AutoCAD 2007 Hits the Streets

19 Apr, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Is this long-time 2D tool ready for conceptual mechanical design?

AutoCAD 2007 is the 21st release of Autodesk’s flagship product, and the company is emphasizing its new abilities: conceptual mechanical design and visualization. It’s still primarily a 2D tool, although it does offer some significant 3D enhancements this time around. As a matter of fact, the focus of this release is definitely on new features and enhancements to 3D design and visualization capabilities.

3D Capabilities

Many of the 3D capabilities of AutoCAD 2007 are borrowed from Autodesk Inventor, and it’s no coincidence. This release of AutoCAD has a strong Inventor-like look, feel and behavior. A couple years ago Autodesk designed AutoCAD Mechanical’s structure similar to Inventor’s feature tree -- its first real attempt at making 2D AutoCAD users more comfortable in a 3D world. Autodesk hopes that a customer who is comfortable and familiar with at least some aspects of a 3D user interface and feature set will ultimately transition to the more 3D-capable Inventor product line. This comfort level is important because just about every vendor, including Autodesk, realizes that the biggest untapped potential customer base for 3D is current AutoCAD users. What this all means, though, is that AutoCAD 2007, with its 3D, textures and lighting capabilities, can be used for true conceptualization and visualization more than any previous version.

Need New Hardware?

AutoCAD’s 3D capabilities do come at a cost, however -- in particular, the need for graphics cards that fully support them, so be sure to check the Autodesk Web site to see if you need to invest in a new one. On the other hand, if all your design work is 2D, the graphics card that you use with an earlier version of AutoCAD should perform just fine.

Version 2007 comes with two sets of system requirements -- one for users who will focus on creating 2D drawings and another set for those who will use the new 3D conceptual design capabilities. I’m surprised that there isn’t a direct 64-bit Windows version for users in the latter category, but I imagine that will come eventually. AutoCAD 2007 does support running on the Intel EM64T processor, using Windows XP as a 32-bit application on a 64-bit processor in what Intel refers to as Legacy mode.

The Big Changes

The 3D interface is probably where you’ll notice the biggest changes to AutoCAD 2007 because it’s actually a 3D environment where you use a new 3D template, and not just a workspace. The Dashboard is a one-stop palette of control panels that contains well over 100 commands and associated options. Here you’ll find just about everything you’ll need for 2D and 3D drawing, modeling, editing and rendering. This is great; however, the Dashboard contains a lot of tools and takes up a lot of space in the graphics window, so it might take some getting used to.

Creating and editing 3D solids (and even some simple 3D surfaces) is easier in AutoCAD 2007, thanks largely to some geometric handling capabilities brought over from Inventor. Creating and editing solids is interactive with previews present all along the way. Converting a 2D shape into a 3D form is a relatively easy process. For example, via commands on the Dashboard, a 2D shape can be converted into a surface. Add thickness to the surface and you have a solid. While this obviously isn’t unique in the CAD world, for AutoCAD it’s a big step forward that many users will appreciate and use.

Updated File Format

Finally, the question everyone wants to know: Is the AutoCAD 2007 DWG drawing file format different from previous AutoCAD DWG formats? The answer, unfortunately, but not surprisingly is, “Yes." The DWG file format has once again been updated and is different from the 2004/2005/2006 DWG file format. As in the past, the new version of AutoCAD opens DWG files created in earlier versions of any Autodesk product. How much earlier, we don’t know yet. But I’ll try to open some really old DWGs (early to mid-1990s vintage) and see what happens. The results of this little study will be the topic of a future column.

AutoCAD = Conceptual Design?

Let’s get back to the original question. Is this release of AutoCAD really suited for conceptual design? I would have to say that although there are definite limitations to its true conceptual mechanical capabilities, there are some instances when AutoCAD 2007 could be used as a conceptual tool, but you must be realistic about how far it can go. A hard-shell camera case? Yes. A stylized flashlight? A stretch, but maybe. A golf club head? No.

All that said, at first glance AutoCAD 2007 looks like a good release, especially in regard to 3D. But don’t forget that AutoCAD’s legacy is 2D, and there’s still a lot of life that remains there for several types of mechanical design -- conceptual and otherwise.

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