Modeling in SolidWorks is pretty dang easy. Sure there’s little bits of wisdom that come with using it, but an installation and a day later and you’re on your way. The sheet metal features in SolidWorks are a little different. There more like trying to do a back flip. It looks easy, I can picture myself doing it, but I try and land on my neck. That’s what happened when I first started trying to bend things this way and that.

I would say 72.3% of people doing sheet metal design haven’t been trained.
The first time I took a Sheet Metal Training Course, I was the one teaching it. I learned a lot about what I didn’t know. Once you know some stuff thought, and like a back flip, designing sheet metal stuff can actually be kind of enjoyable. The kind of stuff you want to show off to your friends. Here’s a few items to get you on your way.

Step 1: Get a Mat and Learn about it
Whether its a training course or sitting down with Freddie Break Press from the shop, learn some things about sheet metal design and using it in SolidWorks. The best thing you can do is talk with someone that has been doing it a while in your company. Someone that knows the tricks to make it work. They usually like Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches for some reason.

Get manufacturing information from the shop
The guys and gals that make the parts can tell you a lot. Make it a point to spend some time with manufacturing. Here’s a short list of items you will want to ask about.
How do you use a drawing received from engineering?

  • What bend tools do you have?
  • Do you have a bend allowance table?
  • Do you have a stock list?
  • What is the lead time on getting materials?
  • Do you use CNC equipment?
  • What formats do you use?
  • How do you import 3D geometry?
  • What information do you need/lack from the drawing?

Use a solid to control the sheet metal
It’s kind of like using sketches to drive a design but I would liken it more to a form that you build around.This is really useful because it keeps all the feature definition in one spot and can help line up important features between parts. It’s also useful to see how your bend radii could cause interference.

Create half a part and mirror
This is probably the first thing I learned about sheet metal that saved me a lot of time and headache. I would construct the model like it was cut in half and create the symmetrical features. Then I would mirror it and add any additional asymmetric features… then realize they needed to be symmetric.

Use color to separate parts
Color can help avoid a lot of mistakes. Instead of having a bunch of gray slabs of 2024-T3, add some color to the individual parts so the interaction between each part is clear. If you use shaded views on drawings or your manufacturing uses eDrawings or color PDFs this can help them tell the pieces apart.

Create your own set of forming tools
SolidWorks comes with some examples of forming tools. You can add these to your Design Library in the Task Pane on the right side of the screen by going to Options, selecting File locations and Design Library from the pulldown and going to datadesign libraryforming tools. Of course I would recommend creating a network folder for these. If you’re new to forming tools, I suggest starting with a slot, then move on to a countersink. The SolidWorks examples show the anatomy of the forming tool very well.

Create a library of flat patterns
Commonality among sheet metal parts is a great asset. You won’t always have similar parts but if you have a nice library, you’ll find it easier to start or give someone to go by. Storing them by flat patterns can make it quicker to find because you become familiar with the shape after working on it. After you develop a nice library and find some re-usable pieces, make some templates to speed up your design.

Line up features using equations
You need a tab to line up with a slot. Instead of changing each dimension every time you need to make an adjustment, link the dimensions together (select two dimensions, right-click, link values) or set up some equations. The design may be finished by the time you’ve done all the tweaks and realize you could link them. Go ahead and do it so it set up for the next time.

Teach your methods to the company
Time to give away your secrets. One of the biggest problems I see people have with making sheet metal parts is not being taught how to use it. While it’s similar to making regular parts, there’s thing you learn after being familiar with the product you’re making. Showing someone else how to do an unbend-cut-chamfer-bend operation to get a better outcome will save time and eliminate frustration.

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Josh is founder and editor at, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.