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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

IronCAD Continues To Be Iron Solid

November 12th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

When I ask people in the MCAD community to name four or five mechanical CAD products, I get the same answers about 90% of the time. Just based on conversation, I’ve come to regard these four to five products loosely as “first tier,” based solely on mention, not capabilities. This is more of a marketing thing than a functional thing.

When I ask the same people to name another four or five products, the answers vary all over the place. I’ll call this “second tier, “ or mid range, again based on frequency of mention, not capabilities. That’s unfortunate, because a number of products in this tier (or range) have a number of interesting and often unique features and capabilities that can often provide a better user experience. Although I could name several in the so-called second (or mid-range) tier, a product I’ve followed for a long time is IronCAD.

Although I haven’t stayed on top of IronCAD for every step of its journey, I did see it launched in March 1995 in Chicago at the now-defunct National Design and Engineering Show (NDES). That was actually quite an event, because in another part of the exhibition hall another MCAD product was launched – SolidWorks

Anyway, what we now know as IronCAD was launched as TriSpectives Professional from a company called 3D/Eye out of Ithaca, New York. Its models were called Intellishapes, and at the time, its $500 price tag, TriSpectives offered an what was considered to be a phenomenal set of capabilities. It was relatively easy to learn and use, and it encouraged design experimentation – both of which were unique in the mid 1990s with few exceptions from competitors.

Let’s jump ahead through different corporate and technology configurations to today, because a lot has happened in the interim.

IronCAD Modeling Basics

From the beginning, solid modeling has always IronCAD’s strength, and that continues today.

IronCAD has matured into a very robust MCAD product that:

  • Incorporates two modeling kernels (ACIS and Parasolid). Think of the import/export possibilities.
  • Provides parametric feature modeling and direct editing within the part structure, giving designers the best of both worlds – the ability to maintain design intent and the freedom to change when and where needed. I’m not 100% certain on this, but I think IronCAD was one of the first to offer this huge potential.

While most of IronCAD’s user interface elements are shared with other mid-range CAD programs, a few are truly unique. For example, the Scene Browser. A scene is not a part or assembly; it’s actually both, and this is especially handy when creating conceptual models. Without having to name a CAD file or its location, a lot of parts can be created in short order. At any time parts can be grouped into assemblies and even disassembled for altering the structure for specific needs. However, having all parts in one file also has bonus advantages because a specific part/assembly can be saved as needed.

Another unique element that has been around since day one is the Tri-Ball. At first glance it is a positioning tool, but it also pushes, pulls, and stretches faces, parts, and assemblies. Additionally, it can copy and pattern (array) parts and assemblies. Over the years other vendors have tried to copy this tool, but I consider the original Tri-Ball to still be the standard

Some of the other most significant recent improvements have come in the areas of multi-physics simulation and analysis, sheet metal, and rendering with an integration with Keyshot, as well as manufacturer’s parts catalogs from TraceParts and shared CAD content from GrabCAD.

Finally, there’s the ability of IronCAD to read point cloud files – collections of x,y,z point coordinates that result from 3D laser scanning equipment. Another use is to read in point coordinates generated from a program like Excel to draw splines and other complex shapes.

What at first looks like a relatively simplistic set of mechanical design tools becomes fairly deep and capable the more you work with them, especially on the solid modeling side.

Admittedly, IronCAD does several things a bit differently than just about all of the competition, which can be a little unnerving at first, but is overcome in relatively short order once you understand some of its underlying philosophy, structure, and techniques. As it has from the beginning, IronCAD and its collaborative partners form a unique combination for mechanical design and collaboration that continues to set it apart from much of the competition.

So,  you see, second tier is not that bad after all, but let’s call it mid-range (another term that every vendor defines to its own benefit). The fact remains, however, it’s a pretty good place to be in in my book. Iron is a solid material and IronCAD is a solid product for MCAD design.

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