Cadalyst Labs Report: Meet Me on the Cloud27 Nov, 2012 By: Shaun Bryant
Web-based solutions for file sharing and design review support collaboration in the office and on the go.
Does the future of professional computer-aided design lie on the cloud? All the buzz from vendors and the media would have us believe it does. Meanwhile, vocal naysayers in online communities seem to be resisting the cloud migration with all their might. Only time will tell how it all plays out, but what we do know today is that CAD users and managers have their choice of an increasing number of cloud-based options that claim to improve design workflows by saving time and money and delivering functionality that desktop solutions can't always match. Applications include data management, file sharing and design review, CAD, design rendering, analysis/simulation, and product lifecycle management. One category — file sharing and review, or what we term collaboration — is growing quickly and already delivering on its promises. That's where we'll focus our attention for this Cadalyst Labs Report.
What Is the Cloud?
Before the term cloud came into popular use, this genre of technology was known as software as a service (SaaS). With SaaS, users don't buy software and download it to their computers; instead, the software runs on remote servers, users access and use it via an Internet browser, and the cost is often determined by the level of use. Data that users create via SaaS tools is typically stored online as well. Examples of familiar cloud-based solutions include online banking, Facebook, Salesforce, Adobe Creative Cloud, and, well, anything Google.
Because cloud-based services are accessible from any Internet-enabled device, they lend themselves naturally to mobile applications, extending their reach to the job site or shop floor — or anywhere the user happens to be when that unexpected request or crisis pops up.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Cloud-based software could be a CAD manager's dream or could keep that same CAD manager awake at night, depending on how you look at it. Significant pluses include the following:
- Cost savings. Cloud-based solutions generally cost less to use and require significantly less hardware to run than their traditional counterparts, and they can offer data storage and processing power that exceeds what a company is able to buy and maintain in-house. Companies can tap into tools they need occasionally without paying a hefty price.
- Simple maintenance. By and large, SaaS upgrades are managed and controlled by the provider and happen automatically for the user; therefore, CAD and IT managers don't have to hassle with installation, troubleshooting, or maintenance.
- Easy mobility. For organizations that need to support mobile access to CAD data, cloud-based services are a solution that doesn't require heavy lifting by the CAD or IT manager in terms of network and security implementations.
- Disaster recovery. If your IT infrastructure is struck by crime, fire, or natural disaster, users of cloud-based software could carry on their work from any other location that has web-connected computers and power.
On the minus side, SaaS presents security and reliability concerns for professional applications that involve proprietary data and mission-critical software. Important considerations include the following:
- Data access and security. What measures are in place to thwart unauthorized access to your data? How, where, and how often is data backed up? Can you maintain your own backups of data created on the cloud? Find out what would happen should your data become inaccessible, corrupted, or lost.
- System reliability. Similarly, if the service goes down temporarily or the provider goes out of business, what happens? How would you carry on your design work? Backed-up data is of little use without access to the software.
- Data ownership. Who owns the data that users create and store on remote servers: your company or the service provider? Make sure you fully understand this crucial detail, and get the answer in writing if it's not spelled out in the user agreement.
- Software updates. Provider-managed upgrades can be a bonus, as noted previously, but in some cases they can be a drawback as well. You don't get to wait for a critical deadline to pass before migrating to a new version or let the early adopters ferret out any bugs that slip past Quality Control.
A Word about Private Clouds
It should be noted that although the solutions reviewed in this article are hosted by service providers, that is not your only option. Indeed, organizations can build their own cloud-based networks using in-house servers to host software that is accessible only to authorized users — reaping many of the benefits of cloud-based software while addressing common concerns. (For more on this topic, read "Your Own Private CAD Cloud," by CAD-management expert Robert Green, on Cadalyst.com.)
When considering cloud-based software solutions for design collaboration, don't be daunted by naysayers — or by the unknown. Just as you would do when evaluating desktop software, you should begin your search for cloud services by identifying your goals, requirements, and concerns. Accept or eliminate options based on those criteria, not on whether the solution happens to be hosted on the cloud. Our accompanying mini-reviews will get you started in learning about the available options, and many of these tools are low-cost or even free, so it's fairly easy to give them a trial run. You might find that the cloud is just what you need to elevate the level of your design productivity.
Covered in this review:
- Autodesk 360
- Design Play Technologies Sunglass
- Gehry Technologies GTeam
- VisPower Technology TeamPlatform
- BIMobject: Free Sofas and Faucets for Building Design
- Microsoft's NimbleVue Extends Reach of JT Data
Pros: Ideal for organizations standardized on Autodesk products but also works with other CAD programs; comprises a superb range of cloud-based tools and applications. Autodesk subscription customers get bonus tools.
