Hey look what you can get in CAD for less than $1,000

DN Staff

January 18, 1999

17 Min Read
Hey look what you can get in CAD for less than $1,000

Low-end CAD. Low-priced CAD. Inexpensive CAD. Value CAD. Just what do you call CAD packages under $1,000? Quite good, for one thing.

Low-end CAD is a misnomer, says David Mountain, president of Ditek Software Corp. (Ontario, Canada), developers of DynaCADD. "The advances in programming technology have made it possible for software developers to produce a product that is equally functional to the so-called high-end CAD systems at a fraction of the price," he says.

In the beginning, PC CAD was considered low end because the personal computer technology wasn't that well developed. Then the G2 effect--Grove and Gates--happened, says Bruce Jenkins, vice president of Daratech (Cambridge, MA). As the Intel/Microsoft-based computers became more advanced, so did software.

"If you are a hardware manufacturer, your equipment has doubled in speed every 18 months. If you are a software developer, that equates to a doubling of functionality. While the speed and functionality increases, the cost goes down," says Mountain.

Many CAD packages under $1,000 now offer solid modeling capabilities as well as improved 2D drafting tools; a familiar Windows interface; even photo realistic rendering. Here's a look at what is out there:

IMSI (San Rafael, CA)

For $995, users can now buy both 2D drafting TurboCAD Professional as well as TurboCAD Solid Modeler. The TurboCAD Solid Modeler is a parametric, feature-based program that can easily compete with the likes of midrange CAD packages, says Roopinder Tara, general manager for IMSI's CAD division. It offers drag and drop textures, lofting and shelling, and photo-realistic rendering.

The TurboCAD Series offers raster-to-vector conversions. The raster-to-vector feature allows users to scan in a drawing or sketch and convert it to a usable CAD format, or vector format, that can be redrawn or manipulated.

But perhaps the one feature that sets them apart, says Tara, is the voice-enabling technology. In the fourth Star Trek movie, The Voyage Home, everyone laughed when engineer Scottie talked to the "old-fashioned" earth computer and got no response. But Carl Dunn isn't laughing. The chairman of the board of Dunn's Dump, a consulting firm that designs highly specialized industrial control systems such as parabots, motion controllers, and gearboxes, bought TurboCAD Professional 5.0 specifically for its voice-enabling features. Dunn has used most CAD products on the market today. Still, he says that TurboCAD has the shortest learning curve of any CAD product out there.

Due to a military helicopter accident in Vietnam, Dunn has little or no tactile feedback in his left arm and is losing tactile feedback in his right. In 20 minutes, Dunn was able to get the voice-enable feature up and running. Now he rarely uses the mouse. "You use your mouth and brain and don't have to fumble with your hands," says Dunn. This makes the process more intuitive, he says, not to mention faster. Dunn says he is able to complete tasks 400 to 500% faster using TurboCAD v5.0, just through the elimination of hundreds of mouse clicks. TurboCAD also interacts with other CAD programs, and can share drawings through industrial standard file formats such as IGES and DWG. It also allows the user to do multiple tasks at once. For example, Dunn can compare documents in other CAD programs while working on a drawing.

Dunn uses a Pentium Pro 233-MHz computer with a local-area network, 64 Mbytes of RAM, a Matrox Video Card, and the basic system sound card installed and shipped with the computer. Although he considered upgrading the sound card, Dunn decided "not to fix what is not broken."

ViaGrafix (Pryor, OK)

Jim Bagley, founder and president of GraceWood Inc. (Salt Lake City, UT), maker of quilting frames, gives DesignCAD much of the credit for the success of his business. Bagley started his company in 1985 in his garage. "Originally I bought DesignCAD because I didn't want to spend all that money for other products," says Bagley. "Since then, my business has grown so much that we use a $10,000 CAD/CAM program for CNC machining. But I don't use it for drawing or design because I find it so cumbersome by comparison."

GraceWood's latest product, the GraceHoop2TM, is a combination of square hoops attached to an all-adjustable stand with an arm and ball swivel. "Quilts are square, but traditional hoops are round," says Bagley. "We've struggled for years to make a square quilting hoop that would pull tension from each edge instead of in a diagonal or circular motion." Because the weave in fabric is woven straight across and up and down, it lends itself to square-hoop quilting, and makes it much easier to achieve good, even tension on all sides. GraceWood is currently applying for patents.

