Putting Artificial Intelligence to Work in CAD Design

Jean Thilmany | Comments | December 21, 2017

This year, SOLIDWORKS ramped up the artificial intelligence (AI) features within its software by folding AI into SOLIDWORKS CAM 2018. And AI is expected to play an even greater role when SOLIDWORKS unveils Xdesign at SOLIDWORKS World, which runs from February 4–7, 2018, in Los Angeles, according to Gian Paolo Bassi, the company’s CEO.

Xdesign Design Guidance showing load on a tripod attachment. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

AI has a place in the future of computer-aided design technology and, indeed, has long been included within the company’s flagship SOLIDWORKS CAD offering, Bassi said.

AI is expected to be a $16 billion industry by 2022, according to a projection from research firm MarketsandMarkets. While AI has actually been included as part of SOLIDWORKS capabilities for many years, it hasn’t been touted much before the software’s 2018 updates because AI doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all definition within any industry yet, Bassi explained.

“Today, there’s a huge debate about what AI is,” he said. “People say AI is machine learning, or they say it’s related to the neural network or to neuroscience. Definitions vary. At SOLIDWORKS, we don’t focus too much on the definition. We focus on how the techniques related to neural networks or machine-learning technologies—which are both AI—are at the basis of automation.”

In fact, automation is the future of design, with AI helping to automate many of today’s design tasks, such shape creation, he added.

Broadly Defined

In its broadest terms, AI uses computers to do things that require human-level intelligence. The field has been around since the 1950s, but was little used because it was limited in its practical applications. Machine learning, an approach to AI, uses statistical techniques to construct a model from data that the machine “observes.” It enables AI by providing the algorithms that make the machines smarter and thus give AI a way to actually become more intelligent as time goes on, according to Bassi.

Feature and character recognition, which have been part of AI for many years, are part of the SOLIDWORKS system. In fact, they’re so standard that many users may not recognize the AI component of those features—until, for instance, they begin to type a misspelled word they use frequently and see that word corrected automatically.

Bassi also cited the company’s EXALEAD OnePart sourcing and standardization product form as a “borderline AI product that is already on the market.

“OnePart can recognize similarities and tell customers if they’re duplicating parts,” Bassi said.

The tool is useful in cases of company reorganizations, mergers, global projects and innovations, as it provides a set of applications to classify company assets, identify master parts for reuse, and ensure that engineering selects the preferred part without recreating a part that already exists in the design library.

New Sketching Tool—AI Builtin

When Xdesign is introduced, users will find that it calls upon AI tools to take a “sketch-and-extrude” approach to engineering design, Bassi said. In terms of AI, the tool will use design guidance to help engineers create the best shape for apart’s given task.

Scribble Sketch in Xdesign. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

“You formulate the problem in engineering terms, you have constraints and loads, and out of that, geometry is created automatically. You will tell the program the design space the solution is to be contained in, and the part spaces where you don’t want any material to go. You express a few parameters, and your material, and the system will come up with a recommended shape that is truly a next level,” Bassi explained.

In essence, the tool can use information the designer has entered to offer suggestions about design shape.

“It’s helping engineers make better decisions by relieving them from designing low-level geometry. Engineers will have a real shape they can use as a base, but in most situations, they’ll add something for aesthetic or functional reasons,” Bassi added.

AI also comes into play because the tool recognizes engineering problems that have been used in the past and “knows it most likely has it in the system,” Bassi said. Xdesign will be able to offer default values for a shape based on the objects that a user has designed in the past.

“For instance, if you wanted to create a bracket to hold a certain amount of weight and you’ve already designed 10 of them that can hold various amounts of weight, the tool will know that if you need it to hold this particular amount of weight, it should be designed like such,” Bassi explained.

With Xdesign’s sketching feature, users will create free-form sketches and then apply the design intelligence capabilities to those sketches. For example, approximate circles will become actual circles, while lines that almost touch will snap to each other. In a February 2016 blog post, John Hayes wrote that the sketching tool, which SOLIDWORKS had then dubbed “Scribble Sketch,” will also capture sketches drawn with fingers on a mobile device rather than a stylus.

Once a user is satisfied with a sketch, he or she will be able to save it as a model, and then extrude it and add features.

The user could then take that design guidance and sketch a shape to the part that met their design objectives. There is tremendous value in getting suggestions on how to modify a model to accommodate additional loads while you are in the process of designing, rather than simply having the software tell you that there is a problem, explained Bassi.

The intelligence to recognize a circle or an arc is particularly important for mobile users who are using their fingers for data input, he said.

Xdesign is currently in beta testing.

AI and Manufacturing Design

In late 2017, SOLIDWORKS released SOLIDWORKS CAM powered by CAMWorks from HCL Technologies. The intelligent CAM tool automatically generates a part’s manufacturing toolpath after design. CAM software uses the CAD models to generate the toolpaths that drive computer numerically controlled manufacturing machines. Engineers and designers who use CAM can evaluate designs earlier in the design process to ensure that they can be manufactured, thus avoiding product costs and delays.

SOLIDWORKS CAM is meant to be intelligent. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

“SOLIDWORKSCAM toolpath captures design strategies and recognizes features and types of materials, so you can have a CAM solution that’s almost completely automated,” Bassi said.AI drives the way the toolpath is automatically created.

“You can create a toolpath in a couple of clicks. You don’t need a lot of details for intelligent manufacturing,” Bassi said.

Because CAD and CAM act as one system within SOLIDWORKS CAM, it makes CAM easier and more straightforward to the software’s users, Bassi said.

The vendor’s tool opens the way toward making CAM ubiquitous on engineers’ desktops, much in the way that 3D CAD is now more or less used across an industry that once relied on 2D drawings.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

In coming days and years, SOLIDWORKS will ask partners to create their own AI tools that can be used with the design system. Such uses might include quality control products or those that enhance and expand model-based definition, Bassi said.

“The CAM product shows our partners how to create intelligent, autonomous programs. SOLIDWORKS CAM is created on the same APIs that everybody can use. We also want our partners to expand on model-based definition so designs can be completely automated, so that a precise design and a definition are in a digital form everybody can use.”

Automation and the attendant AI that drives it—which Bassi calls assisted automation—will also be part of the future advances in SOLIDWORKS.

“This is automation that is really helping the activities at the bottom of the intelligence chain,” he said. “A typical example: you pull up a computer screen on which you want to assemble an office chair with four legs and a wheel under each of those legs. You select one wheel, put it in a socket, and every leg automatically gets a wheel.

“Today, you have to click a number of times, selecting the wheel, selecting the socket, and setting the parameters. You have to repeat this as many times as the product has legs, and it becomes tedious,” Bassi said. “We’d love to dramatically cut that time, because the work has really been done already anyway.”

That phrase—the work has already been done—summarizes a big part of the SOLIDWORKS approach to AI and automation. Bassi wants to automate the work already created and available in the system, much like misspelled words automatically right themselves in word processing and other programs today. Doing so will leave engineers free to spend the majority of their time—and their brainpower—on design rather than on mindless tasks.

And that, Bassi believes, will lead to the best designs and products possible.


About the Author

Jean Thilmany has written about engineering software and design, engineering and manufacturing issues for more than ten years. Her work has appeared in Manufacturing Business Technology, HR and Packaging magazines, among many others.

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