eDrawings for iPad: Better Late Than Never?

Today DS SolidWorks launched eDrawings for iPad, its first mobile app to date under the SolidWorks name, well except for the n!Fuze app…*crickets*…moving on. Up until now, there have been limited resources on mobile to view native SolidWorks files. Some of the viewers currently on the market are extremely overpriced and very limited. We got a taste of how 3D could feel on a touch device when Dassault shipped the 3dvia mobile app 2 years ago, which connected with their 3dvia.com service. Although SolidWorks users could File, Save-As to 3dvia.com, there were security issues with making your content public just to view it on your iPad. The 3dvia app also lacked the important interrogation tools like markup and measure that many of us would like to have for reviewing SolidWorks data.

eDrawings for iPad:

Feature set: ($1.99 USD)

- Open SolidWorks® parts, assemblies and drawings

- Open eDrawings files

- Open AutoCAD® DWG and DXF files

- Supports "Open In" from Mail, DropBox, GoodReader…etc

- Zoom/Pan/Rotate

- Navigate SW assembly tree, drawings sheets and switch configurations

- Play animations

- Show exploded states (assemblies)

As you can see from the list above, this outlines the typical requirements for a viewer, much like we get from the free version of eDrawings on the PC. The interface is clean, supports full screen mode and reminds me of the Mac version of eDrawings with the file properties drawer. My favorite feature is the app supports the "Open In.." function of iOS which makes opening files from Mail or even Dropbox simple. Here are a few shots of the UI:


Although this $1.99 USD app is a no-brainer for a SolidWorks user with an iPad, it is not yet available on Android and is not a universal app, allowing it to run on the iPhone either. Don't get me wrong, having a native viewer is a great start, however practical design review tools are needed to move eDrawings for iPad into the collaboration/design review arena.

Personally I would like to see more focus on the features that made eDrawings my de-facto tool for communication by adding markup and measure capabilities. There are a number of things that are missing from the iPad version like:

- Markup

- Measure

- Section

- Hide/Show/Transparent/Open in Assemblies

- View inserted BOM/tables in parts/assemblies

I do agree that a mobile app does not necessarily have to duplicate functionality of its desktop counterpart but should minimally offer tools that are device appropriate. Many of these missing features, I believe, would be device appropriate since being able to markup and grab measurements off of models are key for design reviews.

I understand this is the first version to hit the public but I have to believe that this has been floating around the catacombs of SolidWorks for quite awhile and there had to be discussions around bringing more design review functions to the app. The price of $1.99 USD is fine and for what it delivers, arguably a fair price. The success of an app in today's mobile market is more than just the local features the app can deliver, but the services they are connected to.

What Version 2 Will Need:

- ANDROID SUPPORT (don't ignore the major share of the mobile market)

- Phone support across iOS and Android

- Markup/Measure/Hide/Show/Transparent tools

Wish List:

- Collaboration with others via Cloud service (shared view/markup/chat)

- Open directly from Cloud services or network shares (Dropbox, Google Drive, Box.Net, UNC path, etc.)

I wrote a while back how to Preview SolidWorks CAD data on Dropbox by using SolidWorks Task Scheduler but now being able to simply use "Open In.." makes Dropbox, or any other cloud storage service, work great for viewing your data on the device. With a few tweaks, eDrawings for iPad/Android could become a great resource for users in the field and on the go. ~Lou

What Does Windows8 Metro Mean for CAD?

