Thursday, March 12, 2009

Latest & Greatest? ...When to start running the latest SolidWorks CAD release

The anticipation of a new release of SolidWorks typically carries a measure of excitement! After all, we have become accustomed to seeing recognized design and software needs addressed or improved upon. As SolidWorks users, we certainly appreciate the efforts expended toward such development and the benefits that each new release brings. But this also means that each year we are faced with the question of when to start running (a.k.a. committing to) the newly released version. While some individuals or companies have a prearranged plan or standard, others simply wing-it as it were, and hope there will be no repercussions.

There are a number of factors involved which should be weighed in the decision of committing to running the new release. These should include awareness of:
  • significant user interface differences
  • limitations of version compatibility
  • necessity of service pack upgrades
  • file collaboration
  • PDM integration
As with anything new, the more information we have in advance, the better our decision making capability should be. This is certainly true regarding the above points as well. It is therefore prudent that one would take advantage of any opportunities to learn as much as possible about the newest release prior to determining when to make the commitment. Most VARS (value-added resellers) of SolidWorks will annually hold a 'premiere' event to showcase the newest version and highlight the main aspects that will interest and impact users. By all means attend, if possible. It is probably the most time effective means of seeing the new features and software in action, and the most cost effective as well, since the event is free.
User Interface Differences
These differences should be almost self-evident. Because interface upgrades are intended to make the user-experience more efficient and effective, they are probably the most eagerly anticipated aspect of the new release. The only concern should be the learning curve involved. Regular users will most likely catch on quickly, but bear in mind that significant interface differences will mean your work will take a little longer until becoming accustomed to the new methods, icons, shortcuts, etc.
Version Compatibility
This is simply an awareness issue, especially for novice users, but is vital knowledge in determining what version to use in creating new files and when to commit to running the newest version. SolidWorks files are not backwards compatible. In other words, you can save an older file version into a newer version format, but you cannot do the reverse such as saving a newer version into an earlier version format. Yes, once a file is in the latest version, there is no going back with the exception of completely redoing your design in the earlier version.
Service Pack Upgrades
This too is an awareness issue. No matter how enthralled you or anyone feels about the newest released version, remember that it is not perfect! It will require necessary upgrades to work properly. This has been evident year after year, and really goes with the territory that SolidWorks lives in. The constraints of having to release a new version each year (read 365 days) limits how thoroughly the alpha and beta versions have been properly tested. Therefore, some choose to exercise patience by waiting until a number of service pack upgrades have been released before committing.
File Collaboration
If you are working in collaboration and sharing files with another, then this will be a major concern and most likely one of the main limiting factors in the decision to commit. Ironically, however, it may also have bearing on the impetus of when to commit. It is directly related to version compatibility, but additionally brings in the factors of other designers, toolers, or manufacturers that you may be working with. Typically, whomever in the design chain implements the newest release causes the others to commit. If your design chain goes in one direction, it may not be such a concern, but if your design chain tends to flow in both directions, then there may be issues. While it is not necessarily a negative, it is important that the commitment be communicated and agreed upon, or else one could run the risk of introducing a delay in the development process that could easily have been avoided.
PDM Integration
This should only be a concern for those who manage their CAD in vaulted PDM systems, or work in collaboration with those who do. Non-SolidWorks PDM systems can be intensive and expensive operations for a company and carry compatibility issues such as Viewers, which allow others in the PDM network to view a CAD file without necessarily having the CAD software. In this type of scenario, the PDM system may exert a large measure of influence on when, and even whether one commits to newer releases. If you are working in collaboration with a company that uses a non-solidworks PDM system, ask what SolidWorks version they are using before assuming they are running the latest. Note that some large companies have been known to be actively running SolidWorks versions that are at least 2 years old simply because of the restrictions placed by their PDM system and the expensive upgrades that are involved in keeping up with corresponding CAD releases.
In summary, by being cognizant of the above issues and weighing their relevance, the decision as to when to commit to running in a new release may become self-evident. That being said, some have determined that a specific calendar date, extended some months after the initial new release, is well suited on which to coordinate committing to running the latest release. Others may choose to be flexible, for example by waiting for a specific service pack upgrade (i.e.: 2.0). As with many business issues, communication and awareness will always be the most valuable aspects in the coordinated decision to commit to running the latest released SolidWorks version.