A 3D model is like a regular drawing, but instead of being limited to a two-dimensional representation of a part or scene, it contains all the information needed to construct an actual part in three dimensions. Some 3D modeling programs work by expanding on linear drawings, extruding curves in space or stretching surfaces between them. Others let users work directly with solid objects, either as adjustable “primitive” forms (cones, cubes, spheres, etc.) or as amorphous blobs of virtual material which can be pushed into shape with various tools. Some allow 2D to 3D conversions of various sorts, or allow 2D renderings to be derived from 3D scenes, with reflections, refractions, and shadows precisely calculated. Much 3D modeling is directed towards creating animations and imagery, but our focus is on producing models that can be directly transformed into physical objects via CNC milling or additive rapid prototyping processes.
Sensable Technologies Inc. makes the most amazing 3D modeling systems we’ve ever experienced, bar none. The rest of the systems we’ve used share the same basic paradigm: one looks at a 2D picture in the monitor, and either uses the keyboard, a mouse, or another pointing device to move things around on the screen. But the inescapable ambiguity of this procedure means that things that seem correct at the time can be way off when seen from another angle, leading to endless frustration and ultimately restricting the freedom with which one can work. Sensable’s articulated arms, along with the “haptic” (force-feedback) software, take a different approach. As one moves the arm, everything is loose until the location of the cursor coincides with that of the model. Then the arm stiffens up, although one can feel it slide around on the part. Motions one makes with the part of the arm held in the hand are directly translated into three dimensional motions of the selected tool. Having the ability to “touch” a virtual model as one works makes a huge difference in the efficiency with which one can modify it; it’s much more like using a real sculpture tool on a physical object. Navigation is also much more direct, as the arm device can translate front-to-back motions to zooming in or out, side-to-side motions to panning, and twisting of the stylus to rotary motions of the view.
The Claytools™ software and Omni Arm represent a price breakthrough, due to the redesign and mass production of SensAble’s articulated stylus. This package makes it possible to do touch-enabled organic modeling, cutting the daunting learning curve of most 3D CAD applications, and enabling users to get up to speed much quicker while affording better control of subtle shape relationships. With this package, it’s also possible to use 2D images to depress or emboss the surfaces in various ways.
Claytools lets users work interactively in virtual “clay”—an agglomeration of voxels (the volumetric equivalent of pixels) which can be felt as resistance at the stylus, much like the feeling of using a tool in real material. Voxels can be larger, for coarse clay useful for major changes of form, or smaller, for finer detail. The system is a great adjunct to a 3D scanning system, since meshes, brought in as STL files, become infinitely editable. It’s also possible to fill mesh holes on import, or add a variable thickness, or fill to a plane.
This version is now available from United Artworks for a very reasonable price—lower than many software-only modeling solutions. For a company whose sole product little more than two years ago cost nearly thirty thousand dollars, Sensable Technology has come a long way towards affordability—in fact, I’d have to say this is a product that anyone who is serious about organic 3D modeling on a computer cannot afford to be without.
Claytools, the software environment that utilizes the Omni Arm, is a joy to use. The interface is functional and uncluttered, with a large work area and toolbars arranged in floating “rafts” of related functions. It’s easy to grasp the function of these tools, which take full advantage of the versatility of the arm. Navigation, for example, is dead simple: just press the G key and move the arm. Pulling it brings the image closer; pushing it makes it smaller, unless you push it to one side or another. Twirl the stylus and the image rotates; swivel your wrist, and you’ve turned the object on the screen. There are several carving tools: a sphere, a T-bar, and a “corn dog.” Between them, you can bump up the surface of your clay and scrape it back, lightly score the clay or cut channels in it. It has tools to attract the clay as you roll over it, making ridges, or make spikes as you draw away.
The “smudge” tool allows you to push the clay around with a variably soft touch, from outside the form, which feels like a hollow skin, so you can work from inside and outside, much like a metalsmith using repousse and chasing to create a relief in sheet metal.
You can start from primitives, sketch curves and “inflate” or extrude them, or bring in objects from scanners and other programs for final detailing. It also can bring in 2D images and “emboss” them into the clay to make raised or sunken designs. You can apply these within an area defined by curve tools, so the rest of the form is unaffected, or you can use the image to “stamp” texture onto it with great control. The mirror tool is a lot of fun to use—simply position a plane anywhere in the workspace and the clay on one side is immediately joined to a reversed version of itself and the intersection between them is healed. Claytools also can do real-time mirroring of sculpting actions across a designated plane, for quick modeling of bilaterally symmetrical forms. The models it exports (as STL) are automatically watertight, and can be directly used by CAM software to generate toolpaths for carving or fed to 3D printers for additive building.
Manufacturer: SensAble Technologies
Requires proof of status as full-time student, faculty, or educational institution. Some restrictions on for-profit use. See order form for details on proving educational status. (These systems may be used after graduation upon payment of an additional fee—please call or e-mail for details.)