Cons: Several tools, especially the more powerful ones, support only specific Autodesk products and customers.
Autodesk 360 is a cloud-based solution that provides storage, an Internet-based workspace, and collaboration tools for a variety of CAD applications (figure 1). Services include web-based tools to view and edit 2D and 3D designs; share, collaborate, and track files; render designs; test and optimize Inventor models; manage building information modeling (BIM) data; and more. All users gain 3 GB of data storage and basic features by setting up an account; Autodesk subscription customers get 25 GB of storage as well as bonus features that include rendering, design optimization, and energy analysis.
Figure 1. Within Autodesk 360, you have 3 GB of free storage. From the dashboard, you can see a list of documents with information for each indicating the owner, size, date when it was last modified, and whether there are any current comments.
How it works. One of the major benefits of Autodesk 360 is that you can share design files with anyone — even those who don't use Autodesk products. Users can view and edit the files in both 2D and 3D, via a proprietary web tool that works with most Internet browsers. I effortlessly used Autodesk 360 on Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari.
Autodesk 360 document-management tools make it easy to share files, monitor and track file updates, and download the latest version of any file. Better still, you can work on an existing design and invite others to comment on the design while you work. You can receive those comments on the fly, saving valuable time in the design process. The system can notify you by e-mail when file edits and updates are finished. It's easy to send a file link to a client so they can monitor progress and send comments, thereby becoming more involved in the design process.
In addition to its collaboration options, the platform offers great tools such as Autodesk 360 Rendering. You can render large drawings in the cloud, freeing up your desktop for other design work. An e-mail notification lets you know when your render is complete.
Autodesk 360 Mobile (previously Design Review Mobile) brings your data to the iOS and Android mobile platforms for file viewing and sharing on the go. Using the standalone AutoCAD WS app, you can view, edit, and share DWG files on mobile devices.
Users can also perform simulation in a mobile environment using Autodesk ForceEffect and ForceEffect Motion apps. Simulation on an iPad — how cool is that?
You can read more about Autodesk 360 in this month's "Circles and Lines," by Lynn Allen.
In summary. Autodesk 360 is a comprehensive suite of powerful tools for collaboration and other CAD-related applications. For users of Autodesk software, it is an obvious choice.
Price: Approximately $99–$799 per year, depending on your CAD program.
Pros: Excellent choice for design firms of all sizes; simple and effective.
Cons: None significant.
CadFaster|Collaborate is a cloud-based collaboration plugin tool for programs such as Revit, Vectorworks, and SolidWorks. I tried out the plugin for Revit Architecture 2013 and was pleasantly surprised by its simplicity. This version installed quickly from the Autodesk Exchange App Store and runs from the Add-Ins tab on the Revit ribbon menu.
How it works. CadFaster|Collaborate is a bit different from other collaboration tools. With one click in the design software, your model is prepared and bundled with a viewer that allows multiple users — whether or not they have 3D or BIM software — to review and mark up the design, even while coviewing in real time. Users can view models through the usual pan, zoom, and section views, plus a walk-through mode with interior perspectives and design details offers a unique viewing experience (figure 2). You can secure your models by turning off public access and giving each model an access code.
Figure 2. From within CadFaster|Collaborate, users can view models via a walk-through mode.
A free CadFaster|Collaborate app for the iPad is available at the Apple App Store, which gives you mobile access to your CAD models stored in the CadFaster 3D model box. With it, you can view, coview, and mark up on the road.
The company recently released MyCadBox, a free cloud storage service where you can upload, download, and archive mark-up and discussion threads. MyCadBox is very simple to use, and you can log in via a Google or Yahoo account.
In summary. CadFaster|Collaborate is a simple, compact collaboration tool. CadFaster's mobile tools are easy to use and fulfill expectations. From a mobile collaboration standpoint, CadFaster was the easiest to use of all the tools discussed here, and the export from Revit to mobile was fast and clean, with no fuss. Free trial versions are available.
Design Play Technologies
Price: Free for Basic version (10 projects); $25/month for Pro (100 projects); $75/month for Ultimate (1,000 projects).
Pros: Supports multiple CAD platforms, thanks to integrated plugins for seamless collaboration in the cloud-based collaboration viewer.
Cons: New product, not fully field-tested yet; limited plugins so far.
