A Solid Composition: Technical Document Creation with Composer

Technical documentation is a minefield. Everything in engineering requires documentation. From the project planning phase right through to project closeout and everything in between, it all requires unambiguous (and preferably standardized) communication that will allow anybody on the project to pick up a document and understand what it means. Heck, there are even technical document deliverables describing the technical document deliverables! Documentception! And in some cases, if you want to change a document, you need to create another document informing people that you intend to change the original … and then document the change request too. It’s a headache.

Thankfully SOLIDWORKS has a variety of features that can aid in the creation and management of certain documents, especially technical drawings. This article is going to take a look at one such method for creating clean and attractive technical drawings … with SOLIDWORKS Composer.

Compose Yourself

SOLIDWORKS Composer is a great feature allowing the creation of technical documents such as installation instructions, general technical drawings and even animations for use in communications within your company or with external parties. The great thing about Composer is that you can use existing CAD assets as a basis for creating your documentation. You simply set up your actors (assets) within the scenes and create a storyboard. Then you can cherry pick the best ones from your storyboard at the end of your session. Or you might prefer to use the storyboard as the basis for an animation. It’s your decision.

But why bother, I hear you ask? We all know that you can just manipulate your assemblies and take screenshots from SOLIDWORKS. Is it really necessary to open up another software to do the job?

It’s not necessary, but it is easier and more efficient. For a start, when you import the CAD file into Composer, it is automatically saved as a Composer file, and that means that any changes made in Composer are isolated from your original CAD file. Also, Composer is concurrent, allowing multiple users to make changes on the fly, and the graphics are updated as the CAD file is updated. Imagine sitting for hours taking 100 screenshots of your SOLIDWORKS model, only to have “Greg from Marketing” tell you that he wants a small part of image number 3 to be a darker shade of green … now you have to redo all of the subsequent models to have that same shade of green … and if you are anything like me, you are soon standing in front of HR having to explain why you threw a cup of coffee in Greg’s face.

Composer is a time-saving—and possibly job-saving—device.

Example Time

For this example, I will use a 3D model of a pipe assembly that I have created for this article. Why a pipe assembly? Because pipes are relatively easy to draw, and because they have quite a few different components that keep the whole thing interesting from an installation point of view.

Below is the pipe assembly. There are a bunch of pipes, bolts, washers, nuts and seals and a huge cartoonish stop valve. Let’s pretend that we are interested in the installation of the stop valve section, and we require some documentation to aid with this installation.

First, we save the assembly in SOLIDWORKS and then close the file. It is necessary to close the active file in SOLIDWORKS, as Composer will not be able to read the assembly file if it is being used elsewhere.

We open up SOLIDWORKS Composer, click on File and then Open. This will allow us to open up any 3D data (be it a part or assembly) and load it into the main window.

On the left-hand pane you can see three tabs:

Assembly: This is the assembly design tree, the same as in SOLIDWORKS.

Collaboration: Non-3D assets such as annotations and markups are called collaborative actors, and they are found in this section (as well as in the top panel).

Views: This is where you rotate, explode and translate your components and create scenes.

Let’s start by creating a single view. We can use this for a reference drawing, or maybe we want to use it as the main illustration in an instruction manual. Click the Views tab and then position the assembly in the main window to whatever angle you like. When you are happy with your view, press the Create View button (shown with the arrow in the image below).

Now we can start exploding the assembly. There are a lot of components in this assembly, and it is tedious and unnecessary to explode every single one. We can group items together by creating a Selection Set, and once this set has been defined, we can translate/rotate all components within that set as if they were a single component.

In this case, I want to first group all of my bolts that are running through the front flange so that when I translate them, they all move together and retain their relative positions.

I go into the assembly tree, and I highlight all of the bolts in that section. Then I press the Create Selection Set icon, as shown below. I name this set “FrontBolts” and then repeat the process for any other groups, such as the washers and the main valve assembly. The selection sets can be found at the bottom of the assembly tree. Clicking on a set will make it active, and right-clicking the main graphics area will bring up a menu (alternatively press the Transform tab in the top pane). Click the Translate icon in either menu to bring up the translation handles. You can now move the grouped parts around with ease.