Bagley begins his designs in 2D. "The neat thing about DesignCAD is that once you have it in 2D, you can extrude those drawings into 3D. And the finished product is just like the frame I am manufacturing," he says.

"I use the 3D model to draw every nut and bolt to make detailed 3D instructions," Bagley says. "Now that we have complete instructions with 3D CAD views, we rarely get calls on how to assemble. We prefer calls from customers placing orders."

Bagley also takes in CNC work from other engineers who primarily use other software CAD programs. "I ask them for drawings in the DXF or DWG format. In just a short time, I can have their part redrawn, nested, and redesigned for cutting.

"I'm a one-man research and development committee here, but I've been able to do things that companies a lot bigger haven't even been willing to try in my business," Bagley says proudly. "It's because of DesignCAD. And it gets better all the time. I haven't upgraded to the newest version yet, but I can't wait. I've upgraded with them every step of the way. I've even told several of my friends that they don't need more expensive CAD software."

AutoCAD 98 LT
Autodesk (San Rafael, CA)

AutoCAD 98 LT came out in the fall of 1998, retailing for $495. Contrary to popular belief, LT is not an abbreviation for "lite," though the package is a slightly scaled-down version of its popular "big brother," AutoCAD Release 14. Although AutoCAD LT is a 2D CAD product aimed at new-to-CAD customers and professionals who only require CAD occasionally, it is still quite a powerful tool, says beta user Ernie Horompo, owner of EHCET (Mississauga, Ontario Canada).

Engineers at EHCET specialize in overhead-traveling-crane and material-handling-equipment design, maintenance, and modification. Horompo helps design and calculate overhead crane locations, movements, loads, and tensions. "AutoCAD LT is very easy to use," he says. "The learning curve is nicer than AutoCAD 14. And unless you want 3D drawings, AutoCAD LT is adequate to create sophisticated drawings. This package is more than I require."

Another beta tester, Nigel Attwood, chief engineer of Acequip Ltd., works for a company that designs, manufactures, and installs cargo-handling equipment at Manchester and London Heathrow Airports in the United Kingdom. Attwood's company uses nothing but AutoCAD LT. "I've tried other affordable, 2D drafting solutions, but our company uses AutoCAD LT exclusively for all our design work for both mechanical and electrical control systems because it is much better for portability of drawings, has excellent CAD features, and is extremely easy to use," he says. "The symbol libraries, array handling, and cut and paste between drawings make the task of modifying standard designs to suit our clients' unique requirements much simpler and quicker. In the airline industry, speed and accuracy are of paramount importance and AutoCAD LT gives us the support that we need."

The newest version offers quite a few additions such as drag and drop hatch patterns from the Content ExplorerTM, which houses the blocks and symbols; a new, multi-tabbed customization dialog for toolbar buttons, flyouts, and keyboard accelerators; the Revision Cloud, a dedicated tool for highlighting needed revisions during the review cycle; and the Groups function, which groups objects together and allows users to operate on multiple groups simultaneously. As always, AutoCAD LT has 100% AutoCAD compatibility.

Ditek Software Corp. (Ontario, Canada)

DynaCADD(R)98, released in the middle of last year, is every bit as powerful as AutoCAD Release 14, says President David Mountain. "The difference is, our product was written for today's Windows operating system, using development tools for the 32-bit environment." Not only is DynaCADD a complete 2D/3D CAD system, but it also has a built-in 3D photo-realistic 32-bit scan line rendering engine, all for $895. "That is where our product is ahead of our competition in the mid-range," says Mountain. "Typically, people will offer you a very good CAD package. But Ditek provides the next level of rendering."

Three main benefits set DynaCADD apart, says Mountain. The first he cites is ease of use because DynaCADD conforms to a standard Windows interface.

The second item, Mountain says, is extended tool tips. As with Microsoft Word, if one holds the cursor over a symbol, a detailed explanation pops up on the screen. DynaCADD also includes an on-line help with examples complete with diagrams.

But perhaps the most useful benefit is the auto recovery and save feature, he says. "Even if you haven't saved for three days, DynaCADD will completely recreate the drawing up to the last key stroke prior to the power-down."

"With DynaCADD, I was floored. I know about 14 different CAD systems. Compared to these systems, DynaCADD is very sensible, easy to use, and affordable. I am very impressed," says Structural Steel Consultant Carman Thornton. Thornton's consulting business, Carm-Cad Management Ltd., established in 1986, manages various CAD utility applications, helping integrate structural steel detailing software for many companies requiring automated detailing.

