Get Back to Class

Nov. 4, 1999
The Web and computer-based training are two ways to pick up new engineering skills or sharpen those you already have.

Announcing that new CAD software will be introduced to an engineering department often sends groans through the organization. Some people envision projects slipping behind schedule because of days lost to training while others wince at the high cost of out-of-state classes. A few managers might wonder how long it will take for productivity to rise to the level of the previous package.

Relax. Computer-based training (CBT), lessons on video tape, the World Wide Web, and even well-written third-party manuals turn any computer into an instructor. Better yet, the new methods provide a teacher with the patience needed to let engineers and designers learn at their individual pace, review lessons over and over, and even learn at home.

To sample the instructional software, we worked our way through a few recent CAD, FEA, and engineering tutorials. Some are better than others but all provide a good foundation that helps turn a new CAD program into a revenue generator.

The books, tapes, and CBT programs provide a range of learning avenues for different skill levels and learning rates found in each engineering organization. Newcomers can start at ground zero with an introduction to the advantages of wire frames versus solids while more experienced users can jump right in to lofting techniques or guidelines for working with splines.

Because CBTs are the current trend, this article focuses on them. However, third-party training manuals remain a valuable source of tips and experience. Tapes are widely used but don’t allow the interaction a computer-based course does. And they all may become less appealing when more Web-based programs get rolling.

A few course developers we’ve spoken to are convinced that lessons over the Web may dominate the other three methods because a lesson can be live and customized, thereby encapsulating the advantage of an instructor in a classroom. One FEA developer suggested that they were planning more personalized instruction using Microsoft’s NetMeeting, free software that connects two computers. Students can watch lessons and run software that’s on another computer miles away. An auxiliary phone line provides verbal communications between the people involved.

But don’t think computer-based training is a complete replacement for instructor-led classes. Students will always get into modeling trouble making the occasional wrong menu pick and not know how to correct their errors. When that happens, there is no software equivalent to someone who can provide an instant solution. Regardless of the medium, the abundance of material leaves no one an excuse for not upgrading their skills.

A brief review for several CBT disks
All of the courses we tested on CD-ROM work with about the same theme: A narrator discusses a software function while the viewer watches. A few break with that tradition.

Disks described as introductions means their material is basic enough for those who may have not seen a CAD program before. With just a little CAD experience, most users can work through beginning or introduction titles in less than 2 hr.

Experimenting with a copy of the engineering program after a lesson improves the learning experience. Windows makes this possible by keeping both training and engineering software simultaneously active. Picking program labels at the bottom of Windows 95 or 98 lets you jump from lesson to program and back. The only flaw in this plan is that most copies of the CAD or FEA program must be kept in the office, thereby ruling out off-site studying.

Here’s what to expect from a few CBT disks:

An introduction to solid modeling from Distance Engineering, Ann Arbor, Mich., starts by explaining the basics such as the difference between wire-frame and solid modeling, and progresses through 16 chapters detailing operations such as extruding, blending, and lofting. Each section includes one or more videos that show how to perform the operations just explained. The videos use Cadkey as the backdrop for the modeling functions, but the program deals with modeling operations used by all programs.

Think3’s Monkey Wrench Conspiracy provides a clever and entertaining way to learn solid modeling — a video game. Avid computer-game players will enjoy the activity, as did one 14-year-old tester. Those who do not, find it just gets in the way of an otherwise entertaining learning experience.

The game involves a fairly standard scenario: You march around a labyrinth of stone hallways blasting bad guys. It’s something like Doom. Play occasionally pauses so users can construct parts that help defeat the villain. Soon after the game begins, users are presented with the task of modeling a trigger for a gun. The narrator takes users quickly through several detailed operations and users are invited to duplicate the menu picks.

It may be difficult for new users to duplicate the dozen or so modeling operations without forgetting one or two. However, the program also lets you pull down the same steps in a written tutorial. The best arrangement we found is to listen to narration while viewing the activity, proceed to the CAD program on half the screen, and follow the tutorial with detailed steps on the other half.

