AutoCAD 2012: Who Says 2D is Dead?

21 Mar, 2011 By: Bill Fane

The majority of the latest enhancements beef up 2D functionality, including two new commands for generating 2D working drawings from 3D models.

There are two kinds of designers in the world: those who design in 2D and those who design in 3D. The software companies keep saying, "The world is 3D. Why are you still working in 2D?" and make it sound as if the 2D people are veritable Neanderthals. They may be right, but that's not the point. A couple of articles I have read recently indicate that the use of 3D software is far from being all-pervasive in the design world — in fact, 2D users still seem to be in the vast majority. Well, Autodesk has not forsaken the 2D crowd.

The “What’s New” document for AutoCAD 2012, which was included with the beta version but not the shipping version, ran 54 pages — the majority of which were devoted to explaining 2D enhancements. On top of that, many of the 3D additions and enhancements are there to help you produce 2D drawings from 3D models.

Reversing the sequence of the “What’s New” document, let’s take a look at some of my favorite 2D enhancements in AutoCAD 2012, announced today and shipping in early April. The product is available standalone or as part of one of the many new Autodesk Design Suites for 2012.

Hip, Hip, Array!

Consider something as mundane as the Array command. What could they possibly do to improve it? Quite a bit, as it turns out. For starters, they have eliminated the dialog box and gone back to make it command-line driven. Say what? In this day and age of icons, ribbons, and GUIs, they've gone back to the command line?

Yes, and it saves many mouse picks. When you invoke Array, it simply asks you to select objects. Once you do so, it then asks you to specify the number of rows and columns. Now here comes the clever part: You can enter values directly, or you can simply move your cursor for a live, dynamic preview. Similarly, once you have specified the number of rows and columns, you can specify the row and column spacing simply by moving your mouse, again for a live dynamic preview.

... to dynamically define the number of rows and columns ...
... to dynamically define the number of rows and columns ...

... and the spacing.
... and the spacing.


Polar arrays work the same way, as does the new Path variant. The latter is much like the existing Measure and Divide commands, the difference being that they can insert blocks along a path line, spline, or polyline, while the Path array can place blocks or any selection of separate objects offset from the path.

But wait! There's more! Arrays can now be associative. If you double-click on an array, the Properties dialog box lets you change the number of columns and rows as well as the spacing. Better yet, associative arrays are also parametric, so that quantities and spacing can be determined from other parametric values. You can also grip-edit to stretch or shrink the array, and the number of rows and columns will change accordingly.

Associative arrays can be edited as a unit...
Associative arrays can be edited as a unit...


You can also redefine the base elements of an array, you can relocate one or more elements relative to its neighbors within the array, you can substitute one or more objects for one or more elements in an array, and you can reset everything back to the original array specification. It just keeps getting better and better!

... and you can replace and/or move single elements within the array.
... and you can replace and/or move single elements within the array.


This also works for both Polar and the new Path arrays.

 Speaking of GUIs, AutoCAD 2012 includes the requisite "improvements" to the ribbon and other graphic elements of the user interface, but it also includes a significant acknowledgment that fancy GUIs may not be the most effective way to control software. If you watch AutoCAD super-power users such as Lynn Allen (Autodesk technical evangelist) and Dave Espinosa-Aguillar (a consulting engineer and popular Autodesk University speaker) in high-speed action, they almost invariably rely on typing command names and aliases.

AutoComplete speeds up invoking of commands.
AutoComplete speeds up invoking of commands.
Well, AutoCAD 2012 can help you get up to their speed thanks to its new auto-complete functionality. Turn on Dynamic Input. (It’s easy enough to do; it’s one of the buttons at the bottom of the screen and is on by default. I had mine turned off when I wrote this and had to turn it back on to get things to work.) Then begin typing a command name. AutoCAD 2012 will display a list of all commands that start with the letters you have typed so far. Scroll down the list to pick the one you want or keep on typing to narrow the choices. If a command has an alias, the full name is shown in brackets. You can set filter specifications to include or exclude system variables and whether or not to display icons.

