Modeler pumps up sweeps, lofts, drafting, and more

Oct. 21, 2004
When Alibre Design premiered almost five years ago, it was rightfully thought of as a program with collaboration capabilities but a little shy on mechanicalmodeling tools.

To demonstrate associative Boolean features, users might start with the 3D model, a face cover for a phone, (top to bottom) and transform it into the mold cavity. Should it be necessary to add two more buttons to the keypad, V8 now updates the mold cavity when the originating model is changed.

Alibre Design V8 lets users build more complex shapes than V7. For example, the Loft command can now use a rail (the yellow line) to further define its shape. That rail can be created as a 3D sketch, another new V8 capability.

The developer continued improving the software's collaboration tools, but worked harder on modeling functions. In a nutshell, the recent V8 of the software has better Boolean operations, sweeps and lofts, and drafting.

Take Boolean operations for starters. V7 added them (add, subtract, exclude) while V8 makes them more useful with associativity and a history base. Associativity means if one object changes, an associated Boolean operation also updates. And the history-based feature lets users edit Boolean operations, such as replacing one part with another, or rotating a part before a join. Associativity is certainly a plus, but it's a little non-intuitive. For instance, the model file with Boolean operations has to be closed and reopened to see updates to the Boolean components.

The history tree could have been more useful if it had options similar to those found in other CAD programs. For example, V8 does not let users turn subtraction operations into joins. In addition, Alibre Design hasn't improved the way Booleans are constructed. So it's not possible, for example, to simply join two existing objects in a model. The first step in any Boolean operation is to import the shapes — by way of a process that is not entirely obvious. On-screen prompts would have helped.

A new 3D sketch command now lets users create 3D splines, arcs, and lines. Drawing begins on an active plane and can continue on another by simply hitting the F key (for Flip axis). Projecting into another plane is also achieved by snapping to an existing 3D object.

Sweep and Loft commands benefit from the new 3D sketch capabilities. Sweep can make use of a 3D sketch to create more-sophisticated shapes. But it is a little too rigid — getting it to work means following several unclear rules. And the developer's claim that piping is now possible falls a little short, especially when comparing it to the real piping capabilities in programs such as SolidWorks, Solid Edge, and Inventor.

The Lofting has been improved several ways. For starters, it's now possible to Loft using guide curves, such as a 3D sketch. You can also loft to a single point. Perhaps the most-powerful new option controls tangency of the loft, which results in smoother surfaces. But like the Sweep tool, there are still shortcomings. The biggest one being that all loft profiles must be closed. V8 only creates solid lofted features. The modeler can import surfaces from other programs and use them for various functions, such as trimming solids. But strictly speaking, surface functions are yet to be added.

There are also improvements in drafting. V8 imports images into its drawing templates, a useful capability for adding items such as logos. Ordinate dimensions can now measure to centerlines and marks, and text associated with rotated surface-finish symbols are more readable. But for sheer productivity, I like the improved flexibility the software offers when defining line styles and color definitions.

While few users fully appreciate the importance of APIs (Application Programming Interface), the fact that V8 has them is a big plus. They will help users automate and customize repetitive operations, as well as improve integration with add-ons such as FEA, CAM, and part libraries.

The user interface has stayed the same but the developer did make one long overdue change I have been asking for since V1: When selecting objects, the program now assumes users may be picking more than one object. This means it is no longer necessary to hold the Shift key when picking the two lines required for a fillet, for instance. This is more efficient and intuitive.

Alibre Design V8 is certainly improved, but the big question is: Has it improved to the level of its competitors? That answer is: No. But with prices starting at $795 for the base version, most users will find the program a good value despite not having all the options of higher-priced competitors. For $1,295, Alibre Design Professional users get a sheet-metal module, photorendering, data-management tools, and access to third-party programs for handling CAM and FEA needs. Alibre Design Expert, for $1,795, expands on these with third-party motion analysis. In addition, all packages come with a least an hour of training from the developer's online collaboration system. In short, if you don't need every single modeling option under the sun, Alibre Design is worth a look.

The software comes from Alibre Inc., 1701 N. Greenville Ave., Suite 702, Richardson, TX 75081, (972) 671-8492,

Joe Greco is a consultant and software reviewer in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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