It would be nice to have a free, lightweight, platform independent, user friendly, powerful CAD software that works for everything. Unfortunately most CAD packages only deliver on a few of these criterion. In an attempt to broaden my knowledge, and to find out what is out there I started looking at a variety of 3d modeling and design software. This post is only one in a series and is intended to give my initial reaction when researching, downloading, installing, and the first use of each. For a compiled list of reviewed software check the overview post.
When looking at getting new CAD software it is a simple fact that one of the key criterion when making the final decision is price. Alibre identified this and has recently made some news by dropping the price on their basic software package to an affordable $97. They tout this on their website very clearly:
Alibre Inc. offers the industry’s most affordable complete engineering solutions. Founded in 1997, Alibre Inc. is led by visionaries who sought to change the landscape of 3D mechanical CAD/CAM software by providing full parametric CAD technology to anyone that needs it, versus only to those in the relatively unique financial position to afford traditional CAD systems.
… Beginning with ComputerVision in the 70′s, the price for the technology started at around $1,000,000. Catia in the 80′s realized a $100,000 price tag. Pro/E at the end of the 80′s saw a $20,000 price tag. Solidworks continues the trend in the 90′s with $5000 per seat costs. And Alibre comes in to deliver the same technology starting at $97. The era of exclusivity for advanced design software is over.
The reference to the “90′s” pricing of a software means the marketing copy may need some updating, but still the numbers are fairly close to the current going rate. The jump from 5 large to sub $100 is Alibre’s attempt to bring 3D Cad main stream individual and home user.
Maybe because of the recession and a nationwide shrinking in spending there has lately been a resurgence of DIYers. The DIY trend has spawned an entire industry. Popular blogs and magazines such as MAKE and Instructables get thousands of hits. TV shows got in on the trend with How It’s Made, Myth Busters, and to some extent Extreme Makeover Home Edition. There are even subscription based machine shops opening around the country (Techshop). By dropping their price under $100 Alibre is taking their shot at this expanding market which means a business model of low price, high quantity.
So what does this low price get you? Is the desire to cater to a larger audience detrimental in any way? The Alibre software is available for a 30 Day free trial (another good marketing tactic), and I signed up to take it for a spin.
Alibre is availble as a download for install. The trial version (which is a 30 day licesne of the $497 design Professional) took all of maybe 25 minutes to get. Everything installed in a few simple clicks. They sent the registration information to my email and it is worth noting that the 30-Day time period did not begin until the software was opened this information put in. This was nice since I had about a 5 day lapse between signing up and downloading and getting the chance to actually poke around.
Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 (32 or 64Bit)
IE 6.0 or higher
Microsoft DirectX 9.0c or higher
2GHz Intel Pentium or equivelent
1024×768 screen resolution
64MB Video Card supporting DirectX 9.0c
500MB disk space
YAY! I can rotate in three dimensions with using a keyboard. Right+Left Simultaneous allows for spinning, middle mouse click and hold moves the object and scrolling zooms. RMB even brings up an in context menu. With some knowledge of CAD already it is easy to tell what each portion of the software is going to do, and hovering over the buttons further clarifies with the title. Sketching is still the basis of parametric CAD tools and Alibre is simple to figure out in this regard. Assemblies and Motion are more detailed and typically require some documentation.
There are built in tutorials for Alibre, as well as an online library of simple features. Although these seem to cover a wide range of topics it only really scratches the surface. Each tutorial is comprehensive in it’s own right and will allow a user to utilize each tool, but they are lacking overall. The material itself is extremely verbose, the layout of the tutorial is rather poor, and although models are reused the seemingly random and disjointed nature of the tutorials is frustrating. This is not a knock on Alibre, as most CAD systems seem to have neglected the built in training. It is my suspicion that this is a business decision thanks to the VAR distributer method of most programs where resellers really make money training users.
The smaller user base means that my usual resources (Google searches and Youtube) turn up a fraction of the information of other systems. The most complete and easily named play list on Youtube only covers drawings:
Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but for new users who like the hand holding walk through this may be a downside.
Although there are 30 days on the trial there is simply no reason for me to really delve to deeply into this software. The functionality is fantastic for the price but with access to other systems (my bread and butter) dealing with a different mouse click and workflow is causing me issues in the daily routine. Before signing off Alibre though I took a shot at model just a basic vessel. Nothing ground breaking here, just a few quick extrudes, a shell and some sketching.
The drawing was also fairly easy to pump out, and of course with a parametric system updates to the model propogated to the drawing.
File formats are worth noting. Solid Model files are saved in a proprietary format for Alibre but they can also be exported to Iges and Step. Drawings again save in a proprietary format but also can be exported to .dwg, .jpg or of course printed to .pdf.
Really if it comes down to price there are few if any other options that compare. To my knowledge there are no free options that create quality manufacturing drawings, and Alibre delivers on that for as close to free as it comes. The pricing structure does make a jump though, from $97 to $499 . Learning the software is relatively easy and users with experience will find the standard tools easily, though the minor details (click-hold>drag vs. click>drag) can be cumbersome at first. For companies with basic designs and no desire for flashy renderings, where documentation is required and cost is always a concern Alibre fits right in. Hobbyists and DIYers looking for a cheap, functional solution also should check it out. The 30-day trial is always free and if it doesn’t work out there is surely no harm.