The bad news is that Autodesk has discontinued the old screen menu from DOS days. I have long maintained that it was the fastest and most efficient interface, because it was not cluttered up and slowed down by all the fancy graphics. It was also fully context-sensitive because it originated in the days before three-button mice. You never needed to right-click to get the options for a command.

Fillet and Chamfer commands. Getting back to the 2D enhancements, AutoCAD 2012 includes a significant improvement to the Fillet and Chamfer commands. Having picked the first object, all you need to do is to move your cursor over the intended second object to see a preview of the operation. If things aren't what you want, you can change the radius or length specifications before completing the command. This works for two objects or when applying fillets or chamfers down the length of a polyline.


Overkill command. Overlapping and duplicate objects can be a real hassle in a drawing. They can slow things down, and they can mess up object selection and other tasks. It was even worse in the days of pen plotters. The pen would run back and forth over the same area several times as it plotted the duplicate objects, and would often wear a hole right through the paper. A few years ago AutoCAD introduced Overkill as an Express Tool. It has now been improved upon and incorporated into basic AutoCAD 2012. A filter dialog box lets you control how it handles situations such as when objects have different properties (line weight, color overrides, and so forth).

Get A Grip

Hover over a grip and AutoCAD 2012 displays a drop list of editing actions.
Hover over a grip and AutoCAD 2012 displays a drop list of editing actions.
Multifunction grip capabilities have been extended to many 2D objects. If you hover the cursor over a grip, a selection list of actions appears. For example, hovering over the grip of a dimension text object brings up a list of seven possible actions, such as Move Text Only, Move with Dim Line, and Reset Text Position, which lets you reset to defaults.

Have you ever been bugged by the fact that window selection in AutoCAD may be different from that in other programs? Sometimes you have to pick two points, and other times you pick one point and drag. The PICKDRAG system variable in previous version of AutoCAD let you switch between either method, but AutoCAD 2012 has a new default value of 2. In this mode, you can define a selection window either by picking two points or by picking one and dragging, with no need to change a system variable setting.

Picky, Picky

Have you ever tried to initiate a selection window in very cramped quarters in a complex drawing? It can be fun, because AutoCAD instead will select a single object if it falls within the PickBox. Suffer no more. If you change the setting of PICKAUTO to 2 instead of the default of 1, then AutoCAD 2012 always starts a selection window, even if the first pick lands on an object.

Originally it was assumed that UCSs (user coordinate systems) were intended for 3D work, but it rapidly became apparent that they are also very useful for 2D work. For example, if you are working on something that is at an angle to the UCS, such as an angled wing of a building or one arm of a machine linkage, then you can rotate the UCS to match the desired angle. Now Ortho and Polar controls are relative to this new UCS angle. In AutoCAD 2012, a very significant enhancement has been added. Specifically, the UCS icon is now an object in its own right. Simply click on it to activate its grips. You can drag its origin grip to a new location, or drag an axis grip to a new angle. Normal AutoCAD object snaps are still active, so the UCS can be precisely aligned to a desired orientation.

2D or Not 2D?

Okay, now let's look at some of the 2D/3D enhancements.

The really big one here is that AutoCAD 2012 has significantly improved how it generates 2D working drawings from 3D models. Two new commands have been added. The Viewbase command creates a layout viewport that automatically creates a 2D projection of the solid model. This effectively combines the existing Solview and Soldraw commands into a single operation. Next, Viewproj creates orthographic and isometric views projected from the base view. These views are linked back to the base view, so if you change the base view's location, then the other views maintain their correct orthographic alignment.

Ah, but it gets better. The viewport boundaries are automatically invisible and won't plot. Better yet, once a base view is created, Viewproj is automatically invoked so you can quickly and easily create all the desired views in one go.

Believe it or not, it gets even better! If you change the 3D model, you will be prompted to automatically update all of the 2D drawing views. If you have attached associative dimensions in the 2D views, then AutoCAD runs the Dimreassociate command to allow you to repair any dimensions that were applied in the layout but lost their associativity because of the model edits.

