AutoCAD 201327 Mar, 2012 By: Bill Fane
Cadalyst Labs Review: Autodesk’s flagship product offers new cloud-based features to enhance file storage and collaboration, new 3D-to-2D functions, plus myriad small but very useful tools to make your everyday work easier.
Ah, yes, the tell-tale signs of spring are here: sprouting flower bulbs, longer days, baseball games — and a new release of AutoCAD!
In the CAD world, spring came a bit early this year when information about AutoCAD 2013 was published in Japan a month before the media embargo was lifted. As a result, Autodesk allowed media outlets in other countries to publish the "leaked" information, which included nearly everything except new cloud-based functionality.
Now that the official launch date has arrived, I bring you this full Cadalyst Labs Review of AutoCAD 2013. Be sure to hold on till the end for an explanation of the new "powerful tools for mosquito aggregation."
Let's start with the most obvious new feature. When you launch AutoCAD 2013, it's pretty hard to miss the new Welcome screen.
AutoCAD 2013 sports a new Welcome screen.
The screen is divided into three sections, each with a self-explanatory heading.
Learn: The middle panel contains links to a series of What's New and Getting Started videos.
Extend: Ah, now here's a potentially interesting section! Autodesk Exchange Apps links to an online store where you can download a variety of AutoCAD plug-ins. Many are free and offer functionality that is equivalent to AutoCAD Express Tools and Autodesk Labs technology previews; a few others are more commercial. A minor issue here is whether a CAD manager wants users to have such easy access to plug-ins.
Autodesk 360 is the name of Autodesk's cloud-based initiatives. I'll have more on this later.
Oh, look! Direct links to AutoCAD accounts on Facebook and Twitter! These social media sites are rapidly becoming commercial media sites, and Autodesk uses them to share online tutorials, product announcements, and user discussions.
Autodesk has tried different start-up screens before, which have generally been met with underwhelming enthusiasm. I'll be curious to see how this version fares. You have to close it to see the drawing screen behind it, and you can reopen it at any time in an editing session. If you don't like it, you can turn it off via a check box in the corner so it doesn't appear at start-up.
Moving right along, we see — hey! What happened to our beloved Command prompt?
The absence of the Command prompt is likely an attempt to recover some of the screen area that AutoCAD lost to the ribbon several versions back. Officially renamed the Command line, it now appears as a single-line, semitransparent window that floats above the drawing area.
The restyled Command line.
When you begin to type a command, up to three lines of command history appear above the Command line for reference (but are not clickable).
The new semitransparent, disappearing command history.
Note the uppercase blue option letters. You can click on any one of them to choose that option.
A few seconds after you complete a command, the history lines quietly fade away. Press F2 to expand the command history to display the previous 18 lines of command history, or use the new Ctrl+F combination to bring up a scrollable window going back much further.
The scrollable Command window also has an Edit button in the upper left corner that you can use to copy and paste command history into another document or back into the Command line if you want to run a specific sequence of commands again.
The Command line can float freely, or you can dock it at the top or bottom edge of the screen where it looks and acts almost exactly like the traditional Command prompt. You can fully configure its appearance: Set colors and font under the Display tab of the Options dialog box, and specify transparency and number of history lines by clicking on the wrench icon when the Command line is in floating mode.
I'd Love to Help You Out
AutoCAD 2012 introduced a major change to the Help system by moving the information from the desktop to an online database. AutoCAD 2013's Help facility has undergone another major change and is completely search-based. You simply enter your topic in the Search pane and AutoCAD 2013 goes online to find the latest information from a variety of sources. You can't browse through a simple list of commands or system variables any more.
This is your captain speaking. We have reached our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, the outside air temperature is minus 60 degrees, and there is no Wi-Fi up here.
There is a link in the Help facility where you can download and install a local copy of Help information that will kick in automatically if you don't have an Internet connection. It may not always be the latest version, and it may not be coming from a variety of sources, but it is available at any altitude or poorly connected coffee shop. I strongly recommend installing it on your laptop.
There's No Devil in the Details...
Any new release always seems to involve a few big headline-grabbing features plus a bunch of small details that always end up in the general category of and there's a bunch more details. Just to mix it up and make sure you don't miss these nuggets, this time I'll briefly describe many of the smaller changes in AutoCAD 2013. In the long run, some of these can contribute more to your day-to-day productivity than you might expect. I'll then move on to the major items.
Quick View updates. The Quick View drawings thumbnails, which display at the bottom of the screen, now highlight the current active drawing and the current active layout within that drawing with a colored background, bright border, and bold label for easier identification.
