Solidworks – All roads lead to the platform

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Dassault Systèmes is betting big on its 3DExperience Platform. With AI and other new technologies only being developed for the platform, could this mean traditional desktop Solidworks users are about to get left behind? Greg Corke reports


Like its competitors, the long-term strategy for Dassault Systèmes Solidworks is to move its customers to the cloud – the multi-app 3DExperience Platform.

Launched 12 years ago to provide Dassault users with easy access to a variety of branded applications and services needed for their different workflows, its offering for core Solidworks users has continued to struggle. Browser-based Solidworks xApps have been less than inspirational in enticing users away from their existing, much-loved, desktop software.

However, as Dassault presented at its 3DExperience World user event last month, new AI-enabled features might prove the incentive for designers to move to the cloud.

Over the next few years, if your data isn’t on the 3DExperience Platform you won’t get access to new AI powered capabilities. All of the Solidworks AI developments will be on the platform, including modelling productivity tools, automated drawings, enhanced data management and design assistants that offer real time feedback on performance (simulation) and manufacturability.

The word ‘data’ is key. Customers will still be able to use Solidworks on the desktop for years to come, but to access new AI-powered capabilities, their data can’t be there too.

As Solidworks CEO Manish Kumar explained during his 3DExperience World keynote, Solidworks now has two flavours: ‘with the platform’, referring to the traditional desktop version with data stored in the cloud, or ‘on the platform’ with the browser-based version.

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AI: past, present, and future

Dassault Systèmes Solidworks is riding the current wave of excitement around AI, but the company is by no means starting out on its AI journey, having tools that date back several years.

Design Assistant uses AI and machine learning to learn how users work, offering suggestions based on their individual workflows. Tools including ‘Selection Helper’, ‘Mate Helper’, ‘Sketch Helper’ and ‘Smart Mate’ are currently available for the platform-native Solidworks xDesign tool, but will soon make their way into desktop Solidworks, as Kumar told DEVELOP3D.

“We are starting to use the same algorithms that were developed for [xApps] in order to put it back into Solidworks with the platform, so now Mate [Helper] is almost there, Selection [Helper] we’ll do the same, Sketch [Helper] we’ll do the same, but unless your data is on the platform, we can’t do anything.

“Think of it this way: All these AI models that we build, it takes some input in order to learn, or you provide some data in order for it to learn. The output can be given to anyone, whether it’s our xApps, our Solidworks, or even Catia for that matter,” he said.

During his keynote, Kumar showed an AI ‘self-driving’ mode for both desktop Solidworks and xDesign that predicts which commands a designer may want to use next. “Our intention is to make it irresistible and a very smooth design experience for you,” he said. “You are always in full control, by the way, and you can use your regular commands anytime you like.”

He followed with a new AI driven ‘image to sketch’ capability that can automatically trace a sketch on top of a picture to use as the basis for a new 3D model.

New AI driven ‘image to sketch’ capability

Solidworks is also working on a new tool designed to turn third party data into parametric models. “You give me a model from any system, whether it is a point cloud, whether it is solid geometry coming from some other CAD system or neutral file format, we want to give the parametric feature for that particular model using AI,” Kumar told DEVELOP3D. “Why is it important? Because once it is parametric, you will be able to make modifications there.”

AI is also being used to accelerate more mundane processes. While it’s easy to generate 2D views from 3D models, creating final drawings takes a huge amount of time. As a result, the company is looking to introduce automated drawings to Solidworks by the end of the year.

Solidworks automated drawings

During his keynote, Kumar showed the technology working on both desktop Solidworks and xApps, via the platform. “Drawings are driven by standards and well understood manufacturing needs,” he said. “Using this open available information, we are working to provide you with AI-driven generative drawings. But of course you can go back to this drawing and make any manual modifications that you may want. It will help you save precious time, but you will still be the final authority.”

All the technologies mentioned above could have a positive impact on the day-to-day productivity of all designers and engineers. However, Kumar admits that Solidworks can sometimes be too focused on design, or drawings, or selection etc. Moving forward, there’s huge potential to harness AI to make simulation and manufacturing a much more integrated part of the design process.

Kumar described a common iterative workflow, where simulation and manufacturing are typically used at the tail end of design and any identified issues often result in a lengthy cycle of design changes.

