Allied Electronics? RS Components? Who are these heroes providing industrial-strength 3D design software for free?
In my previous column, I talked about DesignSpark Mechanical, an industrial strength, highly intuitive 3D design and visualization platform that Allied Electronics and RS Components are offering for free. Who are these heroes, and why are they being so magnanimous and munificent?
If you come from America, you are probably aware of Allied Electronics, but RS Components may not ring a bell. If you hail from Europe or Asia, you've almost undoubtedly run across RS Components, but Allied Electronics may be unknown to you.
Let's take this from the top. Somewhere in the clouds, we have a company known as Electrocomponents PLC. This company boasts more than $2 billion of annual revenue, more than 1 million customers, and operations in more than 30 countries. The two main brands in the Electrocomponents empire are Allied Electronics and RS Components.
Founded in 1928, Allied Electronics distributes products from more than 300 suppliers across North America. RS Components, founded in 1937, distributes products from more than 2,500 suppliers across Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. I cannot tell you how many happy hours I spent rooting through the RS Components catalogue when I was a young engineer in England in the 1980s. Of course, this would have been a print catalogue, because the Internet as we've grown to know and love it wasn't around at that time.
Historically, Allied Electronics tended to be known more for the electrical and electromechanical parts used by machine designers and builders in industrial automation and control applications. RS Components was traditionally associated with electronic components. However, both companies have evolved over the years, and any distinctions between their areas of focus have become increasingly blurred. I now tend to think of these companies as two facets of the same global entity, but we digress.
In 2010, Allied and RS launched an engineering community called DesignSpark, which has grown rapidly and now has more than 250,000 members. Its stated mission is to provide engineering resources and tools and technical support (via forums). Of course, DesignSpark also is helping Allied and RS sell more components, but if that's a byproduct of making engineers' lives easier, I have no problem with this whatsoever.
The first tool offered under the DesignSpark umbrella was DesignSpark PCB. This free, professional-grade, highly intuitive PCB design environment allows you to capture multilayer boards up to one square meter in size. It includes both schematic capture and PCB layout (including an autorouter for those who like that sort of thing).
One cunning thing about DesignSpark PCB is that, with the push of a button, you can generate your bill of materials automatically. Even better -- remembering that locating, costing, and purchasing components can be the bane of an engineer's life -- you can place your order automatically with the push of another button. The fact that DesignSpark PCB already has more than 180,000 industry users (plus 100,000 education users) speaks volumes for this tool's power and ease of use.
Next we have ModelSource, an online database of free engineering models. It hosts schematic and PCB component libraries along with 2D and 3D CAD models. It currently contains more than 38,000 3D models presented in 24 different 3D formats, so they work with just about every 3D design tool on the planet.
In June, DesignSpark introduced DesignShare, which boasts a collection of open-source projects posted by DesignSpark members and partners.
And now (as of Monday 16 September), we have DesignSpark Mechanical, the 3D design and visualization software I mentioned in my previous column. It was lovingly crafted by SpaceClaim to be incredibly powerful, highly intuitive, and easy to learn and use. How easy? Check out the new video below.
DesignSpark Mechanical can import ECAD, OBJ, SketchUp, STEP, and STL file formats and export AutoCAD (DXF), OBJ, STL, XAML, JPEG, and PNG file formats, along with 3DPDFs.
For some reason, this doesn't work with my web browser, so you'll just have to take it from me. When you access a 3DPDF version of the above image of an automotive inverter enclosure, use your mouse to manipulate the image in the PDF, spin it around, and zoom in and out. It's really, really cool. Of course, it's more than just cool. Can you imagine showing a proposed design to a customer in this way, or including it as part of a quote? What customer could resist?
Well, I don't know about you, but I find this all to be tremendously exciting. The first thing Monday morning, I'm going to have my nose pressed firmly against the screen of my computer while I download my free copy of DesignSpark Mechanical from the DesignSpark website. Perhaps I'll see you there?