The most appealing benefit of DynaCADD for Carman is its open architecture, allowing him to either customize or create entirely new application tools for his customers. One of SteelCAD's export files in DXF format imports into DynaCADD simply and smoothly, he says. According to Thornton, DynaCADD's fly out tool boxes, dialog boxes, push buttons and libraries of figures (blocks), offer ease of use and will help the transition in using this CAD system, increasing production and satisfaction.

Visio Corp. (Seattle, WA)

Since IntelliCAD hit the market in March 1998, its biggest claim to fame has been that it rivals other CAD products in functionality at a fraction of the cost.

Eric Andkjar, of Electro-kinetics (Callicoon, NY) uses IntelliCAD along-side SolidWorks to open AutoCAD DWG files. Electro-kinetics automates furniture. The company designs systems that raise coffee tables from floors, pull bookshelves into hidden rooms, as well as more mundane jobs of moving projectors and televisions through teleconferencing areas. "The version of SolidWorks I have will not open or pull in a large AutoCAD version 14 file. The system just locks up," says Andkjar. "So I purchased IntelliCAD to open files, make notions, and retrieve the information I needed to produce 3D solid models." IntelliCAD lets a user read, write, and display DWG files without conversion. "This is the most powerful, all-inclusive program for this kind money that I've ever run across quality-wise," he says. "For $320, it's a must have for everyone."

By itself, IntelliCAD offers many features, such as a multiple document interface, which allows a user to work on multiple drawings simultaneously, and Drawing Explorer, which permits the viewing and editing of the layers, blocks, linetypes, styles, views, and user coordinate systems currently in use. An engineer can copy and paste elements between drawings, or switch to a thumbnail view to preview blocks. The software also has LISP automation support, script reading, and photo-realistic 3D rendering.

This month, Visio will ship an update to IntelliCAD 98 known as Release 1.0d. A free upgrade for IntelliCAD 98 users, Release 1.0d offers a number of improvements and enhancements to IntelliCAD 98, such as support for digitizing devices; a streamlined, unified plotting interface; improvements in redraw and regen speed; and support for the BPOLY command. The upgrade is available via Visio's Web site at www.visio.com/support/icad/updates.htm.

MiniCAD 7.0
Diehl Graphsoft Inc. (Columbia, MD)

With MiniCAD 7.0 from Diehl Graphsoft, "2D drafting on the computer is pretty much as easy as drafting with pencil and paper," says Diehl Graphsoft spokesman Barton Greer. Especially helpful is the Smart Curser Technology, which he says acts as a locator to keep track of where the user is in the drawing. With a right mouse click, a dialogue box pops up to explain which gear or bolt the user is working on.

But MiniCAD is more than 2D. It is a full 2D/3D photorealistic and rendering CAD package that provides "striking" 3D output, says Greer. Users can sweep or extrude existing 2D objects or model directly in 3D, creating surface, wireframe, and solid models that use Boolean operations, then walk through or even fly over the design. "For lots of users, solid modeling is a highly technical, complicated proposition. But because we have a full array of modeling tools and the program offers the ability to create and customize their own tools, solid modeling takes on a whole different flavor," he says.

The 3D Boolean operations also take the mystery and complexity out of design with smart objects, says Greer. Under Boolean operations, when the user makes a hole, all the other components of that part shift and change with respect to the hole.

MiniCAD also has an integrated design environment that stores all elements (2D plans, 3D models, important information, and schedules) of drawings in a single location. A user can begin by creating a simple 2D plan, and as he or she drafts, MiniCAD's hybrid environment simultaneously creates a 3D representation of the design. With MiniCAD's built-in worksheet function, engineers attach the data to objects in the drawing, such as comprehensive material takeoffs, schedules, and other reports. Make any change, and the software automatically updates the other parts of the design.

Beginning this month, Diehl Graphsoft introduces VectorWorks, a CAD program that merges the company's standard MiniCAD technology with object-based design. Users will be able to design using real world objects rather than standard geometric lines, arcs, and circles. According to Greer, only high-priced CAD products offer a comparable level of general-purpose CAD merged with object-based technology. VectorWorks will have a list price of $595.

