Cadalyst Labs Review: UGS NX31 May, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
World-class modeling tools provide power and flexibility
Many of you are familiar with Unigraphics. It's called NX nowadays, but old habits die hard. The latest version is NX 4, and it's a great relief in a number of ways. The developers at UGS fixed many things I didn't like and added many I do.
Interface, Interface, Interface
UGS says its primary focus in NX 4 is addressing the needs of new and casual users; specifically, making NX 4 easier to navigate and use. With that in mind, the company revamped the user interface, which is always a dangerous thing to do. You don't want to lure in new users at the expense of offending current users who took a long time to master the old interface. That's why so many software programs give you the option of keeping an older interface. For instance, KeyCreator allows its users to work with the Cadkey interface from the early 1990s. I understand why users want this ability, but from a practical point of view, you can use the old version for only so long.
UGS studies how its customers use NX. One thing the company noticed was that users most often expand into a full dialog box rather than use a dialog bar. It seems we want to see more of the tools we have at our disposal. So UGS changed the default setting to allow us to do just that, while maintaining the ability to revert to the bar if we choose. (Hmmmm, wasn't it just a few revisions back that UGS gave us the dialog bars in the first place?)
In addition to the dialog boxes, NX 4 introduces what UGS calls Roles, which essentially are user-customizable interfaces. Users can display those toolbars and menus they really want to see. The default Role comes with large icons and text to make it easier to learn what everything is and what it does. When you outgrow this Role, you can select an advanced Role that has smaller icons and tooltips that pop up when you hover the cursor over an icon. Of course, you can create your own personal Roles by adding or removing commands, where it makes sense, and saving them.
And yes, you can go back and use the interface from a previous version of NX, if you want.
One thing that has always confused people using Unigraphics and NX is how a file is opened. If you saved your file while in drafting, the drawing still comes up the next time you open it, but you aren't actually in drafting. The drawing displays, but you remain in whatever application you were in when you opened the file. This problem has now been remedied. When you open a file, you go into the application in which the file was last saved. If NX can't open the application, it puts you in Gateway, the basic NX module.
In NX 4, users can now access load options from within the Open Part File menu. If you work with large assemblies, this ability alone will save a lot of time. Previously, if you forgot to set your load options before trying to open a part file, NX would sometimes partially load it because it wasn't looking in the right places for the components. Then you had to either load everything manually (a pain if there ever was one) or close the assembly, set the load options and reopen it.
UGS was the first company to give users a selection intent pop-up menu, in Solid Edge. It came into Unigraphics shortly afterward. Now, the company is changing it to make it easier to tell what you've picked. Previously when you picked something, you faced a pop-up of numbers. If you looked carefully when you hovered over a number, the status line explained what feature the number represented. Now, you get all that information in one place (figure 1).
Figure 1. The new QuickPick menu makes entity selection more obvious, especially when you name your features.
Viewing a model in shaded mode is a wonderful thing for clarity and visualization. Viewing a model with its actual final materials and colors is even better. But viewing these materials and colors in a dynamic, rotating, real-time way is the best yet! The Studio Rendering function provides this ability and much more. It generates shadows, reflections, textures and accurate lighting in real time (figure 2). As long as you are running a PC under Microsoft Windows with enough horsepower, this function looks marvelous.
Figure 2. NX digital product development software was used to develop this concept vehicle. The development effort, sponsored by PACE (Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education), brought together individuals from several universities to develop an on/off-road vehicle concept. PACE members include GM, Sun Micro-systems, EDS and UGS.
UGS is now selling a new NX viewer. It's a lower-cost license that allows users to view and measure NX part files and perform several other functions. I wonder about this policy. Most other software companies give this kind of thing away for free.
Another big capability in NX 4 is dynamic rotation with on-the-fly hidden-line updates. In the past, you could rotate with hidden-line removal turned on, but you ended up with a horrible mess as lines ended in empty space. You had to update the view to fix everything. Granted, that's not a huge undertaking, but other, lower-priced competitors such as SolidWorks have had this ability, well, forever. All I can say is that it's about time UGS took care of this.