As Microsoft works away on the upcoming release of thier next major version of Windows, the feature that seems to be getting the most mixed reviews is the new Start screen.  The Windows 8 start screen is modeled after Windows Phone's "Metro UI" which is a mosaic of "tiles" that represent applications and shortcuts to places throughout the operating system.  This new "Start Screen" replaces the Start button and Start menu all together, allowing the user to "touch first", which is the motto of the new OS.
There are many other reviews talking about what Metro means (my favorite), outlining the pros/cons of this shift away from the conventional Start button, but I am curious what it means for the CAD tools out in the market. Before I talk about specifics, there are a few things you need to understand about apps that run in Metro:
  • Metro and Metro style apps are Microsoft's attempt to unify their operating system across all devices. (Desktop, tablet, mobile)
  • Metro style apps must be delivered via the new Windows Store, a built in app market inside of Windows 8, vetted by Microsoft, similar to that of Apple's App Store.
  • Metro style apps are full screen and represent a single app per system, not taking advantage of multiple monitors.
  • Metro style apps can be built with a number of languages and APIs including many web-centric technologies like HTML5, CSS and Javascript.
  • Navigation within a Metro style app is different than a conventional desktop application (i.e. Right click will yield options for the app, whereas on a desktop application it reveals the context menu).
There are many other changes to the look and feel of these Metro style applications, some of which I wonder how they can be used in a 3D CAD environment.  Let's take eDrawings for example.  Visually, eDrawings in Metro seems to be a natural choice as a viewer with markup capabilities.  It has big buttons and simple commands that lend themselves to smoother integration into a Metro style app.  Things start to fall apart though when we discuss tools that are buried in the context menu like right click to hide, make transparent and other functions.  
It's not to say that these challenges cannot be overcome with ingenuity and good design but almost every 3D CAD app would need this re-invention, especially on the user interaction front.  Obviously this re-invention is parallel to touch devices, which we have watched some companies overcome the traditional interactions and embrace touch as another option.  With Metro being modeled as "Touch first", many of the same steps will need to be taken in order for CAD vendors to utilize Metro.  There is, of course, the possibility of a revenue stream for delivering viewing tools and ancillary products via the Windows Store.
The Windows 8 Metro interface will make many Windows developers re-think how their applications are built, what technologies are integrated into them, and how users will interact depending on which devices they are using.  Despite the mixed reviews of Microsoft's Metro angle, Windows is a standard and has the potential to disrupt the application market significantly.  
I believe Microsoft's move to Metro is overdue since the Start button has been around since 1995, however it will force one of three reactions.
  • Ignore it (in hopes it will just go away)
  • Embrace it (re-think their apps and build to take advantabe of Metro)
  • Push to the web (re-think their app and go the OS ignostic approach and use the platform that works everywhere - The Web!)
Personally I hope for the latter since the web the only platform that ignores the operating system and puts the focus on the application.  In the end, applications are what we are after, operating systems are supposed to fall away and be transparent to the user. ~Lou

Dropbox Preview for SolidWorks Setup

Dropbox has become the universal tool for syncing data from our desktops and mobile devices for a few years now. Having talked about the topic a lot on the podcast, syncing datasets between not only systems but also collaborators on a project can be quite useful.

With access to almost anything from our phones and other mobile devices has many of us storing 3D data in Dropbox and wanting to see more than the "Unable to view file" screen from our devices.  Until Dropbox enables a way to natively preview our 3D data on their service we are out of luck....sort of.

SolidWorks has a nice little tool that I use for many tedious and repiticious tasks called SolidWorks Task Scheduler (...and yes it appears this utility has been named following the Microft product naming methology, just state what it does as the product name.)  Anyway, this tool can do all sorts of jobs like file conversion, eDrawing creation and, in this case, Export files...

On my Dropbox I have a folder called "CAD" and inside that folder I have sub folders for different CAD projects I am working on.  Obviously I can navigate to these folders from my phone without issue but viewing doesn't work so unless I know the exact the name of the file I want, I have no way of "viewing" what the file contains.  Since Dropbox has a built in viewer for pictures I figured I would just run a task to create a simple image of the cad data automatically so I could preview it on my phone.  So I setup SW Task Scheduler to run daily on my CAD folder to export files to a sub folder called "CAD Images".  

Since the JPG export from SW, by default, uses a screen capture, I wanted to make sure the files would be large enought since SW sessions launced by SWTS are really small so the images would be poor quality.

Here is how you can do it:

1 - Go into SolidWorks and set the JPG Export options: (set to Print Capture instead of Screen Capture)

2 - Launch SolidWorks Task Scheduler (Start -> Programs - > SolidWorks 20XX -> SolidWorks Tools -> SolidWorks Task Scheduler

3 - Click "Export Files"

4 - Select JPG (*.jpg) as the "Export file type:"

5 - Pick your folders and set the file names to use for *.sldprt;*sldasm 

NOTE: You cannot do this for slddrw so I would do another task to export slddrw to PDF with a similar schedule.

6 - Set your Task schedule to "Daily" or whatever interval you would like.

