Product Design

What's New in 3D Design Software

11 Feb, 2004 By: John E. Wilson

3D programs come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s a brief guide to some of the options out there.

3D programs fall into three categories: 3D modelers, 2D drafting programs with 3D modeling capabilities, and parametric solid modelers. 3D modelers, such as Rhino, formoZ, and trueSpace, are intended for making 3D objects. They generally have limited abilities to transform those models into 2D drawings. The 2D drafting programs with 3D capabilities began as 2D programs and through the years acquired 3D features. These programs include AutoCAD, TurboCAD, and VectorWorks. Their ability to create 2D drawings doesn't necessarily mean that they can create 2D drawings of their 3D objects. Parametric solid modelers, such as Alibre Design, use geometric constraints and dimensions to control shapes and sizes of their 3D objects. This makes it very easy to modify these objects. These programs also have a full set of tools to transform models into 2D drawings. Though these programs emphasize solids, they are increasingly adding the ability to work with surfaces.

Alibre Design 6.0
Parametric solid modeler
Price: $695
Operating systems: Windows 98 SE/ME/NT/2000/XP
Supplemental program: Alibre Design Professional ($995) adds photorealistic rendering, finite-element analysis, a library of standard and manufactured parts, and 3-axis milling CAM.
Cadalyst Labs review: March 2002, p. 38

Alibre Design is a parametric solid modeler priced at a fraction of the cost of similar programs, such as Solid Edge and Inventor. As you'd expect, you do get less with Alibre Design, but it still offers more features per dollar than comparable programs. It can create lofted, rib, and shell features and handles sheet-metal parts. It doesn't have surface creation tools. Alibre Design does support assemblies of parts, and you can create 2D drawings of parts and of assemblies.

AutoCAD 2004
2D drafting with 3D modeling capabilities
Price: $3,750
Operating systems: Windows NT/2000/XP
Cadalyst Labs Review:April 2003

AutoCAD can be useful for creating 3D models, although Autodesk hasn't added 3D capabilities since AutoCAD 2000.
AutoCAD offers reasonably good 3D features, though they haven't been updated for more than a decade. Instead, Autodesk has focused its 3D efforts in the vertical-market Mechanical and Archectural Desktop applications, which run on top of AutoCAD, and its next-generation Inventor and Revit products. AutoCAD is not a program you purchase because of its 3D capabilities, but if you already have AutoCAD, you may find its 3D features useful (figure 1). The program's limited 3D geometry creation tools are out of date, but its visualization tools, including real-time zooms, pans, and viewpoint rotation of shaded models, are as good as those of any other program. And its tools for creating 2D drawings of solid models, while not prefect, are still ahead of most other programs.

form•Z 4
3D modeling
Price: $1,495
Operating systems: Windows 98/ME/XP/NT/2000, Macintosh OS 8.6+/X 10.1+
Supplemental programs:
form•Z RenderZone ($1,995) adds photorealistic rendering
form•Z RadioZity ($2,390) adds both photorealistic and radiosity rendering
Cadalyst Labs review: August 2003, p. 25

form•Z is a complex program that takes time and training to master. Once you master it, though, you can create realistic, complex 3D models such as the one shown here.
form•Z is used by industrial designers, architects, urban planners, artists, and others who need to create innovative 3D objects (figure 2). Both Macintosh and Windows versions of the program are available, with virtually identical interfaces.

