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With Fusion 360 I covered every CAD software I was familiar with so now we’re entering the unknown lands of “oh hey this exists too”. The next articles will take more time to come out as I will have to take more time to learn the tools and how they approach part design.
The next one is an application that’s (to my limited knowledge) popular in the professional scenarios but basically never brought in discussions in hobby 3D printing.
Solid Edge is Siemens’ CAD software. You might think that Siemens is a nobody in the CAD industry but they actually develop the Parasolid geometrical kernel, the foundation upon which most parametric CAD tools are built on. (think SolidWorks, Onshape, Alibre, Ansys and many others)
Solid Edge much like FreeCAD offers multiple ways to approach part creation: The Synchronous environment is a more direct-modelling system while the Ordered environment is the more familiar sketch-heavy approach. Do note however that “direct modeling” here means a more freeform way to create and constraint geometry, not the manual CSG management that comes with FreeCAD’s “Part” workspace.
I don’t have any insight on the history of Solid Edge’s licensing to the point that I was surprised a free version was available to begin with. The usual rant about enshittification and “it’s good for now” applies but at the time of writing Solid Edge is available for free under the following restrictions:
Just like Fusion and Onshape they have a contact form for startups to ask for a free version (for a year).
Flashbang warning for the entire article! Solid Edge has no dark theme, though the UI theme itself is almost more “grey” than light. You can replace the default dark grey background with different colors, gradients or even pictures.
Given that I can’t really seem to make it any darker and it’s not that bright to warrant manual color filters, I’ll just record and take screenshots without tweaking anything, which will result in brighter pictures that may catch you offguard.
The UI in Solid Edge feels smart, old and at times like it’s working against you. I’m not dunking on it though, the smart bits where it auto-detects what to do are nice but the other tools do it better and when it fails it’s really stressful to deal with.
The workflow for making arcs is one example of that as it just doesn’t seem to work right. Moving unconstrained points and lines around also seems a recipe for disaster as everything will self-align into the most chaotic version that the partial constraints will allow. This makes nailing the initial shape a must and also requires care on how to approach sketch fillets and curvatures.
There’s a lot of menus and tooltips and I often kept trying to use the escape key or clicking around to get out of partial states. Creating patterns, sections and other features brings you into a sketch but where you’re supposed to only sketch what’s needed, plus while in a sketch most of the app functions are halted… including the X button to close the app!
It’s a bit of a shame really as the UI probably makes the nicest use of self-focusing textfields and quick action tooltips that I’ve seen around.
I will say however that after FreeCAD and Fusion both having weird cameras it’s nice to see one that orbits around just like I expect it to.
As I just said this software has a weird workflow. It’s very consistent once you learn it but getting used to it required me to look up stuff way more than usual. That said, it’s astounding how much care the software takes in trying to teach people how be used. Basically every tool in the top bar will have an help page you can open by pressing F1 while hovering its icon and most even come with a small video showing it in action in the help tooltip.
Youtube is also full of many quick tutorials from random small channels that are quick to the point and can be understood while fully muted.
This test drive will feature TooTallToby’s 21-03-01 - Wedge bracket.
Because I found both Synchronous and Ordered to be quite interesting I’ll cover both!
The ordered flow looks like just any other CAD software.
Something I found quite tricky is the slot. There is no easy and convenient way to sketch a slot. You can use a special offset but you have to set the offset at creation time and it’s kinda messy. I was lucky that the design asked for a counterbore that wasn’t too fancy so I was able to use the slot solid function that features built-in counterbore parameter. This is a bit weird because selecting the slot function will bring you into a new sketch, but you must only draw an open wire where the slot will be.
I found that getting into error conditions is very annoying and modifying existing features to be tricky. If you just double click you’ll enter “Modify definition mode” which is a limited edit mode where you can easily edit feature dimensions and other parameters without going into full sketch edit. You have to instead click the feature and select “Edit profile” to edit the sketch.
Synchronous is where it gets interesting, my best approximation would be SketchUp but with constraints.
It’s very tricky to work with, at least initially. It incentivates sketching directly onto the body but most of the time the lines don’t seem to ‘stick’ to the proper surface when orbiting around, that’s why I often align the camera before I start sketching.
Another gotcha is dimensioning, a lot of the premade dimensions (like when making a box) will be “unlocked”, so applying other constraints will change them, throwing you off if you expected them to stay fixed instead. You can see at some point I start clicking a lock icon to lock them.
The order in which you do outline your part is also important, as editing a feature later on is way harder.
