Alexandre Galin

In my previous blog, I discussed how Rhino 3D compared to a mesh modeler such as Sketchup. I covered the inherent differences between a NURBS type modeler like Rhino 3D and a mesh modeler like Sketchup and I talked about the advantages of each.

In this blog, I will now discuss another popular design tool owned by Dassault Système. This tool is Solidworks. Even though it is a mid-range CAD tool, it is also one of the most established and popular design tools in the market. It too uses NURBS (Non Uniform Rational B-Splines) surfaces. The main differences are in the modeling approach as well as its content.

I have experience using what we call Parasolid type tools like Solidworks. To name a few, I worked with Dassault Système’s Catia V5 (Solidworks’ bigger sister) as well as playing around with PTC’s Onshape, Siemen’s NX, Ansys Spaceclaim. Now I own a Fusion 360 license from Autodesk.

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These Parasolid type tools such as Solidworks, are better known as parametric design tools. (I won’t discuss direct modeling here.) Rhino 3D is a freeform surfacing design tool.

I noticed there was a bit of confusion to newcomers to the 3D CAD world and I hope I’ll be able to demystify this to some of you. Even though this is an exhaustive topic, I will try to summarize and simplify it as best as I can.

One could argue that Rhino also possesses a parametric module, called Grasshopper. But the type of parametric I’m referring to with Parasolid type software is quite different from Grasshopper. So I will not cover Grasshopper’s parametric capabilities as I’m not at all familiar with it. I invite you to explore it further on your own if you wish.

What sets Rhino apart?

Let’s look at Rhino’s 3D modeling approach using its freeform surfacing tools. The first thing that stands out is that most of the toolbars are for creating and modifying surfaces. Once the surfaces are all worked out, you can join them. If you do the job properly, you end up with what we call a watertight model. We also call it a solid, or a closed polysurface using Rhino’s terminology.

I find working with Rhino 3D very quick and easy to build up initial design concepts, no matter how complex they can be. I’m not bound to constraints as we find with parametric tools. I work my curves and surfaces, analyze them, and build or change them as I progress by editing its control points and moving them. It is a very dynamic design process. It is like hand sketching on a blank sheet of paper. I find this approach to be highly intuitive and user friendly in the initial stages. It is a great way to explore and visualize new design ideas very quickly and be ready to have them prototyped, if needed.

With parametric design tools, you start with sketches on specified planes. Then you start applying constraints. They can be either dimensional or positional constraints. For example, coincidence, perpendicular, concentric, and so on. Once you fully constrained that sketch, you proceed on creating solids or surfaces. The beauty in that approach comes in if you need to modify your overall design. It is easy to go back in history and adjust its dimensions and/or formulas that will influence the end result in just a few clicks. That is, if you built your model properly from the initial design stages. This is a powerful product design approach. People have designed and developed many common products that way.

These types of design packages (Parasolid) are very robust modelers. They can solve filleting challenges, for example, very easily compared to a freeform surfacer like Rhino 3D. Rhino 3D would need a bit more manual manipulation.

I can do my design explorations quickly using Rhino 3D and then export my concepts to something like Solidworks. From then on, I optimize the design even further. I do this by adding design features such as bosses, pockets, ribs, webs, threads. I also do this by working out its assemblies and sub-assemblies, all parametrically. This is what I define as the detailed and optimization design phase. Working with design constraints at that phase is a big plus.

Why not use one modeler?

You might be wondering, why not do all the modeling exercise in only Rhino 3D or Solidworks?

You can definitely do that, and it’s a matter of personal preferences. I have designed and built many full-scale mock-ups with intricate assemblies all in Rhino 3D. I have also done the same exercise all parametrically using Catia. 

As I stated in this blog, I find surfacing in Rhino much faster. I’m not constrained by anything at the beginning of my design phase. At that stage, I’m in an exploration design mode. Working without any constraints is very convenient. The other important point I need to make is that Rhino possesses a huge array of surfacing tools. With Rhino V7 coming out soon, it will also add subdivision surfacing capabilities. This will let you create complex organic surfaces that you can convert into NURBS surfaces.

Example of Subdivision surfacing using Rhino V7 Beta and real time rendering using Rhino Cycles.          

Along with the surfacing tools, included in the design package, I have a powerful rendering module. This is Rhino cycles, and it lets me create photorealistic 3D images. 

Finally, if I need to make 2D drafting, it is workable and quick thanks to its wonderful snapping toolbar. Even today, 2D designs are relevant in a professional working environment. They will continue to be so.

For the relatively affordable price, I find it quite attractive as a design package. This will interest people of various backgrounds. Whether you’re a product designer, architect, interior designer, engineer, or simply a hobbyist. I invite those of you interested in that design package to visit Rhino 3D’s website.

As an industrial designer, I like to focus on surfacing design where aesthetics and surface finish play an important role. That’s where Rhino fits my needs. I could do mechanical detailing and design optimizations using a Parasolid design tool.

Remember that you can use all these wonderful design tools to complement one another. It all depends on the budget you are willing to invest in these tools as well as the time needed to learn them.

Since they’re all NURBS surfaces whether using a Parasolid modeler or a freeform surfacer, file exchanges are seamless. For example, in Autodesk’s Fusion 360 I can open Rhino native files (.3DM.) If it isn’t possible with some other CAD programs, you can also use either the STEP or IGES formats if you want.

Since the IGES format is much older, 3D CAD files sometimes show gaps. You may need to heal them when you import them into a design package. If you have the choice to make between using STEP or IGES, I recommend using the STEP format. It is a more recent and a more reliable exchange file format.

Parasolid type 3D modelers like Solidworks are very complete design packages. People also call them CAD/CAM design solutions. CAD stands for Computer Aided Drafting and CAM stands for Computer Aided Manufacturing.

They offer different modules. These include a module dedicated for solid modeling, another one for surface modeling (even though I find it much easier to work surfaces using Rhino,) an assembly module, 2D drafting, and CAM modules. Depending on your license, you can also add other modules such as generative design, CFD analysis, and stress analysis.

As you add more functionalities the prices will increase. Often, there will also be yearly maintenance fees giving you access to software updates. You will need to contact the software reseller to know the different price options offered.

Rhino 3D is also a CAD solution. If you purchase either an educational or professional license, you are not bound to yearly fees. You will get free updates, called Service Releases, for the specific version you own. For example, the V6 version we have right now up until the next official version upgrade. In other words, jumping from version V6 to V7.

Within Rhino 3D you still have the possibility to do drafting as well as assemblies. Assemblies are extremely simple to make thanks to their powerful snapping toolbar. Besides that, if you need more modules, better known as plugins, you can buy them one by one. There are different types of plugins for different applications. Most of the time, third party companies develop these plugins. They offer a wide selection of these programs embedded within the Rhino environment. They can be custom-tailored to the user’s needs. Some of them include reverse engineering plugins as well as CAM solutions. Other plugins are free.

Choosing a package

I cannot recommend which package is better suited to your exact needs. What I do suggest is you invest some time to learn about them on your own. Download a free demo for a limited time so that you can try it and judge it for yourself. 

I learned over the years to appreciate the value in each software I tried out. After completing many design projects, I made my personal choices. I based these on price, performance, and popularity.

If you need more information about either Solidworks or Rhino 3D, I invite you to visit their respective websites. You can get a free demo and see if they fit your needs. Remember that it isn’t necessarily the tool that makes the difference. Instead, it can be the user’s know-how and abilities. It takes time and patience to understand the subtleties in these powerful design tools.

Page Last Updated: December 2020

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