Often you create formoZ 3D shapes by combining, twisting, stretching, and otherwise manipulating basic 3D objects such as cubes and spheres. The methods are analogous to working with a real material, such as clay, and parameters are often based on appearance rather than on precise size and shape. For example, to design a plastic container for liquids, you can easily modify a cylinder until it attains the shape you want. If that container must hold exactly 0.75 liters, your job is more challenging.

form•Z is a complex program with many different object types and editing tools. It's not a program you're likely to master on your own, so plan on taking a class.

form•Z v4 was released in April 2003. Many of the changes in this release are to the program's internal structure. Autoodesosys rewrote the program to provide an open architecture and give it a modular structure so it can accept plug-ins and scripts. For starters, autoodesosys offers Sketch Rendering ($300) to emulate freehand sketching, Point-cloud Re-engineering ($350) to work with large numbers of points, and a STEP Translator ($350) to import files from other 3D programs. Version 4.0 also reworked the toolbars and dialog boxes and added 22 new modeling tools, many of which are related to NURBS objects.

trueSpace 6.6
3D modeling
Caligari Corp.
Price: $595
Operating systems: Windows 95/98/ME/ NT/2000/XP
Cadalyst Labs review: January 2003, p. 28

trueSpace combines 3D modeling, photorealistic rendering, and animation into one program. Even though trueSpace is a Windows program, it has a very unWindows-like interface because it relies almost exclusively on buttons and icons. This works fine once you learn which button of more than 350 does what you want and where it's located. Until then, you spend a lot of time looking for buttons. Caligari seems to go out of its way to make trueSpace different. The Loft tool, for instance, creates a 3D surface by sweeping a profile object along a path, rather than by connecting a set of profiles with a surface, as virtually every other program does.

The modeling tools are especially useful for creating freeform, organic shapes, and often you create them by modifying a basic geometric shape such as a sphere or a cylinder. Thus, to model a vase, you can extrude a circle and then edit the vertical profile of the resulting tube to achieve the shape you want. trueSpace provides three basic 3D object types-NURBS, which always have smooth surfaces; polyhedra, which have faceted surfaces; and metaballs, which are used primarily in animations.

trueSpace's rendering tools are powerful. It comes with a variety of light types and materials, including bump maps. It also supports radiosity, which is useful for rendering lighting effects, especially in interior scenes. And you can even simulate falling snow, haze, and ground fog.

The most promising feature of trueSpace is its animation tools. With them you can create walkthroughs in 3D models of structures and create objects that move, roll, drop, and bounce. You can assign physical attributes to objects so that they behave like a real material such as iron or rubber. You can even control environmental elements such as gravity and atmospheric density. Organic objects can walk, move and bend their arms, flex their muscles, and even speak. Facial animation requires at least Windows 98 as the operating system.

TurboCAD Professional 9.5
2D drafting with 3D modeling capabilities
Price: $695
Operating systems: Windows 98/ME/ NT/2000/XP
Cadalyst Labs review:January 2004, June 2003

If you think of TurboCAD as an inexpensive, oddball CAD program best suited to hobbyists, you need to think again--especially if you work in both 2D and 3D. TurboCAD is updated every year or so, and with each revision it becomes more sophisticated.

You can create both architectural and mechanical 3D models. TurboCAD creates solid and surface models, although its surfacing tools are limited. Lofting is its only tool for creating NURBS surfaces. Its solid modeling tools, though, are complete. They include lofting, sweeps along nonplanar paths, shelling, filleting, and Boolean operations. For architectural models, TurboCAD offers specialized tools for creating and editing walls, door and window openings in walls, and roofs. In addition to tools for 3D objects, TurboCAD comes with a photorealistic renderer that contains a wide assortment of lights, materials, and backgrounds.

The current version is TurboCAD 9. Its main update is the interface and how it presents options. Real-time viewpoint operations also work better, but there's still no real-time zoom.

Rhino 3.0
3D modeler
McNeel & Associates
Price: $895
Operating systems: Windows 98/ME/ NT/2000/XP
Supplemental program: Flamingo 1.1 ($495) for photorealistic radiosity rendering
Cadalyst Labs review:August 2003

Whether you design jewelry, contemporary buildings, yachts, or anything in between, Rhino has the tools to create the 3D geometry you need. Furthermore, you'll find it a pleasure to work in its well thought-out environment. Rhino is a first-rate modeler with a very reasonable price.