7 - (Optional) Pick a sub folder inside the folder called "CAD Previews" or something that you can preview.  It might be easy to just have it save in the same directory as the original so you can see the names right next to one another on the device.

8 - Click OK! 

  

  I hope that SolidWorks has some good news this year at SolidWorks World about viewing our CAD data on our mobile devices but until then, this will have to do.  I have been experimenting on a little command utility that can be triggered by Windows Task Scheduler that creates a picture with the same name of the file from the Windows thumbnail graphic.  This would work on any files in Dropbox that the local system running the utility would have a preview in Windows Explorer.  Once I finish it I will post it for use for free and post the source on GitHub. ~Lou

iCAD: What Touch Could Bring To Product Development

Using the iPhone for the past couple of years, I have become accustom to having a multi-touch device at my disposal on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. So as you can imagine Apple's launch of the iPad this weekend peaked my interest...sort of. Despite the reasons why I chose not to get one right away, there is something compelling about having a large touch screen device that you can perform certain computing tasks with.  This is similar to the way products are developed and the various tools we use as engineers to develop concepts, and eventually the final product.

Spaceclaim has shown how touch interfaces can be used within their direct modeling tool and SolidWorks 2010 with some minor tool selection capabilities with gestures.  SolidWorks also debuted the SolidWorks V6, a cross-platform technology preview, showing how it could run on the Wacom Cintiq to manipulate the model and queue up menus.

I know there are other examples but you can see that touch makes sense when applied to certain areas of a CAD platform.  Actions like pan, rotate, zoom and tool selection all seem to have intuitive applications when it comes to CAD but there are aspects that are hard for me to embrace for touch.  Precision selection like mating or surfacing operations might be a bit difficult, especially when trying to pick an edge or vertex of a model.  However, that is not to say that a change in approach wouldn't solve these challenges but in many ways it is our own inertia to stick with interfaces we know and have become accustom to that prevent us from moving forward.

When Apple first introduced the iPhone with a virtual keyboard, everyone complained about it due to the lack of feedback and precision typing.  After spending some time using it, it becomes apparent that the keyboard was designed to be used with your fingers (even those of us with hotdog fingers) and tries to predict what you meant to type.  If CAD companies focus on designing the interface around the user, it could be a powerful tool if executed correctly.

So what tools of SolidWorks' make sense for multi-touch now?  I am sure there are a few but off the top I think many of the SolidWorks LABS tools could be a good start.  At SolidWorks World 2009 there were a couple of Microsoft Surface tables with an eDrawings mockup and something that resembled BluePrint Now.  The eDrawings Surface was showing off a pan, rotate and zoom interactions, while the other was a simple 2D drawing tool, allowing multiple users to interact and draw with.  Treehouse, BluePrint Now, and eDrawings all seem to scream out for the ability to run on a device like the iPad or HP tablet.  What better way to "dip a toe" into the touch device world and get feedback from real users in order to apply that technology to mainstream SolidWorks in the future? ~Lou

*UPDATE* Check out Josh's iPad First Impressions post over at SolidSmack

Direct vs. History: The CAD Power Struggle

CAD vendors have been introducing toolsets that allow users to approach design directly, either in conjunction with, or as a replacement to, traditional history based modeling techniques. Without explaining the History of CAD, or arguing which technique is superior to the other, let's set a parallel technology comparison. It is easy to find many technologies that can be compared to that of the direct modeling/editing versus the history-based approach discussion.

For example, Apple and Microsoft have been competitors for over 30 years and have many similarities to this battle going on in the CAD industry. Apple, in today's market, is focused on convincing consumers to "switch" to their computers, touting power without complexity. While Microsoft, on the other hand, has been the standard everywhere, especially in business, and has gobbled up over 90% of the PC market. If you had to generalize the markets or areas of expertise for each of them, and there are many to choose from, you might believe that Apple's stronghold is in the artistic and media production industry (Print/magazine layout & design, picture/movie editing & production, creative markets). Microsoft, for the past 20 years, has been the ubiquitous business software company, delivering high end, powerful enterprise and IT infrastructure solutions. While powering much of the corporate world, Microsoft offers a seemingly unlimited list of applications from which to choose. That being said, it would be foolish to assume that if you use Microsoft products, you are unable to be creative; or that using Apple products limit your ability be productive in the corporate world.

