SOLIDWORKS is an extremely powerful Computer Aided Design (CAD) software that utilizes mathematical equations (parametric variables) to build parts from scratch. If you’re anywhere in the design and engineering space, chances are you’ll need to be “fluent” in SOLIDWORKS. Learning to use the tool efficiently is an incredibly useful skill that is an essential item for the modern mechanical engineer. It is also useful for the entrepreneur and/or small company to understand a few of the basics, as this will help you have a better understanding of what’s involved when it comes to developing your product. In this article, we’ll discuss tips, tricks, and helpful strategies from our team to help you maximize your time using the software and build experience faster.
But first, why is SOLIDWORKS so important for design and engineering?
SOLIDWORKS is the preeminent software for computer-aided design and computer-aided engineering. Multiple parts can be combined together into assemblies by assigning relationships (called “mates”) among various features. Both assemblies and individual parts can be turned into engineering drawings where things like dimensions, notes, and revision numbers are typically catalogued. The software is basically a one-stop shop for design so that you can turn ideas into reality. Here are some tips and tricks that we’ve accumulated over the years to help you effectively use SOLIDWORKS.
SOLIDWORKS tips from design and engineering experts
- Are you building top-down or bottom-up? In terms of how to build multiple part assemblies, there are usually two different approaches: top-down and bottom-up. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches when building your SOLIDWORKS models. The top-down approach essentially is building your 3D parts from a 2D sketch that is drawn in cross sections (top, front, and side views). The bottom-up approach is the opposite, where you build each part independently of each other and then put the parts together at the end for your final assembly. The major advantage of the top-down approach is that it allows you to make minor adjustments very quickly and with minimal effort, while minor changes to the bottom-up approach will take longer. This is because the top-down approach allows you to make a simple change from the 2D sketch and it will automatically reflect that in all the parts in the assembly. In bottom-up, you would have to manually change each part’s dimensions to reflect one simple change. However, if a major change needs to be made, the bottom-up approach is often more efficient, in that it leads to less rebuild or errors when making said changes. If major change is needed to occur with a top-down approach, you’d have to change the sketch and then possibly manually change features to reflect those changes in each part...which can take a lot of time.
- Dimension everything. SOLIDWORKS is a parametric program and likes to have defined measurements for everything. The software works like a list of created features, and making changes to one may inappropriately alter other features if they are not dimensioned properly. Here’s an example: the first feature I make is a square box that is 4”x4”x4.” That is feature #1. Feature #2 is a cylindrical hole that is made 2” into one of the faces (so as to achieve a hole that is halfway through the part). The final shape is a box with a blind hole on one face. Now if I need to change the dimensions of the box, say making the box a 2”x2”x2,” I would go back in the feature tree (essentially a list of features that I made in the order I made them) and change feature #1. However, this messes up feature #2 in that it is now a through hole instead of a blind hole that only goes half way. This formatting problem can be alleviated by properly dimensioning feature #2 to always be halfway through feature #1. If everything is defined and dimensioned, there is less room for errors to occur when making changes to features made before or after the change. It is also very important to fully dimension (or fully define) your sketches that are used to create your features. Use the dimension tools or add relations between your sketch entities. A fully defined sketch entity will turn from a blue color to black. If your sketch entities are blue, then they are not being mathematically held in position. This is important so your sketches will update with any changes that you might need to make further up in the feature tree.
- Speaking of dimensions...With newer versions of SOLIDWORKS, you are now able to dimension angled lines with just the endpoint. Select the “Smart Dimension” tool and then the desired line that you wish to dimension. Next click on the end point of the line...a crosshairs will appear. Now you can select one of the crosshair segments to determine the angle that the particular line will sit at with respect to the origin of the sketch. It basically saves you from drawing another construction line and keeps your sketches generally cleaner.
- The importance of selecting the proper origin. As mentioned above, SOLIDWORKS is a parametric program that relies on the user to enter in any and all dimensions. As such, picking where the origin of your part is is essential for making quick changes or modifications to your part/assemblies. A properly selected origin makes mating of parts easier by mating everything around the origin instead of manually picking faces to line up and match. Usually a round part will be concentric with the origin. Placing the origin at the center of your part will help you utilize the Top, Front, and Right planes more efficiently.
- Using the “Pack and Go” tool. This feature is different from “Save” or “Save As” in the respect that those software features only save the specific part or file you are working on. Since SOLIDWORKS is parametric, parts reference each other and assemblies. If an error occurs in one part and that part is referenced 10 times in other parts or sub-assemblies, you will likely have at least 10 new errors to fix. As a way of maintaining file integrity when making major changes, the Pack and Go feature is used. This will make brand new copies of each part and assembly and create new references. This way, you are able to work on the file with the peace of mind that if you mess up, you have the legacy files that are still intact. Pack and Go is also a good way of showing the progression of a model throughout the days/weeks/months that it has been worked on, which is a great tool for client updates. Pack and Go is a great way to e-mail an entire assembly. The feature will guarantee that all referenced parts of the assembly are included so the person receiving the files assembly will not have any missing files.
- Are you using the proper display? Make sure to select the correct display modes for the task you’re working on in order to increase productivity. For example, using “shaded” display instead of “shaded with edges” display will reduce performance issues for CAD users working on large, detailed assemblies or budget PC’s. Using an improper or inappropriate display will increase loading and working time, which decreases productivity.
- Use macros to the fullest extent. Tasks that need to be completed often can be recorded to save valuable time. Avoid repetition by taking advantage of the Macro recording features and VBA API (Visual Basic for Applications / Application Programming Interface). For example, if you need to change the title block on 100 drawing sheets, go to Tools → Macro → Record, and then change the block on your first drawring. When finished, deselect the feature you created, and go to Tools → Macro → Stop. You can then save the macro to your toolbar for quick and easy access later for updating the other 99 drawings.
- Newer isn’t always better...Avoid the temptation to run the most current version of SOLIDWORKS. When collaborating with external resources, there are often backwards compatibility issues between SOLIDWORKS versions. Partner agencies, collaborators, or clients may be unable to open and use the files because you created them on SOLIDWORKS 2016 and they use SOLIDWORKS 2014. Creating files on a software version that is a year or two from current enables flexibility in downstream users who also need to work with the files you’ve created.
- Use keyboard shortcuts. You have two hands...use them! SOLIDWORKS comes with a customizable list of keyboard shortcuts, which are a great tool for repetitive or otherwise time-consuming tasks. When you are only using your mouse hand to select every command, you are not using your time as effectively as possible. If the available keyboard shortcuts are not intuitive, they are easily remapped going to Tools → Customize → Keyboard. This enables you to customize your shortcuts for those tasks you use often, and spend less time navigating around the software with only your mouse hand.
So there you have it - nine tips, tricks, and tactics to help you use SOLIDWORKS effectively in a design and engineering capacity. Are you a SOLIDWORKS user? What tips would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments!
Not a designer, but interested in turning some of your ideas into reality? Creative Mechanisms has assembled a great team to help inventors, entrepreneurs, and companies design, prototype, and manufacture components...we even offer classes to help get you on your way! Please reach out if you need assistance creating elegant solutions to complex problems, or take a look at our customer testimonial page to see how we have helped others in the past.