Fight for Your Hardware Rights (MCAD Modeling Column)1 May, 2008 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Getting the proper tools is well worth the war.
Most of us know the frustration of working for a company whose IT department manages the computer hardware. These people work hard to keep everyone up and running. They can be your best friends if you have a problem. But sometimes they can be quite the opposite. To make their job easier, they will frequently mandate a corporate-standard computer for everybody. That means they always know what to expect when something breaks. Unfortunately, 3D modeling professionals tend to need more digital horsepower than the standard computer provides. Sometimes, they need a lot more.
In this article
So, what do you do? You fight for what you need. Of course, if you're going to fight, you need to know what you actually want. Let's look at some equipment that is worth fighting the good fight.
Where to Start
You can't get much more basic than the computer itself. It may sound obvious, but many people find it difficult to pay for a workstation-class computer when everyone else in the organization can work on something that is a fraction of the price. Why are workstations so much more? Simply put, they are better. They are configured to handle much more processing than your average run-of-the-mill number cruncher. They usually have more random access memory (RAM), bigger power supplies, more expansion slots, faster (and sometimes more) CPUs, etc. In short, they are more versatile. You can do more with them. While it's true that you certainly can run most 3D modeling and engineering software on a lesser machine, you usually won't see the throughput that you will using a workstation. You want a workstation.
Now that we have the computer decision out of the way, let's move on to something that will definitely make your life easier — memory. When it comes to RAM, more is most definitely better. Find out how much your computer can handle and then max it out! Everything you do will happen faster. You see, RAM is where the software you run resides while you're using it. Today's average computer comes with bags of RAM compared with those of the past, but most don't come with enough to simultaneously run a 3D modeling program, one or more Microsoft Office applications, a graphics program, and an Internet browser — at least not at a speed that won't leave you waiting for something to happen. (Here's a helpful hint: Contact the software vendor from whom you buy your applications and ask what its RAM recommendations are. You can use that recommendation in your justification.)
As an advocate of ergonomics, I must tell you that if you are going to do 3D modeling you need as large a monitor as you can get (figure 1). Don't skimp here! Your eyes will thank you for it in the long run. You'll want at least a 20" monitor. If you can get a bigger one, do it. (I am waiting for a 50" computer monitor!) Owning more desktop real estate has many advantages. You can run multiple programs at the same time and leave them peeking out from behind each other so you can call them up with just a click of your mouse. You also can cut and paste between two documents without having to switch back and forth. One reason you may not think of is panache. You know as well as I do that no matter your company's size, you get the occasional visitor. When they walk through your place, you want to impress them. Big monitors do that — and how! It may seem silly, but impressing a client in even small ways can make the difference down the road.
Figure 1. Unless you like wearing Coke-bottle glasses, you are going to want a huge monitor. It s better on your eyes and much more impressive when a client comes by your office.
Along with a huge monitor, you'll want a high-end graphics adapter. If you get a monitor that will support resolutions of 1,600 x 1,280 but your graphics card won't do more than VGA, you aren't going to see the real benefits of a larger screen. You see, the bigger the screen, the bigger the pixels. If you don't change the resolution you will still have the jaggies — only worse because the pixels will be bigger. There are many graphics cards out there from different companies that will fit the bill. I like NVIDIA products. They are really good and have power to burn. I've seen many products from ATI that are good, too. Get the best you can. Most 3D modeling vendors have a list of supported graphics cards that they've tested and know will work with their software.
And as long as we're talking about things that are easier on you, get yourself an ergonomic computer desk. Even if you've got the best and fastest computer in the world, you're still going to have to sit in front of it for many hours a day. In a perfect world, you'll want the top of your monitor to be at or just slightly above eye level. You'll want a comfortable chair. That's pretty much it for the absolute must-haves. Now, let's go on to the fun stuff.
Food for Thought
I know there are those of you out there who still haven't heard of 3Dconnexion's 3D navigation devices (figure 2). If you do 3D work, you need one of these devices. They are among the most productivity-enhancing devices you can buy! Each is a 3D controller that allows you to rotate, pan, and zoom your models in a fluid motion. You place your fingertips on the knob and just apply pressure. The model on the screen will move. When I model without one, I always feel handicapped. They are very reasonable nowadays. You can get a SpaceTraveler for only $99 (that's for a commercial license — you can get one for yourself at home for $59).
Figure 2. Short of reaching into the screen and grabbing your models, the 3Dconnexion line of 3D navigation devices can t be beat. After only a short time with one, you won t ever want to live without it.
For all those lunch meetings where we solve the problems of the world on a napkin, another good tool is a scanner. When looking at a printer, try getting an all-in-one machine that also scans. You'll find all sorts of uses for it. A scanner is a very important and unsung hero of the engineering office.
Nowadays, there is something fairly new in scanners — the 3D scanner. This device is not frivolous. I wish I had a dollar for every time a boss has asked me to model something he placed on my desk. NextEngine makes the least expensive 3D scanner that I know of. It's a great little machine that can really pay for itself quickly (see a full review "Cadalyst Labs Review — NextEngine 3D Scanner").
Of course, when you're in the office and an idea strikes, you grab a pen and sketch it down. Instead of having to scan it in before you can edit it in a graphics program, use a graphics tablet in the first place to create it. Many kinds of tablets are available, but the two I like the best are the tablet PC and the Wacom Cintiq (figure 3). The tablets are touch screens that allow you to draw directly on them; they're very much like a pen and paper.
Figure 3. Sketching with a pencil and paper is just natural. A tablet gives you a great approximation.
I've saved one item until last for a very simple reason: 3D printers (figure 4) are expensive — there's no way around it. If you design products, you probably already use some kind of rapid prototyping service. Just think how handy it would be to have that equipment in house. Too expensive, you say? Hope is on the horizon. A new company called Desktop Factory soon will release a product for approximately $5,000! That's one-quarter of what the closest competitor charges! If there is any way to afford a 3D printer, do it. Fight for it! It's one of the best tools you can buy.
Figure 4. 3D printers are definitely worth their weight in gold! You can imagine all you want, but you will never know how your design feels until you hold it in your hands.
The Choice Is Yours
If you own or work for a small company and can make your own choices about hardware, you should count yourself lucky indeed. The only consideration you have is whether you can afford it. Ultimately, you should get as much computer as you can afford.