Okay, I'm running out of superlatives to add to "better." If your drawing doesn't contain any 3D models at all, Viewbase prompts you to browse for an Inventor part, assembly, or presentation file. The resulting views are still associative back to the original Inventor file and will update if they change. This one runs full circle, because Inventor is also capable of producing associative 2D AutoCAD DWG files directly.

And yet another "better": AutoCAD 2012 is able to import 13 different file formats, so you can create 2D documentation from file formats such as SolidWorks, Rhino, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, ACIS, Parasolid, IGES, STEP, JT, and so on. In this case the drawings are not associative back to the original source.

Still on the subject of 3D, the debate persists over history-free versus history-based 3D modeling — did you catch the CAD Smackdown podcast hosted recently by Cadalyst and moderated by yours truly? But with AutoCAD 2012 and Inventor Fusion, you can do both. Inventor Fusion was available as a technology preview from Autodesk Labs for some time. It allowed you to open an Inventor file, edit it directly as if it were history free, then save your changes.

Inventor Fusion has graduated to become a full-blown application, and it ships with AutoCAD 2012 to use standalone or as an optional installation. If you install it with AutoCAD 2012, an Edit in Fusion button appears in the ribbon when you select any solid or surface in your AutoCAD model. Click the button to launch Inventor Fusion, where you can direct-edit the model, then click the Return to AutoCAD button when you're done. Changes are reflected in AutoCAD model!


3D All the Way

AutoCAD 2012 also includes a great many enhancements to 3D modeling and editing. For example, you can now offset an existing model edge and then use it to PressPull to add or remove material.

Offset a model edge ...
Offset a model edge ...

... then PressPull to add or remove material.
... then PressPull to add or remove material.


Seek And Ye Shall Find

If you use and like the Design Center, then you'll love the new Autodesk Seek functionality. Imagine the Design Center on steroids, married to Google. As with Design Center, you can look for useable content such as block, layout, and layer definitions along with text and dimension styles. The difference with Autodesk Seek is that everything is indexed, so you can search instantly across hundreds of folders containing thousands of files, and you can search by keywords.

Better yet, it can include links to file server libraries and to the Internet. You can now browse for and insert drawing details directly from manufacturers' product catalogs, without having to open a web browser. Meanwhile the index is automatically updating so that any additions, changes, or deletions in any of the specified search paths will always remain current.

File Compatibility

As usual, a big question that comes up every time there is a new release of any software is regarding file compatibility with earlier releases. AutoCAD 2012 is the third release in Autodesk's announced three-year file compatibility cycle, so its default file version is AutoCAD 2010 in spite of the new additions. Also as usual, you can save a file back to version R14 in DWG format and to version R11 in DXF format, recognizing that certain subtleties may get lost in translation.

Autodesk Exchange

I almost forgot: The most obvious addition to AutoCAD 2012 is Autodesk Exchange. When you launch AutoCAD 2012, the screen is pretty much full of a new dialog box, with buttons for Home and Help.

The Autodesk Exchange screen appears when you launch AutoCAD 2012.
The Autodesk Exchange screen appears when you launch AutoCAD 2012.


The Home tab primarily features "What's New" videos and access to the product support knowledge base and the new WikiHelp user-contributed information.

The Help tab gives access to (surprise, surprise!) AutoCAD's Help facility.

The Autodesk Exchange display be turned off so it doesn't appear at every start-up, and when off it can be brought up again with a single mouse click on the appropriate button.

I am often asked, "Why should I buy an expensive copy of AutoCAD when DWG-compatible products are available at a much lower cost, or even for free?" The bottom line is that other brands may have DWG compatibility (mostly), but don't have all the command-processing enhancements. Once a line or circle is saved in a file then none of the programs know how it got there, and so they can all read it back. The advantage to AutoCAD is that it often contains tools that let you get the line or circle into the file much faster and more easily than the other products.

In addition, Autodesk knows what's coming several years and several releases ahead of time, and can plan the file format accordingly. The others have to wait for each release and reverse-engineer to fill in the blanks, so they tend to be one or two releases behind even though the file format hasn't changed.

It must have been at least five years ago when people began to ask, "What else can they possibly add to a 2D drafting program?" As Autodesk has shown, the answer is, "Plenty."

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