AutoCAD R14 is also a CD-ROM called SofTutor for AutoCAD R14. It holds 6 hr of instruction covering more than 400 topics. Enhanced VCR controls at the bottom of the screen let users pause after a lesson and switch to their copy of AutoCAD to test what they just watched. The disk also includes several drawings for experimentation. Controls let users speed up material delivery and follow along on a script that appears in a small box at the top of the screen.

CadInSite for Cadkey provides a slightly different approach to learning Cadkey in that you subscribe to the quarterly program. The initial disk is $89. Users are also given a sneak preview of coming attractions. For example, the Fall disk (the disk reviewed is the Summer ’99 issue) will include a look at Cadkey 99, and what narrator Walt Silva calls “House calls to cover those sticky gotchas.” A Winter issue will cover drafts and more tutorials. Controls in the system let users speed or slow the presentations.

In about seven lessons, the narrator steps users through tasks such as building wedding-cake structures (parts joined on top of parts), how to modify solids, build a pipe manifold, form sheet-metal parts, and build a molded boot.

This CBT is also different in that users can add their comments to a work pad. A paper clip then appears at the screen top to tell users of the attached remarks.

Each section concludes with a test containing some of the more thought provoking questions found on a CBT. For example, users are asked to pick the “false” answer of four which each describe a method for creating initial 3D solid geometry. Also unusual is that the author suggest methods and tactics for building a solid, instead of telling what individual commands do.

Helix Interactive Training provides an introduction to the Helix 99 modeling system. In each of five sections, the narrator presents users with several brief operations, and sometimes lets them repeat the steps on a run-time version of the software. Users can work through the disk in under 90 min.

DesignCAD Pro 2000, An Introduction, starts by offering users four quizzes. Those with previous drawing experience might try one or more to see how well they already understand DesignCAD Pro. Users see their score on finishing, but they won’t know which questions they got wrong. Working through the sections, however, will let them know.

Another tab on the index lets users select one of dozens of brief lessons. Each, a minute or two long, discusses some elementary aspect of designing in 2D or 3D. The titles describe brief topics and range from Two-dimension mode and Bezier curve command, to Snap command.

Exploring MSC/Patran provides a self-paced, interactive course that combines hundreds of animations, simulated MSC.Patran operations, sounds, and graphics. Users can pick from a list of 13 case studies and 19 course notes on how-to subjects that deal more with the mechanics of using MSC.Patran. Subjects include MSC.Patran files and GUI, Viewing, Loads and Boundary Conditions, Analysis Setup, and Insight.

For more information on …
The more widely used an engineering program, the more likely you’ll find related classes, books, tapes, and CD-ROMs for self-instruction. AutoCAD, for example, has dozens of sources for training material. Programs such as MicroStation or Cadkey don’t have as many. More complex programs such as I-DEAS or Unigraphics may require attending class at a value-added reseller’s facility or a single CBT offered by the developer. And specialized software such as for designing reflectors may call for a trip to the developers lab.

Start a search for classes and material with the developer. When that doesn’t pan out, look below. A few CBTs are reviewed in the accompanying box. Here’s what we found for some of the more widely used engineering programs.

Algor FEA can be learned in classes at the developers facility in Pittsburgh, by working through several keystroke tutorials the company offers at no cost over the web, and from texts written by respected third-party authors.

More interesting, however, are the no-cost courses provided over the Web at Users must first download a free copy of Microsoft Media Player that takes about 14 min on a 56k modem. Then click on the program you’d like to view and the Media-Player icon and the program starts. The company does not recommend using a 56k modem (which on our test computer works at about 4 to 5 kbytes/sec) because of the slow change rate for the video portion. Video images change about once each 15 sec but the audio comes across clearly in an unbroken stream. About a dozen classes are listed, some planned and some from past dates.

