Solidworks and the Illusion of Work

by Handsome Matt


Why Contemporary Society Falls Flat

I have recently returned to the hallowed halls of academia in pursuit of second degree. A career change to mechanical engineering. It has been a less than smooth transition and being a 29 year old freshman makes for interesting meetings with my advisers, faculty and administrators at the Ohio State University.

Part of being a mechanical engineer is learning to use Computer Aided Design/Drafting programs. Through a corporate arrangement, Ohio State uses Solidworks. I was as excited as a kid at Christmas: a chance to take my ideas and not put them onto paper, but into a powerful design and analyzing software. No more guessing if something would work, a few clicks of the mouse and answers would be presented to me.

It was not to be.

Solidworks is difficult, overwhelming and counterintuitive to use. Just like all powerful software products seem to be, I was expecting this. What I was not expecting however, was the utter lack of customer support, training tutorials, and an equally “powerful” help feature. I was also not expecting the number of times I would be shouting at a computer screen when a simple command was ignored, or a click of the mouse ruined all my hard work thus far.

When I first began encountering problems, I moved my pointer to the “help” icon, confident that so powerful and expensive a piece of software would have a comprehensive and easy to use help section. When my first search turned up no answer, I could feel my temperature rising. When my second search returned several forum posts, I knew my face was turning read. To avoid putting my fist through my monitor, I opened Google Chrome and began searching the internet for answers. I was quickly pointed to the Solidworks website.

“Finally, answers were to be mine!” I could feel the stress leaving my body, and then return with an utter vengeance. The steps and solutions offered from Solidworks were completely and utterly useless. That was of course when I found them, hidden among forum post after forum post.

I walked away before bad things happened. I also started thinking about why this bothered me so much. The larger, philosophical question with ramifications for society and life was an easier question to answer than “how to skin a 3D wire mesh in SolidWorks” which says something about Solidworks.

To start, I am bothered by how much companies have outsourced their responsibilities onto their users. People have paid money expecting a product to work appropriately, when it doesn’t work those same customers expect answers. When answers cannot be found, the expectation is to be able to talk to someone at the company. The more expensive the item, the better the services should be.  This is part of the social contract that a company and a customer enter into. Forcing the users to answer their own questions, troubleshoot their own product, and develop their own resources breaks that contract. If I, as the purchaser, am required to do all the work to make the product usable, then why am I paying money in the first place? It is especially frustrating if the product doesn’t work as easily or simply as it has been advertised. Banks, airlines, car rental companies, and more have already put the majority of work onto the user and if McDonalds could figure out how to force customers to cook their own food, they would. We’re paying more money for a product that doesn’t work, and for each user to do more of the work involved, in order for some company to cut staff and increase profit.

Secondly, I have spent the last two weeks “making” things in Solidworks what do I have to show for it? Nothing. Nothing at all. No parts, no pieces, no widgets. NOTHING. It is the engineering and design equivalent of sitting in a rocking chair. It is nothing more than playing work, and a poor substitute at that. At the end of a long day of “working” with Solidworks, there is no accomplishment, no sense of pride, nothing to point to and say “I made this.” The very power of Solidworks, and computers in general, is incredibly seductive. It is easy to mistake designing and testing and “making.”

Along with that is a question: Would you rather have a doctor who went to med school dissected cadavers, performed surgeries on real people (under the guidance of doctors), and actually got their hands “dirty” or would you rather have a doctor who used computer simulations of all that? Engineers make items that are used everyday in life and death situations (cars or electrical switches). Would you rather have an engineer who has actually made and tested those items in real life or one who has trusted a computer simulation?

Beyond that, I’ve noticed a lack of understanding of materials and design principles among my classmates. One student suggested CNC’ing a frame out of a single block of aluminum. The frame was slated to be 3 feet tall, by 3 feet wide, by 2 feet deep. Ignoring the cost of materials, we did not have a CNC machine large enough! It was an easy enough thing to do in Solidworks, but almost impossible in the real world. Along with that, the piece in question would have been better made with a tubular frame or angle stock on a mill or band saw not a CNC machine. To make matters worse, the material chosen wasn’t the best material to use. All of this because of a fundamental lack of material properties and design. Something that can only be learned by reading books. Thick, boring, dusty, books.

We’ve reached a point where the tools available to use are the most powerful the world has ever seen, capable of refining designs to such a level of precision as to be perfect. That is only possible though with a fundamental, real world understanding and real world experience. However, because of the ease of clicking a mouse we have sacrificed real world knowledge, experience and results for simulations.