Unlike the 3D modelers that evolved though a series of technologies and as a result have numerous different object types, just about every Rhino object is either a NURBS curve or a NURBS surface. This significantly eases your work because you don't have to create specific objects to perform certain tasks or learn the properties of a variety of object types along with the tools to create and edit each of them.

Rhino breaks from the usual Windows interface by incorporating a Command line. Though at first this may seem to be an outmoded feature, it helps you specify options during an operation with just a few keystrokes, rather than using property panels or picking items from right-click menus and dialog boxes. And you can specify point coordinates by typing them at the Command line. You can also initiate operations from tool buttons, the menu bar, and shortcut keys.

Rhino 3 is a from-the-ground-up rewrite using up-to-date development techniques. Its most visible changes are in the user interface and the viewing and selection modes. Scripting tools are enhanced, along with hooks for third-party applications. Point clouds for handling large numbers of points (such as those from digitized objects) are now supported, and several existing commands have new options. The basic tools used to create and manage 3D objects, though, remain as they were.

VectorWorks 10.5
2D drafting with 3D modeling capabilities
Nemetschek North America
Price: $895
Operating systems: Windows 98/ME/ NT/2000/XP, Macintosh OS 9.2+
Supplemental programs:
RenderWorks ($300) adds photorealistic rendering
VectorWorks Landmark ($1,295) for 2D and 3D landscape design and site modeling
VectorWorks Architect ($1,295) for architectural 2D and 3D design and construction management
VectorWorks Mechanical ($1,295) for mechanical 2D and 3D design
Cadalyst Labs review: July 2002, p. 42

VectorWorks is a 2D drafting and 3D modeling program for both Windows and Macintosh. Release 10.5 adds a two-rail sweep to the options for the Loft tool.
VectorWorks is a 2D drafting and 3D modeling program for Windows and Macintosh. The interface is for all practical purposes identical for both platforms. VectorWorks has very powerful 3D tools to create architectural and mechanical models. They are powerful enough that you should consider VectorWorks even if you work primarily in 3D and only occasionally need 2D drafting capabilities.

For architectural models, VectorWorks incorporates unique hybrid objects that appear 2D in plan views, yet are 3D in all other views. One of these hybrid object types is used to create walls. In plan views, the walls appear as conventional 2D walls that have bands to indicate such items as exterior sheathing, studs, and interior wallboard. Whenever you switch to an isometric-type view, the walls have height and opaque surfaces. When you draw a wall, you can specify the number of bands it has, its thickness, and its appearance in plan views. Other hybrid 2D and 3D objects include windows, doors, cabinets, and roofs.

VectorWorks has a full set of tools used to create primitives, extrude profile objects linearly or along a 2D or 3D path, and revolve a profile (which VectorWorks calls a Sweep operation). As a sweep option, you can revolve a profile through a helix path. Once you create primitives, you can use the Boolean add, subtract, and intersect operations to create complex 3D objects. You can also round and bevel the sharp edges of these objects.

In addition, VectorWorks has a full set of tools to create NURBS curves and surfaces. The Loft tool, for example, creates a 3D object from a set of profile curves that are in different planes. The profiles can be open or closed. When they are closed, you can cap the ends of the resulting 3D object to make a solid. Once you create one or more NURBS surfaces, you can trim and cut holes in them, combine and blend them, and even use Boolean operations on them.

VectorWorks v10.5 is the current version, and v10.0 owners can upgrade at no cost. Many of the program's improved 3D features are for NURBS surfaces. Options for the Loft tool let you sweep one or more profiles along a rail curve and sweep a single profile along two rail curves (figure 3). A new Revolve With Rail tool creates a surface by revolving a profile curve about an axis and along a rail curve. The Project and Trim tool, which projects a curve onto a surface, has been expanded so that it now splits the surface, extrudes the curve to the surface, and trims the surface.

About the Author: John E. Wilson

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