MCAD Modeling Methods - Modeling Needs and Bean Counters31 May, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
A 3D modeling computer system isn't cheap, but it is necessary.
Bean counters have their places. Our designs never would be realized if they weren't writing checks and paying bills. They help us succeed, but they have a dark side as well. I've never been able to determine why, but bean counters don't like to spend money. (Perhaps it's because you can't count what you don't have.) Sometimes they are so tight with funding, you'd think it was their own money! "Do you really need that?" they ask. They enter into partnerships with other companies to get discounts to reduce costs, and there's nothing wrong with that. For most users, the one-size-fits-all computer will be sufficient, but users in the world of 3D modeling need something a bit different and a bit more expensive.
Just Any Ol' Thang
At one time I worked for a company that had a standard desktop. When a new employee was hired, the company would get him or her a computer that had basically the same power and capability as everyone else's. That was fair, the company said. As time passed, computers got more powerful and so did the standard desktop. But a computer that is perfect for word processing isn't acceptable for desktop publishing. Nowadays, no one works with text only. We format everything as we go. And we have computers that are both relatively cheap and capable. The problem with the standard desktop computer for a 3D modeler is that you aren't doing the same kind of job as everyone else in your company—and different jobs require different tools.
Have you ever tried to run 3D modeling software on a standard desktop machine? It can be pretty frustrating—if it runs at all. You'll drink a lot of coffee and play a lot of wastepaper basketball while the computer plays catch-up. You need horsepower for 3D modeling applications. I'm not going to tell you that you can't soup up a standard desktop computer enough to run 3D modeling software. You can, but what you really need is a workstation. These systems have the right stuff to do anything you are likely to need and some things you may not. What's the difference?
Let's start with the processor. You don't want a Celeron (figure 1). You want a processor with speed that is measured in gigahertz—the higher the number, the better. Computers nowadays are in the 3 to 3.4GHz range (with 4GHz on the way). You might even consider 64-bit processors or even multiple or dual-core processors. The reason for that choice is the math. A Celeron is great for word processing because users can come up with only so many letters and formatting options. Adding graphics may up the ante a bit, but generally everything's static. It doesn't do you any good to have a terrific animation in your document if you're just going to print it out.
Figure 1. A Celeron processor might be great for word processing, but not for 3D modeling. They generally have slower clock speeds, a smaller cache and slower bus speeds.
3D modeling uses a lot of computer resources, mostly because the model seldom is static. When you rotate your model, the computer must update the view every split second. That's a lot of processing, especially when you're using textures and materials. And that doesn't even include when you actually ask the computer to do something. If you make a change to a parametric model, usually the feature tree must be rebuilt before you can see the results of your work. Add to that having multiple parts loaded in an assembly, especially a large one, and you can see that it's no small task for the computer. Your RAM (random access memory) also is of great importance. When you open a large file in your 3D modeling software, the computer loads it into its RAM. The data then is ready and waiting when you call for it. It's a little like trying to wrap a gift while standing and holding it. When you make a change, that changed data is stored in your RAM as well, so when you undo something the computer won't have to go all over its memory looking for it. It's right there. You don't have to wait until you retire to complete an operation. As with the processor, the more RAM you get, the better off you will be. Get as much as you can afford—2GB is not too much. A good thing about workstations is that they generally have slots for more RAM than standard desktop computers.
After you've finished a task, you must store your work somewhere, and that's where your hard drive comes in. If you are on a network that has plenty of room to store your files, hard-drive size is less of an issue, but you still want to have as much space as you need—and then some. After a few months, you'll find that you've stored a lot of data.
One way to collect a lot of useless hard drive filler is to go out on the Internet. Every place you go stores cookies and temporary files on your computer. If you don't periodically empty out these files, eventually your computer will slow down to a crawl. Do yourself a favor and delete your temporary Internet files and cookies regularly (figure 2).
Figure 2. Having the biggest hard drive in the world won t help if you fill it with temporary Internet files and cookies. Delete them regularly. You can even set up your browser to delete them for you.
The Bigger Picture
I wear glasses for nearsightedness. I can't work on a little monitor; in fact, I need a huge one. If you do much 3D modeling at all, you know the bigger the monitor, the more of your model you can see and the closer you can zoom. You should get the biggest monitor you can. Don't pay attention to the cost, as much as possible, because a huge monitor is worth every penny. There are two kinds to look at: CRT (cathode ray tube, figure 3) and LCD (liquid crystal display, figure 4). Either type will make your job better.
Figure 3. CRTs are big and heavy. They also are some of the brightest displays you can get.
A CRT is just like a television set—big and heavy. (Keep your back straight and use your legs if you're going to lift one.) CRTs take up a lot of desktop real estate. As a general rule, they're as deep as they are wide. They have an advantage over an LCD when you want brightness. They also have a slower refresh rate and can cause more eyestrain when you look at one all day, every day. An LCD is only a few inches thick and even the largest ones usually can be picked up with one hand. The screen appears sharper than a CRT. Some ghosting can occur when you twirl a model really fast, but you won't see it under normal conditions. I used to go home every night with tired eyes when I had a CRT. When I got a new LCD display, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. I won't likely go back, even though the CRT costs about half what the same size LCD would.
Figure 4. LCDs are thin and lightweight. They provide wonderful performance and extra room on your desk.
Another item you'll want to address is your graphics card (figure 5). It's true that the vast majority of 3D modelers won't need the kind of power high-end cards offer, but it's nice to know it's available. Most of us will be very happy in the midrange. You'll want to get as much graphic memory as you can. (Do I detect a pattern here?) You don't want to find yourself waiting on the computer when you're just rotating your model. Get a card that is certified as compatible with your particular software package. Others may work, but if something goes wrong you'll be explaining why you don't have a recommended graphics card. Next month, Cadalyst will review the latest in graphics cards for workstations.
Figure 5. A graphics card such as this one from ATI can have as much as 1GB onboard memory.
Do yourself a favor and pick up a 3D input device like the SpaceBall or SpacePilot, both from 3D Connexion (www.3dconnexion.com). These things are addictive. You quickly become intimate with your models when you rotate, pan and zoom almost without thinking about it. Once you get used to one of these devices, you'll never want to do without it.
Supposedly we are becoming a paperless society, but I wonder if we'll ever get there. Plotters and printers still are very important for communicating designs. But you must choose from monochrome or color. When all we had to plot were lines and arcs, monochrome output sufficed. Now that users work with shaded models and photorealistic renderings, they need color. Prices on color laser printers are really coming down, so buying one won't break the bank.
Another handy device is a UPS (uninterrupted power supply). A UPS can supply enough backup power for you to finish what you are doing and power down gracefully. A UPS buffers the electric supply by charging a battery and running the computer off the battery instead of whatever flows from the wall socket. If a power surge occurs, the UPS stands in the way to protect your sensitive electronics. The downside is that when the UPS comes to the end of its lifespan, you need to dispose of it properly like the battery that it is. However, the first time you don't lose hours of work after a power outage, you'll feel like dancing.
The End Justifies the Means
Obviously 3D modeling software necessitates higher-end components. Your job also will be easier and you'll get more done. So when a bean counter asks, "Do you really need that?", I hope you're prepared to say, "Yes I do," and explain why.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.