MCAD Tech News #95 (Apr. 17, 2003)

16 Apr, 2003 By: Joe Greco

For many years, Ashlar-Vellum Inc., formerly Ashlar (, was a fairly big player in the CAD market. In the late '80s, with the introduction of its first program, Vellum, the company pioneered 2D inferencing technology, a technique that just about every CAD product now offers, as well as several other user interface innovations. Even though the last few years have been a little tough for the company, it continues to develop quality software. Recently the company released Version 6 of its Designer Elements series, with Cobalt at its core, for feature-based mechanical design. Ashlar-Vellum is one of the few CAD companies still writing software for the Apple Macintosh; in fact, one of the key enhancements for Version 6 is its support for the latest Apple operating system, Mac OS X.

Backing Up

However, before I go into the details of Version 6, I should first talk about Version 5, which was introduced late last year but didn't get much press coverage, despite its introduction of some handy new tools. For starters, Version 5 of Cobalt comes with the addition of 2D constraints, which is a great improvement; for the first time, users can work with geometric, dimension-based, and formula-based constraints, if desired. They are all part of the new Sketch mode introduced inside of Cobalt 5.

The new sketcher provides visual feedback on constraints and relationships. In addition, after sketching in Cobalt, users have the option of using the entire sketch or only selected components of it. If the sketch is used, then a relationship is automatically created between that sketch and the plane or face it is located on; if just an element inside the sketch is selected, then there is no relationship. This technique gives the user a lot of flexibility. In addition, either a sketch or a geometry element can drive multiple features or multiple parts.

In terms of modeling, the newly added rib and lip features are both very useful in the creation of plastic consumer parts. The software continues to build upon its full set of surfacing commands. Improvements in this area are also found in Version 5. For instance, the Extrude and Sweep tools now support advanced cross section control, and extensive distance and termination options. Also, the Skin and Loft commands now support intermediate sections and tangency options as well as the building of ruled surfaces. Like other MCAD products, Cobalt can automatically create multi-view 2D drawings from models. Version 5 goes further with the addition of Bill of Materials capability and shaded views on drawing sheets.

All the improvements in the previous version notwithstanding, Ashlar-Vellum issues a service pack, called Version 5.4. It features more than 80 bug fixes, including those that address the DXF-import hindrance.

A More Stable Cobalt

Then, just a few weeks ago, Ashlar-Vellum released Version 6, which is built on top of Version 8 of Spatial's ACIS modeling kernel. Robert Bou, the president of Ashlar-Vellum, says that in ACIS 8, in addition to enhancing speed, Spatial also improved the robustness of certain operations. For example, Ashlar users have always had the capability to create extremely complex models, but sometimes they cannot shell or add that one final fillet without causing problem. In short, the software, built on top of ACIS Version 8, is more reliable. "I have always considered our software the fastest path from vision to reality, but we wanted to eliminate those speed bumps that sometimes slowed users down," remarks Bou. "With this release I feel we have done this."

Spatial has recently announced ACIS Version 10. So why has this kernel not yet been implemented inside of Ashlar-Vellum's product line? Bou says the new ACIS basically came out too late in Ashlar-Vellum's development cycle; everything was working fine and tested under ACIS Version 8. In addition, he notes that some of the most important enhancements in the upgraded kernel (such as surface lofting with guide curves) have been in Ashlar-Vellum's products for years.

Macintosh OS X

As mentioned before, Cobalt 6 and the entire Designer Elements Series run on Mac OS X. While I don't have a Mac to test this on (Apple, take note!), I talked to Bou about Version 6 running on this platform. OS X offers better memory management than any other previous Mac operating systems, and it is much more stable and robust, which Bou says will translate into the ability to reliably build larger, more complex models.

Bou also likes the fact that OS X has built-in VPN (Virtual Private Network) capabilities, and, when using an extra piece of software called Apple Remote Desktop, users get collaboration capabilities at the system level. This means Ashlar-Vellum doesn't have to worry about building collaboration tools into its products; at the same time, users don't have to learn a different collaboration system for each program they operate.

He also feels that Apple is going to make a big push into the CAD market and that Ashlar-Vellum is uniquely positioned to provide tools to these users--whether they are mechanical tools via Cobalt or designer tools via another product in the Designers Elements series. Bou calls Mac "the choice of the creative person." The same words, he feels, can also describe his company's software.


Fifteen years ago I would have agreed 100 percent with the statement that Mac is "the choice of the creative person." But Apple allowed Microsoft to catch up and then bypass it. Now thousands of creative users employ Windows-based machines, albeit many of them started on a Mac. However, OS X does sound impressive, and with its UNIX core, who knows what programs we may see running on it (especially if Apple decides that, yes indeed, engineers are creative people and should be marketed to)? One thing is for sure: Cobalt is an impressive product on any platform, while the entire Designer Elements series provides affordable and scalable solutions for almost any type of user with CAD needs.

Relevant Links

Ashlar-Vellum Inc.: