New tools: DraftSight to Evolute

Daniel Davis – 3 October 2010


he past week was filled with software launches. For me the most curious of these launches is Dassault’s DraftSight, a clone of AutoCAD (free to download here). Dassault are better known for CATIA and Solidworks, two high end, 3d parametric modeling programs that champion file to factory manufacturing.  Previously Dassault half-heartedly had a go at 2d modeling with their DWGEditor, but DraftSight is a totally new product and a serious move into this market. I have heard some colourful explanations for this move, including file to factory not being adopted / profitable, and the 70’s being back in vogue. To me it seems like Dassault are trying to kill Autodesk’s cash cow – AutoCAD – which retails for approximately US$4ooo a licence. Significantly DraftSight stole the thunder from Autodesk’s release of AutoCAD OSX by releasing before them and for free, which is bound to have an impact on the profitability of AutoCAD OSX if everyone is testing a free alternative before the launch. So far the reviews seem very positive, I am not a serious AutoCAD user and I know people who use it are very particular so I defer any review to them (Solid Smack have a good comparison). Ironically the features DraftSight is missing (and probably unlikely to get) are the features Dassault is best known for – constraint modeling and 3d modelling – two features that have been integrated into recent versions of AutoCAD. In some bizarre way, Dassault’s focus on basic 2d modelling makes sense, although a battle over 2d is not something I thought I would see in 2010 and it seems AutoDesk were banking on that as well. I am sure there are some very interesting meetings happening at Autodesk right now as they plan their response.

At the same time DraftSight was released, Autodesk released AutoCAD WS for the iPhone for free (iTunes link). There is something jarring about seeing a 1970’s interface on a touch based device. Still this is probably the cutest, if unimaginative, translation of AutoCAD to date. Unfortunately it is almost crippled by Apple’s arcane file management on iOS, requiring users to upload their .dwg’s to an online server, and be connected to the Internet with their phone to be able to view them in the app. I would like to think Autodesk has something larger planed for iOS than translating desktop apps. A demonstration of what might be coming is the Nervous System iPad model maker (video below), which takes advantage of the touch interface to conceive of a new way of generating their two layer rings.

And also launched this week was the Evolute tool kit for Rhino. Evolute has previously contracted to companies such as Gehry Technology to optimise surfaces, and in the process they built up a formidable body of research on how best to carry out surface optimisations. The Evolute tool kit is their first attempt at commodifying this knowledge by making parts of their in-house tools available through a Rhino toolbar. Evolute is being understandably cautious about opening up these tools, and unfortunately the current Beta version is crippled by some rather harsh restrictions that make it impossible to test out the utility of these tools on large scale projects or without an Internet connection. When it does work, the toolbar enables a type of low-polygon mesh editing and provides tools to optimise the paneling of a mesh. Thankfully they have just put up a series of tutorials on how to use the software because I was finding it seriously confusing. In many ways Evolute’s success depends not on their research, but the quality of these videos and documentation; they can black box sophisticated algorithms all they like, but the user still needs some understanding of what is going on to operate the tool. The same can be said of Dassault’s DraftSight, which is conceptually not very far from their DWGEditor, but the DrafSight interface is in a different league, with its familiarity, responsiveness and cross-platform capabilities. So perhaps this was not a week of new tools, but a week of new interfaces to old algorithms.