MCADcafe Magazine ZW3D 2012 review

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Jeff Rowe

Jeffrey Rowe has over 35 years of experience in all aspects of electro-mechanical design, engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 500 articles for CAD and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the MCAD community.

MCADCafe Magazine: ZW3D 2012 Premium Software Review

There are many choices in the engineering software space for CAD and CAM. However, there are relatively few choices that have both capabilities in one package, but ZW3D offers both in one well-integrated package. ZW3D 2012 Premium, with its ability to handle both CAD and CAM has several advantages. The biggest advantage is probably the common user interface, so you can easily move between the CAD and CAM environments for a smoother and more efficient design, engineering, and manufacturing workflow that can provide better end results.

ZW3D 2012 is available in five versions – Standard, Professional, Premium, 2X machining and 3X machining. Each version offers features for users with different needs and workflows, and includes:

  • ZW3D Standard – Comprehensive import capabilities, history-based and direct surface and solid modeling, assembly design, sheet metal design, design optimization, 2D drawings, integrated PartSolutions library.
  • ZW3D Professional – Has everything included in Standard, plus mold design, point cloud processing.
  • ZW3D Premium – Has everything in Professional, plus extensive integrated manufacturing and machining capabilities, hole machining, 2-3X milling, now including lathe turning.
  • ZW3D 2X Machining – Has 2X turning, 2X milling, hole machining operations, and auto-feature tactics. The two-axis turning function provides support for OD and ID roughing, finishing, threading, and grooving operations. The 2X Machining System includes a lightweight CAD system for modifying models easily during machining preparation. The CAD functions include solid modeling, surface editing functions, healing, and data exchange.
  • ZW3D 3X Machining – Has QuickMill technology with 2X turning, 2X and 3X milling operations, hole making, including feature recognition, roughing, finishing, and high speed machining. A new 3X operation mills surfaces in the same plane or different levels of a plane in a single operation. The 3X Machining System also includes the same lightweight CAD system as the 2X machining system.

The most significant improvements to ZW3D 2012 Premium include:

  • Sketching – easier to use with more efficiency.
  • Modeling – improved extrude, revolve, rib, and trim and split curve commands.
  • Direct Editing – a design paradigm that is integrated into the existing history-based modeling architecture – providing different design methods that each have their own distinct advantages.
  • Drawings – new processes for creating and manipulating views.
  • Mold Design- offers a whole-process 3D mold design, including parting line, parting face, core and cavity, electrode, standard mold base and standard parts.
  • CAM – specifically, turning operations that can machine a 3D part or 2D sketch.

ZW3D 2012 Premium will be the version covered in this evaluation/review. Note also, that although ZW3D Premium has a wide range of CAD and CAM capabilities, we will focus primarily on the CAD side of its features and capabilities. Because there is so much to cover on the CAM side, we will largely leave that for a future evaluation/review. We will, however, cover the new turning operations on the CAM side .

User Interface and Experience

ZW3D 2012 has a new user interface which looks and feels somewhat familiar and can be customized. In ZW3D 2012, the user interface has the following components: Menu, Quick Access Toolbar, Ribbon Tabs, Toolbar, and Data Manager.

I feel the Data Manager is one of the most unique features of ZW3D’s UI. It is used to control several aspects of parts, drawings, the CAM Plan, etc. through Levels.

The Data Manager can be used at the following ZW3D Levels:

  • File/Object Level – The ZW3D Object Manager lists the root objects, such as parts, drawing packets, drawing sheets, root sketches, and CAM process plans in the active ZW3D file. You can activate a root object for editing by double-left-clicking it from the list. You can right-click on an item in the list and select commands from the Object Editor pop-up menu.
  • Part/Sketch Level – The History Manager is accessed from the ZW3D Data Manager. Select this icon from the Toolbar and then select the History Manager tab. Use the History Manager to view the feature history of the active part in a graphical tree structure. It can also be used to select features as direct input to many commands and to execute history-based commands. The lower portion of the manager contains a list of history-based commands that you can select to execute. During a history replay, the lower list changes to show the features in the history that are yet to be replayed.

