General Software

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News #124 (July 1, 2004)

30 Jun, 2004

One of the most overlooked 2D/3D CAD programs is VectorWorks from Nemetschek North America ( The program debuted on the Apple Macintosh in 1985 and at that time was called MiniCAD. After more than ten years, its developers felt that MiniCAD was not indicative of the power it offered, so they changed the name to VectorWorks. At about the same time, the software premiered on Windows. Soon after, the company started developing products for specific industries, hence VectorWorks Mechanical.

Since then, a major upgrade of VectorWorks has been released every year or two. Recently, v11 premiered with several new enhancements. Before I go into those, let me do an overview of the major features of VectorWorks Mechanical to get you more familiar with it.

Having started on the Mac, the program still doesn't look and feel completely like a Windows application. For instance, when you open it, you don't see the familiar icons for New, Open, Save and so on. On the other hand, it's not a difficult program to get started with because its menus are fairly well organized and most of its tools are easy to locate. VectorWorks was one of the first programs to employ auto-alignment technology, which makes use of existing geometry to assist in the creation of new entities. This also works, to a certain extent, when building 3D shapes. Speaking of building geometry, you'll find a wide array of 2D and 3D creation and editing tools, as well as commands for adding dimensions, notes, GD&T symbols and so on. For the most part, the large majority of these items are easy to create.

Over the years, Nemetschek has added more mechanical-oriented tools to the Mechanical product to the point where the list is fairly impressive. For instance, it developed its own constraint system to allow mechanical designers to perform parametric sketching. Though it lacks some of the advanced constraints found in the group of programs we typically associate with MCAD solid modelers, it supports most geometrical and dimension-based constraints.

Another powerful feature is VectorWorks Mechanical's parametric symbol libraries. They contain everything from simple screws and nuts to complex bearings, springs and gears. To insert a component, simply select the desired symbol, click where you want to place it, and VectorWorks displays a dialog box showing the input criteria related to that item. Version 11 also adds a few new parts, including a ball bearing lock nut. In the past, most of the symbols were 2D only, but now just about every 2D symbol has a 3D counterpart, with the exception of the library of structural steel shapes.

VectorWorks parametric libraries

Parametric libraries in VectorWorks offer a wide assortment of 2D and 3D symbols.

Speaking of structural shapes, VectorWorks also has a set of engineering analysis tools and calculators, similar to some of those found in AutoCAD Mechanical. For instance, to find out the proper beam sizes needed to support your latest machine design, v11 implements a built-in beam calculator. This is in addition to the more sophisticated existing beam analysis tool that requires the inputs to be entered in a separate template file. There are also built-in calculators for figuring out the loads on shafts and springs, as well as tools to determine the lengths of belts and chains. Unfortunately, as with previous versions, none of these analysis tools can take input from geometry already created, and none of the calculators actually draw the geometry they describe. So, for example, the program tells you the required chain length, but it won't draw the chain for you.

A few years ago Nemetschek added a powerful set of surfacing tools to help complement its existing solid modeling operations, which now include 3D filleting, chamfering, shelling, Boolean operations, and more. Some of the current surfacing operations include a fairly robust lofting command, a boundary-type surfacing tool, surface trimming, and surface construction tools such as the ability to project curves onto surfaces. The ability to extend a NURBS surface by a specified distance was added in v11.

Speaking of v11, let's look at what else is new here. For starters, the software features more interactive editing of 3D shapes. For instance, you can now change the angles of a tapered shape by dynamically dragging an edit point. Another improvement involves the ability to add a shape's 3D volumetric data to a model. In addition, a 3D locus can now be placed to graphically mark an object's center of mass. Unfortunately, these properties don't update as the 3D shape changes, but they are still useful additions.

The 2D area of the program also features a host of improvements. These include everything from important issues such as the allowable accuracy of angular dimensions to relatively minor additions such as an increase in the number of user-defined dashed line styles. There are also 2D changes that relate to the user interface, such as quicker access to layer and class visibility settings. Classes are like sub-layers, and now both classes and layers are easier to manage, as are notes. Another nice user interface change is that items contained in the program's Resource Browser - which include hatches, gradients, images and symbols - can now be dragged directly into the work area. This also includes nongraphic data stored in database-type records, which, incidentally, are another powerful aspect of VectorWorks Mechanical.

As far as interoperability, VectorWorks Mechanical 11 now imports and exports files in DXF/DWG 2004 format (with viewports and paper space entities), but there's no support yet for DXF/DWG 2005. Batch processing of DXF and DWG files is another handy new addition. I tested a DWG 2004 file that usually causes problems for other programs, especially in the scaling of text and annotations. By comparison, in VectorWorks 11 it came in better, but the arrowheads did scale too large.

For the first time, SAT (ACIS) files can be imported and exported, as long as the exported SAT file is ACIS v10 or earlier. A simple model I tested worked well. However, a second model saved from Autodesk Inventor lost some faces where variable radius fillets were located and in other areas.

In addition, according to Nemetschek, some speed increases affect the regeneration of 2D entities. I didn't really work on anything that complex to notice, but I did note that the shading of 3D models is still very slow.

VectorWorks Mechanical 11 won't be an ideal solution for many mechanical engineers, but it does pack a lot of tools in a package with a street price of less than $1,300. It's not a replacement for MCAD programs like SolidWorks and Inventor, but with its engineering tools, it may make a nice complementary product. If you're looking for an inexpensive, powerful, somewhat easy-to-use 2D mechanical application with a lot more 3D capabilities than AutoCAD Mechanical and with parametric mechanical symbols and engineering tools not found in TurboCAD, it may be the solution for you.