In search of Elegance #3: DriveWorks Solo

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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.

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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.