Late in 1999, a new Application Service Provider (ASP) named Alibre Inc. began to demonstrate a beta version of Alibre Design-the first software designed expressly for collaborative, parametric solid modeling over the Internet. When a late-stage beta version recently became available for download from the company's Web site, I had an opportunity to put the new program through its paces.
By going to Alibre.com and registering, I obtained a password and downloaded the software. Launching the program brings up the My Projects window, from which users can open existing files or create new ones. Users can also use My Projects to see other project teams and get an overview of all the active team sessions that they can access. My Projects also clearly displays which models and drawings are checked out and by whom, making the flow of projects easy to track.
In addition to My Projects, there are six other areas that are accessible by clicking the appropriate buttons at the top of the screen. The most important of these are Work Area (where all modeling takes place), Repository (where users with proper access can open files from both local and networked computers), and Team Man agement (where project teams are set up and users are assigned access to the various roles needed for the project, such as engineering or administration).
|Using Alibre Design's My Projects window, many aspects of the program can be monitored, including the name of the session host.|
To create a model in Alibre Design, I began in the Part mode of the Work Area. The program, based on the ACIS modeling kernel from Spatial Inc., offers the same modeling tools whether the program is used off-line or during a collaboration session.
The session opens to a blue screen with the X and Y axis displayed. Sketch tools are immediately available, but while using any one of them is intuitive, it may not be obvious to a beginner how these tools relate to 3D. As a SolidWorks user, I didn't have this problem because Alibre Design obviously borrows this and several other user interface ideas from SolidWorks.
Sketches can either be constrained or not, and can be overlapping but not disjointed. Driving dimensions can be added, and constraints based on equations are easy to set up.
Once the 2D profile is drawn, if a 3D modeling command such as Extrude is selected, Alibre Design allows users to enter the depth of the projection in a dialog box. It's also possible to project a sketch to existing geometry or simply drag a handle to determine the depth. Draft can be added at this time as well.
Alibre Design also offers modeling tools for creating swept and lofted shapes. More advanced commands such as a sweep controlled by guide curves, are not yet available, and the program has no surfacing capabilities. Filleting, blending, chamfering, and shelling are all fairly ordinary, except for an interesting vertex chamfer, which slices off the corner of a shape in one step. Although there are a few interface inconsistencies and nuances, ease of use isn't an issue with Alibre Design, as I was successful in implementing most modeling and editing commands on my first try.
In a collaboration session, the modeling tools remain the same, but users can now contribute ideas as notes or by editing the actual model. The team members, from wherever they may happen to be at the time, log onto the server and begin a team modeling session. One member is designated as team leader to control the flow of the virtual meeting. A user taking part in a session can pass the "baton" to someone else who requests it to make changes. When this happens, only that person's modeling tools are active-others can add notes and request the baton, but two people cannot work on the model at the same time.
I had several online collaboration sessions and they all flowed smoothly. Of course, how this works is the "real world" is yet to be seen. Indeed, some engineers, who don't enjoy having their work reviewed in front of others, may have a hard time adapting.
|Alibre Design's Repository allows users to see who made changes to a file and when, and then go back to that point if desired.|
One concern regarding Alibre Design is speed. Whereas the program is certainly faster than Federal Express, the response time even on basic modeling commands could be improved. To some extent, sluggish performance is to be expected when working online, but it was sometimes an issue even when offline. Working with a 400mhz system, I found the beta version less responsive when employing 3D tools such as Extrude. Disk operations such as Open and Save were also slow. On the other hand, it was fine during sketching and viewing operations like 3D Rotate.
The program is being updated to allow IGES and STEP files to be opened directly into the Assembly module. Although I didn't get to test this feature, I did import several STEP and IGES files to the Part mode with success. Native file formats-such as SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Pro/E, or Catia-are not currently supported. However, Alibre Inc. is working with Spatial to make this possible.
Another late addition to the Assembly module is that editing can now take place within the context of the assembly. However, there still seems to be no easy way to add dimensions-which can be important when clearances have to be validated-whether or not in collaboration mode. Other assembly tools, such as mate and align, were easy to use.
Setting up a three-view drawing is straightforward, though the program could benefit from a preview function to help determine if the default 1:1 scale is correct or has to be adjusted. The repositioning of the drawing views is a simple click and drag, but the addition of new views such as sections and details was not yet implemented in the beta version I was using.
