The Role of Computer Hardware in Product Design

29.10.19 06:56 PM By Chris

Computers have become such a large part of our everyday lives that we sometimes fail to actually consider what’s inside this magic box of plastic and metal. What allows a computer to do all of the various tasks that we ask of it?

As you might guess, there are any number of circuits, wires, fasteners and tiny doo-dads that come together in perfect harmony to translate coded information into graphics, text and three dimensional environments. However, most of us only have a vague understanding of the internal parts of our computers despite our familiarity with computers in general. This can partially be attributed to the fact that computers (and their internal parts) work astonishingly well and have a longer life than ever. We all understand how frustrating computer problems can be, but the vast majority of the time, our computers turn on every day and complete a staggering array of tasks. The occasional glitch is to be expected, but just think back 15 years: would you return to Windows 98 after working on your current computer?

PC Basics

First, let’s quickly cover the parts that do the actual computing in your magic box. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on Windows PCs for the simple reason that 99% of solid modeling is done in a Windows operating system.

  • We begin with the brain of the computer—the CPU (Central Processing Unit). The CPU does all of the heavy computing by performing basic arithmetical and logical operations. The CPU also facilitates communication between the other parts.
  • Next, we have the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit or Graphics Card), which performs all of the highly detailed graphics computations. The GPU is traditionally equipped with a small cache of memory to help speed up access to commonly used graphics data, but the CPU relies heavily on RAM (Random Accessed Memory) to store data so it can be accessed quicker in the future. Data stored in RAM can be accessed by the CPU at any point in time without having to search the whole hard drive to find it. And that brings us to the HD (hard drive).
  • The HD is basically a vault where all of your information is stored. That information is categorized and stored in folders and subfolders to be accessed by the user. And the whole architecture is held together by a special circuit board known as the Motherboard.

CAD-Specific Hardware

So, now that we understand the basic building blocks of the computer, we can discuss what a CAD user should look for in a proper workstation that will handle the rigors of 3D modeling. The old adage “you can never have too much power” comes into play when discussing computing hardware, but CAD programs ask more of certain components in your workstation than others, so it’s essential to know where to turn up the juice.

Most workstation-class computers come standard with multi-core CPUs. What that means is that a single processor is split into two or more “cores”, essentially allowing the CPU to perform more tasks at once. However, interestingly enough, most CAD programs take advantage of only one core (a single threaded program), except in the case of certain types of rendering or Finite Element Analysis. Of course, your modeling habits must be taken into account, but most CAD users will find a nice mid-range CPU, like the Intel Quad-Core E5-1620, to do the trick. Intel’s E5 line of processors is notoriously stable and predictable, making it perfect for solid modeling. Even though most CAD programs are single threaded, having another three cores allows you to run multiple programs at once without stressing the CPU.

CAD programs are finally able to take advantage of the graphics capabilities in today’s workstation-class GPUs. However, that doesn’t mean that a high-end video game GPU, like the AMD Radeon HD 7970, will be perfect for solid modeling. GPUs designed for video games tend to be sloppy and often glitchy when handling large graphics loads, but it goes unnoticed in the context of a video game. However, reliability as far more important than advertised speed when it comes to 80,000 part assemblies, and you don’t want your GPU causing a glitch that crashes your CAD program before you saved it. Again, an excellent mid-range workhorse like the NVIDIA Quadro 2000 provides enough CAD Specific Hardwarepower for most CAD users without breaking the bank.

The discussion of RAM is more about memory space and speed rather than brand names. RAM can vary slightly form one maker to the next, but the brand isn’t as important as the amount of memory and the speed at which it runs. Error Correcting Code (EEC) memory has the ability to correct bad data matches when communicating with the CPU, and therefore, is more expensive, but it is highly recommended for advanced modeling. The current CPUs available for workstation-class computers work best with a minimum of 4 gb of RAM, but 8 gb, or even 16 gb will make a noticeable difference in overall performance. There is a ceiling for the amount of RAM that will realistically help performance, and for CAD programs, that number is 24 gb.

And finally, the HD rounds out the computer, providing a stable place to store data that can be accessed at any point. Mechanical HDs were the standard up until quite recently for most computers. A mechanical hard drive can be likened to a record player, where the data is on a spinning disk that is being read by a stylus. The stylus, in the case of mechanical hard drives, is a laser. However, the speed of the mechanical HD is limited by how fast it can spin. Mechanical HDs are also prone to errors and malfunction due to the amount of moving parts necessary. The alternative is a Solid State Drive (SSD). As the name implies, the SSD is a solid block of circuits layered in a specific configuration that will hold and access data many times faster than mechanical drives. However, since the SSD is so much quicker and more durable, you can expect the price to be higher. Our recommended configuration for CAD workstations requires two hard drives: one for the OS (Operating System) and program files and one for data. Therefore, it’s possible to buy a smaller SSD as the primary drive for Windows and the program files, and a larger capacity mechanical drive for data. The optimal two-drive setup would include two identical SSD drives configured in a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) array. RAID arrays combine multiple HDs (they must be identical) to create a single storage unit optimized for information redundancy (RAID 1), maximized space (RAID 0), or any combination thereof. These configurations can get quite pricey, so it’s important to realize that just one HD will work, but the importance of protecting and duplicating your information can’t be stressed enough.

There are obviously hundreds of other parts that go into your computer, but having a knowledge of these four items will help you understand just what’s going on in that magical box.

At Edge Innovative, we rely on our friends at SolidBox to provide us with reliable workstations that are up to the challenge of meeting our rigorous design demands.