Quick View prominently highlights your current location inside AutoCAD.
Hatch Editor. You can now select more than one hatch object at a time and still get the contextual Hatch Editor ribbon panel. All selected hatches end up with the same edited properties even if they were different to start with.
Raster images. The bitonal resampling algorithm has finally been updated — although I'm not sure what that means — and is supposed to improve the quality of raster images.
External references. When linking to an external reference file such as a raster image, another drawing file, a PDF underlay, and so on, the default is now Relative path if the xref files are in a suitable location. This is a relief to most experienced users, who prefer this option over the previous Full path default because of the benefits it offers if files are moved to a different location.
Array. AutoCAD 2012 introduced an entirely new object type called an array. Wait a minute, we've had arrays since Day 1! Yes and no. The old-style arrays were simply multiple copies of the selected objects. AutoCAD 2012 arrays are associative, in that the entire collection of copied objects is a single object in its own right, and has all sorts of editing possibilities. However, one potential drawback of the new Array command is that it effectively reverted back to being Command-line driven, instead of using a dialog box.
AutoCAD 2013 makes a significant change to the Array command interface and to certain aspects of its functionality. Now, when you launch the Array command, it asks if you want a rectangular, polar, or path array, just as it did in version 2012. Let's start with rectangular. Instead of asking for the number of rows and columns and then for spacing, AutoCAD 2013 jumps straight to a ghost preview of a 4 x 3 rectangular array. You can then select appropriate grips and drag or use keyboard entry to specify spacing and quantities. This saves one step over the previous version.
Polar and path arrays institute similar changes, and several new creation and editing options have been added to path arrays. In particular, you now have more control as to what happens to the item count if the length of a path changes.
Two Kinds of Cloud
No, I don't mean cumulus versus stratus. The two types of cloud in AutoCAD 2013 are point and Internet. Let's start with point.
Point cloud models are becoming increasingly common in the CAD workflow, especially when documenting existing buildings. Aim a 3D laser device at the inside of a room or outside of a building, scan the structure, and you'll get back a cloud of x,y,z coordinates of points on the structure. You can then attach this cloud of points to an AutoCAD drawing and use it to establish the definition points for drawing 2D and 3D objects.
The number of points in a cloud can reach government-spending levels — as in hundreds of millions — especially when dealing with a large, ornate structure or multiple buildings.
Luckily, AutoCAD 2013 adds significant new functionality to its point cloud support. For example, you can display a bounding box around the cloud to help you visualize its position in 3D space. You can merge more than one point cloud into a single drawing file, and you can clip out those portions of the point cloud that don't interest you. It also supports more brands of scanners and their associated file formats.
My hunch is that there will be much more to come in this area in future releases.
3D or Not 3D
Okay, here are a few more of these "minor" details that will either revolutionize how you work or will be of no interest at all.
PressPull. You can now select inside multiple boundaries and then create a separate 3D solid object from each boundary in one hit, and they will all have the same height. Better yet, they don't have to be in the same plane. For example, you can PressPull six different boundaries, each on one face of a cube, in six different directions at the same time.
In addition, you are no longer limited to PressPulling a closed boundary. You can now select 2D or 3D open curves and then PressPull an open wall from them.
Isolines. If you're really into fancy 3D objects, you'll be pleased to know that you can now generate isoline curves from an existing solid.
Inventor file import. AutoCAD 2013 can import Inventor part or assembly files. Finally! The Inventor file format was just about the only 3D format that couldn't be imported into AutoCAD 2012.
Note that imported Inventor files come across as dumb solids. They lose their associativity with the original Inventor file, so they don't update if the Inventor model changes.
Single parts come across as blocks, which can be exploded to AutoCAD 3D objects. An assembly comes across as a block containing each part as a block definition. Exploding the assembly block produces the individual component part blocks.
A Picture is Worth Ten Words.
What more is there to say?
Offset. Start the command, specify an offset distance, then move the cursor. AutoCAD 2013 displays a live preview as you move the cursor to either side of the object being offset.
Babelfish. AutoCAD 2013 has significantly changed how it handles other languages. Previously you had to install a full copy of AutoCAD for each supported language. Now all you do is select Download Language Packs from the Help menu to download and install add-on language packs to the one basic installation. Each language pack creates a suitable desktop icon and Start menu item for launching AutoCAD in the desired language.
