General Software

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News #125 (July 15, 2004)

14 Jul, 2004

IronCAD has always been one of my favorite MCAD programs because of its simple user interface and powerful features. Atlanta-based IronCAD LLC recently introduced v7 of its flagship product. I downloaded a trial version, and before I detail some of the new tools, let me start with an overview of the core functionality.

Ease of use can be measured in many ways. To some it simply means having a standard Windows user interface. To others, it means a well-organized and comprehensible set of tools and menus. IronCAD has had these features ever since it was introduced back in 1998. At the same time it took ease of use to a new level -- a level that most other MCAD programs still haven't reached.

For starters, there is the creation of solids. You can extrude, revolve, and so forth from constrained sketches as with other MCAD applications, but in IronCAD it's possible to simply drag solid shapes from an area of the program known as the Shapes Catalog to the workspace. And these aren't the token four or five primitives usually found in those few programs that offer them. In IronCAD, a wealth of sophisticated shapes can be created in a manner of seconds. These include pyramids, truncated cones and automated lofts, as well as standard items such as gears, bearings, and structural shapes. In addition, most of the shapes have an equivalent cut-out shape. The 3D Slot tool creates a boss, for example, while its companion, the 3D Hole Slot, makes a cutout.

Once you place the shapes, editing is just as easy. The program automatically displays dynamic editing handles as soon as the object is selected -- no special editing tool is needed. IronCAD also allows users to drill down in the selection process -- the first click selects the entire body, the next click just a face, and so on. Another interesting aspect of these shapes is that the underlying base sketches are automatically created, so it's possible to edit the 3D geometry using traditional sketching techniques.

Still another powerful aspect of the IronCAD user interface is the TriBall. This lets you quickly position shapes and mate them to other parts, once again by simply dragging. IronCAD doesn't have a separate assembly mode, so there is no artificial division between parts and assemblies.

All these user interface features combine to provide ease of use that can be measured by how quickly users create components using intuitive tools and fewer steps.

Though IronCAD's simple modeling techniques haven't diminished its power, it has lacked some important options. Version 7 adds variable radius rounds in the Fillet command and variable wall thicknesses in the Shell command. Both new options are easy to use, but I was disappointed to find that it's still not possible to define fillet size or shell thickness by dragging.

variable fillets

IronCad's new variable radius filleting and shelling.

As noted earlier, IronCAD doesn't have a separate assembly modeling module, but parts can still be imported and assembled as in other MCAD programs. In previous versions, when you added a feature like a cut, it not only drilled through all the parts in the assembly, but all the external parts as well, which is sometimes not desired. So v7 adds an Assembly Feature option, which is accessed by dragging the desired Catalog part (usually a cutout feature) while pressing the right mouse button instead of the left. I worked with this new feature and found it very easy and powerful. One of my favorite options is how these Assembly Features can be turned into regular feature if desired, which is consistent with the flexibility typically found in IronCAD.

IronCAD has always had some of the best -- and, you guessed it, easiest -- sheet-metal design capabilities. Version 7 adds the ability to create conical shapes. Another nice , albeit overdue, modeling enhancement is the addition of guide curves when building lofted shapes.

Surfacing was introduced a few versions ago, and this release is the first to make major enhancements in this area. For instance, you can now fillet two surfaces as well as extend a surface. To help construct surface geometry, IronCAD 7 adds the ability to create 3D curves by using four new techniques. The first three are pretty standard in most 3D applications: curve creation by projecting edges, iso-parametric curves from existing surfaces, and curves from intersecting parts/surfaces. The fourth option is very powerful -- a curve created by entering mathematical formulas for the x, y and z directions.

IronCAD v7 also adds many little -- but important -- tweaks to help the workflow. For example, when a shape is dragged by one of the editing handles alluded to earlier, a dimensional readout now displays. Also, its possible to Ctrl-click on multiple handles to perform more advanced editing when dragging. This comes in handy when you wish to drag symmetrically.

IronCAD v7 features more powerful workplanes and a bunch of new drafting improvements, particularly involving dimensions and layers, as well as several new sectioning tools. Once of my favorite enhancements in this area is the Update Notification dialog that appears when drawings get out of sync with the model. This works independently from IronCAD's built-in PDM system, which is another powerful aspect of the program.

In a feature-by-feature battle with programs like SolidWorks and Solid Edge, IronCAD won't end up with the most checks, but could certainly hold its own against those applications in a productivity challenge. This is especially true when using the program for conceptual design. For many users, IronCAD 7 provides the best of both worlds - the power of parametric feature-based modeling without many of the limitations. If you're currently thinking about making the move to 3D or are thinking of switching to new 3D product, IronCAD deserves strong consideration.