Virginia Beach, VA —Tim Ambrosino thinks shopping carts are too complex.
Those ubiquitous virtual baskets for Web-shopping are often abandoned or stranded in slow-building web pages. So his company, Mariah Vision, launched 3Scape in July. At just $399, this "affordable authoring tool" auto-generates XML, so users can create interactive web environments featuring two-way communication between a company's database and the end-user.
"We realized companies had all these CAD models, and that 80% of the cost of an item is determined in the design phase," he says. "So let's use these models, not lock them away."
The MCAD industry agrees with him. Voting with their feet, the top companies are falling over each other to launch collaborative design applications, such as Autodesk's Streamline, CoCreate's OneSpace, Framework's ActiveProject, PTC's Windchill and Pro/Collaborate, SDRC's TeamCenter, and SolidWorks' eDrawings.
Even within this handful of apps, "collaboration" has widely different definitions. But they all face a similar challenge—how to squeeze enormous CAD files through skinny telephone wires and sluggish modems. The answer is visualization—the software tool that enables far-flung engineers to see a model in 3D, rotate and view it from all dimensions, animate its motions, markup changes, and sometimes synchronize these actions with their coworkers.
It's the crucial foundation for any CAD platform that wants to call itself collaborative. But in this age of specialization, most companies don't build a visualization tool themselves—they buy one. Vendors (and their products) include: Assentive (the former iEngineer.com)'s Vuent Envision-i, Cimmetry's AutoVue, Informative Graphics' Brava, Mariah Vision's 3Scape, Reality Wave's VizStream and ConceptStation, TSA's Hoops3D, UGS's e-Vis, ViewPoint (formerly known as MetaStream), and WebScope.
Visualization is not just moving CAD files between PCs, but allowing diverse users to see them in a basic browser window, so they don't have to own the original CAD application. This way, the collaboration session is open to everyone—suppliers, manufacturers, customers, and retailers, as well as engineers.
Many tools will compress the files and unzip them on the other end. Another approach is to stream the files, which means the user can view part of a file before the entire thing is downloaded. Yet another solution is to strip all of the part history and parametrics from a file, so that the user downloads merely a "dumb box." And recently, some visualization tools have been doing "smart" streaming, which means they boost resolution only on the part of a file the user is currently inspecting, leaving the remainder roughly sketched. Finally, visualization tools can choose to include or omit meta-data, such as mark-ups, dimensions, 2D plans, etc.
Once all that work has been done by these contract companies, it's up to the application developer to blend the power into his CAD platform.
Mariah Vision tries to make this easy: "Without being a 3D artist or programmer, you can get a 3D interactive environment on the web, where each object is a smart object," says company Founder and President Ambrosino. "It was built on the premise that the Internet would not remain 2D and text driven, and that XML would be the universal glue that holds all software languages together."
Another approach is the Hoops Net Server (HOOPS/Net), launched in May by Tech Soft America (Oakland, CA). This "graphics component technology" is a client/server framework that enables engineering software developers to add collaborative functionality and data streaming to their applications.
"We've designed streaming for engineering, as opposed to some other products which just produce a dumb image," said Ron Fritz, TSA managing partner. TSA offers an open toolkit, so developers can customize it, inserting additional intelligence like bills of materials. On the "raw to cooked" continuum, Hoops 3D is more malleable than many other visualization tools, Fritz says, so customers can "cook" it however they like, to best match their site or product.
And it can stream both 2D and 3D drawings. It is integrated with the company's HOOPS 3D Application Framework (HOOPS/3dAF), and HOOPS Stream Toolkit (HOOPS/Stream).