Direct editing, like Apple, brings powerful toolsets to CAD, helping engineers and designers conceptualize creative ideas and verify fit, form and function without investing the overhead of approach. History-based tools, on the other hand, have been adopted as "standards", similar to Microsoft, and are powerful platforms from which many of today's products are designed. Most might also agree that the direct modeling (DM) approach is more intuitive and easier to understand at first glance than history-based (HB) modeling. However, the power of history gives the user insight of how a model was built and the ability to apply explicit rules that impact future features.

The important point is not what technology is better, but about providing tools to get the job done. There still might be a point to be made on which execution is best or what mix of DM and HB tools can give the best approach options to the user. Currently, direct modeling is offered as an interface communicating to a parametric model (SolidWorks Instant3D / Pro/E Wildfire 5), a hybrid approach within one CAD platform (SolidEdge Synchronous Technology/Autodesk Inventor Fusion), an integrated toolset (Catia V6), or a separate CAD platform all together (SpaceClaim). Every CAD vendor will argue that their approach is best, but like every technology clash (Apple/Microsoft, HD DVD/BlueRay, Direct Modeling/History Based Modeling), the consumer will choose which product or toolset best addresses their design challenges.

In the same respect, I own an Apple MacBook Pro not because I think Apple's operating system is superior to Microsoft's, but because the Apple's hardware allows me to run any operating system and grants me access to any application. In the Apple/Microsoft decision it is all about the applications since that is where the real work is done. Similarly, direct editing and history-based modeling are application of CAD, each with their own function.

Personally, I use SolidWorks extensively, as you may have guessed, so I understand how Instant3D allows the user to edit parametric data in a way that feels direct. I have also tried SpaceClaim a dozen times in the past 2 months (mainly to understand pure direct modeling), however I am not designing products everyday nor do I have deadlines to meet. In order to shine better light on this discussion, I would ask that you comment on which implementation of direct modeling/editing would work best for your applications. ~Lou

64 Bit For CAD Is Better, Right?

A very common question that is asked by CAD users is, "Is 64 bit is better for CAD?". I think much of this stems from the amount of focus the market has put on the 64 bit computing and maybe the fact that the number 64 is twice that of 32 which implies it MUST be better. However the trends suggest that mileage does vary depending on the type of software, hardware and operations the system endures.

There are, however, some prerequisites that have to be met first with the hardware of the system before a 64 bit operating system is to be considered. The most important factor is the CPU, which will need to be 64 bit capable. Many systems today will support an installation of Windows 64 (Either XP, Vista or Windows7 (currently in Beta)), but the other factor is RAM.  If your system is not equipped with at least 4GB of RAM or more then the reasons for migrating to this platform diminish dramatically. Placing 4GB or more on a system and will require the motherboard of the system to also be able to support this type of configuration as well. Now I have only highlighted the main hardware prerequisites however there are some specific hardware requirements in order for all 32 bit applications to utilize the 64 bit environment by accessing WOW64. I won't be diving into that topic here.

Once the hardware specific requirements are met, the installation procedure is essentially the same as it's 32 bit counterpart.  So let's assume you have 8GB of RAM on your system and now running 64 bit Vista, what have you gained?  There are essentially two benefits to running a 64 bit OS. One, 64 bit specific applications have access to 64 bit processing, which means that the CPU can process twice as much information than 32 bit. However when it comes to CAD this tends to not be that beneficial although there are some analysis applications that can take full advantage of 64 bit processing. Two, it's all about RAM. As you may know 32 bit Windows can only address 4GB of RAM, which by default is shared 50/50 between the operating system and applications. You can enable the 3GB switch which is a boot level configuration to override this split for system that have 4GB of RAM to give 3GB to the application space.  With 64 bit, Windows can address up to 128GB of RAM which is where all the performance gain resides.

Being able to address more RAM allows the CAD application to load and work entirely in RAM. This allows operations to be performed on top-level large assemblies than might have not been able to even be opened in a 32 bit environment. This prevents using virtual RAM, better known as the paging file in Windows, which is hard drive space. Once a program accesses the paging file, performance tends to dip dramatically. With that being said, the 64 bit environment is really only beneficial to those who come up on the 3GB ceiling and are running RAM intensive programs like CAD, photo/video editing or gaming.