Imagination Engineer 3.0
Intergraph Computer Systems (Huntsville, AL)

Imagination Engineer from Intergraph will debut some time this quarter for $495. This 2D software package, the newest version of Imagineer Technical 2.0, performs both precision drawing and business diagramming.

With Imagination 3.0, engineers can produce schematic and business diagrams along with technical illustrations, precision red lining, and revisions, says Mark Brown, strategic marketing for Intergraph.

"Mechanical engineers will benefit from the wide range of parametric symbols that have been added to this version," says Brown. These symbols, including fasteners, nuts, bolts, and standard weld symbols, make it possible for engineers to cut their design and project time, says Brown. Version 3.0 also introduces SmartSymbols that can rotate and orientate themselves to a line, as well as incorporate label and specific attribute information. These SmartSymbols and other geometric objects can be connected using SmartConnectors, which allow the engineer to modify the design without losing connections, he says.

Developers improved design accuracy by adding geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T), he adds. GD&T defines the character of the symbol, whether it is flat, straight, round, or perpendicular per ANSI 14.5 and ISO standards. Imagination Engineer also includes mechanical solutions, which provide specific templates with the corresponding set of toolbars and related symbol tools.

"This power doesn't exist anywhere else for under $5,000." says Brown.

The package can be downloaded from the web at www.intergraph.com/imagine sometime this quarter.

CADKEY Wireframe
Baystate Technologies (Marlborough, MA)

For 25 years, scientists have studied gamma ray bursts, called GRBs. Yet they are no closer to understanding these GRBs or in determining their sources. Torus Precision Optics (Iowa City, IA) engineered a pair of telescopes for the University of Michigan to look for optical counterparts to these GRBs, using CADKEY Wireframe.

"Engineers are taught to design things like bridges and cars, where their primary concern is whether or not they are going to fall apart. Instead, our concern here is whether or not the telescope is going to stop moving when you want it to," said John Mulherin, mechanical engineer for Torus Precision Optics (Iowa City, IA).

Torus Precision Optics, started by John's brother James Mulherin, won the bid from the University of Michigan in January 1997. The University's specifications were high--a two-degree field of view with a small focal length, and a fast slew rate of six arc-degrees per sec--because the GRB optical counterparts are thought to be very short lived.

The Mulherin brothers, together with their third sibling Tony, chose to go with a friction-drive system. "These components can be easily manufactured to very high tolerances," says James.

Torus Precision Optics completed and tested the first telescope for the university in December 1997, within a year of the first proposal. A second telescope is slated for completion in mid 1998.

Information flows from mind to mind at Torus via CAD and CAM software. The selection of the company's software has been critical to the company's success, says James. He uses Zemax to design the optical components, John designs with CADKEY Wireframe on a Pentium Pro personal computer, and Tony drives the Bridgeport CNC milling machine with their in-house CAM system.

It is important to have software that runs smoothly and integrates well in an overall system, says John. "We were working with software that had numerous bugs, and it was only precise to ten-thousandths of an inch. When we switched to CADKEY, 10-7 became our general working resolution. It is a solid, very robust program."

John virtually prototyped the entire telescope within CADKEY. He created all the elements of the telescope within a single CADKEY partfile. By creating a simple, inexpensive network, information flowed smoothly from one platform to another.

Is there still a place for low-priced CAD?

Low-priced CAD continues to go gangbusters in terms of unit sales. The success of AutoCAD LT and Visio Technical and Imagineer Technical all testify to that, says Bruce Jenkins of Daratech. Visio, alone, says it sold 12,000 IntelliCAD seats as of June 1998.

"In our opinion, for fairly full-function 2D CAD for users that can't justify the four figure price, AutoCAD LT is the leader. Imagineer leads for conceptual design packages," he says.The need for 2D drafting is not going to go away. However, 2D drafting will likely be added to t3D packages, where 3D will become the primary design medium and 2D auto-drawing creation capability will be added.

"But the megatrend we see is that component modeling and assembly modeling is converging on the midrange price point," Jenkins continues. There seems to be agreement among users and vendors of solid modeling packages that midrange models are capable of handling all but the most complex assembly and component modeling and their associated drafting. In response, high-end vendors are moving to unbundle their core modules and make them stand alone at value price points.

"One important thing to note is much of the need for 2D mechanical drafting will be rapidly fulfilled by automatic drawing generation capabilities that will be provided in concert with the mid-priced solid modelers," Jenkins says.

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