Pline widths. AutoCAD 2012 introduced the Reverse tool for changing the original defined direction of polyline vertices. This can be significant when using the data for other applications such as generating G-code for CNC machining operations. The AutoCAD 2012 version only reversed the sequence, but AutoCAD 2013 now has an option to also reverse the width specification of tapered segments.
New DWG file format. I figure I'd slip this one in very quietly to see if anyone is paying attention. Yes, AutoCAD has a new file format. This should be about as surprising as taxes going up, because Autodesk announced in 1999 (AutoCAD 2000) that the DWG file format would change every three years, and this is another magic year. As usual, you can Save As back to earlier releases, and also as usual some newer object types may not translate perfectly and/or may not survive a round trip.
Kindergarten 101 (Content Explorer). What's one of the first things you learned in kindergarten? Right! Share your toys! AutoCAD 2013 greatly expands the power of the Content Explorer. You can now search for any of 54 file types that AutoCAD supports. In AutoCAD 2012 you could connect to Content Service server machines, but now you can connect to any machine that has the Content Service installed and can browse and search through its files, providing the user has granted permission for you to do so.
Here's Looking Inside You, Kid
Now we come to one of the major enhancements in AutoCAD 2013. It falls in the category of model documentation, or more specifically, producing 2D working drawings from 3D models.
AutoCAD has been able to generate 2D drawing views from 3D objects for about as long as it has been able to produce 3D objects. Admittedly, some of the earlier manifestations, such as the FlatShot command, were pretty simple and limited. Time and AutoCAD marched on and FlatShot begat the SolView, SolDraw, and SolProf commands, which begat the SectionPlane and SectionPlaneToBlock commands. Finally, AutoCAD 2012 arrived with its new ViewBase and ViewProj commands. It became almost trivially easy to generate aligned, scaled 2D working views from 3D solids. Better yet, you didn't even need a solid model in the AutoCAD drawing file. ViewBase and ViewProj would happily work from an externally referenced Inventor part or assembly file.
Even better than that, the generated views remained associated to the 3D solid model, so that any editing of the model updated the 2D views.
Well, believe it or not, AutoCAD 2013 improves on all of that with two major additions to its 3D-to-2D capabilities.
In previous releases, the 3D-to-2D commands would simply grab every solid they could find in the drawing and generate the 2D views. AutoCAD 2013 now lets you select specific solids out of the full set. You can use ViewBase more than once in the same drawing, and even in the same layout, so that it now becomes extremely easy to create 2D drawing views for single parts or subassemblies in an assembly.
AutoCAD 2013 lets you create 2D drawing views of specific items selected from an assembly.
When importing Inventor models, at first it seems that you can't select the individual components within the imported assembly, but there is a trick. AutoCAD 2013 imports an Inventor assembly as a block consisting of all the individual parts. Simply explode the imported assembly and all the parts become available as individual blocks, which you can edit using the Bedit (Block Edit) command. You can also explode the individual blocks and edit the resulting 3D solids directly.
Cut 'Em Off at the Section Line
The second major update to AutoCAD 2013's 3D-to-2D toolset involves section views. In previous releases, it was quite a hassle to create these views. The new ViewSection command ends all that. You no longer have to set up a cutting plane specification in model space in order to generate a section view in a paper space layout.
Now, just start the ViewSection command from the Layout ribbon and select the parent view. Next, simply draw your section line, noting that polar, ortho, object snaps, and object snap tracking all work. Press Enter, then specify the location for the section view, noting that the section direction arrows and the preview of the section view flip over as you move the cursor to the other side of the section line. Press Enter again and you're finished!
Sections and details update when the section line or detail circle change.
The ViewSection command can produce full, half, offset, and aligned section views and, in line with normal mechanical drafting standards, you can suppress some parts in an assembly so they aren't sectioned. Cylindrical objects such as shafts and threaded fasteners usually fall into this category.
Ah, but now comes the magic. Not only does the view update if you edit the 3D model, but it also updates when you relocate the cutting plane line using standard grip editing techniques.
ViewDetail. The new ViewDetail command produces detailed views at other scales as quickly and easily as any of the new Viewxxx commands. It can produce circular and rectangular views, and again the views update if you later edit the size or location of the detail circle or rectangle. Better yet, a detail view of a section view yields a detail of the section!
More Named Styles. Oh boy! Another set of named styles! The ViewSection and ViewDetail commands automatically add identifiers, labels, and scale notes. Personally, I find the text size of the labels to be too big, and I don't know why you want a scale label on a section view; its scale should always be the same as the parent.
Four tabs on the Modify Section View Style dialog box let you create and customize named section view styles to your heart's content, and there's another one for detail views too!
