Design Visualization

Form Z 5.0

1 Apr, 2005 By: Steven S. Ross

Solid modeling for design visualization and animation.


The modeling program Form Z occupies a useful niche between industrial modeling tools and conventional CAD. It doesn't provide the drafting tools and materials sense of solid modelers like SolidWorks and Inventor for industrial design or Revit, a building information modeler with mechanical versions coming. And form Z lacks the drafting and drawing output tools of mainstream CAD packages such as AutoCAD, AllPlan and MicroStation—all of which are adding solid modeling features. But mainstream CAD is still best at drawing surfaces, albeit 3D assemblies of surfaces, and not solids.

Form z 5.0
Form z 5.0

What's it like being in the middle? Delightful. Form Z has always been a joy to draw solids with. And what solids! Users can design a faucet, a detailed space (figure 1), a robot or something fluid and flowing, such as a lithe cat. It's almost impossible to create a model that looks good but has unseen imperfections. By v4.0, form Z also came with an excellent, separate 2D drafting program. Despite its amazing tools for visualization and animation, however, form Z is not designed to create production drawings for the assembly line or construction crew. It's best to use mainstream CAD for that (figure 2). I know many designers and animators for the decorative and theater arts who use form Z as their main tool. But in many offices, form Z is the tool that pops out of the box for difficult design tasks or for initial blocking studies, after which its files are exported to the likes of AutoCAD.

Figure 1. Users of form Z can model anything. James T. Bruck of Pygmy Studios (<a href=www.pygmystudios.com
) used the program to model and render the Design Factory."/>
Figure 1. Users of form Z can model anything. James T. Bruck of Pygmy Studios (www.pygmystudios.com) used the program to model and render the Design Factory.

Version 5.0 remains true to its lineage, but it's better in many ways, including speed, flexibility and features.

Figure 2. form Z 2D drafting module is robust, but is not designed for production drawings.
Figure 2. form Z 2D drafting module is robust, but is not designed for production drawings.

Trade-Off for Speed

The program no longer supports Macintosh operating systems earlier than OS X 10.2. Form Z 5.0 runs on Windows 98 and later, not 95. I didn't review 4.0 when it came out, so I compared notes with a colleague. Our estimate is that form Z 5.0 provides a 20% to 30% speed increase over 4.0 for basic rendering tasks. There was always a slight pause in 3D when placing new elements into an already huge file; that pause is also shorter. Not having to support the classic Macintosh environment seems to help with stability. In more than 15 hours of heavy use (mostly on a G4 iBook with 768MB, but with some time on a G5 Mac and on a slow Windows XP machine with 512MB), form Z 5.0 crashed only once.

A USB or parallel key for copy protection must be used with form Z. Normally these keys annoy me, but the USB key worked flawlessly and allowed me to install the software on multiple computers. Both the Windows and Macintosh versions are on the product CD, so users can work on a Macintosh at the office, for instance, and take files (and the key) home to work on using a PC—all legal under the auto des sys license. That's flexibility.

plugins

In regard to more flexibility, form Z follows other high-end CAD and modeling software in opening its interface to plugins. Most of the new features and the plugin SDK (software development kit) were embedded in v4.5, which went to beta testers but was never commercially distributed under that release number. Eventually, with a few tweaks v4.5 became v5.0. The SDK, included with the base product, is robust in that it opens almost all of the 3,000+ commands in the base program to add-ins. These can be full-fledged programs developed in C or C++ or simpler scripts written inside form Z's SDK. The SDK language is a subset of C++. It includes a nice script debugger that steps writers through scripts (figure 3).
Figure 3. Users can write their own scripts in C++.  Users of the auto des sys Web site are already posting scripts to exchange.
Figure 3. Users can write their own scripts in C++. Users of the auto des sys Web site are already posting scripts to exchange.

Though I don't see designers regularly writing their own plugins, I expect to see a cottage industry develop in part because form Z allows parametric translations from 2D to 3D and back, making complex and flexible symbols fairly easy to do.

Rich Features

Improvements to features are more evolutionary. The Paste From Modeling and Paste From Drafting commands in the Edit menu are expanded, for example, and users can transfer directly from one window to another without going through the clipboard. Form Z 5.0 offers more ways to select elements to copy, replace and edit, and users can save selection criteria with a project (figure 4). The Replace tool makes it easier to use low-resolution objects as placeholders during early stages of model development and then swap them for detailed objects at the end. Use the new Copy Attributes tool to selectively copy many attributes from one object to one or more other objects.
Figure 4. Form z provides various methods to select objects for editing, copying and so forth.
Figure 4. Form z provides various methods to select objects for editing, copying and so forth.

