No one will disagree that 3D modeling programs can be hard to use.  To make matters worse, the software seems to be constantly changing. That means users may spend more time thinking about how to use the software rather than how to improve a design. Fortunately, new features in SolidWorks 2007 Office Premium let users focus on design and not worry about learning difficult functions and features.

The new MateXpert informs users about the status of assemblies. Potential problems are flagged in yellow, while clashes between mates are highlighted in red. (Don't you wish people were as easy to discern?)For starters, 2007 works directly with NextEngine desktop scanners, handy devices for reverse engineering. Users scan prototypes or existing parts and the scanner produces point clouds that can be turned into surfaces and eventually solid models of the parts.

A real time-saver in the CAD software is the new Google-like search tool, located in the upper right corner of the workspace. It helps users quickly locate files. Just type in a filename, material property, or even text string that might identify a missing document. The tool searches the desktop, shared files, and PDM system, displaying a short list of possible matches from which to select.

For new users, SolidWorks Intelligent Feature Technology, or SWIFT, has several "experts" that help simplify modeling. A new user might not know, for instance, how to add a taper, or draft, to a part that already has features such as fillets. The DraftX-pert tool reorders features so the draft can be created correctly. When making a drawing, the DimXpert recognizes patterns, such as holes, and dimensions them automatically. Additional experts include FilletXpert, which figures out how to correct and automatically fillet and round edges of a part, and SketchXpert, which adds the constraints necessary to fully define sketches.and create assemblies. Also, a MateXpert resolves mate conflicts when creating assemblies.It would be great if users had a way to create a sketch that could control free-form face-edits directly, similar to the way edits are made to imported surfaces. This would come in handy for, say, having a domed face be tangent or continuous in one place and sharp in another. I created the intersection curves shown in the image to illustrate my control-sketches suggestion. Users could control the radius of the longer sketch while at the same time stipulating that the shorter sketch be tangent to the vertical face.

And a nifty and improved Sketch Block tool allows conceptualizing assemblies in 2D sketches before converting them to 3D parts and assemblies. The tool lets users treat a collection of curves as one entity. Designers can build 2D Sketch Block "assemblies" with working mechanisms such as linkages, cams, belts, chains, pulleys, and gears.

The Belt/Chain feature lets users design custom length belts or chains, or constrain belts and chains to standard lengths. After users route a belt, the tool moves the pulley-gears to another location to fit a standard length. Users can toggle control between belt or chain length and pulley or gear location.

So that designs adhere to company standards, a Design Checker looks for things such as nonstandard hole sizes. This can be useful, for instance, should a vendor hand you a fixture and say build a new one. Just measure the device and type in your eyeballed hole sizes. Design Checker gives a choice of keeping the estimated hole size or selecting one that will fit a standard fastener.

A 2D assembly is built in 2007 using Sketch Blocks. The belt updates when pulley locations change and also controls the rotation of other components. And when a specific belt length is set, the location of the floating pulley updates.I especially like the Multiple Mate feature. It handles mating many screws to a variety of holes in a part, or putting a lot of different components onto one surface, for example, mating a group of parts to a common base plate. I despise going through these operations one at a time. Additionally, Hole Series is now improved by letting users select an existing hole as the starting point for the hole and fastener hardware.

The drafting module also has several helpful new features. For example, users can specify broken views with multiple horizontal and vertical breaks.

This is good for completely showing a long part that has detail in the middle, without going to roll-size paper. And the 2007 version lets users create multiple leaders extending from one dimension. One dimension can, therefore, point to several features, such as a group of holes on a part. One dimension can even have multiple arrows going to several radii. This is great for making drawings clearer.

One minor gripe concerns the Free-form tool that lets users locally push, pull, twist, and bend areas of the model. I like it, but a problem is dimensioning objects pulled out to some distance that looks "about right." The solution is still the same old "detail it with control points and check by scan data or a CMM." It would be great if users had a way to create a sketch that could control the free-form face-edits directly similar to the way edits are made to imported surfaces.

For example, the Dome feature provides only choices between elliptical or spherical, and lets users control the height of the offset. But what if it is necessary to have the domed face be tangent or continuous in one place and sharp in another? Control sketches could let users control the radius of the longer sketch while at the same time stipulate that the shorter sketch be tangent to the vertical face. Just an idea.

SolidWorks 2007 provides heavy-duty modeling in ways beyond tools and features. For example, surface models maintain C2 continuity throughout. This means surface tangency vectors are equal in direction and magnitude. So designs such as car bodies look good because light reflections pass smoothly over C2 continuous surface patches. Last but not least, an easy-to-use FEA tool provided with each package, lets users optimize parts, for instance, by trimming weight from a part to save material costs while maintaining a certain safety factor for the design.

SolidWorks 2007 comes from SolidWorks Corp., 300 Baker Ave., Concord, MA 01742. For more information, call (800) 693-9000 or visit solidworks.com  . Mike Hudspeth is a designer based in St. Louis, Mo. He has more than two decades of experience.