Not a problem. The new ViewSectionStyle and ViewDetailStyle commands bring up dialog boxes that are almost as much fun as the DimStyle one. You can create and modify the styles to your heart's content, and you can easily switch between different styles for different occasions.
Cloudy with a Shower of Drawings
Now, finally, the other big headline grabber in AutoCAD 2013: the cloud! You didn't need to be a meteorologist to guess that AutoCAD 2013 would include something to do with the cloud. Just to clarify things, I'm not talking about the point clouds and perhaps to avoid that confusion, Autodesk has begun referring to this concept as connectivity instead of the cloud.
First, a bit of background. In the current context, the cloud is simply a whole bunch of computers, a veritable cloud of them, all connected through the Internet. When you access the cloud, you have infinite computing capacity available. Well, maybe not infinite, but certainly a lot.
Uses for the cloud fall into two main categories: computing and storage.
Computing. Certain operations such as stress and fluid flow calculations and photorealistic rendering can take a long time or use a lot of computing power. The cloud can provide far more computing power than can any single computer. In the extreme, animated 3D movies such as Avatar are produced on rendering farms of 20,000–30,000 (that's right — thousand!) computers.
Relatively simple renderings of small mechanisms can usually be completed in a reasonable time on your own machine, but complex high-resolution architectural renderings can rapidly run into geologic time frames. To solve this, AutoCAD 2013 provides a free rendering service on the cloud. Simply upload your ready-to-render files to your Autodesk Cloud account, wait relatively briefly, and AutoCAD announces that your renderings are available.
Storage and collaboration. You can use the cloud-based AutoCAD 360 solution in a variety of ways. You can upload specific files to the cloud for sharing, you can have AutoCAD 2013 automatically save every file to the cloud, or you can manually save selected files. You can also choose between storing on the cloud only vs. saving to your local drive and to the cloud at the same time. The AutoCAD 360 site also ties in with Autodesk's recently announced cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM) offering.
Second, once files are stored on the cloud they can be made available to other users anywhere in the world. You can share, collaborate, and consult without having to ship prints or e-mail files. In particular, AutoCAD 2013 has direct connections to AutoCAD WS, the cloud-based file editor that's accessible from desktop computers as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. You can upload a file to AutoCAD WS and share it with others who can then open, edit, mark up, and print via any standard web browser. They don't need AutoCAD or even a browser add-in.
I've Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now
Yes, just like that old Joni Mitchell song, there are two sides to cloud-based file storage. The main advantages are that these solutions more secure, in that a good service provider will have better security and backup procedures than you do. And as indicated earlier, they are available anywhere you have Internet access.
There are two main disadvantages to storing files on the cloud. First, anything posted to the Internet is there forever. You may delete a file seconds after saving it, but there is already a copy on the service provider's backup drives, and deleted files can be recovered. The other disadvantage was mentioned earlier: This is your captain speaking. ... Yep, no Internet access equals no file access.
Pimp My Ride
There is one more cool cloud-related update available in AutoCAD 2013. If you regularly work on more than one computer, you can have AutoCAD 2013 sync your settings via the cloud. This means that you can use any computer anywhere and it will come up with your personal option settings, interface customization, and so on. Kindergarten 101 again — put things back where you found them. When you sign out of someone else's computer, you can restore their settings with a push of a button.
Finally, as promised, here's the story on mosquito aggregation. Early this year, some CAD journalists and bloggers were granted access to AutoCAD 2013 beta copies and feature updates in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement saying they would not release details of the new version until the March 27 embargo date. When the AutoCAD 2013 information was leaked early in Japan, a couple of prominent bloggers caught wind of this, but rather than break their embargo, they posted a link to a Google Translate web page that in turn pointed to and translated the Japanese page. Something in the Japanese version was translated as mosquito aggregation. One reverse translation was "keeping all the bugs together in one convenient location." The actual text from the English preview guide is "powerful tools for design aggregation."
And so we come to the eternal question: Should you upgrade or not?
- If you're working in 3D, or if you should be working in 3D, then definitely "yes."
- If you ever share, collaborate, send, or otherwise discuss your files with anyone else, gain the answer is "yes."
- If you only ever work on strictly 2D drawings such as schematic diagrams or flow charts that never leave your office, then the answer is "maybe" — so you can stay in step with the new file format.
Given the history of AutoCAD 13, there was much speculation as to whether Autodesk suffered from triskaidekaphobia and would name this release something like AutoCAD X3. Fortunately it didn't, because this would produce all kinds of problems next year. Highly Recommended