We can show the path lines of the exploded parts by clicking the Author tab in the top window, selecting the Path icon and then clicking the Create Associative Path From Neutral icon. To create leader lines manually, we can press the Callout icon in the Annotations tab (top pane), or we can generate a bill of materials (BOM) and assign the leader lines automatically, according to our criteria.

In the image below, you can see that I have changed the colors to be a little bit more aerospace friendly (these colors are typical of the iSpec ATA 2200 illustration standards widely used in aerospace). To change the color of a part (or a selected group), you just go back to the assembly tree (or the design window), find the parts that you require and alter the color section in the Properties pane on the bottom of the left-hand panel.

My Style Is the BOM di di BOM di dang di dang diggy diggy

*Ahem*. Creating a BOM inside Composer is not as straightforward as importing the BOM from SOLIDWORKS. The SOLIDWORKS method is basically spreadsheet/table based and is generated from all the parts within the assembly. This is not necessarily what you may need in Composer because you may wish to create illustrations of small sections of your main assembly, a page at a time, so you have a few options.

First, you need to generate a new BOM from scratch. It can be done from automatic feature recognition, or from your selected items. Once you have selected how your BOM will be defined, pressing the Generate BOM IDs button will do just that, and your new BOM will be generated in the left-hand pane. This is particularly useful if you only want the items relevant to your drawing displayed in the BOM. In my example, I have selected Apply to: Selection, and I have selected all of my grouped parts from the assembly tree. Then I have generated the BOM from those selected parts, disregarding the parts in the background (the yellow pipes and fasteners). Pressing the Show BOM Table button in the right-hand BOM pane will show the BOM table in your drawing.

The video below will explain BOM construction in more detail.

Move Advanced Stuff

What you see above are the basics required for creating scenes from your models, annotating them and getting the images ready for presentation. The format in which you wish to present it is up to you. The steps above have shown one possible workflow for the creation of an assembly illustration.

An illustration was traditionally intended to be demonstrated in two dimensions, such as in a paper instruction manual or maybe in a physical parts catalog. Now that the actors and scenes are set up, we can choose the final format of our drawing.

I could export the illustration as a .PNG, .JPEG or vector graphic for further refinement (or final publication) in another software such as Word … or maybe it is required that we use the illustration in a more interactive digital format, for a digital parts catalog or maybe for inclusion in some form of product lifecycle management system. This is where the hotspots and animations come in to play.

Say, for example, that we wish to use the graphics in an electronic parts catalog and we wish to link this image to more detailed description on an external vendor website.

Similar to the grouped selections, we simple go into the assembly tree and highlight the parts to be included in the hotspot. Once those parts are selected, we go to the top of the assembly pane on the left-hand side of the screen and press the Create Hotspot icon. Now when we hover over those parts in the main graphical area, it will become highlighted as a different color. The color can be redefined in the Properties pane. The hotspot details appear at the bottom of the assembly tree.

Select the components to be added to the hotspot and press Create Hotspot (indicated with the red arrow). Now the components with an active hotspot will appear dark orange when hovered over.

Assigning an action to the hotspot is simple. I click the hotspot in question in the assembly tree, and it will open up its own Properties pane beneath the tree.

If I move the cursor over to the Event > Link section (pictured) and click on the ellipses icon, it will bring up a menu asking what sort of file or action I wish to assign to this hotspot. I can select a website, a previous view in my Composer session or even an animation. Here, we wish to display information on the gate valve handle from a vendor’s website. I add the website to the link section. I have picked a random valve manufacturer here. There is no affiliation with this vendor (other gate valves are available!).

To test if the link is working, I go out of design mode (the icon at the bottom right of the screen) and then I click the hotspot. The website for the vendor opens and all is fine! Note: You must leave the design mode to test the functionality. Otherwise, clicking the hotspot will do nothing.

This video shows the hotspots in this pipe assembly example working within Composer:

So there you have it. You can create attractive and clean-looking static or dynamic technical communication graphics easily with SOLIDWORKS Composer.

Once your composition is complete, you have a variety of options for export. You can export as a vectorized technical illustration, a PDF file, HTML or even as a standalone package for viewing within Composer Viewer.

How you choose to present this information will naturally vary depending on your industry or company. But now you know how to create the content from your CAD files, and the rest is pretty easy. So go forth and create some awesome graphics.

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