SolidWorks 2014 Launch: New Community, Certified Virtualization, and Productivity Features
First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Even though the press folks assembled at Dassault Systemes‘ Waltham campus last week were officially there for a sneak peek of SolidWorks 2014, many were also hoping to get the scoop on Mechanical Conceptual, announced at SolidWorks World 2013 in January.
SolidWorks CEO Bertrand Sicot decided to tackle it during his welcome speech, without waiting for someone to bring it up during the Q&A at the end of the day. “Today, we have ten customers in production [using Mechanical Conceptual],” he said. “We don’t call that Beta program. We call it Lighthouse program. And when I say ‘in production,’ I mean they’re designing real products using our solution. The goal is to have 30 [users] by the end of October. We’re on track to have 20 by the end of September.”
Mechanical Conceptual in Lighthouse
By next SolidWorks World (January 2014), Sicot hopes to be able to share success stories from early users, along with pricing info. But he makes only a tentative commitment to make the product generally available by then. Other details Sicot revealed about Mechanical Conceptual: “It will be intuitive. It has to be connected. Yes, you’d need a connection, because most of your data will be hosted … I hate to say that, but it’ll be in the cloud. It’ll be social. It’s conceptual, because we’re targeting a new group of users.”
To be clear, Sicot isn’t targeting consumers and prosumers, like Autodesk has done with some of its 123D product line. Mechanical Conceptual won’t be SolidWorks LT. It’ll be a product for professional designers and engineers looking for a way to quickly create mechanical concepts (hence the name Mechanical Conceptual).
There’s no indication that Mechanical Conceptual will be a web-hosted SaaS solution. However, Sicot’s comment suggests the software may rely on online storage for data housing and retrieval. It’s difficult to predict how this treatment will be received, as long-time SolidWorks users have in the past shown to prefer keeping everything on their desktop — both the application and the data.
It’s also, according to Sicot, the first SolidWorks product built on Dassault’s 3D Experience platform. That suggests Mechanical Conceptual and Dassault’s high-end modeler CATIA will share the same underlying modeling technology.
SolidWorks’ foundation has always been the Parasolid modeling karnel, now owned by Dassault’s rival Siemens PLM Software. It may be next to impossible to suddenly unplug SolidWorks from its Parasolid roots, but it makes a lot of sense strategically to build the new product on parent company Dassault’s technology. Users, however, will expect SolidWorks to ensure that data exchange between SolidWorks and Mechanical Conceptual is free of hiccups.
Because they tend to tax the processors heavily, CAD programs like SolidWorks are generally not recommended to run on consumer laptops and tablets. But the presence of GPU maker NVIDIA at SolidWorks 2014′s launch party signaled a new possibility. NVIDIA’s Grid Visual Computing Appliance (VCA), a box that functions as a portable server, is capable of supporting up to eight virtual machines, accessible remotely from consumer laptops and tablets. (For more, read my conference report of VMworld 2013.)
With this method, NVIDIA showed it’s possible to run SolidWorks on virtual machines, using relatively inexpensive machines as front-end terminals. The virtual machines running SolidWorks are also equipped with virtual GPUs; therefore, intense visualization and simulation operations benefit from GPU acceleration even in the virtualized environment.
SolidWorks is buttoning up its online community, My SolidWorks, intended to become the hub for knowledge exchange, product announcements, and user-powered troubleshooting. In Sicot’s words, “It’s the single place to go to find everything SolidWorks.” The online environment uses Exalead search engine and Netvibes social publishing platform, both owned by Dassault Systemes. He also hinted of “high-value online content and services” to be delivered from My SolidWorks in the near future.
(In a chuckle-worthy moment during the Q&A session, someone in the room asked if it would be possible to use a single SolidWorks license to power eight users running SolidWorks on the Grid’s virtual machines. Arron Kelly, SolidWorks’ VP of user experience and product portfolio management, clarified, “Um, no. You’ll need eight SolidWorks licenses.”)
SolidWorks 2014 Highlights
The new version previewed to the press includes a robust collection of interface improvements and productivity-boosting features. In the upcoming version, you’ll be able to edit and refine Splines used in your sketches. Even though these Splines may be deeply embedded as 2D profiles used to create 3D shapes, the software can resolve cascading changes resulting from your edits.
SolidWorks 2014 also presents the user with the option to simulate shadow casting, based on a customizable year-round sun path. The feature is expected to be popular with those who create outdoor fixtures or fences. It’s a tool commonly found in architectural modeling programs like Autodesk Revit or Vectorworks, but perhaps relatively unknown to mechanical modeling community.
Other enhancements include PDM integration, easier simulation setup, and electrical design incorporation. For a detailed list of new features, visit SolidWorks 2014′s dedicated launch site.
The SolidWorks Legacy
If you ask Sicot how exactly his brand fits into Dassault’s ecosystem, he’d literally point to a spot on Dassault’s 3D Experience logo, a chrome-colored circle that looks like a high-tech compass. The quadrant devoted to 3D modeling apps — That’s where SolidWorks fits in.
In hard numbers, SolidWorks accounts for about one-fifth of Dassault’s annual income. The 2012 unaudited financials filed by Dassault shows SolidWorks bought in €99.9 mil (U.S. $132.5), about 20% of Dassault’s total revenue of €499.5 (U.S. $662). That’s a substantial chunk of the French PLM titan’s business.
It’s been 16 years since Dassault snatched up SolidWorks for $310 mill. But only in the last five or six years did Dassault begin to make a serious effort to reconcile the SolidWorks business with its other divisions. The move to build Mechanical Conceptual based on Dassault technology, and to power My SolidWorks with Exalead and Netvibes are signs of the French HQ and its American subsidiary actively merging their fate.
During his welcome speech, Sicot acknowledged SolidWorks had been slow to take advantage of the emerging mobile devices. But eDrawings with augmented reality, he pointed out, was proof the company wanted to develop the right approach, not necessarily the earliest viewing and markup app.
He also spoke with candor of the burden and blessings of becoming a company with a legacy. “We have a lot of people creating a lot of data in SolidWorks solutions. We have to keep that in mind,” he said. “When you start from nothing, you have no legacy, so whatever you do have no consequence. Now, we have to make sure whatever we do is not creating issues for those who have been with us for a long time.”
Once, under the leadership of its founders, SolidWorks proposed what many considered radical and impractical — run 3D CAD in Windows OS. With 20 years’ worth of legacy, SolidWorks may find it a lot harder today to introduce radical design approaches without jeopardizing its loyal — and extremely vocal — installed base. Mechanical Conceptual may be the outlet SolidWorks needs to demonstrate its ability to juggle its legacy and future at the same time.