3Design Jewel is the first jewelry-specific program we’ve come across that seems to extend rather than contain its users’ creativity. While it does have templates built in that simplify routine jewelry tasks such as ring shank construction or stone placement, these are just a starting point—it’s easy to modify them for unique effects, or to build parts from scratch. It has a clever method for converting “back of envelope” sketches to 3D models; these are arranged around an orthographic volume and traced, then modified as need be and used to generate a complex form between them.
The greatest thing in this program, which sets it apart from its competitors, is its “parametric” workflow. Every action used to create a piece is recorded in a History Tree, which is saved along with the model, so each model can be modified by changing that particular action, without having to go back and recreate the part. Thus each model is the source of a potentially infinite series of variations, which is a huge time-saver for jewelers interested in customizing designs for client preferences.
It contains a huge library of standard stones, and has an excellent context-sensitive help system which explains the use of a tool as one is using it. It also has a rendering engine built in that works as a sales tool, producing great pictures of proposed projects that are convincing to clients. It is available for the Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms.
Manufacturer: Vision Numeric
List Price: $6,400
Rhino is an all-around 3D modeling program for the Windows platform that we can’t say enough good things about. It has an intuitive interface, which accepts typed-in commands or menu clicks; it performs smoothly where other programs bog down; it’s accurate and adaptable. Its acceptance of plug-ins has led to a wide availability of specially adapted programs that integrate seamlessly into the Rhino workspace, adding all sorts of functions to its toolkit. Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS (Non Uniform Rational B-Spline) curves and surfaces, which take up a lot less memory in the computer than polygon meshes, remaining accurate even when highly magnified. Now, in version 4.0, you can deform joined assemblies (polysurfaces) without having the edges split apart. Rhino has a fully functional demo on its web site, allowing you to save 25 times. Rhino 4.0 is an amazing program, both for its power and ease of use. It compares favorably to programs costing a lot more.
Now MecSoft Corporation, makers of VisualMill, has introduced a new product, RhinoArt, that plugs into Rhino and fills in some areas where Rhino is weakest. It excels at creating “heightfield” meshes, which allow one to use an ordinary photograph (in digital form) to automatically create a 3D relief suitable for carving with a CNC mill. Additionally, it has the ability to create vectors (lines) around selectable areas of color in a photo, and can then use these vectors as the basis for swept or “puffed” volumes. We’re bundling these two programs together at a great price.
We’re now offering RhinoCam 2.0 as a bundle with Rhino 4.0.
A note on dongles: If your computer runs a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean-language operating system, it will require a hardware lock (“dongle”) which we can’t provide to run Rhino, so certain international users will have to purchase it direct from the manufacturer or from a local supplier. The English-language version of the software, which we sell, doesn’t require the dongle.
List Price: $995 (Rhino) plus $500 (RhinoArt)
List Price: $315
List Price: $995 (Rhino) plus $995 (RhinoCam 2.0)
Inovate is a 3D conceptual design and collaboration tool, utilizing an innovative, drag and drop design approach that lets you build, import, and use 3D models easier and faster than you ever thought was faster. We love Rhino’s ease of use and flexibility but sometimes yearn for some of Inovate’s more mechanical-design oriented features—solids modeling, parametrics (being able to change the size or shape of one feature without changing any others) plus drag-and-drop addition of elements like ribs and fastener holes. Inovate also features photo-realistic rendering and keyframe animation. We’re an authorized dealer for Inovate, and we can offer a discounted price.
If you want Inovate’s ease of use plus all the features of the full IronCad 11.0 program, such as integrated 2D drafting and sheet metal contruction, we can offer it at a reduced price. The drafting module allows one to create associative dimensioned multi-sheet 2D layout drawings, including sectional and detail views, automatically from your 3D models, as well as generate bills of materials, text notes, centerlines, etc. Enhanced surface modeling enables the creation of freeform surfaces unconstrained by the requirements of parametrics and history. The sheet metal module allows one to create a part as bent over an assembly, put all the fastener holes, corner reliefs and other features in place, then automatically unfold it for production, using the constraints proper to the gauge and type of metal specified. The “Intellishapes,” “SmartSnap,” “Dynamic Handles” and “Triballs” make otherwise complex part manipulation tasks much simpler, and the advanced rendering and animation tools make creating presentations from your models a snap.
For more information on IronCad 11.0, see: IronCad 11.0 Product Page. Functional 60 day demos are also available at the IronCad Site.
List Price: $3,495
This program works in an unusual way; it allows users to “paint” textures onto surfaces as displacement maps which alter the underlying 3D models. It has a somewhat non-standard interface, but once people get used to it, they can do amazing things.
As usual, we offer a discount on this product. We stock the Windows version. Inquire for the Macintosh version.
Manufacturer: Pixologic, Inc.