Font control works better with third-party font managers—that's important for me because I use my Macintosh for editing and have too many fonts on the system to handle without a font manager. Import of text, textures and surface styles is improved, as is export of faceted shapes. A few minor changes affect auto des sys' translation of Art lantis, DXF and DWG formats. auto des sys is a full member of the Open Design Alliance.

Numerous primitive shapes are built into form Z, but users don't have to rely on them. Most will find it easier to use the same tools to create objects (3D extrusion from 2D, 3D converged, 3D enclosure, 2D surface, 2D enclosure). Still, four new primitives appear in v5.0 for parametric surfaces: paraboloid, single hyperboloid, double hyperboloid and hyperbolic paraboloid. Boolean modeling operations work on mesh objects.

Though the full-featured 2D drafting program is not parametrically connected to 3D, you can go back and forth within the main program by sweeping a 2D shape in space to get a 3D image or project 3D onto a plane.

In fact, the Sweep tool provides two new options: the ability to join coplanar faces and the ability to generate axial and two-source sweeps from source shapes that are already positioned at the end or ends of a path. For instance, to make a staircase, users move a step-shape along a 2D pathway or 3D spiral axis.

A new Draft Sweep generates solid objects using draft angles and mathematical formulas. Use it with the new Formula Curve tool to generate curves from preset or user-provided mathematical formulas.

The program doesn't ship with a library of architectural objects such as stairs, windows, roofs and doors. For example, there's no ready-made door symbol that plugs into a wall directly. An Insert Openings mode does punch a hole in the wall. I imagine that third-party vendors will develop such plugins now that the SDK is available.

Another new plugin, the Frame tool, derives frame-like structures by converting the edges of an object into round beams and its vertices into spheres, all of which are unified into a single solid. There's another for generating more-detailed screws and bolts and one for gear teeth.

As form Z moves toward BIM, it has added a Clone tool so when users change the original, all the clones update. The Information Management section of the Options menu shows object attributes that can be used to produce lists or spreadsheets and to compose records or bills of materials (figure 5). The Query Attributes dialog box has been upgraded to accommodate the newly introduced attribute types. Helpful new tools detect irregularities found on an object or project and repair them if possible.

Figure 5. The Information Management tools are unusual for a program that meant to make models. This is the start of what will likely be extensive BIM (building information modeling) tools in upcoming releases. The model on the screen has been rendered with the sketch-like Doodle command.
Figure 5. The Information Management tools are unusual for a program that meant to make models. This is the start of what will likely be extensive BIM (building information modeling) tools in upcoming releases. The model on the screen has been rendered with the sketch-like Doodle command.

Visualization of design output has always been form Z's strong point, and this version offers some new tools. Users of the basic form Z package tend to rely on OpenGL for renderings; now users get shadows in OpenGL mode. The new line renderer, Doodle, is a free plugin that makes line drawings appear as sketches. There's also a $300 sketch renderer plugin, but if users have a pixel program such as Photoshop or another photo package, they can export from form Z and get about the same effect.

Form Z RenderZone 5.0 is based on LightWorks v7.4, which, in addition to a number of bug fixes, contains a few new rendering features. form Z now supports two new image formats, HDRI and OpenEXR.

The base form Z costs a reasonable $1,495, and upgrades from 4.x are $295. RenderZone for ray-trace rendering (with LightWorks technology) adds $500 to the price, and RadioZity for the most accurate simulation of light effects adds another $395. plugins available from auto des sys include a STEP translator for import and export of parametric objects and their controls for $350. Substantial volume discounts are available. Also, form Z sells through dealers who shave the list price by 10-15%.

Bottom Line

For modeling small, detailed objects, even lifelike ones, form Z is hard to beat, especially at the price. For mechanical design, especially of assemblies, specialized tools such as Inventor and SolidWorks will most likely work better. For the construction trades, consider form Z an add-on, not a do-everything tool. Highly Recommended.

Steven S. Ross has reviewed architectural CAD software since 1985.


About the Author: Steven S. Ross


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