Under the Hood of SolidWorks 2009

Canadian SolidWorks power user runs down what to look forward to in the next release

By Ben Eadie, A. E. T., (Ben@SolidMentor.com) | August 14, 2008

Before I give my review of SolidWorks 2009, I have to admit that I wasn't a huge fan of 2008 as the interface changes were incomplete or poorly planned, among other things. Matt Lombard, the author of the SolidWorks Bible, shared many of my opinions. He went so far as to not write an update to his book for version 2008 and chose to wait to see what 2009 had in store.

But, after serving as a beta tester for the last three months, I can say that SolidWorks 2009 is a breath of fresh air. Finally, the company appears to be paying more attention to its users by developing a more functional, stable and user-friendly software package rather than simply adding more bells and whistles.

Below, I will touch on some of the new features and enhancements added to the 2009 package that stand out to me. Keep in mind that all of this is still subject to change and some enhancements may not make it to the final release. As of this writing, SolidWorks 2009 is in Beta 4.

Undock the toolbars

In SW 2009, you can now change the position of the CommandManager and the PropertyManager, placing them in different locations within the application or anywhere on your desktop, including on a different monitor.

In the 2008 version, SolidWorks followed Microsoft's bad example by implementing a ribbon tool bar. Some may have liked it, but the ribbon tool bar was poorly placed, in my opinion, and locked at the top of the screen. I was forced to adapt my usage to the software. I truly believe that the software should accommodate the human not the other way around.

With SW 2009, not only did the company correct their folly, but they took it to a new level. Now, users can undock all toolbars and managers and move them to any position on the screen or put them on another screen altogether. This is a welcomed feature for designers like me who have multiple monitors.

New custom properties tab

A new interface is available for entering custom and configuration-specific properties into SolidWorks files. You enter the properties on the new Custom Properties tab in the Task Pane. In assemblies, you can assign properties to multiple parts at the same time.

For years, the custom properties dialog that most people used to populate data for part and assembly drawings was buried behind multiple mouse clicks in an ambiguous location. Now, a part of the software that's used extensively by the majority of the users is at the forefront where it needs to be--in the task pane as a new tab.

With this new tab, you can assign custom properties to multiple parts at the same time. You can also create your own custom tab with drop down boxes, lists, numbers, and check boxes to reduce data entry errors. After years of many extra mouse clicks, the days of having to look for macros to populate multiple files with custom properties are over.

Textures, Materials and Colours, Oh My!

As an added bonus, SolidWorks 2009 includes a new and esthetically pleasing appearance called Rough Draft, which gives parts and assemblies a hand-drawn appearance.

With each new release of SolidWorks over last few years, there seemed to be a new way to colour or texture models. It was bad enough to have to make sure you knew the hierarchy of the application of colours from assemblies to parts, but you also had to keep in mind that that bodies, features and surfaces superseded each other. And that's before you even got into configurations.

In SW 2009, RealView/Appearances/Textures/ Materials/Colors have been consolidated so that you can get things looking right and keep it that way. Also, to alleviate the hierarchy of color/texture placement, a popup tool bar appears when you drag and drop an appearance and asks what you would like to have coloured.

In addition, the scaling/rotation of a texture is controlled by a rectangle in the graphics area instead of sliders. This makes it easier to change the texture's appearance since you can watch the texture itself instead of having to focus on sliders in the side bar manager which caused the model to drift out of view.

To get an idea of what to expect, Ricky Jordan has a quick video demo at his blog:


Speedpak creates a simplified representation of an assembly without losing references. If you work with very large and complex assemblies, using SpeedPak can significantly improve performance.

Speedpak, Solidworks' new large assembly performance enhancement, is the shining star of the 2009 version. With it, you can create a simplified configuration in an assembly that only fully loads the faces or bodies that you want it to. The concept is that you allow only mating features to be loaded into memory, allowing for much faster top-level assembly performance.

While I agree that this is the best part of 2009, I wish there was an automated version of Speedpak. It would take the external parts or surfaces of an assembly and create a speed pack assembly based on this geometry without my having to manually create it in configurations.

