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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 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 design … More »

Autodesk Acquires Firehole Composites, Extending Its Analysis Software Portfolio

March 20th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

Not just resting on its cash reserves or other recent acquisitions, Autodesk announced that it has completed the acquisition of Firehole Technologies (DBA Firehole Composites), a privately held company that specializes in design and analysis software for composite materials. Through this acquisition, Autodesk will expand its analysis software portfolio to work with light, strong, and complex composite materials. Firehole Composites is based in Laramie, Wyoming, also the home of the University of Wyoming, and a town with an incredibly low unemployment rate of 3.4%.

“As manufacturers move to more complex material such as light weight composites, new simulation technology is required to predict and optimize the performance of these materials. This acquisition will enable Autodesk to deliver this technology to a broad spectrum of design and engineering industries,” said Buzz Kross, senior vice president for Design, Lifecycle and Simulation products. “The Firehole team will add significant expertise in next generation materials and non-linear analysis, as well as industry-leading technologies that strongly complement our solutions for structural, thermal and plastics analysis.”

Engineered composites are complex materials made from two or more  materials with widely different physical and/or chemical properties. When combined, the constituents produce a material with characteristics much different than the individual components. Interestingly, though, (and this adds to the mystique behind composites), the individual components remain separate and distinct within the finished structure. Even though it’s been around a long time, today, still the most common composite material is concrete. Because composites are complex materials, simulating and analyzing them and their behavior is a very computationally demanding proposition.

Check out the video for CompositePro for FEA that demonstrates some of the tools availble to support composite finite element analysis process. Among other things, CompositePro can be used to:

  • Determine ply-level or laminate-level material properties for 2D shell or 3D solid element analyses
  • Investigate complex failure modes of stuctures such as tubes or sandwich panels to understand when they will fail

Autodesk says it intends to sell and support the existing Firehole Composites product line, as well as integrating the composites analysis technology more tightly with Autodesk products. No surprise there, especially the latter. As usual, and not unexpectedly, terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

HP Z1: Brilliant All-In-One Workstation

March 15th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

A little over a year ago, HP introduced a workstation-class computer that it said would revolutionize the computer world with its all-in-one Z1. It  the Z1 certainly wasn’t the first or only all-in-one computer available, as the iMac G3 was introduced in 1998 and has evolved significantly since then. What really sets the Z1 apart from the desktop workstation crowd are two things —  its easy, no-tool access to its internals for swapping out or upgrading components, and its gigantic, brilliant display.

The display measures 27 inches diagonally, so that’s big. Too bad it’s not a touchscreen — maybe the next iteration/generation will be. Also, this big guy is relatively heavy at almost 50 pounds. However, the Z1’s articulating base and mechanism are robust and more than adequate for handling the weight. When you need to access the inside of the Z1, just lock it down with the display in a horizontal position, release a couple of slide latches, and lift the display up, much like lifting the hood of a car, to access internal components, such as hard drives, RAM, etc. Keep in mind, too, that a unit this big requires a good amount of space, so be prepared to offer it adequate real estate on your desktop.

About the only deficiency I experienced with the design of the HP Z1 was the port placement. Although there are some ports on the right side of the unit, several ports are located on the back side of the unit, with the unit’s base interfering with access to the ports.

The HP Z1 received had the following specifications as supplied:
CPU: Intel Xeon E31280 V2 (Sandy Bridge)
Memory: 16 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K3000M
OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Professional
Connectivity: 2 USB 3.0,  7 USB 2.0,  1 4-in-1 media card reader,  1 headphone,  1 microphone,  1 IEEE 1394a,  1 DisplayPort,  1 RJ-45,  1 optical S/PDIF,  1 subwoofer out,  1 audio line in,  1 audio line out
Display: 27″ diagonal IPS LED Backlit HP Widescreen Monitor (2560 x 1440) with up to 1.07 billion colors supported.
Dimensions: 26 x 16.5 x 23 in (66.04 x 41.91 x 58.42 cm)
Weight: ~50 pounds
Warranty: Protected by HP Services, including a limited 3 years parts, 3 years labor, and 3 years onsite service (3/3/3) standard warranty.

Measuring Performance
I ran both objective (formal documented generic benchmarks) and subjective (actual design and engineering software applications) tests for measuring performance.

