Have you been following Max Maxfield's recent columns with regard to 3D Printers?
When it came to 3D Design software, Max was originally leaning toward using SketchUp Make coupled with a free plug-in to generate the STL output files required by 3D printers. However, it appears that Max has been swept away by the recent announcement of a new, free 3D design package called DesignSpark Mechanical:
DesignSpark Mechanical is a shot across the bow to the low-cost MCAD world that is beginning to power desktop 3D printers. I was given the opportunity to test this new tool for the last few weeks, and I can say that it stands head and shoulders above the rest.
What allows me to make such a statement? Well, by profession I am a Senior Mechanical Design Engineer. I use high-end, professional-grade MCAD systems on a daily basis. I regularly use CATIA ($35,000 to $100,000+ per seat) and SolidWorks ($4,000 to $10,000 per seat) along with a few other professional design tools. Using these tools, I have designed everything from simple tooling fixtures to complex wind tunnel models to rotor blades for new, advanced helicopters.
What, then, is DesignSpark Mechanical? It is a free-to-use (though not open-source) mechanical CAD system that is offered by Allied Electronics and RS Components. A key feature of DesignSpark Mechanical is its tight integration with a related ECAD platform -- DesignSpark PCB. Furthermore, DesignSpark Mechanical, which is based on a professional-level design package called SpaceClaim, is well suited to producing parts for rapid prototyping.
Before we proceed further, there are a few MCAD concepts one needs to understand. Most MCAD products are either parametric, history-based modelers or direct modelers.
A parametric, history-based modeler has a work flow in which the order of features is important. It also allows for the user to go back in the history of the design and change properties and then have them propagate through the rest of the design.
In contrast, a direct modeler is very easy to use and is not history-based; the order in which a feature is created is irrelevant. Most direct modelers that I have used lack any parametric functionality. DesignSpark Mechanical takes advantage of the ease of being a direct modeler, but it also allows you to add parametric features. This is something that is very useful for doing fast design iterations.
DesignSpark Mechanical also has a very unique workflow. This workflow, which is enabled through the use of SpaceClaim technologies, allows for a much more fluid interaction with the part. Many times all you need to do is select a face and start pulling on it to create anything from extrusions to fillets. This methodology makes it very good for top-down style design work, while the parametric feature also balances the needs found in bottom-up design methodologies. The ease of use in top-down designs means that when you are presented with a model from a friend or colleague, you can easily make modifications or add features that you may require. This would be a much more difficult task when using a parametric, history-based modeler.
Despite all of DesignSpark Mechanical's advantages, I have found one drawback -- it does not allow for STEP file exports. Fortunately, I would say that this should not be a major limitation for those wanting to use this tool for making parts with rapid prototyping methods. The export of STL format files is supported. This file format will allow you to print all your designs on desktop 3D printers and/or send them out to other services, such as Shapeways.
DesignSpark Mechanical is also well supported. On the DesignSpark website you will find both video and written tutorials. There is also a user forum to get support for the questions that have not been answered in the tutorials. The tool also comes with access to a large amount of prebuilt 3D components through the Allied/RS websites. You can think of this like a standard library found in ECAD packages, but for 3D components.
The bottom line is that I would recommend DesignSpark Mechanical over any other low-cost MCAD system that is currently out there. One very important reason for my recommendation is that, once you get to know this system, it will provide valuable job training. This is due to the fact that DesignSpark Mechanical is based on the professional SpaceClaim product, thereby allowing designers to easily add another MCAD system to their resumés. In a competitive job market, this is a great advantage.
Have you used DesignSpark Mechanical yet? If so, what are your thoughts on this tool?