By Joe Greco
Although think3's roots go back more than 20 years, the company entered the US market little more than two years ago, when its flagship product, thinkdesign, was officially born. Coming late to the market, think3 needed to introduce new ideas. For starters, it enabled users to avoid large upfront costs by renting the software on a yearly basis, maintenance included, for about the same price that most mid-range MCAD programs were charging just for yearly maintenance. Other differences included Internet distribution and a game-based learning tool.
However, the biggest difference regarding thinkdesign has been the program itself. Built on a modeling kernel developed at think3, as opposed to the licensed kernels most of its competitors use, the product was one of the first in the mid-range spectrum to address both the mechanical CAD (MCAD) and computer aided industrial design (CAID) markets. By employing advanced surfacing as well as feature-based parametric design tools, think3 had hoped thinkdesign would capture a good share of both markets, but this has not happened yet. One of the reasons had to do with the user interface, which was not always intuitive. Though not impossible to learn, it often got in the user's way.
|Values such as depth, angle, and thickness can be input either by dragging the small, rounded, colored handles, by keying in a value, or via speech input.|
To address this problem, Version 6 introduces many interface changes on several different levels. The first change is obvious as soon as one initiates the sketch creation process. On the Sketch toolbar, the Smart Profile icon is replaced with a Profile Mode button. Although this seems like a minor change, it makes the function of this tool immediately clear to the new user, who no longer has to try to figure out the meaning of the icons.
The Sketch tool, used to create lines, tangent arcs, and 3-point arcs, has been renamed Polyline and is now available only from the Drafting toolbar. Formerly, it appeared on both the Drafting and Sketch toolbars. By avoiding duplication of this icon, think3 has made the interface a lot cleaner and easier to understand.
However, this is just the beginning. When a user draws a Polyline, a pair of fields indicating the length and angle of the line now appears next to the endpoint as it is being dragged. Users can either em ploy these fields as a visual cue, or, by pressing the Tab key, toggle between them and key in a value. After a 2D shape is created, the Profile mode is exited and then a 3D command such as Linear Protrusion-used for extruding a solid-can be evoked. Linear Protrusion used to be called Linear Sweep, and this, too, is a good change as there used to be two Linear Sweep commands: one for solids and one for surfaces.
|The surface above was developed using a series of curves and the Stretched Surface command. In the front view (below), a new, simpler curve was created, and, at left, the Global Deform tool was used to reconfigure the front of the surface.|
Upon evoking Linear Protrusion (as well as many other tools), the user is introduced to a totally new look-gone are the obtrusive dialog boxes and in their place is a streamlined dynamic technique for defining the parameters of the protrusion. For instance, the Linear Protrusion tool now allows the depth, angle (draft), and thickness to be defined simply by dragging on handles. Just like in the Profile tool, input fields appear next to the parameter they define for the input of numeric values.
All these changes by themselves would make for a more productive user interface, but the main reason they were designed into the software was to optimize thinkdesign's commands for speech input. Now users can just say "linear protrusion," for example, and up comes the command. This is why think3 eliminated one of the Linear Sweep commands and combined the two Sketch tools into a single Polyline command. Users also can say "angle, 15," and the software "types" this number into the appropriate field. Although other companies have attempted to incorporate speech recognition for evoking commands, think3 is the first to redesign its interface to support speech.
The best aspect of this new feature is that it actually works. After about 30 minutes of tutoring, split evenly between the training of Microsoft's speech software and think3's thinktalk application, I was able to issue commands without much of a problem.
A drawback of the speech system is that a user still has to learn the linguistics of the software. If you want to extrude a shape, for example, you have to say "linear protrusion." "Extrude," "protrude," or "add height," won't work, and there is no easy way to get the system to understand such terms. However, when a command is selected, the software repeats its name to help the user remember it.
Version 6 of thinkdesign also introduces several new editing tools. The one that has received the most attention is the Global Shape Modeler, which enables users to twist, bend, and deform 3D models in unusual and helpful ways. For example, I developed a model for a hood of a car by using a series of curves that were filled in with the Stretched Surface tool. With the Global Deform option, I could quickly develop a new, simplified version of the front of the hood.
Edits such as these are possible in competing products such as Vellum Solids and VX Vision, but the front curve would have required manual reshaping. According to think3, a powerful aspect of the Global Shape Modeler is that the new surfaces that are created are still valid geometry-that is, they won't be unmanufacturable. One way to test this is to bring the before and after models into a program such as CADfix to test for gaps or other abnormalities that might have developed as a result of the edit. In doing this operation with the hood model and several others, I found that thinkdesign created no invalid edges and that the surface integrity was maintained.
As with many of the other tools, the Global Shape Modeler presents a graphical interface along with on-screen input fields that make it fairly easy to use. One limitation of this tool is that any new shape that is created is automatically converted to surfaces, meaning all the features and history are lost. Fortunately, thinkdesign keeps the original part, but there is no association between the two.
Besides Global Shape Modeling, Version 6 also introduces another advanced modeling tool called Smart Objects. Smart Objects enable users to apply the properties of one object, such as key dimensions and fillets, to another 2D object of a different shape.
Any of the parameters that are initially captured can be hidden, or the software can be set up to prompt the user for a new value upon placement of the Smart Object, therefore overriding the captured values. This way an item such as a screw boss that measured 1 inch high when it was created as a Smart Object can be placed at another location with a height of .5 inch and then somewhere else at 2 inches. Frequently used configurations of the same part also can be saved and recalled, and thinkdesign comes with a library of Smart Objects for sheet metal, casting, and other manufacturing processes.
|The simple shape above was created as a Smart Object that would retain its depth, angle, and thickness. When the Smart Object was placed over a completely different 2D shape (top right), a new item with the same parameters was created (bottom right). |
Despite all the changes, thinkdesign still has many flaws. For instance, although the new streamlined interface works well, not all the commands follow the same metaphor. Also, too often the user is greeted with dialog boxes that only an experienced 3D user would understand. It would be somewhat acceptable if these obscure options where found only in high-level commands, but even a basic operation such as setting up a new workplane that does not lie on an existing face requires interacting with an unfriendly dialog box.
Also, for a program deeply committed to the CAID market, thinkdesign is still missing basic plastic design tools such as ribs, lips, grooves, and elliptical fillets found in other competing products. At least these limitations are known from the start; others just sneak up on you. For instance, I used the Profile tool to create a series of curves that I hoped to loft into a surface using the U Curve tool. After taking the time to set everything up just the way I liked it, I found out that this tool doesn't recognize profiles-it can only work with curves drawn outside the profile environment. It is fairly easy to change a profile to a regular curve after you learn how to do it, but why should that barrier exist in the first place?
Overall, think3 is heading in the right direction with the new interface and new modeling tools. With thinkdesign 7, due out this summer, I look forward to seeing the new interface employed throughout the program and the other inconsistencies eliminated.
Joe Greco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price (per year): $1995 Additional modules include thinkshapes (advanced surfacing), $400; thinkreal (rendering), $350; and thinkteam, $995
Minimum System Requirements: Pentium-class machine; Windows 98/2000/ME; 128MB of RAM; 300MB of virtual memory; 180MB of hard-disk space; 16MB of VRAM; OpenGL graphics accelerator