Sketching software captures AEC ideas fast

Oct. 26, 2006
Download the free trial of SketchUp Pro 5 software, and it might get you hooked. The software is not CAD.

Robin de Jongh

SketchUp Pro 5 software lets users import scanned sketches and model directly from them by tracing over the images with the pencil tool.

SketchUp Pro 5 provides a clean, simple-to-use interface. Drawing tools are arranged down the left-hand side of the workspace. The house and box icons at the top provide different viewing angles. Despite its simple interface, the program lets users build complex assemblies.

The From Point inference indicates a linear alignment from a point along the drawing axes directions. Dotted lines are colored according to the corresponding axis (red, green, or blue).

The X-Ray view lets users see through surface skins, making it easy to check, for example, that a hole goes all the way through the geometry.

But users can build, view, and modify complex models in 3D without the headaches of learning a complex CAD package. Pro 5 effectively bridges the gap between drawing manually with a pencil and designing with a computer. The software has just enough tools to model most objects quickly and easily, and lets users export finished models in formats including 3DS, DWG, DXF, OBJ, and VRML for further tweaking in other programs.

Users can also quickly build appealing 3D visuals. These output in a variety of formats including high-resolution images, fly-throughs, and animated slide shows, making it a breeze to present design ideas.

Unlike most CAD software, which requires working with hundreds of buttons and commands, SketchUp Pro has only a few. Tools for drawing, applying textures, extruding, measuring, and zooming are neatly arranged down the left-hand side of the workspace. Users can get started by clicking the Model Info tab (a blue circle with an "i" in it) at the top of the workspace to select the required units, and click a house icon for different view angles.

To design, simply use the pencil tool. Selecting it and clicking on a point anywhere in the workspace generates a "rubber band" attached to an anchored point. This drawing mechanism is familiar to many CAD users, but here any similarity ends. Moving the pencil around the workspace makes the band snap and turn red, green, or blue as it becomes parallel to corresponding X, Y, or Z axes, a particularly useful aspect of the program. Users can snap to any of the three axes from the selected point. Holding down the Shift key constrains the line to that axis.

Other features also simplify design. For example, inference modeling helps users build shapes quickly, intelligently "guessing" the type of geometry required. A geometric-analysis inference engine helps users draw accurately by inferring points from other points and providing visual cues such as colored boxes that indicate mid and end points. A linear inference function, for instance, generates colored dotted lines that are perpendicular or parallel to lines under construction.

When completing geometry, for example a square, the software "skins" the wire frame with a surface. Selecting the Push/Pull tool (which looks like a thin box with a red arrow on top) and hovering over the surface covers it with yellow dots. Clicking Push/Pull then lets users create a 3D form, in this case to change the square to a box. Users can determine its size by eye or by typing a value in the input field in the lower right-hand corner of the workspace.

In addition, there are also point and planar inferences. For example, clicking on the Circle icon and moving the pencil along an edge of a face causes the cursor to turn green and display "midpoint" at the middle of the edge. Doing the same with an adjacent edge generates dotted lines perpendicular to the center of both edges.

Drawing a circle on a box face (or any 3D surface) and using Push/Pull on the new shape lets users push a hole through the box. Selecting the X-Ray icon lets them "see" through surface skins and check on hole depth.

A few other functions deserve mention. A Paint Bucket tool holds colors and textures, which are simply applied by clicking on a surface or group. Also, selecting multiple geometry and clicking "make component" tells the software to group them as a collection that can be saved and reused. When users alter a component, all instances of it are also altered. In addition, importing photos or scanned sketches lets users model directly from them by tracing over the images with the pencil. And the software includes lots of settings to enhance finished products, such as shadows, enhanced outlines, and sketchy line styles.

After a short time spent learning the basics, design becomes so quick and fluid that users can fire off three or four concepts in the time it would take to make one design with typical CAD. A minor downside is dimensioning — it's too basic. Modeling organic shapes is also best left to other software, although it is possible. Technical support is excellent with plenty of online tutorials, FAQs, and user forums. And there is a large online community constantly creating new, downloadable components and textures.

Google SketchUp is a free, low-power version of Pro 5. Google SketchUp and SketchUp Pro 5, which costs about $500.00, come from Google Inc., 1433 Pearl St., Suite 100, Boulder CO 80302, (303) 245-0086,

Robin de Jongh is a freelance CAD consultant based in the U.K. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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