Technical Uses for Nontechnical Software (MCAD Modeling Column)31 Mar, 2008 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
You may know many of these applications — you just didn't know you needed them.
You're used to reading about the latest in high tech 3D modeling in my "MCAD Modeling" column. But believe it or not, there are more things in heaven and on Earth than those dreamt of in that rather specialized philosophy. Other kinds of software are valuable to designers who have little to do with 3D modeling. They can — and do — make your job easier and more productive.
When I started in the design field, everything was drawn on a drafting board, typed with a typewriter (electric — I'm not that old), and copied with either a diazo blueprint machine or a photocopier. I literally spent hours making drawings, copying them, cutting out what I wanted, taping everything down, and running another copy. It was very labor intensive. Oh, if I only had the tools I have now, back then. What wonders could I have wrought! Nowadays, we have the most important tool we are likely ever to get to make our jobs easier, faster, and more accurate — the computer. You must have the right software, of course.
In this article
In the Beginning . . .
It may sound obvious, but a lot of people wouldn't think of Microsoft Office as engineering software. Sure, they know they're going to need it if they set up an office, but it has some technical applications as well. I worked at one company where my boss wanted me to create technical drawings in Microsoft Word. I could bring in images and set up tables, but Microsoft Word just isn't a drafting package. It can be used to do a lot of things, but you have to ask why anyone would use it that way, especially when a real computer-aided drafting (CAD) package was available. And I did ask. I was asked if Microsoft Word could do it; I answered that it could. He told me, "then do so." After that I smiled a lot but kept my mouth shut.
Microsoft Word is an indispensable tool for the modern office, but it's not a drafting package. Microsoft Word is meant to process words. Yes, you can add pictures and arrange tables. But did you know that most of the time you can import all that work into your 3D modeling software and use it? SolidWorks has what it calls design folders that allow users to store all kinds of relevant data right into models — even MS Office files.
For typing and editing text, Microsoft Word is hard to beat. What would you use it for? You could create a running diary of the changes you make to a model and document why you made them. Come audit time, that information could be priceless. And what about the times when you have opened someone else's file and wondered why they did what they did? A diary file can explain those things.
Along with word processing comes spreadsheet preparation. Products such as Microsoft Excel truly are engineering tools. These programs are invaluable for arranging information and doing simple math. This information can be imported into most modern 3D modeling software as well (figure 1). Why would you need to do that? Hole tables come to mind.
Figure 1. Microsoft Excel will import tables directly into most 3D modelers.
If your company allows for tabulated drawings, you can create all kinds of bills of materials (BOMs). The tables can be imported or merely linked back to the Microsoft Excel files to save file size and increase flexibility. After all, editing values in Microsoft Excel will be easier than doing in your drawing.
Should I even mention Microsoft PowerPoint? I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to create a PowerPoint presentation to show off a product design. This software is wonderful. You can copy and paste text from just about any source. Pictures come in just as easily. You can even include animations and Web links to wow your audience.
But what if you need more than simple math? Then you hook yourself up with some engineering math software such as Maplesoft's Maple (figure 2) or Wolfram Research's Mathematica. I know many engineers who struggle to do higher-level math in Excel, but what they end up with is hardly ever as good as it should be. Most often it suffices, but making changes or troubleshooting their arithmetic can get involved. Real math software can show not only the problem and the answer but every single step in between. (My math teacher tried so hard to get me to do that.) Troubleshooting your math is far easier that way. Math software is a great tool.
Figure 2. When you need to perform math, Maple is up to the challenge. Here, a digital mockup of a suspension system is mapped out.
Worth a Thousand Words
As great as your 3D modeling software is at capturing photo-realistic — even ray-traced — images, you almost always need to tweak them. To do that, you're going to need graphics software, and all kinds are available. Programs such as MAXON's CINEMA 4D and NewTek's Lightwave not only allow you to model but also render and animate your designs.
If you have the Sci Fi channel, you've probably seen the new Battlestar Galactica series. You know those great space battle scenes with all the cool ships and stuff? They build all that with Lightwave. Of course, you may not need to go to that level. You may be concerned with getting graphic output for, say, a user manual.
Programs such as Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW (figure 3) are just the ticket. They are vector-based programs, which means that they work with lines and arcs. This system is very handy for making changes and enlarging images. But sometimes you just want to output a raster image — that's a bitmap. Adobe Photoshop is the industry big boy, but Corel PHOTO-PAINT (included with the CorelDRAW suite) is good, too. Both programs will let you add just the right glint of light to an otherwise dull model. It may surprise some how much difference that can make in selling a design. And if you're artistic, a program like Autodesk's SketchBook Pro is really good.
Figure 3. With solid raster as well as vector capabilities, CorelDRAW is an extremely useful tool for designers.
Getting cool artwork isn't the end of the story. You're going to need page-layout software to pull it all together with the text. InDesign, again from Adobe (they sure do get in there and get the job done) lets users arrange images in as interesting, informative, or intuitive a manner as possible. I use it for manuals, brochures, and just about anything that I need to create to show off my designs. And speaking of showing off designs, Adobe (yet again!) Acrobat Pro is a must have — especially the new 3D product (figure 4). With it you can output files that others can read, mark up, and even rotate, cut sections, and turn off assembly components.
Figure 4. If you need to send information to anyone else — for any reason — you can hardly do it better than with Adobe Acrobat 3D.
The Truth Is Out There
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to software that you probably need but might not have known that you needed. I only have so much space. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of software that people wouldn't necessarily think of as useful for engineering. But it is — and it's waiting for you to discover. For more information about the software titles mentioned in this "MCAD Modeling" column, visit the company Web sites.