General Software

Cadalyst Labs Review: AutoCAD 2007--Enhanced 3D Capabilities for Design

1 Apr, 2006 By: Bill Fane

If you aren't into 3D, this is the release that will get you there.

Every new release of software often has one central theme that grabs the headlines. In AutoCAD 2006, for example, it was dynamic —dynamic input and dynamic blocks. In AutoCAD 2005, it was sheet sets. In AutoCAD 2004, tool palettes. Release 13 gave us —okay, let's not go there.

The headline-grabber for AutoCAD 2007 can be summed up in one word, 3D (or is that two words?). Before you roll your eyes and think "Here goes that 3D thing again. I don't need 3D," bear with me for a moment. It's true that a small minority of design and drafting tasks, such as schematic diagrams and flow charts, will never need 3D. On the other hand, pretty much everything else in the world is 3D and could benefit from being designed and drawn in 3D.

I know, you tried to use 3D in AutoCAD but gave up because it was so awkward and obtuse. Legend has it that when 3D modeling was first introduced to AutoCAD, the designers deliberately made it a little awkward to use. The intent was to pique user interest in 3D, then switch them to the smoother vertical applications such as Mechanical Desktop and Inventor or Architectural Desktop and Revit.

If true, that strategy may have backfired because many users assumed that all 3D was awkward and obtuse, so they stuck with 2D. Well, that is the big change in AutoCAD 2007. The fundamentals of 3D have not changed, but the interface certainly has. AutoCAD 3D now is a pleasure to use.


Two Kinds of AutoCAD

If you've been wondering what those workspaces from AutoCAD 2006 are all about, here is your answer. When users start AutoCAD 2007, it asks if they want to work in the 3D Modeling workspace or the AutoCAD Classic one.

When the 3D Modeling workspace is selected, AutoCAD starts up in the mode shown in figure 1. Don't be alarmed just because it looks different. It's still AutoCAD at heart. All Autodesk has done is set up a perspective viewing space, fiddled with the colors a bit and grouped all the 3D create, modify, display and render commands together in the new Dashboard menu. Users aren't required to use the Dashboard—everything is still available in the traditional menu and toolbar locations. In fact, users can flip back and forth between the 3D and Classic workspaces in the middle of an editing session.

Figure 1. AutoCAD 2007 s new 3D workspace brings all 3D commands together.
Figure 1. AutoCAD 2007 s new 3D workspace brings all 3D commands together.

Let's assume you have an existing closed polyline loop that you want to extrude into a solid. Simply select it and then select the Extrude icon from the Dashboard. The polyline loop begins to extrude dynamically, as shown in figure 2, which means you can drag the height up and down with the mouse and either click at a suitable size or enter an exact value, as desired. This function also works for the predefined solid functions used to produce cylinders, boxes, wedges and so on.

Figure 2. When creating extrusions, users can drag the height dynamically.
Figure 2. When creating extrusions, users can drag the height dynamically.

All Your DUCS in a Row

Historically, the hardest part for 3D beginners has been the UCS (user coordinate system). Both the concept and the implementation have been messy. AutoCAD 2007 nicely solves this problem with the DUCS (dynamic user coordinate system).

Suppose you want to add a cylinder on the right front face of the previous shape. Simply click the Cylinder icon and then hover the cursor for a moment on the desired face. The UCS automatically switches to align with that face, as shown in figure 3. You can locate and size the cylinder. The magic part here is that standard AutoCAD object snaps work while locating and sizing 3D objects—or you can dynamically drag or enter precise values. When you are finished, the UCS reverts to its previous orientation.

Figure 3. The UCS dynamically shifts to the desired face, and regular object snaps work when creating new solids.
Figure 3. The UCS dynamically shifts to the desired face, and regular object snaps work when creating new solids.

AutoCAD 2007 adds a host of new 3D capabilities. For example, it now can sweep a profile along a path, loft between a series of cross-section profiles, create multisided pyramids and generate 3D helixes with varying radii. You also can extrude or revolve an existing face without having to draw a new profile.