Design Play Technologies launched a major upgrade to Sunglass in October 2012. Targeted toward industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, and product designers, the cloud-based solution allows users to collaborate on and manage projects across CAD environments, especially multi-CAD platforms. Install an available plugin for Inventor, SolidWorks, Rhinoceros (Windows versions only), or SketchUp (OSX version only) and you can access Sunglass directly from your CAD application. Its wide applicability opens up the 3D modeling marketplace for Sunglass, providing millions of designers with the ability to use it with their project teams.
How it works. To organize information, Sunglass stores all models, notes, and details about project collaborators in Projects, which are stored in a Gallery. To simplify tracking, the Gallery shows a bird's-eye view of all your projects and any related activity. From there you can designate hierarchical Spaces (similar to how you create assemblies in SolidWorks) to invite other users to see specific models.
You share your models on Stage, the Sunglass dashboard. After using a plugin to upload models from your design program onto the Stage, you can collaborate with others in real time via messages and rich media annotations. These can include images, PDFs, videos, and hyperlinks, all pinned onto the 3D models as notes. This method is so innovative! A brief video recorded by a machine operator on the shop floor could resolve a design query in seconds rather than hours.
Users can work on 3D CAD assemblies simultaneously and share projects on a part-by-part basis, while other parts of a complex assembly are kept private. It is a competitive world out there, and this is an important feature to maintain the security of intellectual capital and design copyright.
Sunglass integrates easily into a designer's existing workflow. The programming architecture supports lossless data models (solids, B-reps, NURBS, tessellations) and assembly part mapping, along with version history.
The Version Browser (figure 3) in Sunglass is an invaluable tool, allowing designers and engineers to compare multiple revisions of a design and locate the needed version. Once you have made your selection, you sync with your design program, and Sunglass tracks all the options you've created.
Figure 3. The Version Browser in Sunglass allows designers and engineers to compare multiple revisions of a design and locate the desired version.
In summary. Sunglass helps you track and manage changes in your design process in a way that was not possible before. It makes it simple to work through revisions and edits in a live, visual format with both collaborators and clients alike.
Price: Starts at $99/month for the Professional version; pricing varies for Business and Enterprise versions.
Pros: Superb collaboration tool for designers in the AEC field; familiar 3D authoring tools; excellent tools for creating bills of materials, schedules, and take-offs; excellent mobile tools.
Cons: Likely to be overkill for small AEC firms.
GTeam from Gehry Technologies, launched in October 2012, offers cloud-based collaboration and storage; in addition, it generates its own neutral 3D model format from numerous software applications.
How it works. GTeam supports 2D and 3D viewing from any web browser on any device, ranging from desktop to mobile, making the collaboration workspace global. It provides security via permissions you set up for the design team, collaborators, and any third-party viewers. It also offers unique visual tracking and auditing capabilities for any type of document.
To begin, you can import models from a variety of programs, such as Digital Project, AutoCAD, Revit, Rhino, and SketchUp. GTeam offers a superb group of 3D browser-based tools, including 3D Model Viewing, which lets users explore 3D projects by using filters to display only the appropriate views of a model (figure 4); 3D Annotation, with easy-to-use built-in annotation tools; and 3D Snapshot, used to create neutral 3D models to capture a modification and send it to the design team for review.
Figure 4. Gehry Technology's GTeam shows the current model, plus additional views of a model available for viewing and collaboration.
One of the best features in GTeam is its 3D Clash Detection tool. Being able to perform clash detection and interference checking on multiple 3D models is invaluable, especially on models created with different authoring tools. Imagine the time you could save working with a Revit model — for example, checking the steelwork structure and HVAC ducting in the same workspace.
The project browser helps you manage your models. Its effective Browse and Sync setup shows thumbnails of the 3D models stored in a project. Other excellent data-management features include checking in and checking out, to prevent other project members from revising a model or document while it is in use by someone else. File Sets act as bookmarks, saving time on a complex project structure by isolating the area of the project you are working on. The Releases function lets you take a snapshot of the project including models, drawings, and documents. GTeam also offers reporting tools to create custom downloadable BIM reports.
In summary. GTeam is a superb web-based 3D, file management, and project collaboration platform purpose-built for AEC professionals. By providing 3D model viewing at any time, it has the potential to increase productivity within the design team and reduce IT and software costs. A free trial version is available.
Price: Free for Personal version (1 seat, 1 GB storage); $25/month for Team (25 seats, 50 GB storage); varies for Enterprise (25+ seats, unlimited storage).
Pros: Comprehensive cloud-based collaboration tool for manufacturing; offers superb cloud-based assembly design and analysis features.
Cons: None significant.
TeamPlatform from VisPower Technology is a browser-based file-sharing, collaboration, and data-management tool for users of major mechanical CAD solutions. It is available in three versions: Personal, Team, and Enterprise.
