Posts by Al Dean

The Ribbon of Doom

Published 30 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with:

Solid Edge is now fully Ribbon’ed up

I’ve spent the last ten years or so writing about the technology we use day-in-day-out. What’s interesting is that as my career transitioned from designer to writer to publisher, the software within this space also went through a transition, from the UNIX-based hardware to the more cost effective Windows platform.

With that shift brought about a transition in user interface design. When CAD software ran on SGI, IBM-AIX or Sun Solaris systems, the user interface was pretty much up the development teams, they designed it (or didn’t in some cases) to fit the purpose it was intended for; hence, I-deas looked nothing like Unigraphics which looked nothing like AliasStudio. Which definitely looked nothing like Pro/Engineer. But things changed when CAD vendors adopted the Windows platform and things started to standardise - but even still, every application retained its own look and feel.

SpaceClaim was one of the first to adopt the Ribbon UI

But now, we’re seeing an even greater process of commonisation across the software within this magazine. The Windows Vista UI style, specifically, the Ribbon toolbar, is become the de facto standard for software vendors and user interaction. Look at the images on this pages, can you tell them apart at first or even second glance.

EFD.Lab from Flomerics latest release adopts the ribbon toolbar

In there we not only have SolidWorks, Solid Edge and SpaceClaim but also Flomerics’ EFD.Lab. The Ribbon toolbar is everywhere and seemingly omnipresent. So what’s my point?

I can understand the argument that familiarity with user interaction methods is a healthy thing. That if you use Word and Excel then you have immediate familiarity with the 3D design software and it eases the learning curve. This can be argued back and forth and I’m personally not convinced. Much of it, I’m sure, is the vendor appealing to the lowest common denominator. The majority of users, particularly within our readership, have adopted 3D design tools, but the vendors are still chasing the laggards, those slowest to adopt 3D and drive forward with it - and for those, the “its just like Word” might be a good sales line.

But if you look at each application, look at the technologies they use, there are common components; many use Parasolid, many user D-cubed, many use other libraries to provide their features and functions. If UI design is also standardised, where can the vendors find the room for innovation, for differentiation and how can they truly support the 3D-based design workflow? I guess the answer is that the Devil is truly in the details. How does your system allow you to work directly, but intelligently with your geometry and parameters of design? How do you use on-model interaction and context sensitivity to its fullest. Does your design system enable that? What additional tools has your vendor developed to assist with design, to make it more fluid - are things like SpaceClaim’s direct modelling approach, Siemens Synchronous Technology, the future or is there something else required? Personally, one of the most impressive UI updates I’ve seen in some time is the forthcoming NX 6 release that Siemens has just shown off.

The new NX UI which sees no ribbon action whatsoever

Yes, it has the Sync Tech behind it, but more impressively than that, the UI is stripped down and minimised. Use of Roles allows you to have the commands you need for the task you re working, at hand and switch able, and the level of at cursor interaction and command/operation access is unbelievable and will make users way more productive.

And guess what, there’s not a ribbon in sight.

it seems that its not just me that’s been considering these things - Ralph Grabowski’s been pondering the same thing over at WorldCADaccess.

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Solid Edge with Synchronous Technology

Published 23 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with:

You’ll no doubt have read about the launch of Synchronous Technology from Siemens PLM software. What really matters is how it’s implemented within the company’s products and more specifically how it affects users of Solid Edge. To get to the heart of Synchronous Technology and how it works with Solid Edge we need to look at how Solid Edge has traditionally worked. It’s a feature and history-based modelling system meaning each modelling operation is stored within a history tree. When edits are made, the system needs to recalculate each in turn one after the other, to arrive at the final form. Within that, the system also includes parametric design tools, allowing dimensions, constraints and other driven parameters to control the form of entities within each feature and to cross-link between them. Parameters range from dimension and geometric constraints within a feature sketch, to parameters that define feature extents (such as extrude height, cut depth, or the degrees used in a revolve). You can set-up parameters or constraints that link between features and geometry references using, for example, the “extrude to” option, or offset. Then you can also build parameters that are intelligently driven, referencing other dimensions or measurements.

These are the core components of any Solid Edge model - Features, History, Parameters and Constraints. To confuse things further, you also have a few Direct Editing tools. These allow you to make localised modifications to faces (such as move face) without having to edit the base feature that created that face. These are appended to the end of the history tree and should also be considered to be features (with history). So how does Synchronous Technology change this state of affairs?