The Layer Manager is accessed from the ZW3D Data Manager. Select this icon from the Toolbar and then select the Layer Manager tab. Entities can be assigned to different layers to help manage design data. For example, reference geometry can be assigned to a different layer than part geometry. Layers can be created, edited, deleted, blanked, activated, and frozen. You can set default line and face attributes for a layer and new entities will be assigned those attributes automatically.

The Input Manager provides a non-linear method of entering required and optional inputs. Options Forms are displayed in the ZW3D Data Manager if it is enabled. You can use the ZW3D Configuration Form to have forms displayed automatically. The forms complement the command prompt sequence. When the forms are not displayed, this is referred to as “streamlined mode” verses “play mode” when they are displayed. In “streamlined mode” optional inputs are assigned default values and only the required inputs are prompted.

  • Package Level – The ZW3D Object Manager lists the root objects in the active ZW3D file. You can activate a root object for editing by double-left-clicking it from the list. You can right-click on an item in the list and select commands from the Object Editor pop-up menu. You can work in four modes in the Preview section: Off, Graphics, Attributes, or Assembly. Off is the default mode for selecting root objects for editing. Graphics and Assembly are display modes, and Attributes is an information mode.
  • Sheet Level – The Layer Manager is accessed from the ZW3D Data Manager. Select this icon from the Toolbar and then select the Layer Manager tab. Entities can be assigned to different layers to help manage design data. For example, reference geometry can be assigned to a different layer than part geometry. Layers can be created, edited, deleted, blanked, activated, and frozen. Use the Table Manager to create data tables using a spreadsheet-like interface. Data tables can be used to document tabulated information such as hole patterns, bill of materials (BOM), families of parts, etc. The Table Manager is used to create new tables and insert them onto a drawing sheet. Edit, Delete, Import, and Export functions are also available. Tables created using the Create BOM Table command are also stored in the Table Manager. Use the Regen option to update BOM tables.
  • CAM Level – The CAM Plan Manager is the primary interface for ZW3D CAM. The graphical tree interface contains each section required to define and output tool path operations within a CAM setup. A default setup is created when the manager is first activated.

For new and even experienced users, the place to start learning ZW3D 2012 are its Show-n-Tell tutorials. ZW3D 2012 also has a series of helpful CAD and CAM tips for just about all aspects of the design and manufacturing processes.

A good user interface is vital for new users and minimizing the learning curve, and ZW3D 2012 has made some significant strides in this area. However, the documentation that comes with the product is incomplete and will leave some users at a loss on how to perform some functions without trial and error.

Getting Started

Files created with ZW3D can contain as many parts, assemblies, drawings, and CAM plans as required, each being known as an object. You can store an entire project of objects in one file or multiple files. With this in mind, a good strategy is to store commonly used parts in one file and create part objects specific to an assembly in another project file.

Another good strategy for beginning a design with ZW3D is to create template objects for modeling, 2D drawing, and machining. All template objects are stored in the Templates file. You can edit previous template objects, as well as copying and pasting to create a new one. Templates can be customized to set such things as colors and line styles, layer schemes, and machining operations and parameters. A template can be selected and used when starting, for example, a new part, drawing sheet, or CAM plan. When using templates, be sure to properly save and close the Templates file when you have finished editing to ensure the integrity of your work.

ZW3D 2012 has hints and prompts as design aids that most users will appreciate. First, there is Show Hints that provides context sensitive, continuous tips. Second, at the bottom of the graphics window is the Prompt/Status Line that displays the current command and the next logical step ZW3D wants you to perform. This latter feature is not perfect, but is usually quite helpful.

With ZW3D 2012 you can work with any geometry and solids are not necessarily required. Once imported you can manipulate solids, surfaces, wireframe, and scanned point cloud data. Geometry healing is useful for correcting gaps in imported model geometry. Healing functions make it relatively easy to analyze surface topology, sew surfaces together, fill gaps with new surfaces, and specify tolerances for creating closed solids.