How it works. TeamPlatform offers comprehensive 2D and 3D CAD support. It works with AutoCAD, Rhino, SketchUp, and other CAD programs. The company recognizes that design concepts often start in 2D, transition to 3D modeling, and then move back to 2D for manufacturing specifications. Regardless of whether the workflow is for initial design or parts specification for manufacture, 2D files and drawings are critical to the design process.
TeamPlatform offers scalable vector-graphic online previews of common 2D drawing formats, enabling use of AutoCAD and many other products for 2D CAD. The vector format allows for precision 2D drawing so you can zoom into a 2D model quickly and gain accurate information.
Browser-based annotation tools, including a highlighter, circles, and callouts, help with detailing and reviews throughout the design, manufacturing, and assembly process (figure 5).
Figure 5. TeamPlatform incorporates strong 2D CAD viewing tools, including a 2D drawing viewer with highlighting and annotation capabilities.
Often in manufacturing software, a finalized design starts with the geometry and ends with production. The unique properties of this design, or metadata, are used to store essential information and material details that can then be used when developing bills of materials. With TeamPlatform, all metadata becomes accessible from the model, is easily searchable, and can be exported into a native Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
As with other cloud-based collaboration tools mentioned here, the program allows you to view your 3D models, CAD parts, and assemblies seamlessly in the web browser (using spin, zoom, and explode tools). TeamPlatform also provides tools for rendering, saving, and measuring models and parts. It offers autocomputed mass properties, autoassembly model tracing, and a Pack and Go function. Plus, it now supports point clouds and instant quoting for 3D printing services.
In summary. I could write an entire article about the TeamPlatform tool — it's that comprehensive. It covers almost every capability needed for a cloud-based collaboration tool for the manufacturing world, making it an easy choice if you are looking for a manufacturing-centric system.
Free Sofas and Faucets for Building Design
As building information modeling moves forward, so does the need for accurate object and family information in 3D models. BIMobject, a comprehensive BIM object catalog, is a new player in the cloud-based BIM object catalog arena and is completely free. Although not exactly a collaboration tool, BIMobject is a great example of a solution that taps the potential of cloud-based technology for CAD users. The company's goal is to make BIMobject accessible to everyone.
BIM objects are available in a variety of proprietary and neutral file formats (depending on what is provided by the product manufacturer) and plugins are available for direct catalog access from BIM solutions such as Autodesk Revit, AutoCAD, ArchiCAD, and SketchUp. Having access to these 3D models means you can design using real objects made in the real world.
Based in Sweden, BIMobject currently has a European flavor to its object selection. As its market offering builds, more global brands will become available.
Simply download the app from the BIMobject web site, install it, and you'll see a new BIMobject tab in your particular 3D modeling software. For my test, I selected a brand-name sofa and added it to a new Revit project, straight from the browser — I didn't even need to load a Revit family. I found it to be a revelation to go directly to the BIMobject catalog through the built-in browser in Revit. Architects and designers will appreciate the speed and simplicity of this process. — S.B.
With just a few clicks, I inserted this BIMobject sofa in a Revit Architecture 2013 project.
Microsoft's NimbleVue Extends Reach of JT Data
By Simon Floyd
At the JT Open International Conference in Barcelona in September 2012, Microsoft shared a technical preview of NimbleVue, a Windows 8 application that supports collaboration centered on JT. JT is an open 3D file format used extensively in product lifecycle management. NimbleVue facilitates design-to-manufacturing processes for mobile and office-based professionals who depend on 3D information. Windows 8 supports high-performance, touch-friendly interaction with JT-format files as well as data exchange with other applications such as Microsoft Office on all form factors, including slates, tablets, notebooks, and desktop computers. And it facilitates file sharing by tapping the built-in connectivity of Windows 8 to SkyDrive, the cloud-based file-sharing service from Microsoft.
With NimbleVue for JT, users can easily navigate and comment on a product’s
design via mobile and desktop devices.
The JT Open Program is a community of industry professionals dedicated to making 3D information broadly accessible via the freely available JT file format. Many of the most successful global companies, such as Boeing, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, are JT adopters and are members of the JT Open Program. Since its inception in 1997, JT has grown to become the most widely used 3D format for collaboration and visualization by enabling collaborative sharing of 3D content authored in CAD systems. JT lends itself well to use on mobile devices because it comprises lightweight 3D data and associated details in a lightweight format.
Editor's note: 3D Viewer for JT, as it is officially named, was released in early March 2013 and is available for download from the Windows Store.
Simon Floyd is the director of innovation and product lifecycle management solutions strategy for the Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing Industry team at Microsoft.