All in all, I could see this being very handy for doodling quick project enclosures where you don’t need complex geometry, or maybe components that are just part of an assembly. I also think I could get way faster at this if I got more practice in.
Today’s project is pretty simple, I have numerous wire spools that I 3D printed forever ago but their inner radius doesn’t match any premade wire box I can find around, so let’s design one!
I’ll make a wire spool model and the wire box and then later on test how it comes together in an assembly.
Now this is where the dual-mode of Solid Edge comes in handy: I was able to model the wire spool really quickly. It’s a simple design that already exists in reality so it doesn’t need to be flexible and can be doodled very quickly in the synchronous environment!
Since you can export in STEP everything translated pretty well to PrusaSlicer before being sent to print.
The export format selection for Solid Edge is quite extensive. By clicking “Save as” you can select a multitude of formats, most of which CAD-related like Parasolid, JT, IGES and my dear STEP. Support for STL and 3MF should cover most of your 3D printing needs and there are even some generic 3D modeling formats (OBJ, FBX). You can even save as a “3D PDF”, a format for which I’m aquainted only by the rage it induced a friend of mine and that is incompatible with all PDF software I have currently installed.
A bizarre inclusion is the ability to export to part files for CATIA V4 and CATIA V5 (competitor products), however trying to use them gives me a “You do not have a valid license.” error message, so I’m left assuming this is some paid feature for studios that use both apps.
The app also comes with a “3D print” menu option to quickly export 3MF/STL and you can even set your 3D printer’s print volume to see how the part fits.
Neat… but why?
Creating drawings requires creating a draft document and importing a previously saved part, rather than them being part of the same project. Aside from that though, they work great!
Some trouble I had was in the lackluster choice of presets. I usually try to go for small documents as they make for nicer screenshots but the default preset is set to A2 paper and making a smaller one requires hand-making a smaller preset.
That said, including the document was easy. Worthy of note is the vast choice of dimensioning tools, includining at least two that are all about adding multiple dimensions at once. That made the whole process quite quicker!
Dimensions also snap and align to each other much nicer than in other tools.
As usual I have applied a color filter to make it “dark mode”, though my dimensions are worse than usual cause this document was just a pain to dimension.
I feared the watermarking would be invasive enough to make drawings very hard to use but it seems it’s just the software’s name in the bottom left in a faint grey and it doesn’t seem to hurt legibility in any way.
The assembly workflow is weird and I don’t think I really understand it, but I managed to make it usable for my needs, at least for now.
You have multiple ways to assemble and mate parts, including a “Flash fit” that automatically snaps stuff the way you expect, though I don’t think I figured out how to properly move around stuff as every time I try the app starts thinking I want to apply some sort of offset.
I don’t know how this would scale to more complex constraints and I’m afraid it would take me a lot of time to figure it out, though if I ever wanted to play around Solid Edge comes with a vast array of “practice” parts to play with. (again… why?? but hey thanks)
Sheet metal gets a lot of attention in Solid Edge’s UI, getting its own preset and menus. I recreated TooTallToby’s 23-01-08 - Sm lifter using the Synchronous environment and I did it, within tolerance and everything:
I will say, this was quite painful, but not due to the sheet metal tools themselves. The sheet metal had some rough spot, most notably that flanges always defaulted to 1mm bend radius (most of the other UI dialogs seem to remember the last value) and that the dimensioning with flanges, especially when it’s not a full 90deg flange, get very messy.
I think the biggest issue however was the synchronous environment itself. I think it’s an interesting way to build parts but it amplifies every bad quirk of the app tenfolds, which makes me wary of using it again for this kind of complex parts.
Another interesting thing is that the app started becoming really slow and laggy when defining the final features of the part. I don’t know if this is a Solid Edge problem or has specifically to do with the synchronous environment but I felt it was worth pointing out.
You can flatten out parts and export them as DXF, my usual iter of export+upload showed no signs of concerns, though I gotta ask: can you generate a list of bends?
You can! You have to flatten it then generate a draft and after inserting the document in you can generate the full list of bends in a really nice way!
My experience with Solid Edge started rough but it quickly grew on me, I’m quite surprised by how much I had to get into the CAD scene before I became aware of its existence: Solid Edge gets almost no mentions anywhere when it comes to alternatives to Fusion 360 for hobbyists and it’s just there, free to download and use (for personal use)!
If you came into this series looking for some software to try out, give this one a shot! The UI might feel a bit dated and you’ll have to learn the flow a bit but I could see myself getting quite proficient at it, plus the synchronous environment gives seasoned CAD users a more expressive way to doodle up parts.