“It is a no brainer that if a problem is identified at the design time, it’s the cheapest for the manufacturer. If it is identified here, it is also the most environmentally friendly because you are trying to reduce the waste,” he said.

He referenced ‘left shift’, where companies want to capture all the problems as soon as possible. “If you’re trying to shift left, AI is not just about design,” he said. “Rather, when I design something, if it is going to cause a problem in downstream operation, can I also predict that? We can if these sequences of things are happening on the platform.

“We are not just looking at AI from a design centric [point of view] in a confined space. We are looking at it from a holistic point of view that how can we help our clients become more business centric, be more profitable, reduce time to market, be more sustainable for that matter?”

In other words, design becomes less about design-test-iterate loops, and more about giving real time feedback on performance and manufacturability from the very early stages.

Of course, Solidworks CAD is just the beginning. Once data is in the platform it can also link into downstream manufacturing processes, as Kumar explained. “You can create manufacturing bill of materials, you can link it to ERP Delmiaworks, where every single step of how this manufacturing BOM was converted into what series of manufacturing steps operations were performed on it.

“If we know all that, we have a lot of data for a given company that when you get something like ‘this’, ‘these’ are the operations you perform. We should be able to tell you that when you come up with something new, maybe there is an alternative design. Or certainly there is an alternative series of processes that you can perform.

“At times it might also happen that it suggests a longer manufacturing process to reduce the overall time to market or to make it more efficient, which a normal human being will not think about.”

According to Kumar all of this is achievable in the next five years. Longer term, he sees an increased role for virtual twins as part of a broader Dassault Systèmes play where the company helps its clients build virtual twins of real objects covering everything from design and manufacturing all the way to shipping.

“We also want to go in the users’ aspects of it, in the sense if you try to use these things in real life, what is the data being produced and can we use that data in order to improve it further?” he said. “The next step is can these virtual twins live without any context?”

Kumar gave the simple example of a loudspeaker. “It needs to have a context, because how is that speaker going to operate in a room like this, versus outside?” he said.

On a larger scale, he referenced a building, pointing out that a single virtual twin is never enough. You need to put it in the context of a city. What will its relationship be with other buildings in terms of shadows cast and air flow? What impact will it have on transport, on water supply etc? The answer, he believes, is multiple virtual twins connected through some kind of relationship.

“Then you need to simulate on a much larger scale, in order to come up with solutions that you will never be able to do based on just a study of one virtual twin.

“This is where we want to go, where we want to think in a holistic way. And if you want to think in that holistic way, no way anyone will be able to do anything if they are just bound to a desktop kind of environment. Embrace the platform, because we want to go there. Big Data, consolidated, that’s the way to go.”

Protecting IP

With industry wide concerns about the impact of AI on Intellectual Property (IP), Solidworks has been very clear that customers’ IP will be protected. “We will never give the IP of one company, by extracting the knowledge and know-how, to someone else,” said Kumar.

“We have a very clear barrier between IP and knowledge,” said Gian Paulo Bassi, executive vice president, 3DExperience Works. “We want to create models that represent knowledge in the field of manufacturing, but what is important is the technology behind the creation of those models. But how these models are then built, then populated, so to speak, that is on your own data.”

Bassi sees that AI could present an opportunity for manufacturing firms to share IP, in a similar way to how big pharmaceutical companies are working together. He gave an example in the aerospace industry, “What if Company A has a specific knowledge on a certain type of composites, and they want to expand into another type of composites?” he said. “So, maybe Company B has knowledge on aluminium fabrication, and in exchange they get knowledge and know how on composite fabrication. There is a mutual advantage.”

Breaking down barriers to simulation

Simulation forms a critical part of many product development processes, but it remains massively underutilised by designers. Kumar said that he wants to bring simulation to every Solidworks user, but there are two major barriers to adoption.

The first is fear, he said, a sense that simulation is something which is only done by analysts. Solidworks Simulation has done a good job of addressing the needs of designers, by putting easy to use tools inside the Solidworks environment, but he admitted that simulation still needs to be taken one level further down. “We want to make it approachable to an extent where even kids should be able to use it, without thinking about it, without getting scared of it,” he said.

According to Kumar, the key to this is making simulation studies much easier to define. “We need to convert simulation speak into something which is a layman speak,” he said.

