File Sharing/Publishing

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News #120 (May 6, 2004)

5 May, 2004

A few months ago I reviewed a program called Presenter Pro from QuadriSpace that's designed to work with CAD models. You can import and view 3D models as well as 2D drawings and then use the program's tools to make it easier to understand the model-for example, by adding 3D items such as markups, sections, and interactive animations. Another product that offers some of the same features is SpinFire Professional from Actify. Both programs are essentially aimed at the novice CAD/3D user.

Although some think 3D viewing and markup is fairly new technology, Actify has been at this since 1996. In addition to SpinFire Professional, the San Francisco-based company offers a server product and a developer's toolkit, as well as a free reader, what it likes to think of as "the Adobe Acrobat of 3D." SpinFire Professional 2004 was recently released, and I had the opportunity to work with it.

During installation, SpinFire Professional inquires which translators you want to install. In addition to neutral formats such as DWG, STEP, IGES, and others, the program reads in most major CAD formats directly, including SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Inventor, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, Unigraphics, and more. Soon after the install finished, I easily imported my first model, an Inventor file.

On the left side of the screen is a browser called the Model Explorer, which contains three tabs. In the Model tab, the program automatically recognizes the different components of an assembly and allows individual view control of each one. A second tab provides quick access to standard views (top, front, etc.) along with any user-defined views that were saved. The final tab is for markups, discussed below. A useful viewing feature is the ability to split the screen into multiple views, such as three orthographic projections and one isometric.

spinfire in action

This 250K Inventor assembly took less than a minute to open on a fairly slow laptop. Here the model has been sectioned, and various notes and dimensions added.

Navigating is easy— click the right mouse button and drag over the imported model to rotate, Ctrl-click to zoom, and Shift-click to pan. However, an always-visible, on-screen prompt informing the user of these shortcuts would be a nice addition for those new to 3D.

Actify Professional sectioning tools are much easier to employ than Presenter Pro's. Hitting the Enable/Disable Section icon immediately activates a 3D cutting plane, thus slicing the model in half along the y axis. If this is not the slice you wanted, it's easy to rotate the cutting plane simply by dragging it from the appropriate points. If too much or not enough of the model was sliced, dragging other points repositions the section plane. This manipulation is so easy that someone with absolutely no 3D experience could figure it out.

To mark up the model, Actify Professional offers many different options, including several measurement tools. It's possible to dimension between two points, dimension between an edge and a point, measure the length of only a single edge, and so on. I also like the way you can measure the extents of a single component by automatically creating a boundary box, which can help determine how one component, designed in one CAD product, fits inside a different component designed in a different CAD product. What's also handy is the way the x,y,z coordinates of a single point can be determined relative to any reference frame that is set up. Without much effort, the reference frame that any such point relates to can be changed to relate to a different reference frame.

With a single mouse-click, Actify Professional also determines a part's volume, surface area, and center of mass. Adding notes is very easy. Once any annotation is added, simply click on it and drag to move it — no special tool is needed. What's more impressive is that all dimensions and notes remain visible during and after the rotation of model - in some programs they disappear, and the only way to see them again is to return to the exact view where they were originally added.

Just like a model's components and standard views, these markups are all stored in the Model Explorer, where they can be easily hidden or deleted, or in the case of dimensions, have their units changed. Two other well-thought-out features are the ability to easily see who added the markup and a method to add your own comment, such as "Does this volume meet the client's specs?" A new feature in version 2004 is the ability to take a 2D snapshot to capture a view at a specific point in time, thus adding another tool to help fully document a model.

One limitation I ran into is the inability to open more than one file at a time. However, version 2004 adds the capability to open multiple file formats, including 2D and 3D, in the same file. This not only makes it easy to compare data, but also to group all the documents associated with a single project. What's important is that 2D files can include PDFs, TIFFs, and even Microsoft Office documents.

After everything is added to the model, you can send it to another Actify Professional user via the Actify Server Solution mentioned earlier, thus allowing the entire enterprise to access and share files. If the Server Solution isn't installed, an Actify Professional file can be e-mailed as an attachment. The 300+KB Inventor assembly I was working with was compressed to less than 30KB in Actify's .3D format.

For only $499, Actify Professional is a great tool for individuals and companies that deal with a large variety of different types of CAD and other project-related data. It provides many useful tools, and most of them are so easy to use that even a novice to CAD and 3D can be productive in a short time.