3D MCAD: Thoughts from an old timer
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3D MCAD: Thoughts from an old timer

It seems like only yesterday when I was struggling to maintain a clean D-sized drawing with an eraser bag that I diligently shook over my newly-detailed views of some Machine Design class project. Still, it was the only way to make drawings; years would pass before I was granted a drafting table with an arm that could pivot to any angle – a very convenient feature.

I was introduced to AutoCad in the early 80s and even designed in 3D using version 12 (running in DOS). To most of my colleagues, the Windows version of AutoCAD was hindrance, rather than a speed-enhancing improvement. I believe AutoDesk’s Designer was their first attempt at a true 3D design package (circa early 90s), but it was sadly lacking of many features that most of us required.

By 1998, I made it my personal directive to analyze the “state-of-the-art” 3D software packages and then introduce one of them to the company for which I worked. Our needs, like those of many other small to medium-sized companies, were very basic – design machined/molded parts and create drawings of parts and assemblies. Of course, the software had to be able to export 2D drawings in a DWG format, since virtually every company around had at least one seat of AutoCad.

What I found was quite a few “mid range” 3D CAD programs that essentially required the user to create 3D shapes in the same manner. A sketch was drawn, dimensioned, and then extruded/subtracted to produce a part or cavity in a part. Once the part or cavity was created, changing its shape inevitably required that the user go back to the sketch and modify it. Most construction work was done in the 2D realm, just as it was in AutoCad, many years before. Creating assemblies in most programs required that a separate “scene” be opened and individual 3D parts be inserted. Constraints were often assumed by the software and changes further on in the design required viewing and deleting and/or adding more.

Still, even the worst of the 3D MCAD programs were a breath of relief, compared to the painstaking steps I had to endure when using AutoCAD for 3D creation. And then one day……..

A coworker informed me of a new program – one that was so different from all the others. I just has to see the demo. I quickly called to reserve my spot and was astounded at what I saw. Not only was this program far easier to use that anything I had ever tried, but it did things that I thought would never be possible. With this program, one could select from hundreds of common shapes, both solid and hollow. This alone cut chunks of “sketch” time that was part of almost all other 3D modeling programs. And not only could you drag and drop hollow shapes onto solid parts, but you could both resize the shapes in real (3D) time AND drag the shape on or off the part while watching its offset distance and resulting solid geometry changes.

Now, I can’t speak for everyone but personally, when I “conceptualize” and create something completely new, I like to have all the pieces nearby so I can fit, modify, and refit all the parts that make up the whole assembly. This new program is set up so that you can do this without having to calculate/match/check every component for form and fit. You can create all of your parts within the same file (scene) – no flashing back and forth between individual part files to make adjustments. Mating, constraining and aligning are totally optional, so more time is spent designing and less time struggling to assure “correctness” of disassembly.

Last, but not least is the implementation by this program of something called the TriBall. This is, in my opinion, quite simply the most versatile tool ever conceived for a 3D MCAD program. It moves, copies, positions, arrays, links, rotates, and attaches to virtually anything within the program – truly astounding!

Now, I forgot to mention that one of my objectives when evaluating mid-range MCAD software was to make certain that the learning curve was relatively short (Remember, it took me years to be comfortable designing in 2D AutoCad.).

Many of the companies for whom I worked employed quite a few draftspeople and mechanical designers, not just super-quick (learning) mechanical engineers. I wanted every user of the new program to be able to design/draft quickly and without having to attend week-long classes.

By now some of you know which program I chose – IronCAD. It became the tool that revolutionized the way our company produced products and tooling, along with conceptual designs of future products in a tiny fraction of time it would’ve taken us, had we continued to use AutoCAD or most available 3D MCAD programs.

If this program is so much easier to use and a much better tool for visualization, why, you may ask, is its name not plastered over every relevant trade journal out there? Well, that’s an easy one to answer: Without the deep pockets for marketing dollars that other companies (Dassault, UG, Autodesk, etc) have, widely distributed name recognition remains a very difficult thing to accomplish.

Unfortunately for the end user, the people who often decide which software is to be used company-wide has little, if any hands-on experience with the product of choice. Market share and name recognition are quite commonly the determining factors. It is my opinion that the majority of small to mid-size companies do not need a tremendously complicated solid modeling program that requires costly training and constant retraining.

How many of you would love to use a simple version of Microsoft Word, even one that contains just 20% of Word’s best features (along with some critical improvements) and at a reduced cost?

This is how I feel about many of the 3-CD MCAD programs that offer far too many bells and whistles and not enough of the things that we non-geniuses can use quickly and with no frustration.

Dave Sulli
Sr. Manufacturing Engineer

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