In the past, the only thing electronic design teams had to worry about was – perhaps not surprisingly – the electronics part of the design (chips, circuit boards, etc.). But with today's sophisticated products, it's becoming increasingly necessary to develop the electronics portions of the system in the context of the enclosure in which they will reside.
There are some very clever 3D CAD tools out there, but many of them first saw the light of day decades ago, which often means that they have evolved over time to include layer upon layer of code (you really don’t want to see what the deeper layers look like – you should wear your thigh-length rubber wading boots if you decide to plunge into the mire).
The other downside about really powerful 3D CAD tools is that their price-tags tend to make your eyes water. If you're not careful, you can easily end up spending $10K... $20K... $30K... or more. This might not be a problem if you are a multi-million dollar company, but what do you do if you are a smaller design house, or perhaps just a hobbyist who desperately desires access to this sort of technology? Well fear not my braves, because I have seen the light...
I have just been exposed to a feisty little company called Alibre (www.Alibre.com). The folks at Alibre have developed an incredibly powerful – yet easy to use – 3D CAD program called Alibre Design that will have you tap-dancing with delight. Alibre Design is applicable across the board, from hobbyists to enterprise-level companies, and from creating simple 3D puzzles to the most sophisticated designs in the Industrial Equipment, Aerospace, Transportation, Consumer Products, and Electronics markets (to name but a few).
Consider the following image of a 1:87th scale railcar created by a user. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that this was an actual physical model as opposed to a 3D rendering:
Alibre Design's graphical user interface is as easy and intuitive to use as you could hope for. You start off by creating "Parts" (3D models of individual components). All of the dimensions and other aspects of the parts can be defined using parameters and equations, which facilitates your making changes and fine-tuning things.
Next, you move up to create "Assemblies" (parts that are grouped together to form working models of your designs). As soon as you've created an assembly (or a part for that matter), you can generate photo-realistic 3D images that are indistinguishable from the manufactured product, rich projected 2D views for documentation, a build of materials (BOM), and so forth. You can also export your projects in file formats suitable for fabrication by 3D printers or computer-aided manufacturing machines.
One really cool feature in the latest release (see below) is that you can create a 3D object and then convert it into a folded piece of sheet metal and export the design data required to cut the 2D sheet metal in such a way that it can be folded back into the 3D shape (if you see what I mean).
As I already mentioned, one of the great things about Alibre Design is that it's really easy to learn and use. It comes with in-built tutorials, plus there are a wealth of videos and other resources on the Alibre website (Click Here
to see some Quick-Start videos).
Another cool thing is that everything is tied together via a relational database. What does this mean to you? Well, suppose you create a library of 3D parts and then you use these parts to create several different assemblies. As part of this, for each assembly you create a suite of 2D projections with dimensions and suchlike. Now suppose that you modify one of your original parts in some way. Obviously, if this change means it will no longer "work" in your assemblies warning bells will sound, but I'm thinking of a more subtle modification like a slight change in appearance. The point is that you don’t have to go back through all of your assemblies and associated 2D projections laboriously requesting updates – everything is automatically taken care of for you (I like that).
But wait, there's more, because there's also the Alibre Powered website (www.AlibrePowered.com
). This is like a really cool social networking website devoted to users of Alibre. This is where folks showcase their work and exchange models they've created and swap hints and tips and suchlike. For example, one guy uses Alibre to design really cool watches as shown below:
Alibre Design runs on any PC running Windows XP and above (by which I mean Windows Vista and Windows 7). There are currently three flavors of the product: the Personal Edition ($99), the Professional Edition ($600), and the Expert Edition ($1,200).
The Personal Edition is ideal for individuals, entrepreneurs, and small companies. In addition to creating the 3D models themselves, you can generate some very nice looking 3D renderings of your models along with 2D projected views and BOMs and so forth. However, the more sophisticated photo-realistic renderings can only be created with the Professional and Expert editions.
Both the Professional and Expert editions also include high-end capabilities like Finite Element Analysis (FEA), which allows you to evaluate your design's ability to withstand heat, pressure, weight, stress, and so forth. Of course the Expert edition contains even more "goodies", like the ability to perform motion analysis – that is, to model parts moving in relation to each other.
The current version of Alibre Design was the winner of Maker Faire Detroit’s "Editor’s Choice" 2010 Award. Furthermore, the folks at Alibre have just given a sneak-peak of the next generation of the product – Alibre Design 2011 – at the World Maker Faire in NY.
In addition to all sorts of hot new features – such as the ability to convert a solid part into sheet metal – Alibre Design 2011 includes a full port of the code to C#, making it the first native 64-bit version, which is important for demanding users that want to create designs of enormous size and complexity.
I could waffle on about this for hours, but instead of that, why don’t you test-drive a trial version? For more information on Alibre Design and a free trial, please visit www.alibre.com
(make sure you tell them "Max says Hi"