CAD Tech News (#84)

19 Apr, 2018 By: Cadalyst Staff

▶ Herrera on Hardware: What Does NVIDIA's Ray Tracing News Mean for the CAD Market?

At NVIDIA's GPU Technology Conference in March, the graphics processing unit (GPU) developer announced "real-time ray tracing" — but is it? And what does this development portend?

By Alex Herrera

Real-time ray tracing of 3D graphics for professional visualization markets has finally arrived … sort of. Long coveted for its high-fidelity images — particularly by professionals in media, as well as architecture, product design, and styling — ray tracing has come a long way. It has evolved from an intriguing but thoroughly impractical way to visualize 3D, to one that could be accomplished reasonably well on high-performance servers, to one that we can now start considering for real-time use on our CAD workstations.

But "start" is the operative word there. Because while NVIDIA managed to impress at its 2018 GPU Technology Conference (GTC) last month with a product promising real-time ray tracing for your workstation, the tried-and-true raster-based graphics technology that's long supported interactive CAD workflows won't be going away anytime soon.

Markets Other Than Graphics Are Now Sharing NVIDIA's Attention

Indispensable in every CAD professional's IT toolbox, graphics processing units (GPUs) have long been measured strictly on their ability to render 3D graphics with both high fidelity and real-time, interactive performance. It's the main — or only — reason any of us running AutoCAD, SOLIDWORKS, or similar modeling and simulation apps might concern ourselves with which GPU is in our next workstation. But while we may have always relied on GPUs for the same thing, GPU vendors such as NVIDIA and AMD have found new reasons for independent software vendors (ISVs) and users alike to covet high-performance GPUs in their applications.

The emergence of workstations in the 1980s and PC graphics in the '90s spurred countless original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and startups alike to bet their fortunes on 3D graphics. NVIDIA was one of the few to survive, and arguably the only one to thrive. During the '00s, GPUs underwent a fundamental change in architecture, moving from fixed hardware implementing 3D graphics-specific pipelines, to programmable and far more general-purpose architectures. In retrospect, that shift was truly a seminal moment in computing history, as it opened the door to a wealth of new applications for the GPU's superior highly parallel, floating point performance, well beyond traditional raster-based 3D graphics. That shift proved an inflection point for what NVIDIA has become: a company developing GPUs for a wide range of otherwise performance-throttled applications.

While the graphics market never took a back seat in regards to volume and revenue — not even close — most would argue it has when it comes to the company's marketing and messaging. Over time, NVIDIA's outward attentions shifted noticeably away from graphics to focus on today's priorities: artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. That focus has gotten so pronounced, with the past few years' GTC shows putting so much emphasis on "deep learning," that conference attendees could easily forget "graphics" was what the G in GPU stood for. But the message and vibe at GTC '18 was a little different, bringing the company back full circle, leveraging all NVIDIA has learned on the journey to those new markets to deliver on the ultimate achievement in computer graphics: real-time, ray-traced rendering.

Traditional Markets Benefit from NVIDIA's Journey into HPC and AI

AI and machine learning are gradually finding compelling applications in virtually every corner of the computing landscape, including the market those "graphics" processing units have always served: CAD. Consider the AI algorithms used to generate the internal composition of objects to be 3D printed, taking into account the printing materials to create the optimal structure to balance weight, materials, and strength. And deeper in CAD workflows, AI is already taking on some of the burden of designing the form and function of the object itself — something Autodesk is pursuing with its Dreamcatcher initiative. Soon, we'll likely all see AI not as some stand-alone application, but as a tool naturally integrated into our traditional workflow, a right-hand assistant helping us accomplish much more than we'd do on our own.

NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang introduces the Quadro GV100 GPU and RTX technology at the company's GPU Technology Conference (GTC) in March 2018.
NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang introduces the Quadro GV100 GPU and RTX technology at the company's GPU Technology Conference (GTC) in March 2018.

Read more »

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Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.

▶ BricsCAD Shape Offers Free DWG-Based Architectural Concept Modeling

New AEC-centric tool from Bricsys enables users to move their conceptual models into CAD applications to create full BIM models without rework.

