Configurations and Display States in SolidWorks

In one of my classes this semester, our final project was to choose a Lego kit, model the pieces in SolidWorks 2014 and assemble them according to the instructions. I had previously used 3D modeling software like Blender or other programs where basic primitives are modified and combined into objects. SolidWorks and its solids-based modeling were new to me, yet a much better fit for mechanical and engineering applications. In a short time, I have learned that there is a fast, efficient way of doing whatever I want in SolidWorks, if I can find the option.

Photo of Lego minifigures

In Lego kits, there are often pieces that only differ visually, like a different color plastic or transparency. Our group chose a kit with three minifigures (Lego people), and they were part of what I chose to model. The minifigure pieces differ in color, but they also have printed clothing. (For the record, we chose #76030 Avengers Hydra Showdown)

A standard minifigure is actually at least 9 parts: 2 legs, 1 leg pivot, 1 torso, 2 arms, 2 hands, and 1 head — not to mention hair and accessories. My first thought was not wanting to duplicate the same minifigures three times, editing and saving each part separately. What happens if I need to modify the base part later?

I remembered other assignments where parts in an assembly only differed by a few dimensions. SolidWorks has a feature called design tables that deals with that quite nicely. It creates an embedded Excel worksheet, where you can fill in different values for variables or dimensions. But this isn’t really a design table kind of problem: there isn’t a parameter I need to change, rather the overall appearance of the part. One bad advice I found was to change part colors in the document options under shading — use the appearance editor instead, in my opinion it is more convenient and much more powerful.

There are configurations, which let you modify materials and decals, but not appearance (if you try this with only configurations, you will find the same color applied to all of them). Some research uncovered a separate feature called display states, which lets you modify appearance (for things like hiding features of the part or highlighting them in a diagram) but not materials. While searching, I found conflicting advice about how to solve this problem and nobody mentioned the obvious.

It turns out that in SolidWorks 2014 at least, you can have the benefits of both configurations and display states. When you add a configuration to a part for the first time, there is a prompt asking if you would like to link display states.

Screenshot of SolidWorks display state linking dialog

If you don’t understand what that means, you might be uncertain how to answer. In my case, I needed to choose ‘Yes’ to link them. Basically, every configuration gets a new display state, and display states can be chosen when modifying appearance. When changing the active configuration, the active display state changes, too. The default is to have only one display state for the part, so appearances apply to all configurations.

I gave my configurations clear names (e.g. Gray, Blue, Black) and made sure I had the correct one selected before modifying their appearance. The appearance editor lets you select the display state, while the decal editor lets you choose configuration (but they are one and the same in this case):

Screenshot of SolidWorks appearance display state configuration
Screenshot of SolidWorks decal configuration

Be careful: sometimes the editors default to “All”, so you need to make sure it is correct before applying. Needless to say, a few times I had to go back and delete decals I accidentally added to all configurations.

Now it’s a simple matter of adding the parts into an assembly and choosing the desired configuration.