MCAD Tech News #107 (October 09, 2003)

8 Oct, 2003 By: Joe Greco

While the focus of this newsletter is MCAD, I sometimes like to report what's going on in the CAID (Computer Aided Industrial Design) market, because the two are closely related for many users. And when the leading company in the CAID market comes out with a major point release, that's news. StudioTools 11 has just been released by Alias (

A Little History

In 1983, four young entrepreneurs started Alias Research in Toronto, Canada, and slowly built the product to the point where it was used in almost every company involved in industrial design, including the styling departments of GM, Honda, Rollerblade, and Motorola. In addition, the software was also used at Industrial Light and Magic, to create the award-winning special effects for movies such as "The Abyss" and "Jurassic Park." In 1995, SGI, one of the leading hardware vendors for 3D users at the time, bought and merged Alias Research and Wavefront Technologies, itself a leader in digital animation. The consolidation formed Alias|Wavefront.

Over the years the Alias|Wavefront product line has grown, becoming essentially the products for industrial design (StudioTools and a renderer called ImageStudio) and the film and animation industry (Maya). The list includes even a hardware product called PortfolioWall, a touch-screen system that allows users to view, share, annotate, and manage the files created with Alias software. The company was the first to introduce a 3D product designed specially for tablet PCs, when it introduced the SketchBook Pro ($179) late last year.

Just a few months ago, Alias|Wavefront (still based in Toronto) celebrated 20 years in the 3D modeling business, making it one of the oldest companies in this market. As part of its anniversary, it dropped the Wavefront suffix, so it is now just known as Alias. The release of StudioTools Version 11, only 15 months after the release of Version 10, was sort of a surprise. While this would be considered a long period for most MCAD developers, it was a brief one for Alias; more than three years elapsed between StudioTools Releases 9 and 10. In any case, I had a chance to look at the latest version, and here is my take.

StudioTools is actually the name of a family of programs comprising DesignStudio (at the low end), Studio, SurfaceStudio, and AutoStudio (the highest level). What differentiate the products are the degrees of curves that they are able to create (the higher the level, the more sophisticated the curves). While the actual product I used was Studio, I will refer to StudioTools in the following paragraphs, as the following enhancements apply to all the products.

StudioTools 11

Even though StudioTools has been running on Windows for a number of years, don't expect a standard Windows user interface. For instance, while there are File and Edit menus, the familiar icons for New, Open, Save, and so on are not employed. In general, the software still has the look and feel of its UNIX origins. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as StudioTools is fairly easy to use and features some innovative user interface tricks and shortcuts. For instance, instead of using a Windows-standard right-click on an item to get a contextual menu containing the commands related to that item, StudioTools allows users to Ctrl+Shift at any time to call up a series of related options. It does so in a fashion that makes choosing a command a lot easier than the all-too-familiar 20-choice standard Windows menu that also contains several submenus.

StudioTools 11 makes some minor changes to the user interface, but the general idea is the same. Instead of toolbars, it uses Shelves, which are like toolbars, only the icons are much bigger and shelves are viewed one at a time. The others are accessed by clicking on a tab containing the name of the shelf to bring it forward.

Similar to other CAID programs such as thinkdesign, StudioTools can also import an image file; however, the Alias products can also edit it. New in Version 11 are tools to adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation, and color balance. There are also new tools to deform an image and wrap it to follow the shape of any selected curves. StudioTools also contains tools to paint directly on imported images, and some of these have been enhanced. For instance, the brush properties window is now better organized. While some users may still opt to use Photoshop, the built-in paint and image enhancement tools inside StudioTools continue to get stronger.

Styling today's curvy consumer products usually involves a lot of filleting. While Version 10 made some enhancements here, the new upgrade continues to improve on this important area. There is a new fillet flange tool that allows users to create sophisticated blends by selecting the desired edges of a surface. The freeform and surface fillet tools have also been refined. However, my favorite new modeling feature is the Tube Flange tool. It can take a selected edge (for instance, the perimeter of a hole in a surface) and allows the user to project that edge perpendicular or with draft. A fillet can automatically be added to create a smooth transition and there is also the ability to make the new surface curvature continuous with the original face. There have also been improvements to the program's ability to perform model checking (such as finding duplicate geometry) and model evaluation (such as for parting lines and surface curvature). In addition, the upgrade features several interoperability enhancements, including improved STL-export capabilities.


Pricing for StudioTools starts at $7,500 for DesignStudio, while the Studio software I used costs $25,000. So should you purchase DesignStudio or Studio or a program such as thinkdesign/thinkshapes from think3 for much less ($2,350 a year)? The latter doesn't have the painting and image enhancement tools found in the StudioTools family of products, nor does it have the same excellent freeform manipulation, which makes conceptual design in any StudioTools product a snap. In addition, while thinkdesign can create the same degree of class-A surfaces found in the DesignStudio product, it starts to fall behind in this area when compared to Studio.

So, depending on which factors are most important to you, a product such as DesignStudio or Studio could be the better choice, despite the higher costs. However, if you don't need the programs' added features, then a lower-cost product such as thinkdesign may make sense, especially if you also require some of the tools it offers that no Alias product has, such as feature-based parametric solid modeling.

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