Product Design

TurboCAD through the Years

23 Jan, 2014 By: Roland Aldridge

Viewpoint: The release of the software’s 20th version inspires a longtime user and beta tester to reflect on its development — and its role in the success of his business.


TurboCAD 3 was a gift from one of my partners when I joined Advanced Micro Instruments back in 1995. I installed it on a tiny Pentium 133 Hitachi laptop with a postage stamp–sized screen and began making drawings.

My company, Advanced Micro Instruments, was started to make oxygen analyzers in competition with Teledyne Analytical Instruments. Some might think that a start-up with no money and a me-too product going up against an established major company would be a recipe for failure, and in the pre-PC days they would have been quite right. But the world was changing, and products like IMSI/Design's TurboCAD made — and are continuing to make — all the difference.

Nowadays, a couple of guys in a garage with a PC, TurboCAD, ExpressPCB, and the CCS C compiler can compete on equal ground with any of the old-line companies. (And on the Internet, no one can see your garage.) I believe TurboCAD and programs like it are going to spur huge changes in the world economy as these affordable, yet powerful technologies level the playing field between small businesses and corporate giants. It's just a matter of time.

Let me explain. A giant company has colossal overhead, which it balances with its economies of scale. I know of one company where the rule of thumb was that you needed to make 80% gross profit to make your numbers — that is, the parts cost of whatever was sold could be no more than 20% of the selling price. Overhead was 65%, leaving a 15% net profit, which was OK, if not stellar.

As a guy in a garage, you turn these numbers around. Your overhead is closer to 20%, so you can afford to make the product with twice the parts cost and still beat the giant company on price. And because you care enough to do whatever it takes, and you don't go home at 5 o'clock, you provide better service and a better product to boot. After a while customers notice, but it takes quite a long time for the dinosaur companies of the world to pay any attention, and by then it's too late — their customers have become your customers.

Starting from Scratch

Back in 1995, all this was not obvious to me. I just knew I had to draw up some metal brackets so our sheet metal guy could make a box for our first analyzer. TurboCAD had the considerable advantage of being free, at least to me, and I knew just as much about it as I did about AutoCAD or any other solution I might have considered at the time — that is, nothing at all. My background is in electronics and analyzer applications, not mechanical design, and I was a CAD neophyte.

Fortunately we had been working with a wonderful, very experienced mechanical guy who had his own machine shop, and pretty soon he licked me into shape. We started with simple things like the brackets, but shortly I ran into my first real challenge.

First, a bit of background: My company makes oxygen analyzers that measure trace levels of oxygen, down to less than one part per million (ppm). Since air contains 210,000 ppm of oxygen, roughly, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is about 3 psi. The rate at which any gas diffuses through a leak is proportional to the difference of partial pressure across the leak, which means that if you have any sort of leak in your oxygen analyzer, it will measure how bad the leak is, rather than measure the oxygen content of the sample gas. People are always surprised about how this works, but believe me, it does.

Traditionally, oxygen analyzers have been made by screwing together a bunch of parts to provide the sample handling and bringing the sample into a block, into which the sensor is placed. All those parts contain potential leak sources and the fittings take quite a bit of skill to assemble, so this kind of design is both expensive and unreliable. We decided to put everything into a single block of metal instead, drilling holes for the gas passages and integrating all the various bits into a single assembly (figure 1).

Figure 1. At left is the early block design of our oxygen analyzer (front view), modeled in TurboCAD v4 or so. The dark areas are holes drilled for gas passages, and we placed an oxygen sensor in the pocket on the left front. At right is a hidden line rendering of the current assembly, modeled in TurboCAD v20.
Figure 1. At left is the early block design of our oxygen analyzer (front view), modeled in TurboCAD v4 or so. The dark areas are holes drilled for gas passages, and we placed an oxygen sensor in the pocket on the left front. At right is a hidden line rendering of the current assembly, modeled in TurboCAD v20.
 

TurboCAD was ideal for this. When version 4 came along, I could make a hole by subtracting a 3D cylinder from a 3D solid. I soon realized that if I wanted to be able to edit my models, I needed to make two copies of everything — one for doing the Boolean subtractions and the other so I could move or change elements, then redo the whole thing after I'd deleted the assembly.

The truly neat feature of modeling in CAD back then was that I could experiment with the positioning of the passages and screw holes without spending a fortune on machining. I found I could illustrate how the sample passages worked by subtracting the finished block from a solid block — only the holes were left! It became easy to see which elements were running into each other (figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2. This image — the negative, as it were, of two blocks stuck together — shows the holes of one mating with the similar holes of the other. Screws hold them together.
Figure 2. This image — the negative, as it were, of two blocks stuck together — shows the holes of one mating with the similar holes of the other. Screws hold them together.
Figure 3. Various views of the negative of the oxygen analyzer block. To generate these views, I put the negative into a glass copy of the main block and rendered the whole thing.
Figure 3. Various views of the negative of the oxygen analyzer block. To generate these views, I put the negative into a glass copy of the main block and rendered the whole thing.

