Organic Modeling with Engineering Precision
Autodesk left SolidWorks reeling after purchasing Tsplines. Tsplines, for those who don’t remember is a technology that lies between mesh modeling and NURBS modeling. It allows the worlds of 3DS Max and SolidWorks to merge a little bit. I believe that this is the direction of the future of CAD. More than “3D EXPERIENCE”, more than “the Cloud”, more than mobile, or SAAS , or cross-platform, all of that is either nonsense or IT infrastructure. It’s debatable whether any of that could be called innovative, but it’s surely not related to CAD in any way. There are two things going on in CAD innovation today that are related to CAD, and one of them is merging mesh techniques and NURBS accuracy. A quick demo of what I’m talking about with “mesh” techniques is here. It’s also called subdivision modeling, subd, and there are a lot of different tools that do this, like Maya, 3dsMax, Mudbox, Zbrush, Sculptris, modo, and more. This stuff is where CGI comes from, animated movies, computer games, 3D character animation, and a whole world of “modeling” that is 3D but typically not associated with CAD.
Of course mesh techniques are really just where direct edit intersects organic shapes. So the second thing going on in CAD today is direct edit. History modeling has some advantages, and to be clear, I advocate a combination of history and direct, like what Siemens has done with Synchronous Technology. The reason I see direct edit and mesh modeling as related seems obvious to me, but maybe not to others. They both relate to directly interfacing with the geometry, and using the computer interface to change it. They don’t make some abstract level between the interface and the geometry, like a system of sketches, features, and settings. In both direct edit and mesh model, the software has the smarts, and the data is dumb. In history modeling, the data is “smart”.
There are different levels of sophistication of these tools, and the link above to a Sculptris demo shows what I think is fairly sophisticated. Less sophisticated tools (from the mesh modeling side) are things like Tsplines and this Power Surfacing from IntegrityWare. It’s all about selecting controls, and moving the controls. Notice that Sculptris does away with the controls and the selection methods, using “brushes” with various properties.
There are several reasons why I think these two worlds (subdivision/mesh and NURBS) need to collide. One is that the direct edit tools out there prove that a more direct interface works. You can still have parametric models, models driven by numbers, even if the interface is more direct, and less abstract. And second, CAD needs more than just prismatic shapes. Subdivision modeling shows that organic shapes are easy to create, while they are notoriously difficult in history-based CAD, and analysis tools show us that organic shapes are in many cases more efficient than prismatic shapes for stress distribution, aerodynamics, ergonomics, shape optimization, and other analytical factors. This is why I believe engineering will involve more and more organic shapes in the future, and that the current state of CAD is really what is holding us back. I think CAD needs to rise to the challenge of the geometrical future, and stop hiding behind IT silliness of hardware, networks, cloud, OSes, mobile devices, and what not. I’m hoping some of these new CAD development teams like Belmont, or any of the Russian teams working toward more options in CAD can re-engage in CAD, re-imagine CAD, and give us the computational power we need to move forward.
The CAD software SolidThinking has a module called Inspired that will take your constraints and build an optimized shape around it. Optimization rarely forms prismatic shapes. It’s usually organic. Bones do not grow in straight and cylindrical sections.
Mesh modeling is also related to things like reverse engineering, laser scanning, 3D printing, medical data from MRI and CAT scans. So its a wonder to me that this form of data has been ignored so long, especially when it has so much inherent value for CAD users and mechanical engineering applications. Especially in an age when spending on biomechanical engineering is so high.
I get accused of being afraid of change from time to time. And maybe I am. I’m afraid of change that doesn’t really accomplish anything, or where the change is mostly irrelevant. Most CAD products today are built around the machine design industry, and this focuses on easy to manufacture shapes, which are typically prismatic. I know accomplishing anything in industry today is all about money, I wish it were more about progress, skills, capability, quality of life. Machine design is where most of the money is in CAD. Developing software that engages too much of a niche is seen as risky, but if well executed would pay off. This is why it has taken so long to get to the point where mesh modeling is starting to be taken seriously in CAD.
Tools like Tsplines have the seeds of what we are going to need to engineer great stuff in the future, but just the seeds. Tsplines is not really a tool yet. Tsplines generated a lot of attention for SolidWorks, and Autodesk yanking that rug out from under them shouldn’t have been unexpected. Moldflow was a huge industry player for plastic part manufacturing analysis, and the same thing happened there. Linius, back long before these, was a wire harness partner software that Autodesk also purchased, and even tools like Alias, Maya, and many others. So this kind of thing has been going on a long time, and for SolidWorks to get surprised again and again points out what should be obvious. SolidWorks reaction to the Tsplines sale is this Power Surfacing from Integrity Ware. “What?” and “Who?” I hear you asking. SolidWorks had to do something with all of that egg on their face, and Power Surfacing is at least attempting to fill the role that Tsplines left empty. Not sure if DS participated at all in the development, with personnel or financially.
There is an old interview over on the SolidSmack site where Bernard Charles says that Catia has “the best surfacing in the world… By Far” he says with a knowing grin. But that’s not doing any of us SolidWorks users any good, except for the Fill surface. It could be that part of the plan is to make Catia surfacing available to SolidWorks users, but who knows at this point. Even the Power Surfacing software isn’t enough. The capability has to be native. Power Surfacing has no ability to edit SolidWorks surfaces, so there is no interoperability. You’ve got the ability to make blobs, and the ability to make specific shapes driven by numbers and splines. But you can’t combine the two.
This is the innovation I’m looking for from the CAD industry. At this point I don’t care who. I just want real organic modeling that can be controlled with engineering precision.