How good are the books?
Newcomers to CAD software might try to learn a program by reading the manual and testing each command. Although a manual is certainly essential, learning CAD by reading one function after another helps only with individual functions, not using them in a concerted manner. This is where well-written texts come in. Like CBTs, texts can guide users through exercises using new commands and functions while building a model, along with guidelines and shortcuts, something most CBTs have difficulty conveying.

For example, in Doctor Walt’s Cadkey on Steroids, author Walt Silva, recommends saving repetitive tasks as macro programs to cut 20 to 30% off the usual modeling time. Several pages further discuss the macro commands. The 426-page paperback is chock full of menus showing exactly what to pick along with wire-frame images of what your exercise should look like. The 10 chapters begin with Preliminary Pointers and progress to Creating Thin-Wall Parts. The book finishes with More Complex Models that includes constructing surfaces from splines. The same author assisted with the well-designed CBT CADInSite.

An interesting text for AutoCAD is unfortunately titled “AutoCAD 2000 for Dummies.” The 371-page paperback is full of tips for using AutoCAD R14, and previews of what to expect in AutoCAD 2000. For instance, the text says that AutoCAD 2000 has support for scanned objects so the need to trace outlines of old drawings may be a task of the past.

The apparently well-written text walks users through setting up a drawing, constructing it, editing it, and adding text. Later chapters are titled, Ten ways to do no harm, Ten great AutoCAD resources, and Ten ways to use the Web with AutoCAD. The $24.99 book comes from IDG Books Worldwide Inc., Forest City, Calif.

Ansys FEA can be studied by attending classes at the developer or a local reseller through the U.S and Europe. The company has also begun conducting mentoring-training classes for getting users up to speed as quickly as possible on projects that may require focused analysis. In addition, the company will be testing Web-based training for the recent CADfix product, software that assists in the repair of damaged IGES files to make them watertight and ready for analysis.

AutoCAD is so widely used, its several variations (AutoCAD R14, AutoCAD Mechanical, and Mechanical Desktop) are taught at many colleges and throughout the country by the company’s legion of value-added resellers. Bookstores with any reasonable computer section probably carry several texts on learning the developer’s products.

The Autodesk Press, Albany, N.Y., carries texts for AutoCAD 2000 and several CBTs for Mechanical Desktop V3 and 4, AutoCAD 2000, and Actrix.

CAD-TV Corp. also provides CAD training for AutoCAD by Web video at

Learning AutoCAD 13 and 14 on video tape comes from Viagrafix Inc., Pryor, Okla.

Catia classes are held at the company users group meeting, available from

DesignCAD lessons can be taken from the video tapes Learning DesignCAD and Learning DesignCAD LT from Viagrafix Inc.

I-DEAS classes are held at the developers facility in Milford, Ohio, and their value-added resellers through out the U.S. and Europe.

IronCAD can be picked from tutorials in the program or formal classes conducted by the developer VDS, Santa Clara, Calif.

Kinematic and dynamic analysis can be picked up from the CD-ROM VisualMechanics. The software uses MSC.WorkingModel to present, they say, 150 functioning virtual prototypes to explore. These are customizable, interactive simulations, not animations, so they can be interactively altered for hands-on investigations of different options and solutions.

Microstation 2D and 3D comes from SofTutor in CBT format.

Pro/Engineer classes are held at its facility in Waltham, Mass., and by Rand Technology, a Canadian-based instruction facility with offices throughout the U.S.

COAch software includes several modules for learning Pro/Engineer.

Solid Edge can be studied with tutorials on the software disk.

SolidWorks classes are held at the developer’s facility in Concord, Mass., and through resellers. The software includes on-line tutorials.

The Fundamentals of Parametric Solid Modeling from SolidWorks Inc. provides an introduction to solid modeling for users making the transition from 2D to 3D.

Designing parts with SolidWorks by Roy Wysack, guides users through several 3D projects in 319 pages. The book shows how to capture design intent so models are reusable in future projects.

Unigraphics users can take classes at the developer in St. Louis and from resellers. Also, a CBT called Cast, (Computer-assisted software training) comes from the developer.

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