The Current State of MCAD (MCAD Modeling Column)30 Jun, 2008 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Progress in the MCAD industry brings optimism to a depressed economy.
Each year, I like to take a look at our beloved 3D MCAD industry and assess what shape it's in. I have to say that it has been a very long time since I've felt the way I do about the future. Gas prices are at all-time highs (which drives up the price of everything else). Myopic companies aren't making high enough profits to suit their goals (despite record performance), so they're laying off skilled workers and sending their work overseas (thus losing their ability to do the real work themselves and weakening the country's industrial capability). And the American worker is caught in the middle, all but helpless to do anything about it. But things aren't all doom and gloom. There's actually a lot to feel encouraged about.
It has never been easier to acquire MCAD software. Earlier this year, I wrote an entire article about low or no cost CAD (see "Low or No Cost CAD," Cadalyst, January 2008, www.cadalyst.com/0108mcadmodeling). You can download programs that can put you on the right path to meeting your MCAD needs. You can explore different ways of doing things without spending too much. Say, for example, you need 2D CAD. Visit the Solid Edge Web site and check out its free 2D drafting product.
Need 3D? Go to the Alibre Web site and try its product. It's also free. Don't like history-based modeling? Go see CoCreate or even SketchUp (figure 1). Some software companies even have license agreements that allow you to take a copy of their software home. Your choices are many — and very good.
Figure 1. Google SketchUp, a favorite tool of architects, is earning attention in the manufacturing sector for its ease of use and great results. It s one of several free modeling tools available for MCAD.
I can't interpret the proliferation of free MCAD software as being anything but good for end users. It tends to raise the bar on innovation and quality. If you can get the basics for free, then software companies are forced to come up with new and better ways of doing more stuff. Free (or nearly free) software is a win–win scenario for end users. You can take it home and use it for whatever hobby you want. (I am in the process of converting a motorcycle into a reverse trike. I am building the whole thing on my computer [figure 2] and will end up with detailed instructions.)
Figure 2. This image is a control arm from a 1972 Super Beetle that I modeled at home. Having 3D modeling software at home can be a very handy thing. You learn the software and create some wonderful models to boot!
Mid-Range? What Mid-Range?
It used to be that there was a huge gap and a clearly visible boundary between productive (read high-end) software and what average users could afford. That's not the case anymore. We can afford much more today — and much more is available to us. High-end capabilities trickle down to the mid and lower end. It's just a natural progression. The so-called mid-range software of today has more capability than the high-end stuff did only a few years ago. That's good news indeed. It tends to bring more modeling power into the hands of users.
So if it's getting harder to tell the difference between low-, mid-, and high-end software, then how do you do it? Mid-range software manufacturers used to sit back and let the high-end guys come up with innovative new features. Then they'd engineer their own version and charge less.
As successful as that me-too strategy was, the software companies wanted more. I'd like to think they wanted the satisfaction of innovating on their own. In any case, the relative success of the mid-range software titles gave those companies enough money and confidence to step out on their own and give it a go. Now you can find some of the most cutting-edge technology coming out in the mid-range packages — so much so that some of the high-end vendors are engineering functionality pioneered in the mid-range packages into their own products. What a turnaround!
Of course, the high-end companies haven't — for the most part — been shut out of the fight. They saw that they couldn't keep ahead of the mid-range companies forever, so they came up with a new strategy. The trend in today's high-end software is product lifecycle management (PLM). The thinking goes something like this: You should let them give you a hand in every part of your product's development, including manufacturing and even purchasing and distribution. PLM starts with the proverbial napkin sketch (now intended to be electronic), goes through virtual model creation, tells purchasing how much of what materials to order, provides instructions for tooling, takes care of inventory, and helps with any changes that need to be made anywhere down the road. In short, PLM seeks to facilitate everything about your product from initial concept to product retirement. It's a lofty goal. And I tend to think even the little guy will end up there in a few years.
During the past year or so, there's been a lot of noise about so-called direct modeling. For those not in the know, that's mostly nonparametric modeling directly on the model geometry. This area is an offshoot of the whole history versus nonhistory war. Modeling history keeps track of what you've done and the order in which you did it (figure 3). Parametric modeling might be handy for reproducing a model, but it can also complicate your model to the point where you can't make changes because it has so many interactions and interdependencies. Direct modeling allows you to work on models without regard to their history.
Figure 3. In a history-based modeler you perform commands in a particular order, which constitutes a formula for creating your model. Things that appear further down the history tree frequently are dependent upon what came before them, which can make editing a challenge if you re not careful.
Compatibility has always been a wait-a-minute topic for 3D MCAD. You get a model that you need to either incorporate into your design or design around. What do you do? What can you do with it? Most often, you have what amounts to a collection of surfaces that enclose a volume — the technical definition of a solid body. In direct modeling, you can push and pull the geometry all around until you achieve any configuration you need. In some programs you can even apply dimensions to that geometry that will lock it into certain behaviors (figure 4).
Figure 4. In direct modeling, you can modify geometry no matter where it came from or whatever order it was built. You can even do some very parametric-like things.
Reaching the Masses
I used to say that when your product is in Wal-Mart, then you've really reached the masses. Now, with products available on the Internet for free, there's no longer any excuse for people who need them not to have them. I can't help being optimistic about the MCAD industry. I think it is important for the economy, and I think it will only continue to be more so. I see great progress from all the different ranges — low, mid, and high. New capability is now available that is changing how we do things — if we let it.