Direct modeling or history-free CAD has grabbed its share of headlines in the 3-D design world this past year, and Autodesk recently made its splash with a preview of its new Fusion technology slated for a future version of Inventor.
Inventor Fusion - which Autodesk officials were clear to position as a technology preview, not a product introduction - claims to meld the power and control of parametric, history-based modeling with the flexibility and ease of use traditionally offered by direct modelers in a single product, according to Autodesk officials. The company has opted to unite the two modeling techniques in one packaged application based on the belief that both approaches have relevance for different types of design functions, officials there say.
"Parametric and direct modeling both remain relevant," says Andrew Anagnost, vice president of CAD/CAE for Autodesk's manufacturing solutions, who drew comparisons between the need for these two approaches and the co-existence of Autodesk's AutoCAD 2-D software and its Inventor 3-D offering. "The reason is each one is good at different things."
Parametric or history-based modeling, traditionally the focus of Inventor and most modern 3-D MCAD programs, uses parent/child relationships, parameters and features to build intelligence into a model. This kind of tool is typically well suited for working on complex, highly engineered products and families of products. In comparison, history-free modelers, sometimes referred to as explicit modeling tools, create and tweak models through direct interaction with the geometry, adding parameters and features only when needed. This approach, considered to be much more flexible, is considered highly effective for companies creating new products from scratch, along with those that require a relatively quick and easy way to come up with conceptual designs on an on-going basis.
While both categories of 3-D CAD tools have been around for decades, direct modeling has grabbed much of the spotlight lately thanks in part to the entrance of players like SpaceClaim, a newcomer whose value proposition is based solely on the perceived benefits of direct modeling. Long-time CAD stalwarts have also planted a stake in direct modeling ground. Some, like SolidWorks, have added direct modeling features to their parametric-based tools, while others have gone further, like PTC, which acquired CoCreate last year and is offering its direct modeling package as a complement to its existing Pro/ENGINEER product.
The Autodesk Fusion strategy perhaps most closely mirrors Siemens PLM Software, which announced Synchronous Technology, used in both SolidEdge and NX. Like Fusion, Synchronous Technology claims to marry the best of both direct and history-based CAD tools. It provides direct control of a model and immediate feedback, an approach Siemens officials say delivers a new way of interacting with parametric, history-based models without being constrained by the way a model was constructed.
Given that Fusion is a technology preview, analysts say it's premature to discern the differences between it and Synchronous Technology. However, they say interest in direct modeling tools in general is on the rise, driven mostly by the need of an extended design team to accommodate multi-source CAD. "Everyone has to be able to compete in a world where their partners are using lots of different technologies," says Monica Schnitger, president of Schnitger Corp., a market analyst firm specializing in engineering. "Most companies can't afford to have a seat of NX, Pro/E, Solidworks or Inventor sitting around in their design shops. Direct modelers are pretty good with dealing with multi-source CAD. Removing the concept of the history tree creates a common ground platform."
Autodesk officials say the Fusion technology will enable engineers to switch between parametric and direct workflows as it make sense for a particular task and the software will track the changes in a single digital model. "The system will take responsibility for how to bring these two models together," says Kevin Schneider, Autodesk product manager in the manufacturing solutions division. The alternative approach - having two tool sets that don't share information well - has been one of the principal limitations of previous generations of direct modeling tools, he says.
Useability is another big focus of the Fusion technology. Autodesk is aiming to replace many of the abstract software concepts that users have had to learn to be productive in CAD with context-sensitive point-of-access tools that present only what is needed at the cursor. Instead of having to hunt around in toolbars, an engineer could hover over an object and the options that make sense for that particular option will pop up. "The details present themselves as appropriate, which significantly lowers the burden and number of tools users need to learn and opens this up to non-CAD jockeys," Schneider says.
Autodesk officials declined to say exactly when or in what Inventor release the Fusion technology will surface. The company will, however, offer a free download of Inventor Fusion Technology Preview on Autodesk Labs later this year.