Product Design

MCAD's Changing Source

15 Aug, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Longtime users may be surprised to learn what is driving the new MCAD technologies.

Back in the dawn of the MCAD era, virtually all of its original core technologies were developed as academic research projects or theses by masters and doctoral program candidates. Once out of the research labs, MCAD programs began to proliferate as entrepreneurial endeavors with a few successes and several failures. Because of the computational hardware required, hardware vendors saw a great opportunity and got involved, developing and selling CAD software that ran only on their machines; you really couldn’t buy one without the other.

Then along came the PC. That breakthrough changed a lot of things, the more significant of which were providing a more level playing field for software developers and giving customers more choices. They no longer were held captive to a specific hardware platform. Though still bound to a given operating system, the PC provided users with more freedom as it became ubiquitous and more affordable.

During this evolutionary period, the focus of most MCAD software development was on products that could handle the mathematically complex mechanical design and engineering problems. The task of solving these problems fell on the shoulders of developers creating applications that were themselves technically complex, with much of the burden being transferred to users. At that time, math begat math. As user interfaces evolved, they became more user friendly and the resulting digital models were more aesthetically pleasing, although far from photorealistic. Eventually that began to change, too.

The Changing Scene
As in the distant past, to a certain extent, MCAD software still relies on hardware (CPUs, graphics cards, etc.) to provide the necessary horsepower to perform the computations for solving a mechanical design problem, and increasingly for visualization and presentation purposes. Another factor of change is the portion of MCAD technology that now comes not just from the technical/engineering community, but also increasingly from the entertainment industry. This new state of affairs was strongly in evidence at SIGGRAPH 2007 (August 5-9, San Diego, California), a conference and exhibition for the myriad disciplines and industries now involved in computer graphics.

I just returned from SIGGRAPH and got a close-up look at not only a lot of hardware and software applicable for the entertainment and game development industries, but also at many technologies applicable for MCAD applications. This conference and exhibition drove home the point that this year is really the convergence or crossover point at which many of the technologies developed for entertainment will find integral places in MCAD down the road. This isn’t exactly a brand new trend, but one that I have seen gain momentum over the past few years with regard to rendering, visualization, and presentation.

A Growing Presence
I sat in on an Autodesk presentation that covered its two big entertainment development products: Maya (a modeling, animation, and rendering software suite acquired from Alias in 2005) and 3ds Max (a 3D graphics and animation application). During the course of the presentation, I was quite surprised to hear the following terms used as these entertainment products were discussed: constraints, chamfers, pivots, continuity, centroids, meshes, and annotations. Though not exactly terms I would have associated with entertainment and game development, they were integral to the presentations on the products with great presence in these communities.

Throughout SIGGRAPH, Autodesk quietly talked about Inventor for 3D modeling and AliasStudio for industrial design, but I definitely could see some rendering and other visualization capabilities in both of those products that probably came from the entertainment side of the company (although when asked, nobody at Autodesk would say for sure).

Autodesk wasn’t alone in touting some of its MCAD technology at SIGGRAPH. Dassault also had a presence. For example, it showed Simulia (a tool for creating realistic engineering analyses and simulations) and 3DVia (a publishing tool for creating 3D content for the Web) in a shared exhibit booth. SolidWorks was also in the exhibition hall, but in an even stealthier mode, appearing as a partner with both NVIDIA graphics cards and Advanced Micro Devices CPUs. In the past, MCAD companies maintained quite a presence at SIGGRAPH, but that dropped off for several years until a slight return this year.

While at SIGGRAPH, I happened to talk to a few people who were using Inventor and SolidWorks to create 3D models that are later “repurposed” for either movies, TV, or digital video games. What struck me most was that the folks using these tools for entertainment purposes were what I would term more artistic types than technical/engineering types. What a difference from just a few years ago!

It used to be that developments in the MCAD industry drove developments in the entertainment industry. Now the opposite seems to be true, and it appears that it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though a somewhat surprising turn, the new MCAD world order continues to move the industry forward to the next level and indicates the diverse sources of technologies necessary for continuing to move MCAD ahead.

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