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10 Dec 2013

Direct Modeling Drastically Changes Sheet Metal Design Market

Bricsys recently announced its solution for sheet metal design as a part of BricsCAD V14 Platinum. What direct modeling can give to this mature market? Dmitry Ushakov interviewed Christian Lecomte, a founder of catalCAD (France), who worked on sheet metal design and manufacturing software during last 30 years.
Christian Lecomte
Please describe your background. How did you start engineering software development business?
Originally, I am mechanical engineer. Before starting catalCAD, in the eighties, I worked for Schneider Electric, where I was technical manager in the sheet metal component department. In this job, I managed the development of a technical software for programming the NC punching machines, linked to the existing production management software.

At this time, there was no real sheet metal CAM software on the European market. That’s why, with my colleague Emmanuel Vendeville (also from Schneider), we decided to start our own business in creating a sheet metal CAM software with a larger scope and adapted to any punching machine.

What does catalCAD company produce? Who are your customers?
The company was created at the end of 1985. Our range of products included a CAM software for punching machines but also an ingenious module for unfolding sheet metal parts from a 2D drawing sheet. Those products got a huge success very rapidly. Among our customers there were many big companies as Renault Truck, Alcatel, Otis, Carrier and so on. After only 2 years, we were more than 20 people.

After being distributor of Pro/E for a couple of years, we decided in 1991 to sell our CAM department and develop our own 3D software specialized in sheet metal, named TOPbend then S.M.O. (Sheet Metal Optimizer). Our experience has prevented from repeating the errors of the existing products.

In 2008 we collaborated with SpaceClaim Corp. for integrating our software inside SpaceClaim. The result was so good that we gave up S.M.O. and decided to sell SpaceClaim. However we develop advanced functions specific to our version called SpaceClaim SMOPlus.

SpaceClaim is definitely the best sheet metal CAD in the world. We doubled our number of sold licenses almost every year, and we have convinced TRUMPF, leader for sheet metal machine tools, to adopt SpaceClaim as base for their CADCAM development.

What are the main functions of sheet metal modeling? What is a typical workflow in sheet metal design? What differs sheet metal design from other mechanical design areas?
There is a very important specificity of the sheet metal design market. The project must be always designed twice. Once for the product definition that doesn’t show every detail, then secondly for making it realistically machinable, this can be completely different from a shop floor to another and consequently cannot be made by the design office.

To simplify, the tool path for a classical mechanical part is mainly defined from its shape. In sheet metal, not at all. The machining is made on a flat sheet and the part never looks like the design except after the last bend.

From my experience, I evaluate at more than 90% the proportion of designs that need to be reworked, and often deeply. This is why the feature based CAD software are not adapted for sheet metal, because the user can modify only what is forecasted in the feature tree. This is very insufficient. A very frequent example is when you need to split the part in several because of the collision with the bending tools.

SMO by catalCAD

A typical workflow in sheet metal design (by catalCAD)

Can you describe sheet metal design market - who are the main players, is there a place for a new kid in town?
Pro/E first, and later SolidWorks have got a big share of that market by default and thanks to their leading position in 3D CAD in general. But it is important to know that most sheet metal products are produced by subcontractors who need to rework any model coming from any CAD. Neither Pro/E nor SolidWorks can correctly address this huge market share because of the limits I explained. This has made catalCAD happy for years!

Consequently the share of SpaceClaim is growing and will continue to grow irresistibly because this soft doesn’t have those limits.

Yes, there is definitely a place for a new actor, especially in direct modeling that allows to address the market of the re-working, which is very big in sheet metal design. At the moment, except SpaceClaim, no one can correctly answer.

What are the main differences between the approach to sheet metal design implemented in SpaceClaim and the approach implemented in mainstream MCAD (Pro/E, SolidWorks, etc.)?
The first sheet metal 3D applications were commercialized in the eighties (CADkey, Applicon…). Those products had the merit to exist but they were simplistic and there were some major errors and a wrong approach.

Then the other main 3D CAD copied on them and repeated the same errors and each new CAD development company copied on the previous one and so on. That explains why until today most mainstream MCAD repeat the same errors for sheet metal design.

The sheet metal module of SpaceClaim is based on our own product that did not copy a previous one and profits from our CAM experience.

I cannot explain here in detail all the differences, but the most relevant is that in SpaceClaim when you start your project, you only care of your design intent, without polluting your brain with the machining process. One time your design is satisfying, you are free to apply some machining information or let the people in charge of the production adapt your design to the machining needs and then send back the modified project, knowing that the adaptation often needs to split the original model in several parts.

Five reasons to choose SpaceClaim SMOPlus

What about sheet metal computer-aided manufacturing - what companies share this market? What particular CAD-CAM integration is used here?
CAM software is the soil in which we grew. This gives us a particular credibility.

There is a significant difference. In CAD market, except Catia, most of the mainsteam MCAD come from USA. This is not true for the sheet metal CAM market where each country has its champion, Radan, Soluzione Informatiche, JetCAM, Wicam, Lantek are all developed in European countries.

The mandatory link between CAD and CAM in sheet metal is 2D DXF format that is understood by all CAM systems.

What are the perspectives of sheet metal design?
The future of sheet metal CAD market is very smiling. It was slowed for years by the de facto dictatorship of the “feature based” systems. The direct modeling drastically increases the scope of interested companies.
What can you wish to our readers - Russian engineers?
As I am not very young, I began the business when we did not trade with east European countries, including Russia. As originated from Poland, it was frustrating. I assisted with pleasure to the huge revolution of the east European countries since the nineties.

I am happy to work with Russia now and I wish to Russian engineers and managers a good welcome and success on the worldwide market.

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