Product Design

Inventor LT: On the Road to Retail

13 Jun, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Although limited in functionality, the new version has a place in the market.

In early May, Autodesk announced a technology preview release of Autodesk Inventor LT, the newest member of its Inventor family of software products. Inventor LT Technology Preview is available as a free download from the Autodesk Labs site, currently only in English and to users in the United States and Canada.

I’d heard rumors for some time about an impending “lite" version of Autodesk Inventor (although Autodesk hates that term) before the announcement was made. I even approached a couple of Autodesk employees that I’ve known for years about substantiating the rumor, but got nowhere. It turns out that only a very small group at Autodesk was privy to the information surrounding LT development and launch plans.

Keep in mind that Inventor LT is neither the first nor only free MCAD download; other companies, such as Alibre, CoCreate and UGS also offer free 2D and 3D tools. Inventor LT also probably won’t be free forever. The product comes with a license that expires on May 1, 2008. Should Autodesk decide to take it retail (which is very likely), the company speculates that the suggested retail price will be approximately $999. I imagine retail sales outlets could be places such as Staples, Circuit City and Autodesk wouldn't officially comment about its plans for LT, but there's too much potential revenue at stake for the company to do otherwise, in my opinion. The company also reports that customers who download the Technology Preview will receive special purchasing incentives if and when it does move to the retail market.

What Inventor LT Is and Isn’t
The day the launch was announced, I met with Kevin Schneider, senior solutions evangelist, Autodesk Manufacturing, to discuss it. He was more than happy to discuss the launch in terms of generalities, philosophy and some technical details. It was a cordial conversation between the two of us, with no distracting PowerPoint slide presentation.

He explained that Inventor LT is intended for those potential users who regard 3D CAD as beyond their means, due to either cost or complexity. This market includes everyone from home hobbyists to small companies that have relatively modest 3D modeling requirements.

Although Inventor LT does share a number of features and capabilities with full-blown Inventor, there are a few notable exceptions. For example, Inventor LT can be used for part modeling only. Assembly modeling is not part of the package, nor are sheet metal design and dynamic modeling. Inventor LT does not support Inventor assembly models (IAM), Inventor assembly drawings (JDW or DWG) or Inventor sheet metal parts (JPT). If you try to open an Inventor assembly file using Inventor LT -- and, yes, I tried this -- the program prompts you to open the assembly with Inventor View, a free viewer that is part of Inventor LT that lets you view and measure assemblies.

Inventor LT also does not include AutoCAD Mechanical or Autodesk Vault, as does the full version, and there is no formal technical support for Inventor LT. However, many online resources are available, including Inventor forums that are quite active and helpful when problems and other issues arise. Despite these limitations, though, Inventor LT includes exactly the same 3D part modeling, extensive import/export functions, rendering and documentation capabilities that are available with the other members of the Autodesk Inventor 2008 product family.

Not too surprisingly, because Inventor LT uses the same core technology and user interface as Inventor 2008, everything you learn and create in Inventor LT is transferable to Inventor 2008. Using DWG TrueConnect, included as part of the package, Inventor LT is interoperable with the AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT DWG file format. You also can publish 2D and 3D DWF files using Autodesk Design Review, which is included with Inventor LT.

As a user who is familiar with Inventor, I think what’s included in Inventor LT is more significant than what is not -- especially for new users. It will provide a good starter toolset for those who decide to take it on.

Since the launch of the product in early May, Autodesk has made a couple of significant enhancements to it based on users’ suggestions. First, the EULA (End User License Agreement) has been updated to allow commercial use. Second, the installer is now a ZIP file, as is the case with the other products, technologies and utilities available on Autodesk Labs. This is significant because some corporate Internet firewalls block users from downloading EXE files, which was the format for the initial release of Inventor LT.

More than anything, it will be interesting to see how Inventor LT affects the 3D MCAD industry, whether any of its competition will respond and if so, how. It will also be interesting to see if Autodesk does, in fact, take Inventor to the retail channel. Why not? From the beginning and still today, the company has done quite well with AutoCAD LT. Despite its limitations, it has been a very successful part of the Autodesk product mix, so Inventor LT looks like a pretty good bet to make it to the retail market -- either on store shelves or as a download.

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