Siemens PLM has taken the base technology (namely, Parasolid and D-cubed) within Solid Edge and created a layer on top of the core technologies to extend them. This is the essence of Synchronous Technology and it allows you to work in a much more efficient manner than has traditionally been the case with Solid Edge. But how does it do this exactly?

Synchronous Technology is a feature-based, but history free modelling technology. In other words, it allows you to work with features, enhances the current tools by freeing you from the need to recalculate the history after each edit and adds intelligence to your working process. Let’s dig a little deeper and look at two specific cases - when modelling from scratch and, perhaps more critically to existing users, how you use Synchronous Technology with your existing data.

Modelling from scratch

Synchronous Technology or ST (as we’ll refer to it) allows you to create parts in a very freeform manner. You create a 2D sketch, and then use a set of commands to create the 3D geometry. At present ST is enabled in a select set of operations but the selection of Extrude, Revolve, Hole, Round, Draft, Pattern and Thin Wall (or Shell) is a little deceptive. You need to consider that each enables both the cutting and addition of material in a single feature, and the manner in which you interact and manipulate geometry means that you have much more potential in terms of forms that can be created.

This shows a face being pulled up and a value dialled in, but what’s interesting to note is that the system also takes with it faces that are planar to that selected face (these, of course, can be overridden, so the system doesn’t get too carried away). Also worth noting is that the system maintains the fillet/blend plus the draft angle that’s applied to the outside of the part.

So, you create sketch and the direction in which you drag the arrow defines whether material is added or removed. What enables the freedom is the fact that you are presented with a great deal of feedback about what you’re doing. If you grab a face and move it, you can do it by eye or dial in a specific value, same for rotation. References are created on the fly and the UI widget is useful for moving and rotating geometry in 3D space. Also, when you drag and drop faces, the system works with a set of selection assistants that add intelligence to the process. These are called Live Rules and infer relationships such as tangency, parallelism, concentricity, perpendicularity, symmetry (around a define plane), and radii, between the geometry you select and that around it.

How the system works with concentricity and tangency. The user selects the hole, uses the onscreen widget to move it precisely, but because you also have a concentric condition, the whole bracket stretches. The outer edge maintains its concentricity and the tangency of the swing arm is maintained. Of course, if you just wanted to just move the hole, you toggle off concentricity and just drag and drop it.

But while it’s interesting to play with geometry to get a model into shape, within the design world you always need to be able to tie up specific dimensions and controlling factors - and this is what makes Synchronous Technology unique, for the time being at least. At any point, you can add dimensions or constraints, which can have specific values. These can be between faces, edges and other geometric features, they can be driven or driving, be linked using parametric equations and can reference each other. The point is that you apply them only when they’re needed and they are then maintained. The result is that your interaction with the geometry will respect those constraints and dimensions are maintained and again, all without having to resolve a history tree with each edit. Figure 3 shows a dimension between the centre of a boss and the end of a fixture. As you drag those features, the dimension is maintained, because you’ve defined it. You work with assemblies in a very similar manner, in that you grab, drag and drop, move and rotate faces in multiple parts and the system will calculate the updates automatically. In addition, references can be made between separate parts, cross-referencing faces where required.

This shows how the system works with multiple selections. By selecting the boss and the end face, you can stretch the part as you need to, rather than having to dive in and edit several features right back to the original extrude that created the pipe. What’s absolutely key to note is that at no point are you editing features in a history - you make your edits and the system updates pretty much in real time. 

Working with existing data

Synchronous Technology looks dammed interesting as a modelling technology, but the big question is how does it affect your existing data? Some organisations have been using Solid Edge for over ten years and built up a huge amount of live data, but how can they adopt this new way of working and still maintain that data? The answer is simple: leave it as it is. Solid Edge is now architected to work into two modes. Solid Edge, as standard, with the full range of features and functions that have made it one of the most impressive applications on the market, and then with Synchronous Technology enabled. But you need to be aware of a couple of things.

Firstly, when you open a new part, you have two options. You can either open the part to be built with the traditional feature and history based modelling tools. Or you can use an ST enabled template, which switches on these new tools. More importantly though, what happens if you take an existing part built with a rich history of features that control its design and move it into the Synchronous Technology mode. The answer is thus:

When you open a history-based traditional model as a synchronous part, the system prunes out the history, but retains the information required to maintain the features in a Feature Collection. Siemens is referring to these features as Procedural Features and covering things like chamfers, blends, patterns, and shells. This means you can edit them and the system will maintain the design intent you stored within them. For example, even though a pattern is typically a history-based feature, you can still edit the number of instances within an array or edit the dimensions of a hole using standard hole definition terminology (such as counter sink or counter bore).

