, PTC are hosting their annual user event towards the tail end of next month. This follows the Global gathering of PTC users in Florida earlier this year with more scaled down, but more local event. It’s being held on the 24th November at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon. The press release states that “Commencing at 0900am, with an introduction to PTC´s Technology and Vision roadmap, followed by over 12 presentations, 3 business tracks, and a networking lunch.”

Highlights of the day seem to be a hands-on introduction to Wildfire 5.0 (there’s also an in-depth review coming up in the next issue of DEVELOP3D), as well as looks into ProductPoint, PDMLink for larger organizations and Mathcad. A handful of customer will also be presenting, including the masters of all things cleaning related, VAX. As you would also expect, there’s an exhibition with resellers, partners and such.

Registration is now live at

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