Enfield, CT —What's the best way to learn the latest CAD release? Do you enjoy spending weeks reading through thick documentation books? Or perhaps you prefer sitting through lectures in training classes?
No? Well, how about playing with Lego blocks and video games? CAD companies have always been trapped between contradictory customer demands for high performance and ease of use. Now two companies have found a way to sweeten the pill.
Mechanical design software company think3 makes two CAD-training games. The Monkey Wrench Conspiracy features an evil agent who has hijacked the International Space Station; the winning player must design everything he needs to survive, and then to destroy his opponent. And in Time Mechanic, players must save Earth from an invasion by aliens who try to colonize the planet by sabotaging mankind's greatest inventions. To win, an engineer must beat the clock and fix the broken machines in 3D CAD.
For younger users, LEGO CAD: Simple Machines is a 3D software tool for designing with virtual LEGO elements. It's made for the junior high school education market, so the program is simple enough that it comes with a mere 28-page manual. It allows 69 different models, including powered mechanisms that run on a 9V battery. Students can create transmissions and control systems, and simple gear-reduction boxes. Then they can submit designs to an online gallery, alongside objects like construction cranes and the Mars Rover.
Created by Dacta—Lego's educational division—in collaboration with Autodesk, it ships with optional teachers' guides for setting design challenges ranging from geometry to earth science and mapping. One of the most popular guides is called The Shipwreck of the Miss Adventure, which begins with a sinking ship, and challenges students to save and rescue the survivors. The software is not yet available in retail, but Dacta will release an improved version in March, called LEGO Designer.
"We want to introduce them to the computer as a way of making drawings or blueprints," says Robert Rasmussen, director of R & D for Lego Dacta. "You can choose solid or wire frame, rotate your view from different angles, and if you've designed a crane and want to show how it works, you can easily do an animation."
You can even assign names and values to Lego building bricks, and it will calculate a cost and bill of materials for your design. But one of the most impressive features is that the entire application ships on two floppy disks. It's so compact because the 68 different Lego parts are drawn and rendered on demand, not stored as images. So the bricks, beams, and gears have some CAD intelligence, such as virtual hubs that snap onto axles, and virtual chain links that snap onto gear teeth.
"When people use CAD, they usually design first and then build, but with this you can do it backwards," Rasmussen says, "Once you have cut wood or metal up you have used it, which is why people have to make careful designs first. But with LEGO CAD, you can build a prototype first, then modify the final design."