This shows a Solid Edge ST part. Dimensions have been placed after the design work has been done, in order to formalise the design intent and lock down dimensions. What’s key is that you can also create the same parametric relationships between dimensions to drive design change as you would within a history and parametric modelling system.

It’s important to note that you can’t really take a part back into the traditional modelling environment once you’ve included ST-based work. If you do, then the system treats it as a bumb solid (and its also worth noting that you can you can put ST parts in a traditional assembly and they will update as need be. These things are key to working out an adoption strategy. Synchronous Technology is brand new. Yes, many of the components have been around for some time, but this is the first time that you’ve been able to combine the flexibility of explicit modelling tools such as CoCreate with the parametric- and feature-based tools within Solid Edge and many others. The fact that the system can solve and handle design change with such ease means many things, but the bottom line is this. If you can affect design change within a part or assembly without having to firstly work out the complex history that gets you to the end result and not have to wait to make those changes, then you’re looking at a radically more efficient product development process.

In conclusion

Synchronous Technology has set tongues wagging across the 3D design world. If you ‘Google’ the term you’ll find endless amount of blogging about it to varying degrees of accuracy and many have tried to pull it apart. What’s been missed to date is that this technology is at a formative stage in development. Yes, you can do a hell of a lot, but you don’t get all those other tools that have been a core part of Solid Edge for the last decade and more within the synchronous technology mode.

This is vitally important; within Solid Edge, you now have two choices: To go synchronous or not. When you do this is down to your projects and even on a part-by-part basis. The benefit you have is that if the ST enabled tools can’t create what you need, you have the last decade’s worth of Solid Edge technology available to do things the traditional way. If you can adopt it and reap the benefits as it makes light work of modelling. But make sure you are aware of the limitations and the impact of moving existing data. The good news is that this technology has huge potential and even at this early stage, it’s clear that Siemens has something unique on its hands.

Further Reading

Evan Yares goes to town on Synchronous Technology. Evan is perhaps one of the few people talking about this technology that really understands what the hell is going on under the hood - worthwhile reading.

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DWG editing goes Web

Published 21 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: solidworks, design, autodesk, inventor, collaboration, dwg, interaction design, web

It seems that the battle over the DWG format is still raging - Autodesk claim it’s theirs, others protest. Autodesk tries to copyright and protect it, others protest and to be honest, it’s a battle I’m not really interested in. DWG was an abbrieviation long before the advent of CAD and the copy of BS308 (for those non-brits out there, this is a British Standard for Technical Drawing) proves it - job done.

Anyway, what is interesting is that SolidWorks Labs just launched an online hosted DWG editor called BluePrint Now and it looks pretty slick. With many talking about delivery of CAD over the web, then this is a good indicator of what the first batch of tools will look, feel and smell like. Its built using the Microsoft’s SilverLight technology and the UI is nifty, if a little clunky (as all over the web, CAD apps have been to date). But does it work? I’m going to spend some more time playing with it, but first impressions are that it has some basic tools, lines, circles, arc etc. You can output the drawings as PDF, as DWG again (useful if you’ve made an edit) from AutoCAD R14, right through to the latest rev - or you can email a link to share it with someone.


SolidWorks DWG data - works fine - as you would expect.

I did try loading some data, both from Inventor as AutoCAD DWGs and from SolidWorks. The app has a 1Mb file limit, which is going to be pretty quickly hit if you’ve got any data of any size. It loaded the SolidWorks DWGs fine, displayed them after a few hiccups but you could actually pan and zoom the drawing, add some basic detail. Same for the Inventor generated data.


Inventor DWG file, uploaded to Blueprint Now - seems to work just fine

But this isn’t the point of Labs projects. these things are put out there to show the vendor’s future thoughts - whether they actually reach fruition and become a shipping product remains to be seen. Oh and I just realised two things - Yes, I tried this using Safari and Yes, it works on OSX.

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CoCreate is back with 2008

Published 20 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: design, ptc, siemens plm, synchronous technology, cocreate, manage

Things all went a little quiet on the CoCreate front while the PTC acquisition worked its way out and through the system, but that’s done with and the company is pushing its latest release. Today saw the announcement of CoCreate 2008. You’ll notice that the hideous OneSpace Designer Modelling nonsense naming has been dropped. What we’re now dealing with is CoCreate Modelling and CoCreate Model Manager: a much clearer naming convention. What’s also interesting is that the press release mentions “incremental enhancements” that peaked my curiousity so I took a closer look. Updates for this release after the jump:

A) Improved and reworked pattern, that guides the user through the process of creating a pattern features, but also gives you better options for non-uniform patterns and selective suppression of specific instances.