However, as I always do, the tests were performed with the HP Z1 “out of the box,” as received – nothing was tweaked or optimized to distort the performance numbers (such as enabling multi-threading) in a positive or negative direction. As usual, I actually get more out of the subjective testing because Read the rest of HP Z1: Brilliant All-In-One Workstation

No Assembly Required For Printed 3D Keyboard

March 13th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

3D printing. Do you love it, hate it, skeptical, convinced, or still deciding? We are, too. There’s no doubt that 3D printing is diverse technology with a lot of potential, but has that potential been realized, or is it still a lot of hype and wishful thinking? Yes, to all of the above.

One of the more interesting, “real” examples of 3D printing we’ve come across is a simple multi-material keyboard.

Designer Arnon Gratch of Stratasys recently created a mechanically sound, fully functioning keyboard using rigid and flexible materials on the Objet Connex500. Typically, the keys and supporting structures need to be assembled into the board, however, the multi-material Connex technology allowed Grach to print the complete keyboard in one print run.

Using Objet’s simultaneous multi-material jetting technology, the Objet Connex500 can print models made of up to 14 different materials, in a single print job. This capability is effective for highlighting varying material components in complex or assembled products for physical modeling.

The range of materials that can be used with the Connex500 numbers over 100.

While this is an impressive demonstration of the 3D printing technology, especially using multi-materials, the produced part doesn’t exactly have a finish I would call commercial, and the keys seem a little slow to return to their original position. That said, though, it does have definite possibilities.

Spring is typically when a lot new 3D printing technology is showcased, and this year is no exception with two exhibitions coming soon — Inside 3D Printing and SME’s RAPID 2013. Periodically, over the next several weeks, we’ll report on the hype, reality, and general state of 3D printing. Admittedly, it’s come a long way, but just as importantly, still has a long way to go for fulfilling its promise of custom, unbridled manufacturing for the masses.

Carbon Nanotubes Have Giga Possibilities

March 11th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

It wasn’t all that long ago that an exotic new material, carbon nanotubes, caught a lot of imaginations with endless possibilities, including supporting and conveying an elevator from earth to space. Those dreamy beginnings for carbon nanotubes never quite seemed to materialize. However, things are changing and carbon nanotubes again seem to be gathering some momentum as a reality in our lives.

A huge leap forward in nanotechnology was recently announced by Rice University. Scientists from Rice, the Dutch firm Teijin Aramid, the U.S. Air Force, and Israel’s Technion Institute recently unveiled a new carbon nanotube (CNT) fiber that looks and acts like textile thread and conducts electricity and heat like a metal wire. The researchers say they have come up with an industrially scalable process for making the threadlike fibers, which outperform commercially available high-performance materials.

“We finally have a nanotube fiber with properties that don’t exist in any other material,” said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and chemistry at Rice. “It looks like black cotton thread but behaves like both metal wires and strong carbon fibers.”

“The new CNT fibers have a thermal conductivity approaching that of the best graphite fibers but with 10 times greater electrical conductivity,” said study co-author Marcin Otto, business development manager at Teijin Aramid. “Graphite fibers are also brittle, while the new CNT fibers are as flexible and tough as a textile thread. We expect this combination of properties will lead to new products with unique capabilities for the aerospace, automotive, medical, and ‘smart-clothing’ markets.”

The phenomenal properties of carbon nanotubes have fascinated scientists since their discovery in 1991. The hollow tubes of pure carbon, which are aboutas wide as a strand of DNA, are about 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight. Nanotubes’ conductive properties — for both electricity and heat — rival the best metal conductors. They also can serve as light-activated semiconductors, drug-delivery devices, and even sponges to soak up liquids.

Carbon nanotubes, despite their huge potential, are difficult to work with. For starters, finding a method for producing bulk quantities of nanotubes took a decade. Scientists also learned early on that there were several dozen types of nanotubes — each with unique material and electrical properties; and engineers have yet to find a way to produce just one type. Instead, all production methods yield a hodgepodge of types, often in hairball-like clumps.

Shortly after arriving at Rice in 2000, Pasquali began studying CNT wet-spinning methods with the late Richard Smalley, a nanotechnology pioneer and the namesake of Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. In 2003, Smalley worked with Pasquali and colleagues to create the first pure nanotube fibers. The work established an industrially relevant wet-spinning process for nanotubes that was analogous to the methods used to create high-performance aramid fibers, which are used in products such as bulletproof vests. The process, however, needed to be refined. The fibers weren’t very strong or conductive, due partly to gaps and misalignment of the millions of nanotubes inside them.