Part Modeling

From the beginning ZW3D has been built on the company’s proprietary Overdrive Modeling Kernel, which is a good thing for mathematical modeling efficiency, and optimisation.

Like virtually all CAD systems, including ZW3D, most new designs start with sketches. However, ZW3D simplifies sketching using a proprietary capability called ReadySketch with several pre-defined commonly used, dimensioned geometric sketch shapes that can be quickly edited to a size required for a design.

Sketching in ZW3D is easy and straightforward. Clicking on a line and right clicking displays several context sensitive options, such as copy, move, mirror, cut, etc. Geometric constraints, such as perpendicular, parallel, etc. are automatically displayed and usable during sketching. Clicking on a constraint displays options for changing it which is a time saver in the early stages of a design. Like most other CAD applications, save and exit the sketch to start creating features.

The most common way that 2D sketches become 3D shapes for further modeling is by extruding the 2D sketch. Extruding and adding additional features, such as fillets and chamfers is easy with several options available as they are added for creating the shape you want.

At the 2D level, there are several dimensioning modes available, including:

  • Normal – dimensions point to point
  • Baseline – dimensions from the first point selected to successive points
  • Continuous – dimensions continuously between successive points
  • Ordinate – similar top Baseline, but each successive point receives an ordinate value measured from the first point.

For 3D, with ZW3D’s dynamic dimensions you can pick and drag 3D dimensions for modifying shapes with simultaneous visual feedback. This ability lets you construct 3D geometry with parametric dimensions because they are automatically created during the design process.

Next, constraints can be applied in both 2D and 3D design environments.

In 2D, there are several commands available for adding constraints to an active sketch, such as anchor, parallel, perpendicular, co-tangent, etc. Like it or not, constraints force conditions on geometry as a sketch is modified. You can choose commands to analyze and solve the constraint system of a sketch. 2D constraints (and dimensions) can also be applied automatically to sketch geometry on the fly by using the Constraint toolbar and selecting a base point.

In 3D, the constraints most commonly applied are assembly alignment constraints. For assemblies, inserting component parts and adding alignment constraints are considered individual steps in parametric history. This is a good feature because constraints can be added in any order since they are not bundled with components or replayed sequentially during a history replay. When a 3D constraint is applied, a short animation shows the parts aligning and moving into place in the assembly. Alignment constraints can be added, deleted, solved, edited, dragged, and investigated. Alignment constraints can also be applied to anchor components in a fixed position. Applying 3D constraints can be time consuming, however, because in most cases, multiple constraints are required to properly align a component.

Before leaving basic part modeling, I want to briefly discuss the sheet metal features and capabilities in ZW3D 2012 Premium.

The Sheet Metal tooltab has commands for unfolding and refolding the axial bends in a 3D sheet metal part. Unfolding the part shows the size and shape of the flat pattern. The part can also be detailed on a drawing sheet in its unfolded state. Also included here is a command to set the stationary face (a face that remains flat and is not bent) that governs how a part will unfold. Features that can be added to sheet metal parts include flanges, dimples, louvers, and extrusions.

Direct Editing

Although these capabilities are not new anymore, since many CAD vendors offer it, direct editing continues to be a hot topic. ZW3D actually provides two different modeling methods – history-based and direct – that together provide a hybrid approach for modeling. History-based modeling employs a History Manager, or what other parametric system vendors call a history/feature tree.

ZW3D’ SmoothFlow Direct Editing combines the best of both worlds – the speed and flexibility of direct modeling with the precision of dimension-driven modeling, while still maintaining the functionality of history-based modeling. Using SmoothFlow, you can directly modify model geometry without editing history – a real time saver, since creating and editing history-based geometry can be a challenge.