At the same time I cannot expect the software to read my mind. I understand that a few minutes of my time at the beginning saves a lot in the end, but how many times have we all said, "Meh! I donʼt have time now; I'll do it later," only to waste more time in the end. I guess the software isn't the only thing in need of an upgrade.

View Manipulation

Another new feature that's garnering accolades from the blogosphere, and in the beta testers' online forums, are the new view manipulation enhancements. With them, you can now control the view via the lower left triad for more functionality. Clicking on the triad's arrows, for instance, orients the view while a double MMB zooms to fit.

SolidWorks new magnifying glass tool allows you to inspect a model and make selections without changing the overall view.

Next is a Magnifying Glass. When you press "G" (the default key mapped to this function) or any other keyboard key you decide to map to this function, it magnifies the area around the mouse like a... you guessed it a magnifying glass. It is intended mainly for selection, and it disappears after you select something, unless you are holding the ctrl button. Also you can Alt-Scroll wheel section the part or assembly in the Magnifying glass parallel to the screen. I've used a 3D controller from 3Dconnexion for years and do not suffer from using the scroll wheel zoom too much, but I still agree that both these enhancements are very handy.

BOM in assembly

My one major criticism of 2009 is of a new feature that lets you create BOMs in an assembly or multibody part files. This is a good addition but, as with many new features, there is what I see as a major flaw. If you copy a BOM from an assembly to a drawing, it is not linked. This means that BOMs changed in the assembly file will not update the drawing BOM.

In SolidWorks 2009, you can create bills of materials (BOMs) in assembly and multibody part files. You no longer need to create a drawing first.

At the same time, you can still make a BOM for the drawing as you normally would and it will follow any changes to the assembly but (and this is where it gets confusing) it is not a "copy" of the BOM, which is a new option when creating the drawing BOM. You can choose to copy the assembly BOM or create a new one for the drawing. I would highly recommend that you create a new one like you have in the past.

All this seems to be adding complexity and more options where they aren't needed. It reminds me of the whole appearances and colours issue that SolidWorks is trying to simplify now. It is a great start to a very handy feature but as a "parametric" CAD package why would you not have parametrics driving the BOMs from one file to the next?

Regardless of this flaw, it is still nice to have a BOM in the assembly file and also be able to export it to many formats such as PDF, XLS, TXT, CSV...

Other noteworthy 2009 enhancements

  • Esc Cancels Commands, Enter approves commands is now consistent across all functions in SolidWorks 2009. In the past, it was frustrating when you wanted to get out of a command and Esc did not work or alternately hit enter to execute a command to find out nothing happens.
  • Negative values for dimensions is allowed
  • Instant 3D resize for sketches along with features. And for some tool box parts, such as bolts, you can resize their length on the fly!
  • Freeform surfaces allows more than 4 sides for more complex shapes
  • The Slot tool is handy and I love it, but why not have it in the hole wizard? When I create slots I am generally making bolt "holes" so I would think it belongs in the hole wizard and not a sketch element.
  • Pre-Dimensioning of sketch entities saves a fair amount of time, but they should have Diameter for full circles and radius for partial arcs. I do not understand why radius is used on a full circle.
  • The Tool Box can be customized to your needs and also helps reduce hard drive space requirements for those laptop users out there where space is at a premium.

While I've highlighted what I see as the most important new features in SolidWorks 2009, I've only touched touched the surface. The What's New in SolidWorks 2009 manual is 171 pages deep and a good read for those that would like more insight into what the company is doing for 2009.

Ben Eadie is a Aeronautical Engineering Technologist and owner operator of Calgary-based MountainWave 3D Design Services, a company that has worked on everything from plastic injection baby change tables to hydrogen fuel cell test stands to jet aircraft. He also helped design and build three world record-setting human-powered vehicles, which have been featured in Wired Magazine, Popular Science, the Discovery Channel and other media outlets.

Regarded as one of the top innovative mechanical 3D computer modeller / mechanical designers in North America, he regularly speaks at colleges, universities and conferences around North America. He also runs a popular SolidWorks blog: http://SolidMentor.com

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