Through a refined process, today, the fibers have about 10 times the tensile strength and electrical and thermal conductivity of the best previously reported wet-spun CNT fibers, Pasquali said. The specific electrical conductivity of the new fibers is on par with copper, gold and aluminum wires, but the new material has advantages over metal wires.

For example, one application where high strength and electrical conductivity could prove useful would be in data and low-power applications, Pasquali said.

“Metal wires will break in rollers and other production machinery if they are too thin,” he said. “In many cases, people use metal wires that are thicker than required for the electrical needs, simply because it’s not feasible to produce a thinner wire. Data cables are a particularly good example of this.”

So, while products using this new carbon nanotechnology won’t be hitting the market next week, the new production method looks very promising and the potential is huge.

Mass-Produced Robotic Insects Take Flight

March 6th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

During the most recent SolidWorks World we saw some presentations and live demos of some amazing flying robots, and we discussed them last month. Thanks to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), we came across another stunning example of flying robots. This time, though, at a much smaller scale as printed circuit micro-electro-mechanical systems (PC-MEMS).

Dubbed the Monolithic Bee (Mobee), and created by engineers at Harvard, a unique layering and folding process enables the rapid fabrication of not just these flying microrobots, but potentially a broad range of other electromechanical devices.

The new fabrication technique was inspired by pop-up books and origami, allowing clones of robotic insects to be mass-produced by the sheet.

In prototypes, 18 layers of carbon fiber, Kapton (a plastic film), titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets have been laminated together in a complex, laser-cut design. The structure incorporates flexible hinges that allow the three-dimensional product—2.4 millimeters tall—to assemble in one movement, like a pop-up book.


The entire product is approximately the size of a U.S. quarter, and dozens of these microrobots can be fabricated in parallel on a single sheet.

“This takes what is a craft, an artisanal process, and transforms it for automated mass production,” said Pratheev Sreetharan, who co-developed the technique with J. Peter Whitney at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Sreetharan, Whitney, and their colleagues in the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory at SEAS have been working to build bio-inspired, bee-sized robots that can fly and behave autonomously as a colony. Appropriate materials, hardware, control systems, and fabrication techniques did not exist prior to the RoboBees project, so each must be invented, developed, and integrated by a diverse team of researchers.

Although tiny robots can now be built by slightly bigger robots, designing how all of the layers will fit together and fold is still a very labor-intensive human task. Standard computer-aided design (CAD) tools, typically intended for either flat, layered circuit boards or 3D objects, do not yet support devices that combine both, but that is changing.

However, once a design is complete, fabrication can be fully automated to highly accurate and precise standards.
The Harvard Office of Technology Development is now developing a strategy to commercialize this technology. The work was supported by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the National Science Foundation (through the Expeditions in Computing program), and the Wyss Institute.

Admittedly, the video is more about fabricating the Mobee than it is about it actually flying, but it’s still some interesting stuff. If we come across video that shows the Mobee flying maneuvers, we’ll post it.

Mastercam Swiss Expert: Programming for Highly Precise Turned Parts

February 28th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

When it comes to machining, Swiss-style is quite a different animal because of the degree of precision and pace the process it is expected to maintain. Swiss-style lathes and turning centers provide extreme accuracy, capable of holding tolerances as small as ten thousandths of an inch.

A Swiss-style lathe holds the workpiece with both a collet and a guide bushing and is almost always used under CNC control. The collet sits behind the guide bushing, and the cutting tools are located in front of the guide bushing, holding stationary on the Z axis. To cut lengthwise along a part, the tools move in and the material itself moves back and forth along the Z axis. This allows all the work to be done on the material near the guide bushing where it is more rigid with little chance of deflection or vibration.

Swiss-style lathes and turning center are very efficient, as these machines are capable of fast cycle times, producing simple parts in one cycle with no need for a second machine to finish the part with secondary operations. This makes the Swiss style ideal for large production runs of small-diameter parts.

Additionally, as many Swiss lathes incorporate a secondary spindle, or sub-spindle, they also incorporate “live” tooling. Live tools are rotary cutting tools that are powered by a small motor independent of the spindle motor(s). Live tools increase the intricacy of components that can be manufactured by a Swiss lathe.