QuickEdit is a ZW3D technique that streamlines creating and editing shapes. With QuickEdit you don’t have to pre-select an editing tool. Instead, you touch a part’s face or edge, right click the mouse, and choose a tool, such as fillet, offset, or move. SnapPick is a ZW3D option that takes a point pick and automatically drives it from intersections, critical points, and axis directions. You can think of SnapPick as an assistant for helping create 3D sketches, features, and parts.

The Direct Editing (DE) approach provided by ZW3D is unique because of the way it employs a feature tree. While some competitors have abandoned the feature tree with their direct approaches, it does make for a workflow that is easier to track and understand. Direct model editing lets you pick directly on geometry for quick modifications. You also have different options for viewing how the model was created with the ability to display the history of modeling operations, a list of parent and/or child operations, as well as the ability to replay and step through a model’s history.

DE(Direct-Edit) is a method for ensuring “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). The supported object types are Edge, Face, and Freeform Surface. The Face can be flat, cylinder, core, sphere, and ellipsoid. Four commands can be invoked in Direct Edit – Fillet, Chamfer, Draft, Extrude, and OffsetFace.

Direct edit is fairly straightforward to perform.

Admittedly, Direct Edit is still somewhat limited in ZW3D 2012, but is getting more comprehensive with each new release.

Important for ZW3D users who are involved with both CAD and CAM, regardless of whether you model parametrically or directly, any changes made to geometry automatically updates associated CNC program output.

Creating Assemblies

ZW3D 2012 Premium supports efficient assembly definition, manipulation, and management, and was a fundamental consideration when the ZW3D architecture was conceived and designed. For example, ZW3D’s Object Manager loads only display data for an object into memory if that object is active for edit, minimizing an assembly’s memory footprint while maximizing the size of an assembly that can be worked with. The Object Manager also lets you decide how assemblies are distributed into files – ranging from each component in a separate file, an entire assembly in one file, or anything in between.

ZW3D Premium supports the two main assembly creation approaches – bottom-up and top-down.

Finally, ZW3D supports its proprietary lightweight Burst technology that lets you manipulate large assemblies without memory constraints. The tree structure for assemblies allows individual component parts to be graphically highlighted for identification and modification purposes.


For drawings, ZW3D 2012 has a number of improvements, including:

  • New process for creating views by starting with the standard view and projecting other views into sequentially at the sheet level. In other words, first generate the standard view, and then generate the corresponding projected view based on mouse position.
  • Direct drag support so you can drag a view, dimension, and geometry directly in a drawing sheet.
  • View of linkage that provides the positional relationship between the views that remains unchanged after moving.
  • Hole tables that identify rear-facing and hidden holes.

ZW3D automatically creates 2D associative detail drawings directly from 3D models from which they are created, so the process is pretty streamlined. The production drawing and detailing process are assisted by ZW3D’s unique object server architecture that lets you decide whether drawings will be saved in the same file as the 3D data from the master model or in separate files.

Drawings provide an insight into ZW3D’s architecture that is a multi-level object-oriented system with access to its various integrated modules, including CAM, through a common user interface. Rather than launching separate applications for drafting or CAM, you just open a ZW3D file and proceed to the level you want; in this instance the Drawing Level for creating and editing drawing packets and drawing sheets. The Drawing Packet Level contains functions that are used to create drawing packets, while the Drawing Sheet Level is used to create drawing sheets. In ZW3D, a drawing packet is a collection of one or more drawing sheets. A drawing sheet is where model geometry is actually located.

In drawings, there is a useful command for bills of material that lets you synchronize a BOM with part attributes for updating a 3D part by making changes to the BOM table on a 2D drawing , so you don’t have to drill down to the part level.

Mold Design

ZW3D 2012 Premium lets you create mold geometry that includes core and cavity, parting surfaces, draft angles and material shutoffs. The core and cavity can be created at the same time in one operation. Also available is a comprehensive library of standard mold base components that includes slides, lifters, ejector pins, cooling channels, and electrodes for producing molds. One of the most significant features of ZW3D’s mold capabilities is the way it is organized into a logical sequence that walks you through the mold creation process.