By Randall Newton

BricsCAD Shape is a free conceptual modeling software application from Bricsys, a Belgian CAD developer that specializes in DWG compatibility. The product is new: the Windows version was released January 22, 2018; the Mac OS version shipped April 16, 2018. Shape may be new but the company behind it has a long track record. Founded in 2002, Bricsys is the second CAD company started by CEO Erik de Keyser. (Most of the architectural tools in Bentley MicroStation have their roots in Triforma, a product De Keyser and partners sold to Bentley Systems before starting Bricsys.)

Bricsys says that BricsCAD Shape will always be a free product. The stated goal is to give the architectural community a free, CAD-accurate, yet easy-to-use conceptual modeler. Other "free" AEC-centric conceptual modelers are either restricted to non-commercial use (Trimble SketchUp Make) or free only for a limited feature set (Autodesk FormIt). Shape stores data in the DWG CAD format popularized by AutoCAD, so it has an initial potential audience in the millions.

Shape is positioned as a first tool in a building information modeling (BIM)-centric design process. Bricsys has invested heavily in recent years to make BricsCAD, its DWG-based CAD product, a BIM-capable modeler. Bricsys believes there is demand for a DWG-based BIM approach to architectural design — in contrast to Autodesk, which markets its BIM application Revit, based on its own proprietary data format. The company's best-selling — and DWG-based — AutoCAD is not promoted as a BIM platform. Shape supports DWG 2018, the most current revision of the format: the 3D technology is solids, not wireframe.

Many architects start their design workflows with sketching tools like Autodesk SketchBook; they are good for shape exploration but lack the geometric precision of CAD. The tools in Shape are designed to make fast work of assembling basic architectural elements. Unlike in Revit or other BIM-centric tools, the user does not need to classify building elements upfront. The result is a workflow more like traditional architectural design, which starts with conceptual exploration of space and elements before moving into design detailing. Models created in Shape can be exported to BricsCAD BIM, or any other CAD product that supports the DWG format, and used to create a full BIM model without rework.

A Peek at the Look and Feel

BricsCAD Shape has a minimalist user interface. Command options can be accessed from a menu or optional toolbars, can be typed directly, or can appear with the QuadCursor, a cursor-based input which presents context-aware command options, depending on cursor location and current user action. "It is a GUI [graphical user interface] where nothing is missing but — just as important — there is nothing too much," is how de Keyser describes the QuadCursor. At times, the QuadCursor becomes the Manipulator, an alternative cursor to simplify moving existing objects.

The intuitive QuadCursor offers context-sensitive input options based on location and user action. Image courtesy of Bricsys.
The intuitive QuadCursor offers context-sensitive input options based on location and user action. Image courtesy of Bricsys.

At first look, Bricsys Shape is reminiscent of SketchUp, a popular 3D wireframe modeler used in AEC for conceptual design and construction documentation: An icon of a person sits at the 0,0,0 xyz coordinate base; the initial menu shows limited options. But the initial similarity to SketchUp quickly disappears as the user becomes familiar with the BricsCAD/AutoCAD paradigm and resulting workflow. Read more »

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Randall Newton is the managing director of Consilia Vektor, a boutique consulting firm providing business services to the engineering software industry.


CAD Manager Column: Spring into Standards, Part 2: Building Consensus
Making a plan for CAD standards isn't enough — you'll also need to bring everyone on board if the standards are to be successful. Read more »

AutoCAD Video Tips: Dialog Box Tips You Need to Know
AutoCAD 2017 added a few nice enhancements to dialog boxes with lists (like the Page Setup Manager) — but do you know about them? Join AutoCAD tipster Lynn Allen as she clues you in on these handy features so you can take advantage of them too! Watch the video »

At GTC 2018, NVIDIA Trumpets Arrival of Real-Time Ray Tracing
What NVIDIA calls "the biggest advance in computer graphics in 15 years" may lead to collaborating, creating, and reviewing designs in immersive virtual reality. Read more »

Lenovo Launches Its Smallest and Lightest Workstation Yet, Plus a Highly Expandable Midrange Desktop
Rounding out the company's latest professional hardware lineup, the two models are helping The Hydrous project foster understanding of the world's oceans and the fragile coral that live within. Read more »

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

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