OMG! All the electronic and mechanical engineers I know (and even most of the marketing folks) are going to squeal like schoolgirls when they get their sticky little hands on this amazing, free 3D design software that will enable conceptualization and rapid prototyping, reduce costs, and dramatically accelerate product development. In short, this software is like a "Gift of invention that will bring your ideas to life!"
Quiet down my racing heart! I just heard the most amazing "hot-off-the-press" news. In just a few days as I pen these words, all of us who wish to will be able to design 3D models, assemblies, and enclosures for our designs using some incredibly intuitive, fully-featured 3D modeling software. And, best of all, it's free! (And when I say "free" I really mean free, as in free for both commercial and non-commercial use with no limitations or licensing.)
On a personal note, this software is going to make a perfect complement to the $499 3D Printer I just purchased. I've been looking around at different 3D design packages, but the only ones I could find were either horribly expensive (and came with a horrendously eye-watering learning curve) or free and relatively easy to use (but not as powerful as one might hope and not exactly intended for my purposes as an electronic engineer). By comparison, the free package I'm about to tell you about -- DesignSpark Mechanical -- is both incredibly powerful and amazingly intuitive (and did I mention that it's free?).
Before I forget, DesignSpark Mechanical will be available for free download from DesignSpark.com starting on Monday, September 16. Now, if you are as excited as I and you simply cannot wait to see this little beauty in action, feast your eyes on the following video and then return to this column to discover more.
From the above video, it's easy to see that the DesignSpark Mechanical 3D design tool is applicable to every engineering student and practicing engineer on the planet. In fact, as we shall discuss, DesignSpark Mechanical is also of interest to non-technical marketing folks. But, before we delve into the nitty-gritty details, let's first set the scene. In the case of today's designs, it is no longer sufficient to create a mega-cool electronic system and then simply sling it into an "agricultural" package. Modern customers and end-users now demand products that are not only highly functional, but are also aesthetically pleasing to the hand and eye.
This has spawned an exponentially growing market in rapid prototyping -- especially with regard to creating 3D visualizations and prototypes. In the case of a large design company, there's almost certain to be a CAD department lurking around somewhere. This "CAD Mafia" group is comprised of 3D modeling experts who have spent many months or years honing their craft. The problem here can be communicating your requirements to this team and getting things done in a timely manner.
Alternatively, consider a small or midsized engineering company. In many cases, these companies simply cannot afford to support an in-house CAD team or even a single in-house CAD expert. The alternative is to go to an outside contractor, but this does -- of course -- cost money. Even worse are the problems of communicating exactly what you want. A related issue is when your prototype comes back and you realize that you need to make a change, at which point the whole communication, fabrication, and delivery cycle start up again.
And don't forget the folks in marketing. Just think what they could do if they were to have access to a 3D design package that they can actually learn to use without their brains exploding. For example, the little scamps could whip up 3D visualizations that can be presented to potential customers (who cannot fail to be impressed) and then handed off to engineering ("This is what it should look like... now all you have to do is build it!").
The reason I am so enthused about all this is that in addition to the video shown above, I just received my own personal live demo over the Internet, and I have to say that I was blown away. This "industrial-strength" software has been lovingly crafted so as to be easy to learn and use. You can quickly create 3D objects, manipulate shapes, grab and drag faces and/or edges, set levels of transparency (allowing you to, for example, see through a semi-transparent enclosure to the contents inside). You can combine/merge objects, fragment them, and perform Boolean operations on them. You can "Copy" and "Paste" within a drawing or between drawings. And you can perform unlimited "Undo" and "Redo" operations.
But wait, there's more... You can create individual parts or full-blown assemblies. In addition to your enclosures, you can import 3D models of electronic components, electro-mechanical devices, circuit boards, and so forth. But where do you get these models? Well, the folks who are bringing DesignSpark Mechanical to us -- Allied Electronics and RS Components -- have 38,000 3D models as part of their online catalog. Each of these free-to-use models is available in 24 different formats, which means they work with just about every 3D design package in the known universe. Furthermore, the folks at TraceParts.com boast 100+ million 2D drawings and 3D models that can also be freely accessed and used in your designs.
Now, it's true that there are other free 3D modeling packages around, some of which are indeed relatively easy to learn and use, but they all suffer from one or more limitations when it comes to the sort of tasks electronic and mechanical engineers wish to perform. Consider SketchUp Make, for example, which is easy to use, but which was originally conceived for architectural applications, and which does not support native 3D file format import/export capabilities.
By comparison, when it came to creating DesignSpark Mechanical, the guys and gals at Allied/RS partnered with the folks at SpaceClaim, who are experts at creating tools for engineering application areas such as mechanical, thermal, fluidic, sheet metal, and... the list goes on. The bottom line is that the folks at SpaceClaim fully understand the demanding requirements of the engineering community. This explains why DesignSpark Mechanical can import ECAD (IDF, IDB, EMN) files, OBJ, SketchUp, STEP, and STL file formats; and export AutoCAD (DXF), OBJ, 3DPDF, STL, XAML, JPEG, and PNG file formats.
Last but certainly not least, you may know Allied Electronics and/or RS Components as one of the world's largest distributor of electronics and maintenance products. If this is all you know, you may wonder what they are doing distributing free 3D design software to anyone who wants it. In fact, you may also start to ask yourself, "What other amazing tools and technologies do these little rascals have up their sleeves?" Well, all shall be revealed in my next column... watch this space!
Too bad it doesn't have practical import/export formats. As old as IGES is, it's still used extensively in a lot of fields. Also, it's listed as importing STEP files, but read the fine print. You can't edit the imported data.
It's got some serious intellectual property too. The brains behind it reside at Spaceclaim, which Allied and RS partnered with to bring this to the masses. Spaceclaim's chief technical expert was also the brains behind Solidworks, before he moved on to develop what we have here: A gesture-based interface (look ma! no parametric entry!) that's really intuitive.
The idea of being able to quickly develop the enclosure in parallel with your board/parts to get the optimum design is pretty cool too.
@Caleb: ...it does seem like a great mix of visual interface and mechanical design...
I just received an email from someone I know who says:
Hi Max, I actually know a whole lot about this but I'm under NDA -- here is what I can tell you -- this piece of software is what you want to be using. This is not a run of the mill 3D mechanical program, but has some serious horsepower behind it.