I finally gave up on Windows. Oh, I’m no anti-Windows bigot (at least not anymore): I am very productive on the platform we all love to hate. The problem was that the laptop forgot its license key, and due to poor record-keeping, so did everyone else. To make a long story short, I downloaded Ubuntu and have been happily (mostly) working away ever since.
The one capability that hasn’t come over so easily is 3D drafting. SketchUp supports only Windows and Mac. Now, I find SketchUp an incredibly powerful and expressive tool for 3D drafting. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get started in 3D. So, it was with some trepidation that I set off in search of a replacement.
I started at Shapeways, since that is a service I use to print the 3D parts that I design. They suggested Blender and FreeCAD. I downloaded them both, as well as OpenSCAD, which I found through AlternativeTo.net. A bunch of people on the model-railroad-hobbyist forum were raving over Blender, and so, I started there.
Well, I don’t know what they were raving about. Blender would be a great tool if you wanted to create (and animate) characters. It seems built for manipulating free-form meshes, and has a dizzying array of tools for tweaking a model like clay.
The trouble was, even after hours of video tutorials, I still couldn’t really control what I was doing the way I can with SketchUp. Our models are mostly not free-form, but rather strictly dimensioned. Scanning ahead through the tutorials, I couldn’t see any that were going in the right direction at all.
So, I tried FreeCAD. This looks more promising – made by mechanical engineers, for mechanical engineers. I have a feeling I have only scraped the surface of its capabilities, but after watching a few hours of tutorials, I now have about the same level of knowledge that I had when I undertook to design my passenger car.
FreeCAD has quite a different model for constructing drawings than SketchUp. It is less convenient, but perhaps more powerful. In SketchUp, once you have drawn something, it is set; you can undo, or add to or remove from the model, but you can’t change what’s already done.
In FreeCAD, on the other hand, you can change the parameters of seemingly every element in the model after they have been drawn. In the roundhouse drawing above, for example, I changed the distance from the centre of the pit to the front wall after drawing the part, and the model modified itself accordingly.
For a while FreeCAD was crashing all the time, and so, I tried out OpenSCAD. The “S” stands for “Script.” The way you interact with the drawing in OpenSCAD is through a command line interface. I’m sure that’s useful to someone, but can you imagine trying to create a model of, say, a steam locomotive through commands like “cube([1.0,2,0,2.0,4.0]);” I can’t imagine this, and so, I figured out how to upgrade FreeCAD to v0.16, and it seems much more stable now.
I’m hopeful that this free software will enable me to be productive, and thankful to the small cadre of Germans who have created it. One thing for sure is that learning two 3D CAD programs in a weekend is good exercise for the old brain.