Growing with the Software

Around this time I was asked to become a beta tester for TurboCAD, so I've been able to use each version as it came out. Occasionally the software wiped out drawings and introduced bugs — such are the hazards of beta testing — but along the way I've used it to develop a whole series of analyzers, all using this basic idea of machining rather than assembling. I also use TurboCAD to make all the other drawings it takes to manufacture such a device: the sheet metal, the assemblies (figure 4), and the illustrations.

Figure 4. A typical assembly drawing, made in TurboCAD 16 or so. All the widgets are modeled in 3D, and the screws are probably taken from vendors' ACIS models, though I may have made some myself. (Everything here is rendered in hidden line; I did that for printing this example as a PDF.) The flat piece at bottom center, labeled with "AMI," is a printed piece of plastic with built-in electronic switches, drawn in Corel Draw, turned into a JPG image, and applied to the surface of a sheet. It was a real pain to get the drawing scale and positioning right.
Figure 4. A typical assembly drawing, made in TurboCAD 16 or so. All the widgets are modeled in 3D, and the screws are probably taken from vendors' ACIS models, though I may have made some myself. (Everything here is rendered in hidden line; I did that for printing this example as a PDF.) The flat piece at bottom center, labeled with "AMI," is a printed piece of plastic with built-in electronic switches, drawn in Corel Draw, turned into a JPG image, and applied to the surface of a sheet. It was a real pain to get the drawing scale and positioning right.
 

As new versions came along, one after the other, I became increasingly productive. The parts tree arrived with version 8, offering for the first time a built-in history of 3D object construction. Then the ability to define movable holes via the Hole tool arrived in TurboCAD 12, so I could edit a 3D object rather than starting over each time. The holes could even be threaded! Now I was able to tell when my countersinks ran over the edge of a block. Blocks had appeared in version 3, allowing multiple instances of a part in a drawing without filling up memory, and I found out about them after exposing my ignorance on the beta testers' forum.

People on the TurboCAD user forums are very helpful — for example, someone once told me that you could use leaders rather than making callouts manually from lines, circles, and text. Suddenly assemblies became a lot easier!

Over the years, rendering tools got better and renders became better looking. At first you had to use two viewports to put a hidden line render over a ray tracing, but now you can do both at once. And finally, with TurboCAD 19, IMSI/Design introduced a 64-bit version, and I could make a complete assembly without crashing my computer.

When I worked for a large corporation, it would take an entire department several weeks to make the assembly drawings for an analyzer. I can now do it in a day or two, by myself, using TurboCAD. Of course I get a head start by reusing earlier models, but even so, the increase in productivity is incredible.

TurboCAD Today

TurboCAD 20 — I use the Pro version — brings a whole series of improvements. Most importantly, it appears the stability has improved; I don't get crashes. The Redsdk graphics are fast and reliable, and I no longer have to use the native draw capability. I can model an entire analyzer in 3D model space without worrying about memory limitations. I don't use the architectural or the parametric modeling capabilities, but the nonflashy, basic operations that I rely on seem to continually become more stable and responsive. The software just works — and that's the single most important feature of a CAD program!

Why TurboCAD?

Designers use CAD for two reasons: to design something and to communicate to others how to make what they designed. It is easy to get lost in the minutiae of making a perfect drawing, but at the end of the day, its sole purpose is to communicate clearly to the person who needs the information. TurboCAD offers the right level of sophistication to enable you to do both without an impossible learning curve or daunting price tag.

Of course, other CAD programs, such as AutoCAD, have always been options. Many years ago, my machinist used AutoCAD, so I spent a lot of time watching him use that software. It was apparent that the user interface of TurboCAD was much more intuitive than the Command line approach of AutoCAD at the time. I've had occasional problems with file export and import over the years, but nothing severe enough that it gave me a reason to switch. I also liked the fact that IMSI/Design was an upstart company, just like mine!

Design that used to require an entire engineering department now just takes one person and the right software. Add a web site that you can develop on the same PC, and now you have a company that can compete with the best — except that your overhead is nothing compared to those old-line behemoths.

Nowadays, my company is no longer located in a garage. It is a thriving small business with real employees, including a couple of engineers other than myself. Even as we grow, I'm still able to blow away my competition with better products, better prices, better service, and better delivery — and a lot of that is thanks to TurboCAD.


About the Author: Roland Aldridge

Roland Aldridge

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