Spatial Corp. recently joined CNC Software Inc. in announcing that the 3D ACIS Modeler and 3D InterOp power the latest release of Mastercam Swiss Expert 2012. Designed to control a variety of Swiss-style NC machines, Mastercam Swiss Expert is used in a range of applications such as watch-making, medical device, dental, automotive, and electronics companies — all known for requiring extremely small, but very precise parts.

Read the rest of Mastercam Swiss Expert: Programming for Highly Precise Turned Parts

Autodesk To Provide 3D Building Instructions for LEGO MINDSTORMS

February 22nd, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

OK, it’s almost spring and our minds turn to robots, as in the FIRST competition for middle and high school students and started by Dean Kamen several years ago. However, another branch of cool robotics for young people, as well as older guys like me, is LEGO MINDSTORMS.

We learned that Autodesk has partnered with The LEGO Group to provide 3D interactive building instructions for LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3, a new platform designed to introduce a younger generation to building and programming robots.

Accessible through a mobile app for iOS and Android devices, or over the web at MINDSTORMS.COM, the interactive building instructions—based on Autodesk Inventor Publisher technology—will provide an alternative to traditional 2D paper or online instructions. The 3D building instruction will let LEGO MINDSTORMS builders digitally view how the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 components fit together, making it easier to build some pretty sophisticated robots.

When building a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot you’ll be able to stop the animation, zoom in on a part or rotate it to see exactly how parts need to be fitted together. Additional features geared toward providing a positive experience for LEGO builders include double-tapping a part for component information, and a Map feature that will let you see exactly which part of the model is being worked on.

In case you’re not familiar, in addition to LEGO’s famous bricks, the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 set contains a multitude of parts—including motors, infrared sensors and a programmable microcomputer— for creating robots that walk, move or take whatever action they’re programmed to do. LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 will include the 3D interactive building instructions for five different robots.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 set, as well as the 3D building instruction mobile apps and web instructions, will be available in the second half of 2013.

All in all, pretty cool stuff, and something I personally am looking forward to playing working with when it comes available because robots are a big part of the future of engineering and engineers.

Keyshot 4: Rendering Integration and Accuracy Are Keys to New Release

February 19th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

Rendering has entered the mainstream of the product development process with this capability being part of many CAD applications. However, there is still plenty of room for specialized products that optimize rendering and take it to a higher level. One of our favorites is Keyshot from Luxion, who just announced KeyShot 4, the next generation of its rendering and animation package.

Luxion continues to develop its rendering technology to bring speed and improvements to KeyShot, making it an integral part of the product development process, from concept through sales and marketing.

KeyShot 4 adds new approaches to features and improved rendering enhancements that make KeyShot an accurate 3D rendering animation system for the product visual workflow.

The new “Live Linking'”capability lets Creo, SolidWorks, and Rhinoceros users maintain all part and feature updates made to their models without having to redo any of their work inside KeyShot. This capability requires a separate plugin that is available free of charge from the KeyShot website.

Keyshot 4 introduces a new method for applying physical lights, with the ability to turn any object in the scene into a point, area, or light source. Improved import options give you more flexibility when importing 3D geometry and the ability to work with the actual units of CAD software.

Check out the Keyshot 4 overview video presentation:

More material options come courtesy of a new partnership with Mold-tech, introducing accurate representations of Mold-Tech textures.

Improved algorithms provide more realism for subsurface light scattering within translucent materials.

KeyShot Pro users now have the ability to apply render layers to objects and create Model or View Sets to explore different configurations of product appearances, camera views, and environments. Pro users will also experience enhanced HDR editing capability with dynamic environment highlighting and options to tilt and blur HDRI’s. The KeyShot user interface now has  the ability to dock project, library, and animation windows. Optionally, models can now be viewed in full stereoscopic 3D on supported 3D monitors.

Increased control over the model and environment is provided with the ability to apply rounded edges to sharp corners, multi-select objects in the real-time window and create ground planes.
Speeding the time it takes to add detail to 3D geometry and reducing the files size of imported models has been addressed with the new Rounded edge feature. With this option, you can apply a small radius to sharp edges creating a more realistic look. This option is a a visual enhancement to the rendered graphics without increasing file size or render times.

KeyShot 4 pricing starts at $995. As with previous versions, animation capabilities can be added to KeyShot 4 for $500 and interactive KeyShotVR capabilities can be added for $1000.

We have watched Keyshot evolve and mature as one of the best rendering packages in the marketplace, regardless of price, and Keyshot 4 continues this positive evolution.