When working in stand-alone mode, the electronic help is useful. For more complex issues, the company offers Web-based support and guarantees a 24-hour turnaround. The company is also considering offering phone support for an extra charge or through a 900 number. Beyond that, Web-cast training will be available to help users to learn Alibre Design.
|During a collaboration session, the Team Modeling and Chat windows appear near the bottom of the screen. Here a note with a leader line and arrow is being added to the model.|
All of this sounds like a good plan, but many users will likely still need one-on-one instruction. Moreover, these support and training techniques are not much help if, for example, a user has recently downloaded the software to join a virtual design review session and can't figure out how to make a design suggestion. The electronic Help is probably the best bet here, yet it needs to be more intelligent to help a user in such situations. Indeed, the current Help only speaks "Alibre." It will explain how to request the baton, but this assumes the user knows about the baton in the first place.
All told, for the Alibre concept to work completely, team members using other MCAD programs must be able to seamlessly integrate their designs into a virtual session, as opposed to the current method of relying on neutral file formats. So it will be important to watch what happens between Alibre and Spatial. Another concern is the recommended hardware requirements-a 400mhz CPU and 128mb of memory-which are greater than what most laptop users currently have in their systems.
Despite these and the age-old problems of server security and reliability, the concept of Alibre Design is innovative, and what has been done so far is impressive. It will be interesting to see what comes about in the upcoming releases.
Joe Greco specializes in CAD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alibre Design differs from existing mech anical CAD programs in three main areas-collaboration capabilities, file-management features, and price:
- In terms of collaboration, most other programs offer tools for viewing and markup only, not for CAD design work. For instance, OneSpace from CoCreate is a collaboration program that allows users to perform model edits, but changes made are for visualization only-they have to be redone once the session is over. Alibre Design users work on the actual file, so changes made online become part of the model's history.
Shortly after Alibre Design was announced, another ASP, CollabWare, introduced a similar product called GS-Design. Based on established technology originally developed at Lockheed, this program is also promising, though the company openly acknowledges the lack of a graphical user interface, which it expects to implement this month.
Meanwhile, some established programs are integrating Microsoft's Net Meeting software, as seen in Release 2 of Autodesk's Inventor. While this level of collaboration is not the same as what Alibre is offering, Autodesk and other MCAD vendors are starting to enhance their applications with collaborative tools.
- Regarding file management, while some MCAD developers have started to incorporate these capabilities into their programs, Alibre Design is built upon this. It is easy to view files, teams, sessions, and modification history. Users can also go back to a version and take the design in a different direction.
- In terms of price, access to Alibre's server for collaboration costs $100 a month or only $1000 for a full year if paid for in advance. What is interesting is that the CAD modeling software itself is free. This means that if the service is not needed for a few months, or permanently, users still can open and edit their old models and drawings. If a project lasts four months, then for only $300 (the first month is free) a supplier can be part of the collaboration sessions, and afterwards have a solid modeling program to boot. This compares favorably to a OneSpace session, which starts at $1000 for four hours of rented collaboration time and upwards of $20,000 to purchase the software.
In contrast, access to CollabWare's GS-Design starts at $29 per month, but if its use is discontinued for a certain time period (the company figures this will probably be about six months), users can only download their files in the IGES or STEP format. Think3, a non-ASP CAD vendor that leases its software on a yearly basis, has a similar policy if users discontinue its product.
The problem with the CollabWare and Think3 schemes is that with neutral file formats, the feature-based intelligence that was so carefully built into the solid model is lost. This is a clear advantage for Alibre Design, especially for users whose need for such a program will be short-term.
While Alibre Design may need some time to match the modeling features of the mid-range leaders, the big issue for the company is whether the other MCAD players will develop their own collaboration techniques before Alibre's modeling tools catch up to them. If this happens, Alibre's advantages will be its file management capabilities and the fact that other MCAD programs still require a large up-front investment.
Finally, there is the question of whether there will be a demand for Web-based CAD collaboration software in the long run, which will also affect the price. To find the answer, all one has to do is look at the history of CAD and the history of the Web. In each case, most companies were slow to adopt the technology, but they eventually realized how the plusses outnumbered the minuses. Now that CAD and the Web have merged, the same thing will happen. It may take a while, but most companies will see the advantages of having the option to design in a collaborative environment.