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Into the next dimension

architech - At last some of the sophistication of 3D applications has rubbed off on 2D drafting, with the release of AutoCAD 2006

I told you so. I wrote my end-of-year predictions for CAD in December, just before flying off to attend the Las Vegas Autodesk University. There I discovered that AutoCAD 2006 was moving in precisely the direction I had predicted: a closing of the gap between two-dimensional drafting and threedimensional parametric applications, with 2D applications getting smarter and incorporating many of the extended object attributes already present in 3D parametric systems.

For a number of versions now Autodesk has concentrated on themed releases of AutoCAD in what it spins as 'democratised development'. In practice, this means it asks its user base what is wrong or missing in current versions and then adds in these errant or absent features, so long as the feature is not 'improved Acrobat creation', which was allegedly top of the users' list of wishes.

AutoCAD 2005 was about drawing management and plotting the introduction of plot set manager.

AutoCAD 2006's theme is spread across a number of key areas of development and implementation, namely:

a slick 'heads-up interface';

improved migration;

dynamic blocks;

hatching/editing; and l an attribute extraction wizard.

First in the look-and-feel improvements department is the removal from the screen of the rather old-school command line interface. It is replaced by a fully interactive cursor-led drawing interface that provides all relevant dimensions and settings in a very Revitlike way. The new input interface for AutoCAD 2006 is as sweet as they come.

It is a level of intuition up from, say, MicroStation's impressive Accudraw.

Like a few AutoCAD features, it has been a long time coming, but at first glance it looks as if the programming team has got it just right with such considered additions as 'recent inputs', which is on the right-click menu, and the way objects change colour when you float the mouse cursor over the top - making object selection much easier.

Autodesk continually twists the arms of its users to upgrade, with the threat of changing file formats or with the worry of the user losing the ability to upgrade to future versions. So users often get angry when they are forced to migrate, and hence to migrate their customisations. However, in AutoCAD 2006, Autodesk appears to acknowledge some of the discomfort its users experience. It has introduced a new tool for customising the tool bars graphically, plus pull-down menus of the user interface. Not only does this tool make the process of customisation easier, it also manages the changes and safeguards them, so that when the user eventually upgrades to the next version of AutoCAD, all customisations will be taken forward to the new version.

Another great addition to 2006 is the New Features Workshop that contains a series of animated demonstrations, tutorials and feature overviews designed to help you learn the new features. You can view this the first time you launch AutoCAD 2006 or access it at any time from the Help menu. Not only can you learn about the newest 2006 functionality, but you can also filter topics, thus highlighting key differences between 2006 and the version from which you upgraded.

The addition of dynamic blocks in AutoCAD 2006 really does close the gap between the 3D parametric modelling and 2D drafting. Dynamic blocks address the perennial problem of having to define blocks that fit every shape and size. It is an almost impossible task, resulting in an extensive block library that includes multiple variations of the same symbol. The new Block Definition Editor enables you to create new block definitions or update your existing blocks using typical AutoCAD drawing and editing functionality. In addition, the Block Definition Editor includes a Block Authoring Palette with tools that enable you to apply parameters and actions to your block geometry. Parameters are like dimensions that drive the block geometry, and actions are what change the geometry as you insert or edit a block.

For example, you could add a linear parameter to a door block to drive the width of a door. You can also restrict the linear parameter so the door width is constrained to pre-defined increments. You can also apply multiple parameters to a single block definition. When you do this, you can apply an Align parameter so that the door, when placed, automatically aligns to a wall line and a Flip parameter, enabling you to flip the door swing to the other side easily.

Furthermore, if you want to change the width of an inserted door block, you must apply a Stretch Action to the door width parameter and a Scale Action to the door arc.

Like the removal of the command line and the addition of the headsup design and input interface, the addition of the dynamic block tools follows a lead set by MicroStation, but Autodesk goes one step further. As 80 per cent of the AEC market is still entrenched in 2D working, Autodesk has started at the right end of the market with its 2D parametric blocks, whereas Bentley started at the 3D end with 3D parametric cells; and may suffer a slow uptake as a result.

Sometimes it is the simple things in development that make the biggest difference in practice. The new hatching tools provide a much-needed amendment to working with patterns.

Controlling the origin of hatching has always been a little arbitrary, but in AutoCAD 2006 the user now has the ability to define the origin of the hatch - the most impressive being the ability to specify that any hatching be set out from the centre of a space.

Improvements have also been made to the definition of hatch boundaries at the point of placement, meaning you don't have to view the entire object being hatched in order to make it work.

Another one of the areas where AutoCAD 2006 moves closer in functional terms to the 3D parametric systems such as Revit is in the extraction of block attributes from drawings. For decades you will have spent many a dull hour counting doors or light fittings on your drawings and recounting them whenever a slight modification is made.

I recall some years ago meeting the project manager of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, who told me that the hotel contained something like 40,000 doors and that it took six people three weeks just to count all the doors in the design. With AutoCAD 2006, you are but a few clicks away from counting all door block instances in a drawing and presenting the attribute results in a table within a DWG file. The resulting table is editable, so simple formulas can be added into a cell, thus enabling Excel-like functionality for adding up columns and performing other calculations within the AutoCAD environment, so saving those six people three weeks of their lives.

There are many other additions to AutoCAD 2006. Take a close look when it comes out in a couple of days.

You won't be disappointed.

Joe Croser can be contacted at joe@croser. net

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