14 May 2009

Autodesk brings multiple improvements to CAD

Tom Shelley reports on the advances in the main Autodesk products aimed at design engineers

Autodesk Inventor 2010 offers a greatly improved user interface, a quick way of building up mechanisms, and user assisted optimisation tools.

AutoCAD 2010 has also been given some of the facilities developed for Inventor. The company increasingly recognises the fact that millions of users are still wedded to AutoCAD, as opposed to the 900,000 who have embraced 3D modelling with Inventor.

As well as being quite hard to learn, "the reason that the transition is so slow is because 3D design is still quite labour intensive," says Autodesk technical engineer Steve Bedder.

The first thing you might notice with Inventor 2010, is the, 'Progressive Tool Tips'. If the cursor is made to hover over an icon, it not only identifies itself, but if it continues to hover, a pane comes up with words and a diagram to show how to use it. Hitting F1 will then bring up the appropriate help file.

The ribbon bars also change according to application. Although this is not unique to Autodesk products, it is a big improvement over the days when having all the toolbars of icons live at once left no room for the design.

For companies that start the design process in the hands of stylists, Alias Studio files are fully associative with Inventor. This means any change made by the stylist can at once be seen and compared with current models by Inventor users, although not vice versa.

A new 'Multi-Body' facility allows a user to build up the construction of a single part, such as an enclosure, and then break it up into component parts. The 'Make Components' tool then outputs these to an assembly file.

Mechanism simulation is greatly facilitated by 'Sketch Blocks', which are groups of 2D data, such as mechanical links that can be dragged and dropped into a drawing and relationships applied to them. 'Make Components' then turns each block into a part file.

Part and assembly analysers are now available as a result of Autodesk's acquisition of PlassoTech and its product, 3G Author. This tool optimises some quantity, usually the length or thickness of a part, against constraints such as weight and maximum stress. It is not automatic, but allows users to try different values and observe the result, so that the user can assist and ensure the convergence process, which is sometimes difficult or time consuming using an automatic optimisation algorithm. SolidWorks has a similar looking facility in its 2010 version.

According to blogs on the Internet, one of the most popular innovations is an easy to use 'Shrinkwrap' facility that turns an assembly into a single, simpler part, which reduces file size for collaborative viewing. It also allows the removal of unnecessary details to help protect intellectual property.

Sheet metal tools include 'Contour Roll' and 'Lofted Flange'. The former requires an open profile sketch as input. 'Contour Roll' features maybe unrolled using the 'Unfold' tool. The resulting straight section may then be further unfolded, allowing features to be added in the flattened state. The flat model can then be refolded and re-rolled.

The 'Loft Flange' facility provides the ability to create a transition from one shape to another, such as a circle for a duct connection to a square hood. The tool provides output options that support both die forming and press brake manufacturing. The press brake option automatically decomposes the shape into a number of flat faces and straight bends.
Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning designers gain particular benefits from using CAD tools to plan bends, folds and cut outs. It is almost impossible to estimate or roughly calculate the shape of a hole on the corner of a fabrication so it will come out perfectly round to match the outline of a pipe.

Another facility in the software is the ability to automatically generate patching surfaces to close gaps so that they do not close gaps that are meant to be in the finished product.

AutoCAD Mechanical, like Inventor, has the new ribbon bar, and also for the first time, parametric dimensioning and dimensional input for drawing rectangles, which can be chamfered if desired. Additionally, it is possible to sketch over the top of an image imported as a PDF file, and directly drive some 3D printers from AutoCAD, as well as export STL files.

It has just short of one million standard parts and also has enhanced automatic bill of materials and parts list extraction tools. Other features include the addition of Russian GOST standards for deadhead joints and Chinese GB standards, as well as the usual BSI and DIN data.

AutoCAD Electrical has also moved on and has become 'intelligent'. This allows circuits to be built up as connections as opposed to geometry. "Objects are intelligent, which means a relay knows it is a relay, and knows it has contacts, inputs and outputs," says Bedder. "Hence if a contact is not connected, an error message will be generated. Connection lists can then be imported into a 3D model, turned into physical cable runs and then used to create nail board wiring harnesses."

Some indication of the benefits of advanced software tools is provided by the Autodesk customer HTC Professional Floor Systems, headquartered in Sweden. This company uses Autodesk Alias, Inventor, AutoCAD Electrical and ProductStream.

Previous to using this particular combination of products, Bedder said they would typically take 24 months and have to make, three or four prototypes to get its manually operated floor grinders right. But, it was recently able to create a 2500 IX machine, which has three grinders and is driven by an operator in a cab, in just six months.

As well as accelerating the rate at which concrete floors can be ground and polished to look like marble, the new design is infinitely better for the operator, since the cab protects them from noise, dust and the chemicals that are an essential part of the process.


* Autodesk Inventor 2010 includes 220 customer requested enhancements including Sketch Blocks, optimisation tools, Shrinkwrap and much work on sheet metal and mould tool and die design

* AutoCAD 2010 now includes the ability to sketch over images imported as PDF files and now, for the first time, parametric dimensioning

* AutoCAD Electrical has also been enhanced with intelligent objects and various automated facilities

PDM built on SharePoint

PTC has brought out a collaborative engineering package called ProductPoint. It is based on putting the company's ProductView package on top of Microsoft SharePoint.

Windows SharePoint Services is an enabling collaborative technology that is included in Microsoft Windows Server 2003. Since it comes free with the server package, a large number of companies have made use of it. ProductPoint has the same format as SharePoint, but adds two extra facilities; 'Products' and 'Catalog'.

Iaian Lewis, a senior technical specialist at PTC says: "You can use it to capture chat around products. You have the ability to have discussions around products."

This facility currently works with Pro/Engineer files, but also SolidWorks and AutoCAD. Plans to add Catia V5, Siemens PLM NX and Autodesk Inventor files are 'on the road map' according to the company.

"It can force people to do things properly," says Lewis, "by making the Modelcheck facility inside Pro/Engineer run before any part of the design is released.

"And if a product is locked, or changed, the system can be made to notify everyone, or no one, according to what the user desires. Similarly, users can decide how they receive notifications: all in real time, or only urgent ones in real time and the others, once a day or once a week."

Tom Shelley

Supporting Information

Autodesk Ltd
Parametric Technology (UK) Ltd

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