“Rather than saying ‘how many newtons do you want to apply?’, you change the language to something like ‘are you trying to press it with a thumb, are you trying to press it with a palm, are you trying to stand on it, or is there an elephant standing on it?’. If you try to speak in those terms, anyone can get it. Even a kid will get it.”

The second barrier is a lack of available hardware. Kumar said that while an iPad can be used for design, using xApps, it is not powerful enough to run simulation. Today, you still need a high-end laptop or high-end computer. But that is changing, he said.

Kumar described having a simple simulation environment on the iPad, where all the processing is done in the cloud using a credit system. “If it is so cheap [and simple to use] that anyone can start to leverage it, I think we will break those two barriers.”

MCAD meets ECAD

For electromechanical design, mechanical engineers using Solidworks have historically collaborated with electrical engineers by transferring files to tools like Altium Designer, or any other electrical or PCB design software that supports the IDX file format.

Last month Dassault Systèmes and Cadence announced a partnership designed to provide a much tighter integration between MCAD (Solidworks) and ECAD (Cadence OrCAD-X or Cadence Allegro-X).

The big difference with this new approach is that it’s a platform-to-platform integration, between the 3DExperience platform and the Cadence Allegro platform.

Push a button in Solidworks and all the data gets passed through the 3DExperience Platform, automatically notifying the designer using OrCAD or Allegro. They then get to approve or reject any changes, and this works bi-directionally.

According to Kumar, this approach provides a single source of truth, with full traceability of what was changed, why it was changed, who changed it and more.

Dassault Systèmes and Cadence now offer tighter integration between MCAD and ECAD

The cloud carrot

With Solidworks 2024 every new seat purchased comes with cloud services, which is essentially a collection of 3DExperience platform workflows ranging from simple share and markup to full on data management.

Users can dip their toes in as-and-when they are ready. “Nothing’s being thrust on our customers, they can do anything they want with our tools,” emphasised Mark Peterson, senior industry process consultant at Dassault Systèmes.

There are three levels of engagement with cloud services, which Dassault defines as ‘Share and Markup’, ‘Store and Revise’, and ‘Manage and Control’.

Share and Markup allows you to share a file internally or with a manufacturing partner for markup. From within Solidworks, users click the share button, punch in an email, and the file is then stored in a secure share location on the 3DExperience Platform for the third party to access, view and markup. Once done, feedback is seen directly inside Solidworks through the task pane.

“One of the things I really love about share markup is that you still maintain control of that intellectual property, which is something that has always been challenging for a lot of our clients, because if you email somebody a Solidworks file, they have your data, they have your feature tree, they have your exact dimensions,” said Peterson.

‘Store and revise’ allows customers to store their data on the 3DExperience platform. This can then be accessed from anywhere, on any device, and augmented with simple data management tools like Revision Management.

‘Manage and control’ offers much more comprehensive data management on the platform, although this requires some handholding. “We have tools that we use to migrate our users from any PDM system to 3DExperience Solidworks or platform,” said Peterson.

The platform future

It appears that Dassault Systèmes Solidworks will be channelling most of its development resources into its 3DExperience platform over the next few years. And if you don’t get on board, you won’t get access to the most advanced new features, potentially optimising everything from modelling and drawings, to simulation, manufacturing, and electromechanical design.

The challenge for the company is how to encourage customers to make the move. One thing seems clear: it’s not going to force them. Desktop Solidworks with local data is going nowhere fast.

Instead, Solidworks looks set to dangle a series of increasingly large carrots – if ‘Share and Markup’ is your snack-sized Chantenay, AI could be your farmer’s prize-winning goliath.

Of course, it’s still very early days for AI at Solidworks and MCAD in general, and it remains to be seen how new features will appeal to the average Solidworks user. While upfront simulation and manufacturing might not be for everyone, it’s hard to imagine that even the least progressive firms won’t perceive real value in automating drawings.

There’s also the question of cost, both in terms of software licensing and cloud processing. Solidworks appears to be taking a similar token-based approach to Autodesk, where Fusion customers pay for computational services including generative design, simulation and rendering.

Perhaps the most interesting point about Solidworks and AI is that all of this could be happening in the next five years. Solidworks is one of the most loved CAD tools out there, but it could be about to experience its biggest change in its quarter-century history. The question is: who will come along for the ride?


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