Time for a Change . . .

It's not so much that it was difficult to edit solids in the earlier releases. It's probably closer to the truth to say that it was almost impossible, or at best frustratingly difficult.

As with many other aspects of 3D modeling, AutoCAD 2007 now lets you use the same editing tools you enjoy in 2D. For example, simply click on a base 3D object and grips appear. Click on a grip and then drag it to a new location or enter a relative value to change its location by an exact amount, as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4. 3D solids now support grip editing.
Figure 4. 3D solids now support grip editing.

After two or more solids have been combined into a single one, you can just select <Ctrl> and click on any face to invoke its editing grips. We used to complain that editing solids in AutoCAD was a real drag—now it truly is. In addition, the Properties palette now supports 3D solid objects.

Oh, Look!

Hand in hand with the new 3D modeling capabilities comes a host of new viewing tools and modes. For starters, 3D Orbit has a new direct easy access. Simply press and hold the <Shift> key and then use the middle mouse button to reorient your view of the model. You can do this task transparently within other commands. To avoid confusion under certain conditions, the Constrained Orbit mode restricts travel beyond the north and south poles. This feature prevents users from inadvertently flipping the model view to upside-down.

Existing wire-frame, hidden and shaded views are still available, along with a new Conceptual style, as shown in figure 5.

Figure 5. AutoCAD 2007 presents the model in a variety of display styles.
Figure 5. AutoCAD 2007 presents the model in a variety of display styles.

But wait! There's more! Visual styles can be modified to add edge jitter, end overshoot and shadows, so models look more like hand-sketched conceptual ideas than precise 3D objects. Shadows can be set to match the time and date for a specific geographic location. The good news is that Autodesk has repaired the location list so that Vancouver, BC, Canada, now exists; Victoria, BC, is not in Oregon; and Puerto Vallarta is no longer 100 miles offshore. View styles can have parallel or perspective projections. Figure 6 shows an example.

Figure 6. Viewing styles can include edge overshoot, jitter and shadows for a sketched look.
Figure 6. Viewing styles can include edge overshoot, jitter and shadows for a sketched look.

I lied a bit when I said AutoCAD 2007 includes a Conceptual viewing style. Actually, that is just a supplied example. Users can easily create and save their own particular styles.

Different viewports can have different styles, and drawings will plot accordingly. The really magic part is that view styles are applied continuously, so you can continue to work and edit while a view style is active. For example, an architect can edit a building massing model and instantly see where its shadow will fall.

Come Fly with Me

AutoCAD 2007 users can set up cameras, viewing directions and a 3D camera track. The program then performs a camera-view flyby along the track.

Rendering also has been improved greatly. For example, lights and materials can be controlled from the Dashboard. Many control values are set with simple sliders, and applying materials and textures is a basic drag-and-drop operation.

As with any new release, it's impossible to cover everything in a single review, but here are a few of the high points.

First, the file format has changed so that earlier releases will not open an AutoCAD 2007 file. The good news is that AutoCAD 2007 can Save As all the way back to a Release 14 drawing and to a Release 12 DXF file. Next, the FlatShot command creates a flat 2D drawing based on the current view of the model.

Users can add section planes and use grips to change their position, size and cutaway side. Jogs can be added to the section. 2D and 3D sections then can be generated.

AutoCAD 2007 now can create PDF files. Autodesk has argued for some time that DWF is the preferred format for sending drawing information to non-AutoCAD users. Indeed, it is in many cases, but the reality is that the vast majority of recipients already have the PDF viewer installed and are more comfortable with that format.

The list includes a host of minor changes. For example, many of the Express Tools have been rolled in as full commands. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea.

Route to 3D

I have seen reviews that say something to the effect that "If you aren't into 3D, you can skip this release." I would argue the opposite: if you aren't into 3D, this is the release that will get you there.

Bill Fane is a Cadalyst contributing editor and a professor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. E-mail him at

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