MCAD Tech News #101 (July 10, 2003)

9 Jul, 2003 By: Joe Greco

Around mid-April, Autodesk announced that its Inventor software had been upgraded to Release 7. After loading the software and using it for awhile, I was surprised to learn that there is almost nothing new in the "upgrade." After reviewing the What's New in the Help, I received another surprise: all the items listed--and there were dozens of them--detailed the new features that were in Release 6. As it turns out, other than the ability to publish DWF files, some surface trimming capabilities, and a few enhancements to large assembly performance, Release 7 should have been named Release 6.1.

So how can Autodesk get away with this? The catch is that Inventor is now part of the Autodesk Inventor Series (AIS), which includes AutoCAD. Since the recently upgraded AutoCAD (Version 2004) is part of AIS, this upgrade, according to Autodesk, constitutes an Autodesk Inventor, ur... I mean an AIS upgrade.

Maybe it's just me, but if I were a paying Autodesk Inventor customer, I would be a little upset by this. In January of 2002, when AIS was announced, all Inventor users on subscription were essentially given three extra applications--AutoCAD, AutoCAD Mechanical, and Mechanical Desktop--to go along with Inventor. Even though one of the reasons for getting Inventor was to move away from Autodesk's older technologies, it certainly seemed like a lot of software for the money. And if they were unnecessary, the trio didn't have to be installed, so no harm done. However, now that AIS has been used to essentially skip a version of Inventor, as a paying customer, I would have to wonder what my yearly Inventor subscription fee is for. While it is true that many Autodesk customers use a combination of their products to get their jobs done, if Inventor is indeed the future of Autodesk, it shouldn't be passed over like this. Let me know what your thoughts are, especially if you are an Inventor user with an annual subscription.

Autodesk Inventor Professional

In early June I visited Autodesk to see the company's latest package, Autodesk Inventor Professional. I had the chance to use one of the main components of this package, its tubing and piping tools, for about a half day. So when I recently received my software, I was curious to see how intuitive it would be running the tools for the first time in about a month.

Unlike some applications, the piping and tubing tools in Inventor Professional are not a separate program, but rather a collection of tools accessible by clicking an arrow located on the top of the Assembly Panel Bar and selecting Tube and Pipe. I started by loading a sample file suited for the task at hand.

The first step is to set up the particular style of pipe or tube desired. Inventor Professional comes with over a dozen preset styles, but I picked the default called ASME B36.10M-ASME B16.11 - Steel Threaded Pipe. However, when I tried to create my first pipe route I received a message that read, "The Tube and Pipe Library requires a Workspace storage location for placed content. Close all of your documents and then edit your project to include a Workspace."

After fussing around for about 15 minutes trying to figure out the unintuitive user interface for the Projects Window, everything was set up properly, and the Create Route tool was activated.

In the Create Route mode, Inventor finds the center of existing holes in the assembly, and all I needed to do was click on the first one and then the second and Inventor automatically placed the first route, with proper elbows. After just a few clicks, the first route was complete. If a mistake is made when placing, you can use Undo. But then it is a multi-step process to continue the pipe where it was left off.

Besides choosing the type of pipe, the Styles also determine other rules the pipe will follow, such as the minimum and the maximum distances for each segment. For example, if you specify a maximum length of 1,000mm and a run of 1,500mm is needed, Inventor will automatically add the appropriate coupling.

The combination of the auto-routing and these rules make pipe placement fairly automatic, but there are times when manual editing is needed. So Inventor makes it possible to right click on any pipe segment and then enter an Edit Route mode. Right-clicking again allows for several options, including moving or rotating the pipe by clicking on screen or via keyboard input, as Inventor gives feedback on whether or not any rules are being broken. Other manual editing options include deleting a segment as well as inserting a node, in order to create a T-connection, a process that I found fairly easy.

The route Inventor builds is sort of a quick preview lacking detail, and, once it is finished, the next tool called Create Run is selected, thus instructing Inventor to automatically place the real pipes and elbows that match those in its library. At this point, interference checking can be done, as it is not possible during the route placement stage. The last tool called Fittings is another way to perform manual editing. For instance, users can replace an Inventor-chosen fitting with the one they've selected.

There are some limitations and flaws in the new program. Elbows are limited to only 45 and 90 degree angles and sometimes the routing could be more intelligent; as it is now, the routes sometimes intersect themselves, which then have to be undone or manually edited. However, the biggest issue for Autodesk may be pricing. Inventor Professional sells for $7,950, or about $2,000 more than a copy of SolidWorks Office bundled with SolidWorks Piping. On the other side of the coin, future versions of Inventor Professional will also perform task such as wire harness design, a result of Autodesk's recent purchase of Linius. So in short, the first version of Inventor's tubing and piping solution houses some fairly robust tools, is not that hard to use, and seems poised to deliver more value in the future.

The Autodesk Vault

Another program that I had the chance to work with during my visit to Autodesk was a file management system called the Vault. It provides a centralized storage area for any engineering-related data, including CAD files, Microsoft Office documents, bitmaps, PDFs, and so on. It includes two basic components: a Vault Client, which allows any Inventor user with access to explore the contents of the vault, and a Vault Server, which has the data storage and administrative tools. It greatly expands on the simple Check-in/Check-out capabilities introduced in Inventor 6 by introducing searching, versioning, indexing of project data, and more. According to Autodesk, the Vault is easy to install; however, I was also told that it is easy to use, a statement I would dispute as there were certain areas where I felt the user interface needed work.


So while Inventor 7 is nothing to write home about, there are some robust tools in the new Professional version, and the Vault seems powerful enough to satisfy the needs of most users. It will be interesting to see if Release 8 of Inventor makes up for the lack of new tools in 7, and what the next version of Professional will bring.

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