B) Shaded and rendered drawing views

C) You can now capture work-in-progress and this is an interesting one. By allowing the user to save daily work and “what if” scenarios, even when you have multiple revisions of locked parts and assemblies loaded into your session. This type of thing will save that, end of day – “Who the eff locked out my parts, I want to go home?” problem that many PDM users will be familiar with.

Modelling updates

With the recent interest in Direct Editing, Explicit Modelling, Push me Pull me modelling technology, its also no wonder that PTC are making some noise (if a little subdued) about the modelling tools in CoCreate. This release sees some enhancements made to cross-sectional modification and there’s some new surface editing, which allow you to maintain curvature tangency, coincidence, and continuity.

Considering the noise that Siemens are going to make this week with the dual-headed launch of Solid Edge and NX with Synchronous Technology, this release is perfect timing. CoCreate 2008 is scheduled to be available in May 2008 in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

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ARTVPS Releases AV6.5 ART Renderer

Published 16 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with:

ART-VPS has released a new version of its ART Renderer which updates support for the latest revisions of 3ds Max and Maya and brings some new goodies to users. One of the biggest bottlenecks is the creation of accurate lighting and scene set-up to ensure your product rendering looks absolutely photo realistic.

If you haven’t come across ART-VPS (it stands for Advanced Render Technology - Virtual Photography Systems) it developers raytracing acceleration hardware in the form of standalone devices (RayBox and RenderDrive) as well as component cards for your workstation (Pure). New options include a new ‘infinity cove’ and ‘sphere’ options within a skylight feature allowing you to alter the shape of the environment dome upon which your HDR image is going to be mapped. The new real-time reflection feature enables users to view ART materials and HDR reflections in real time, giving you instant feedback and real-time environment shading reduces test renders.

There’s also a bunch of other updates including quicker GI (Global Illumination) calcs, added support for Microsoft Vista and RayBox monitoring system now runs better on Mac OSX.

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Microsoft Touch Screen TouchWall

Published 15 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: design, hardware, visualisation, user interaction, engineer, multi-touch

Seems like Josh over at got to it first, but this looks sweet. Its a hacked together rear projection unit with some fancy bits and bobs running on Vista. What’s interesting is the multi-touch manner. A lot of the CAD vendors are talking about this as the future - SolidWorks went multi-touch crazy at their press event preceding the last SolidWorks World. I wonder how it could be packaged up - maybe some sort of hand held device like the Wacom’s Cintiq maybe. One thing’s for sure, we all ain’t gonna be standing in front of a wall to get the job done are we?

As a recent convert to the Apple platform and owner of a macbook air, I have to say multi touch is pretty compelling - as this technology develops, its going to be interesting to see how its implemented in CAD systems. Of course, most of my work is done on a big old workstation running windows, but I do my writing on OSX.. but if I do fancy designing something, I now have the early test version of Rhino for the Mac - and that has multi-touch implemented in a very subtle manner.

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Reading Matter: Designing Interaction

Published 14 May 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: design, industrial design, human factors, innovation, interaction design, engineer, ideo, visualization

I don’t really want this to turn into a book review blog, but there have been some amazing publications in the last few years. One of my personal favourites is Designing Interaction by IDEO founder, Bill Moggridge. For anyone involved in design, in product development, its chock full of interview and studies of how designers are adapting to accomodate how users interact with their products, be that by software, hardware - whatever. One of my favourite chapters is an interview with Kenji Hatori, a software engineer at Canon who developed PhotoStitch. It describes the stitch assist mode for cameras and Rikako recounts the process used to design the screen behaviors for the PhotoStitch software, with a clear structure indicated by tabs and actions clarified by animations. The book is supplied with a DVD that’s worth sitting a watching (and yup, boring your families with) - a great deal can be learned. You can see a video of the interview here.

If we’re to develop truly stunning products, whatever field they are active in, then the whole user experience needs to be address - and its something that CAD vendors should take note of - more so now than every before. The technology we use to develop products seems to be getting easier to handle, but without some form of forethought, some sort of rationalisation, its all for nothing. and again, the question of whether the Microsoft Ribbon UI is the way forward spring to mind. We develop in 3D - should our tools follow the same UI characteristics as Word, Excel and Outlook. Familiarity is the reason that vendors have jumped all over it. the argument being that if you can drive Word or Outlook, you can drive SolidWorks, SpaceClaim, Inventor et al. I’m not convinced.

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