Now obviously not all the applications you have are 64 bit so compatibility with your 32 bit applications is also a key part to your decision to switch to 64 bit. When I first used Windows XP x64 back in 2005/2006 it was pretty painful since many of my peripherals (XEROX printer) and speciality programs were not yet supported.  Today Vista-64 and Windows7-64 (beta) are more mature and much more forgiving to run 32 bit applications then XP-64 was in it's early days.

The biggest challenge seems to still be hardware drivers. When Vista first shipped, many consumers were having issues getting video cards to support the new Aero graphics and some other legacy hardware to work.  64 bit for Vista and Windows7 seem to have corrected the compatability issues but they do require signed drivers.  If you have any hardware that does not have Microsoft signed drivers, that hardware will not install and this can add some pain depending on your setup.

Overall if your CAD requirements involve large assemblies, large feature-count parts or you have multiple memmory-resident programs you want to run simultaniously, 64 bit is probably for you. Performance gain can be quite dramatic for these types of applicatoins but common tasks like word processing, spreadsheets and browsing the internet will run as they do currently in 32 bit Windows. 64 bit is migrating over to be the standard and is much easier of a transition with new hardware. I am currently testing Windows7 x64 and will be back shortly to share that experience with you! ~Lou

Future of CAD and Cloud Computing

Now that we are all beta testing SolidWorks 2009, I can't help but think about how much CAD applications have transformed over the past 15 years and what path the future will take. With the launch of cloud-based applications like Google Apps, Photoshop Express, and Windows Live Mesh, it is hard to ignore this movement of web-based computing. Many of us have watched products like SolidWorks grow up into very powerful applications but still we are locked to using CAD on a desktop machine. In many cases this is sufficient and probably the first choice, however this was the same belief we had about word-processing and spreadsheet applications just a few years ago. Today these type of applications are ubiquitous and can be found up in the cloud.

With the introduction of platforms like Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe Flash, applications for the web are now popping up all over the place, even in arenas that are dominated by the desktop. There are arguments that cloud-based application are limited not only in features but also in access, since many of us are not always connected to the Internet. There are some technologies that allow web-based applications to work while offline, like Google Gears. Gears allows some applicatoins like Google Reader and Google Docs to work while disconnected from the Internet, utilizing Java in the background to power the web page's technologies.

There are a few different configurations of how cloud-computing can be done with respect to the interfaces in which the user interacts with the application. Some web-applications are solely accessed through a web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox, while others can communicate with the cloud through a desktop application, allowing collaboration and/or sync features. I have recently started using a great application called Evernote, that is a note taking application that exists both on the web and on the desktop. Evernote can be accessed solely via the web using a web browser but also has a native desktop interface, running on either Windows or Mac, giving offline access to my notes. In this case, the cloud not only brings storage and sync capabilities, but also brings OCR (Optical Character Recognition) for pictures and hand written notes. I can take a photo of my hand written notes or a picture containing text and it will recognize it for search. This powerful feature doesn't happen on my desktop application but once my notes are synced, Evernote's server does the OCR for me and the results are synced back to my system. This flexibility allows me to be mobile and give me all the power everywhere I need it.

So back to the CAD application, what if SolidWorks started small and developed a cloud-based eDrawings? This could be an extension of some of the SoildWorks Labs projects like BluePrint Now, Drawings Now, and COSMOSXpress Now giving not only a web-based interface but extend features like storage and collaboration as well. Currently both BluePrint Now and DrawingsNow share an online storage space which gives some cloud benefits since they can be accessed from anywhere. This could also be coupled with a connection from the installed desktop application, allowing simplicity of access within the current working environment. Learning from what eDrawings could bring, SolidWorks itself could be extended to the cloud to do minor adjustments and collaboration across the Internet.

These are obviously my own "dreams" but if anyone can make a CAD application utilize the Internet and bring it to the mainstream, SolidWorks can. Don't forget that SoilidWorks tried this back in February 2002 with a collaboration/project management website called 3D TeamWorks that allowed for some of this functionality. That was before many of these advanced technologies existed and also before most people were comfortable with using the web as a serious platform for computing. As these technologies begin to break many of our everyday applications free from the desktop or extend the current capabilities back to a powerful server in the cloud, the glass ceiling of innovation is broken and the "Clouds the limit"! ~Lou