Autodesk Mfg. Tech Day: Design takes more than just 3D

Autodesk Manufacturing Tech Day, recently held at the manufacturing headquarters in Lake Oswego, Ore., introduced version 2011 of the company's many software products for manufacturing. As someone said, the event felt like you were on the receiving end of an information fire hose. (Not a bad thing. In fact, it was an efficient way to supply a lot of information face-to-face and quickly.) The theme of the show: "3D is not enough." What is needed instead of just doing 3D, says the company, is to use a "digital prototyping" approach. Basically, a digital prototype contains all the information needed to manufacture a product and includes elements from industrial design, engineering, analysis, visualization, and technical documentation. Here are some examples of the 2011 software:

One new product: Alias Sketch. It works inside of AutoCAD, and also runs stand-alone. Sketch has the normal paint and marker tools, but it also lets users make lines from these bitmap tools into vectors and add additional pull-points to curves to further modify lines and curves. You thus have a surface modeler inside of AutoCAD. Users can also place a gradient on a sketch; "warp" the sketch, and the gradient fills in the newly curved areas. One version of Alias Design (a more advanced version of Sketch) works inside of Inventor, allowing surface modeling in Inventor. This feature targets the creation of consumer products.

A specialized program for automotive design, Alias Automotive, supports G3 continuity (the tangency angle and the rate of change are the same). Users can pull on a G3 surface, and it maintains this level of continuity. Automotive has tools that let designers follow new regulations that require certain areas of the front hood of cars be optimized for shape so if the car should hit a pedestrian, he will sustain minimal injury. This is called optimizing the "pedestrian impact line."

Another big theme was that of interoperability among the apps. So most if not all of the Autodesk products talk to each other, even the programs for electrical or building design. At the heart of the digital prototype is Inventor, which can, say, import an Alias design for a cell phone and place the mechanical components inside the shell after turning it into part of the 3D model. Inventor features direct-manipulation modeling. There are no dialog boxes, just context-sensitive tools.

New to Inventor 2011: Designers now work with models that look realistic. This feature does not depend on a rendering engine, so users get great looking images quickly. Users can even make design decisions based on reflectivity because they can see the affect of shadows and light on models. Also, there is now a unified Autodesk materials library, so materials appear the same in all apps and models look the same in the different products. Inventor also solves geometries real-time, which means it is no longer necessary to execute a build of the model.

According to company reps, Autodesk acquired iLogic about a year ago. It now works inside of Inventor, letting users build rules-based designs. For instance, it lets you do things that normally would have required accessing the API such as putting a time stamp on designs.

Data management is not often thought of as "sexy," but Vault Workgroup, which runs inside of Inventor, makes it much easier to see what stage of development parts are in. For example, it represents data about a part in a pie chart color-coded by "released," "work-in-progress," and similar. These colors are reflected in a 3D model of the part next to the pie-chart. This makes is easy to look at an assembly and see how near to completion it in fact is. Vault also supports models from SolidWorks and Pro/E, although not in as robust a form as the native files, as well as Microsoft Office apps. Vault combines Microsoft SQL Server and Autodesk proprietary database technology. Vault Workgroup can handle a few to thousands of engineers and thus supports a "follow the sun" design approach needed by firms with globally distributed workgroups.

The famous old workhorse AutoCAD comes in several additional flavors including AutoCAD Electrical and AutoCAD Mechanical. The latter two include purpose-built tools for electrical and mechanical engineers. These programs along with controller design features in electrical allows the building of mechatronic designs -- those that include electrical, engineering, and software engineering. Again, these programs are interoperable, so the electrical and the mechanical engineer can work in parallel, making sure the design is sound.

A question that may be of interest: What is the difference between an explicit surface and a NURBS surface? A NURBS surface is defined and manipulated by a grid of UVs (degrees and vertices). On the other hand, an explicit surface is a loft -- you directly manipulate a spline in the loft to change the surface.

Also previewed: some of the analysis software. The static stress analysis tools in Inventor have been made "easier," says the developer. Thus, it is ridding analysis of the so-called techy stuff. For example, users don't have to create a mesh -- the software creates one under the hood that the user never sees. This made many of us nervous. How can an everyday designer be confident that his analysis is valid when the method is seemingly dumbed down to a black box?

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