Before getting to the mold design phase, you can interrogate, analyze, and animate a plastic part’s design to ensure that it is manufacturable. ZW3D also generates so-called intelligent workflow. For example, it employs auto-feature milling with machining strategy based on a part’s features.


One of the most unique aspects of ZW3D Premium CAD process is its association with the manufacturing process. For example, ZW3D recognizes and machines geometric design features (up to 5 axes), and has the ability to directly manipulate and machine from STL or mesh scan files.

One of the new machining options that has been added to ZW3D 2012 Premium CAM is 2-axis turning. The turning capabilities can be used to machine 3D parts or 2D sketches. This time around there are seven operations available for turning operations, including:

Drilling: Drilling operations can be used to machine drill, ream, and tap holes. Parameters include drill type, tap type, depth, and others.

Face: This operation is used to machine the face of a work piece. The face operation includes parameters and a tool path can be generated without modifying any parameters. Parameters include path tolerance, step size, and allowance.

Rough Turning: Rough Turning operation is mainly used for removing superfluous materials. It currently supports outside-diameter(OD) and inside-diameter(ID) machining. The available cutting strategies include Horizontal, Vertical, and Pattern Repeat. Parameters include speeds, feeds, tolerances, and cut direction.

Finish Turning: Use the finish turning command to cut allowances left by a rough turning operation. This command can be used as either a semi-finishing or finishing operation. Parameters include speeds, feeds, tolerances, and cut direction.

Grooving: Grooves can be classified as external groove, internal groove, and face groove according to its location. The turn grooving operation provides three cut directions to machine these grooves for rough grooving and finish grooving to finish it.

Threading: For making various types of threads, like external/internal straight thread or tapered thread with single-start or multi-start. It is easy to pick a point for the thread location. Parameters include threading inside or outside diameter, thread pitch, and right-hand or left-hand thread.

Part Off: The Part Off operation is mainly used to separate an object from the workpiece. In this operation, you can generate a toolpath with just defining a Cut Off Point. Parameters include toolpath tolerance, cutoff point, and corner geometry (chamfer or fillet).

The CAM and Tactics Managers in ZW3D Premium provide assistance during the manufacturing phase. These management tools help you develop intelligent and efficient milling and drilling operations. You do this by defining rules that ZW3D CAM will use when analyzing CAM features. The rules that are defined form a rule set that will help select the best machining tools from your library and calculate the best tool paths. For example, if a drilling operation is required and a good match from available drill tools cannot be located in the library, ZW3D CAM searches existing reaming or boring tools for a better match for the given operation. The suggested tooling operations can then be organized, verified, and output just as manually created operations would be.

Final Thoughts

While ZW3D 2012 Premium has several strong capabilities in part and assembly design, drawing creation, and data management, its greatest strength and differentiator is the fact that in one package, you have all the tools necessary for going from design through manufacturing (machining). In effect, ZW3D 2012 Premium can handle the entire product development process – from concept through manufacturing. This comprehensive ability really sets it apart compared with its competitors, many of whom require optional or add-in products to achieve this level of functionality, especially for manufacturing.

Having all workflow capabilities available in one package ensures a similar user experience throughout the design and manufacturing process. Dealing with one comprehensive software application, such as ZW3D 2012 Premium will benefit many potential customers, especially those directly or indirectly involved with design and manufacturing operations.

The parent company, ZWSOFT, continues to evolve and appears to have shaken up its worldwide sales channel. Technical support in the U.S. is available through a knowledge base, instant messaging, email, and channel partners. The relative lack of real “live” support, however, is improving.

Although it’s a competitive market, ZW3D 2012 Premium is a unique design/engineering/manufacturing software application because it can cover all the CAD and CAM bases and should be given serious consideration.


ZW3D 2012 Premium


Pluses: Wide range of capabilities from design through manufacturing; CAD/CAM workflow; hybrid modeling with direct editing; modest system requirements.

Minuses: Technical support; product education/documentation content.

Overall: B+

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