3D CAD software has become the accepted medium for designing parts, tools, production systems, and manufacturing equipment. But the explosion of 3D printing technology is bringing an increasing number of new designers into the market for 3D CAD software. The number of first-time buyers continues to grow. Some of these buyers are new to CAD. Others are experienced users who have never participated in a 3D CAD selection process. Here's what the experts at SolidWorks say both groups need to consider.
1. Capable, Efficient 3D Design: The centerpiece of 3D CAD is a 3D master model that's used for all aspects of manufacturing: product design and simulation, drafting, tool design, numerically controlled tool programming, and inspection. The 3D model must accurately represent every part in your company's products and the relationships among them.
SolidWorks Model Based Definition application enables engineers to generate one master document for all product and manufacturing information without having to produce and maintain separate sets of 2D drawings.
To maximize efficiency, designers should be able to design in 3D with as few steps as possible without compromising design quality. When evaluating CAD software, find out how efficient each package is at creating the types of products your company makes. For example, if your company makes sheet metal parts, pay attention to the special aids for modeling them and automatically generating flat patterns. If your firm designs stylish products, look at the tools for creating freeform surfaces and blends with continuous curvature. Designers of machinery should examine how easily they can assemble large numbers of parts and insert purchased parts, such as fasteners and electrical components, from a library.
Because changes are inevitable, assess how hard it is to modify parts and assemblies. A CAD system that can make your company's designs with even 20 percent fewer steps will offer important cost advantages compared with systems that are less efficient. A 3D CAD system that offers the best value will combine exceptional technical capabilities with reasonable cost-of-ownership.
2. Information Flow Through Extended Enterprises: In today's world, few manufacturers are vertically integrated. Most rely on global communities of suppliers for parts, tools, subsystems, production equipment, and design. Whether your company is a supplier, a customer, or both, it can benefit from sharing 3D CAD models with others. When possible, choose a CAD system that's popular in your industry and supplier community. This choice helps eliminate the need to translate files from one system to another. Translation takes time and can introduce errors.
Also look at each system's ability to import files from other systems. Make sure your CAD system supports international standards such as STEP, IGES, VDA, and IDF. If your shop must translate many files from several brands of CAD systems, check out the direct translators available with each CAD system and also those from third parties that specialize in translation software.
Adopting 3D methods requires training and experience. So choosing a system that's easy to learn is crucial.
Don't limit your evaluation of data sharing to file exchanges. Systems based on shared internet hosts enable designers to collaborate in real time with customers to explore options and identify good solutions quickly. Sharing CAD data with customers or suppliers can save thousands of hours and weeks of schedule time compared with the cost of remastering them interactively. The ability to collaborate in 3D on products and processes can reduce costs while helping to deliver better products.
3. Drafting Tools That Meet Your Standards Today and in the Future: Even though you'll be designing in 3D, your suppliers and factory workers may need drawings. A clear drawing shows information that isn't obvious in a 3D model: critical dimensions and tolerances, material and surface-finish specifications, and notes about processing, such as curing or heat treatment. Be sure any 3D CAD system you buy can make drawings to your current standards for dimensions, tolerances, lettering, and parts lists. And be sure your drawings can be exported in popular formats, such as PDF, DXF, and DWG.
But 3D CAD is changing drawings as we know them. Leading manufacturers are employing annotated 3D models that convey the information found on drawings without a separate document. This so-called "model-based definition" saves drafting time, simplifies product-data management, and enables automated manufacturing and inspection systems to read dimensions and tolerances directly from 3D models, helping to eliminate errors.
4. Tools to Take Your Designs from Concept Through Manufacturing: Designs don't make money until physical products are delivered. Look for 3D CAD software with a rich variety of applications that can reduce not only design time, but testing, machining, cost estimating, and inspection. Companies that design systems to order can benefit from software that generates parts and assemblies automatically in response to customer specifications. Such tools may be general purpose, such as configuration software, or special tools optimized for designing products such as mold assemblies or stamping dies.
SolidWorks Conceptual Designer enables engineers to collaborate with customers and suppliers without exporting files or losing control over them.
Because physical testing is costly and slow, you should look to reduce the number of physical tests by simulating physical behavior, such as kinematics, dynamics, stress, deflection, vibration, temperatures, or fluid flow. Look for a system that has integrated analytical tools or efficient interfaces to your preferred simulation software.
Cost-estimating software enables designers to hit cost targets by revising designs sooner instead of waiting for estimators to say they are over budget. Inspection software can slash the time needed to prepare documents for inspecting parts on delivery.
Picking the right add-in applications for your shop's business can slash the time needed to bring parts to market. To make sure you have the best tools, choose a CAD platform that gives a broad choice of solutions. It should have an extensive and well-documented application programming interface (API). Good APIs make it less costly for third parties to integrate specialty applications with your CAD system. And they let your own programmers write software tailored to your ways of using CAD models.
5. Help Managing Data: Plants or job shops with more than just a few designers can benefit from product data management (PDM) software integrated with their CAD tools. Because relationships among files in 3D systems are so complex, an automated system to store and organize them is essential. Without PDM, designers can unknowingly overwrite each other's work, reinvent parts that have already been designed, and send the wrong revision levels to manufacturers. Together, these sorts of errors can waste hundreds of hours of work each year and thousands of dollars in defective parts.
Designers should be able to design in 3D with as few steps as possible without compromising design quality.
PDM systems do much more than store and organize files. They also help designers find existing parts to re-use instead of reinventing them, generate materials lists for cost estimating, and feed data to manufacturing resource planning (MRP) systems.
6. Innovative R&D to Protect Your Investment: Computing technology is constantly changing. If your CAD vendor doesn't take advantage of this evolution, in a few years you'll find that your organization has an obsolete and costly-to-maintain CAD system.
7. Pleasant Business Relationships: Believe it or not, some of the greatest sources of friction between buyers of CAD software and their customers are the nontechnical business aspects of the relationship. Just as some airlines annoy customers with extra fees for checked baggage, flight changes, drinks, and blankets, some CAD suppliers levy hidden charges for software and services that most customers don't need.
To avoid aggravation and lower your costs, look for suppliers who offer straightforward software packages that have what you need. Look at the terms for floating licenses that enable designers who don't need CAD full-time to share licenses. And be sure your best designers can use the software both at work and at home without hassles.
8. Short Learning Curve: Adopting 3D methods requires training and experience. So choose a system that's easy to learn as well as capable. Look for a system that has a consistent user interface throughout. Be sure design and manufacturing procedures flow logically from start to finish.
3D CAD model of a horizontal grinder.
9. A Dealer Who Can Help You: A successful relationship with your CAD software dealer only begins with the sale. Buy from a dealer with the skills and experience to help you successfully integrate 3D design with manufacturing. Find out how many 3D customers potential dealers have trained and supported. Good local support can make the difference between a costly adoption of new CAD software and one that advances your business objectives now and in the future.
10. One Size Doesn't Fit All: Not all the criteria listed above apply to every shop or plant. Making intelligent choices requires careful thought and deep knowledge of your engineering needs. The biggest mistake any organization can make is to select a 3D system without shopping. Engage with at least three vendors to educate yourself about the capabilities of available software packages and dealer support organizations. Making the wrong choice wastes time and money. Don't make emotional decisions based on brand preference or focus on too limited criteria. Do consider the full range of capabilities your shop needs to bring better products to market faster.
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