America’s Next Top CAD Modeler

Tom Smith on stage at SOLIDWORKS World 2018. (Image courtesy of Dawn Cole.)

What does it take to be a top CAD modeler? How can you rise to the peak of your design game and earn the recognition of your peers? We asked Tom Smith, winner of SOLIDWORKS World 2018’s Model Mania competition, how he found his way to the top.


Meet Tom Smith

Tom Smith coming up the SOLIDWORKS World 2018 stage stairs. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS).

Smith graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1997 as a mechanical engineer. However, it wasn’t until he landed his first job that he began using 3D CAD—specifically, SOLIDWORKS.

“My first job getting out in 1997 was with a very small company,” he said. “There was one guy drawing things by hand and another guy popping it in AutoCAD. I brought in the SOLIDWORKS demo that you could get at the time. You could use it for 30 days. I tried it out, and I’ve stuck with it since then.”

Since he hadn’t learned CAD modeling as an engineering student, Smith learned SOLIDWORKS the old-fashioned way: trial and error. Practice, he explained, was easy to come by.

“When you design things today, usually you go to a website and download the models,” he said.“That wasn’t around back then, so we had to draw everything. Every time you got new bearings, new gear boxes, you got out the calipers and drew everything, and it had to be right. Everyday was modeling things over and over again. You start to get good at it.”


Model Mania

The part that contestants were required to model for Model Mania 2018. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS).

All that practice paid off for Smith. Not only has it served him in his professional career, but it’s won him perhaps the most important prize of all: bragging rights. He has placed in SOLIDWORKS World’s Model Mania competition not once, not twice, but three times, two of those times as the first-place winner.

A tradition of every SOLIDWORKS World since 2000, Model Mania is a competition in which entrants are given a 2D drawing of a part and must model it as quickly and accurately as possible. Competitors are then presented a revision to that part and must make the necessary changes. Winners are chosen based on the accuracy and timeliness of their models. For a convention full of CAD modelers, it’s a fun and popular way to show off their SOLIDWORKS skills.

At the suggestion of a colleague, Smith entered his first Model Mania in 2013. To his surprise, he took second place. The next year, he tried again and one-upped himself, winning first place in the competition.After a three-year dry spell (his own words), Smith reclaimed his crown at SOLIDWORKS World 2018, once again taking first place.

“Model Mania is like real life—you design something, and your boss tells you to change it,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with that for 20 years, so I kind of know what to expect.”

For all you would-be Model Maniacs, Smith was kind enough to pass on some of the CAD wisdom he’s gleaned over the years:

“Don’t leave things under defined. Use major planes, major geometry to stick to. Don’t try to reference sub-features, like fillets. Don’t reference things that will easily fall apart. That’s probably the best trick. If you reference things that aren’t going away, like planes and origins, you’re good. If you build to strong reference geometry, your changes will be a lot easier. Another good tip: don’t do everything in one sketch. Split it up. Do fillets afterwards. Keep it simple.

“When you do the contest, they give you two minutes to plan. Take that time to look over the model, build it in your head first and go through the process of what the software’s going to do when you start modeling things so you’re not surprised by anything. Then you start the clock and hack away at it, and just do the best you can really.”

If you’re struggling, it’s good to remember that even the pros have their lapses. He readily admits that when Model Mania host Mark Schneider was going through his solution, Smith noticed a missed opportunity.

“When Mark Schneider was doing the walk-through, he went though the step of doing a shell command,” he said. “And that would’ve saved me like another three minutes, if I’d remembered to do the shell command.”

Mark Schneider’s walk-through of Model Mania 2018. (Video courtesy of SOLIDWORKS).

Thinking Like A SOLIDWORKS Expert

Smith is both a Certified SOLIDWORKS Pro (CSWP) and Certified SOLIDWORKS Expert (CSWE), the highest level of SOLIDWORKS certification currently possible. There are whispers that a new level (SOLIDWORKS Wizard?) might be added, and if so, he will be first in line to take the test.

While he has moved on from being a design engineer—Smith currently runs the SOLIDWORKS PDM system at Victaulic, a provider of mechanical pipe joining solutions—he’s still the go-to guy in the office for SOLIDWORKS advice.

“The designers here give me a call and ask me to help them out if they get stuck on a sheet metal piece or some other wacky model. So, you know, I’m not totally out of it. I’ll sit down with them for an hour and show them how to do things,” he said, jokingly adding, “but it’s nice not to have project managers chasing me.”

Smith spends his spare time modeling and 3D printing his own personal projects, most of them for his hobby of drone racing. An engineer through and through, he still gets his fill of the most important part of any CAD modeler’s education: practice.

“In your downtime, pick something up off your desk, get your calipers and draw it up,” he suggested.

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