Another new feature in NX 4 is IBL (image-based lighting). In past versions, NX has provided the ability to put a bit-mapped image in the background. Doing so can make it look like your model is sitting in a particular environment, which is great for presentations and such. The problem has been that the image seldom matched the lighting on the model and was difficult to fix. Now, NX 4 can import a file format called HDRI (high dynamic range images). These files are bit-map images that contain information about lighting, such as location and intensity. NX 4 looks at this information and adjusts the model's lighting to match (figure 3). UGS includes several of these HDRI files on its Web site and, starting with the NX 4.0.1 release, on the software media.
Figure 3. With IBL (image-based lighting), you can match the exposure of your model to the background to make it look like the model is in the pictured environment.
UGS continues its impressive implementation of industrial design capability in NX 4 with improvements in freeform surfacing. Features such as direct curve and surface manipulation, relative and absolute movement of control points and poles, and multiple curve inputs that produce a single feature all help to streamline the creation and manipulation of complicated models. Users now can fit a surface to imported point sets and surfaces, and can improve their surface matching capability by subdividing imported polygons.
Interestingly, UGS is touting multi-CAD design collaboration capability, making it sound as though NX can use parts from other 3D modelers. But don't get the idea that you'll be able to open the files natively. NX can use models made in other systems as long as they are brought in through the company's CAD-neutral JT format. I may be missing something, but that process sounds a lot like using a translator. Granted, it may give you a few more advantages than DXF or IGES, but I wish UGS could find a way to use other systems' native formats directly. Until then, I'll reserve my enthusiasm. The nice thing about the JT format is that it can be updated if a change is made in the original 3D modeler, something that other translators don't do.
In NX 4, users access assembly constraints through the Assembly Navigator. Graphical indicators on the model let users manipulate constraints. Interference and clearance checking has been improved by including a user-specified range of violation values. You can even export violation values to a spreadsheet. UGS says it has completed its data migration tools to get assemblies from IDEAS into NX 4. IDEAS users can now migrate their old models into NX 4 and maintain constraints and BOM information for interpart associativity and drawing parts lists.
An interesting new capability in NX 4 is that you now can create a sketch right in the middle of an extrude—that's for when you're in the middle of a command and realize you need a sketch. You don't have to exit the command. I again am reserving judgment on this function. There have been times when I've wished I could do this, but to be perfectly honest, I was being lazy. What I can appreciate is that in NX 4 users now can change the body type during creation, so they can change from a sheet body to a solid body and back again.
The Chamfer command has received some attention. Users no longer have to decide what kind of chamfer they want to create at the outset. They can decide at any time, and even change it after the fact. Say you have a 45° chamfer and you want a 30° one. In previous NX versions, you had to delete it and recreate it.
The Taper function has been renamed Draft. Most 3D modelers call it that, and it's more descriptive. You can preview what you're going to get before you accept it, and you can draft multiple faces in different directions within the same feature.
The Hollow function also has been renamed Shell, which is also more in line with industry standards. I like this trend. Standardization can be a useful thing. It's especially good for new users and those who go from one system to another.
Again mirroring other modelers, you can now <CTRL>-drag sketch entities to copy them in the sketch. (It's about time.) You can even <CTRL>-C and <CTRL>-V to copy and paste sketch entities.
Sometimes you need to show someone some dimensions on your model, but you don't really need to create a whole drawing for it. NX 4 allows you to put measurement annotations in 3D space (figure 4). The dimensions are dependent on the view in which they were created, so they won't be visible in other views. I wouldn't mind having the ability to annotate a model with things like GD&T (geometric dimensioning and tolerancing) and such. Let's face it, the days of the drawing are numbered. Eventually, the model will rule.
Figure 4. Obviously borrowed from IDEAS, which UGS acquired about five years ago, the measurement annotation function lets you put dimensions on your model without having to create a drawing.
To create an exploded view on a drawing, you used to draw trace lines to show where parts went. It was pretty tedious. NX 4 now creates them for you (figure 5). You need to preset everything in the exploded view, but the system takes care of creating and updating them. This will save a lot of time. Hidden-line removal hides whatever parts pass behind something.
Figure 5. Putting in trace lines has always been a hassle. Now, when you have an exploded view, NX 4 does most of the work for you.
Users now have some great GD&T capability. NX 4 creates feature control frame annotations. You could before, but you did it through the annotation editor. The new menu lets you create and edit single-line, double-line and composite feature control frames with or without leaders—and you can attach the frames to a dimension.
NX 4 provides some of the industry's most capable modeling capabilities. If you need power and flexibility, it's going to be hard to beat.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.