For more information:

ExactFlat Design Studio for SolidWorks: Designing With A Material Difference

February 15th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe
Continuing our quick looks at some of the unique exhibiting partners that we spoke with at SolidWorks World 2013, this time around we’ll briefly cover ExactFlat and its forthcoming flagship product — ExactFlat Design Studio.

The ExactFlat suite of software is designed for manufacturers working with fabrics and technical textiles. ExactFlat Design Studio for SolidWorks– the company’s newest product – is the first product to integrate the five essential steps of product development (design, flatten, pattern, nest, cost and document) inside SolidWorks.

Essentially, ExactFlat extends the 3D and 2D capabilities of SolidWorks for manufacturers producing sewn products such as automotive and transportation seating, furniture, apparel, marine, and architectural fabric structures.

“No one else can do this”, said Steven McLendon, Executive VP of ExactFlat. “By leveraging the power of a leading CAD platform like SolidWorks, and extending its capabilities to automate repetitive tasks, reduce manual processes and eliminate duplicate effort, innovative manufacturers are growing their businesses by getting 100% of the result with just 15% of the effort.”

After seven years of development and consulting with over 150 companies that work with industrial fabrics, ExactFlat provides a shift from manual to automated processes in the development of sewn products.

Check out the MCADCafe video interview with ExactFlat’s CEO, Eaton Donald.

Donald summed up the response to ExactFlat Design Studio at SolidWorks World by saying, “We are very encouraged by the strong customer and reseller interest and look forward to a highly productive and mutually beneficially relationship with SolidWorks. Sewn products are a large lucrative market. Moving fast and first to lock out the competition can lead to dominance and ownership of the segment. ExactFlat for SolidWorks seeks to achieve this position.”

When the shipping version of ExactFlat becomes available soon, we will be reviewing it running inside SolidWorks 2013. This promises to be an interesting evaluation because it will be a first for MCADCafe — designing, not with sheet metal or metal stock in mind, but fabric and textile materials.

MCOR Technologies: Using Paper to Print 3D Objects

February 13th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

One of the favorite things I get to do when attending software conferences is meeting partners in the exhibitors’ hall and letting them show their stuff. At this year’s SolidWorks World I saw a number of things that caught my eye that I’ll feature in the coming weeks.

One of the more unique things I saw demoed this year was a printer that uses paper to print not in 2D, but in 3D. I know, 3D printing with paper brings back funky memories of 3D paper printers of the past, so I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical when I came by the booth.

I spoke with Dr. Conor MacCormack, Mcor’s co-founder & CEO about his company’s technology and strategy. Although the company was established in 2004, the Mcor IRIS 3D color printer was introduced to an American audience for the first time at SolidWorks World.

These 3D printers are unique in that they use ordinary 8.5″ x 11″ letter paper as the build material that renders surprisingly durable, stable, and tactile models — in color.

The relatively low-cost, eco-friendly Mcor IRIS first came on the market in December 2012. According to the company it can print more than one million colors simultaneously as it creates durable, photo-realistic physical objects from 3D data.

Mcor takes its unique “TRUE Color” capability a big step forward by rendering color as rich and vibrant just as it displays on a computer screen. That’s because the build material is paper, the original and natural medium for colored ink. In addition to offering this color capability, the IRIS delivers a relatively low operating cost for a 3D printer that I’d consider commercial class — owing to its use of paper as its build material.

Raw parts that I saw and handled right out of the machine had a good quality finish that could be further finished with a liquid sealant available from the company.

To make its technology available to a wider potential customer base, Mcor recently struck a deal with Staples Printing Systems Division to launch a new 3D printing service called “Staples Easy 3D,” online via the Staples Office Center. Staples’ Easy 3D will provide consumers, product designers, architects, healthcare professionals, educators, students and others with low-cost, colored, photo-realistic 3D printed products from Staples stores. Customers will upload digital files to the Staples Office Center and pick up the models in nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped. Staples will produce the models with the Mcor IRIS, the machine that was exhibited at SolidWorks World.

As to where the IRIS fits in with other higher resolution 3D printers, Dr. MacCormack said it would provide a complementary role. That’s fair, but I think it could also fit in many design environments in a standalone capacity, depending on the quality and functional requirements.

Forgive the bad pun, but seeing is believing with the Mcor IRIS 3D printer. It’s a fresh look on 3D printing with paper.

See the interview with Mcor’s Dr. MacCormack that we conducted at SolidWorks World.

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