Alibre Design 2011 Personal Edition: CAD Software Slightly Simplified
At a Glance
2011 Personal Edition
Very challenging to learn, but interesting and rewarding once you get the hang of it, especially with the aid of online machinists.
When I make stuff--regardless of the material I use--I start by creating a rough sketch of my idea using pencil and paper, and then I launch into the project, typically spending a great deal of time revising and fixing mistakes. In the future, however, I may try to design some projects in Alibre Design 2011 Personal Edition to save time and frustration on the back end. That is, if I can ever master this hobbyist-level CAD program.
I looked at the shipping version of Alibre Design PE ($99 as of January 4, 2011), which is a teaser app for Alibre's $699 Professional and $1399 Expert versions. The more-expensive versions have more tools, include parts libraries, and let you import or export more file formats (from other programs, for example). With this latest edition, the pricier versions are native 64-bit applications, whereas Design PE is still a 32-bit application.
Alibre says that most users won't come close to the RAM limits imposed by the 32-bit application, unless they create something with thousands of parts. I never ran into any RAM issues, but my models were relatively simple. According to Alibre, the new version offers faster 2D editing, too; I can't confirm that assertion, but the application was certainly fast on the two systems that I used it on--and one of them was a notebook with integrated graphics.
My models contained few parts because I'm a 3D novice. I took drafting classes (eons ago), and I'm pretty good with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, and other 2D design applications, but Alibre Design requires conceptualizing and implementing designs in three planes, and its tools and controls are much different from the ones I'm accustomed to. Math, geometry, and occasionally trigonometry come into play.
Design PE does not stand in relation to a high-end CAD application the way Adobe Photoshop Elements does to Adobe Photoshop Pro CS5. Though Alibre provides a few video tutorials and a lengthy list of text tutorials, Design PE is essentially a high-end CAD program with some features stripped away. I usually endorse that approach with software--because I'd rather learn to use the good stuff than eventually hit a capabilities ceiling--but I found Alibre's application difficult to learn. I suspect that most people who lack 3D design experience will feel the same way, though Alibre says average folks can get the hang of it, and fans of the application aren't hard to find. A large group of people who use it hang out at a company-sponsored site, alibrepowered.com.
That's not to say the application impossible to learn. I stuck with it and eventually created a table lamp model that might have saved me significant time, wood, and aggravation if I had had the model on hand last summer when I actually built the lamp. When Design PE worked as I expected it to, it was very gratifying. See, math isn't so hard!
But frequently, the application didn't work as I expected it to. One of the most important concepts in 3D design is the idea of establishing "constraints"--defining the way parts or pieces relate to each other, to an axis, or to a plane. I tried to set the pieces of my lamp vertically around the Y axis so that they would line up consistently, and I "mated" the underside of one piece to the top of the piece below it, which means that they would stick together when constructed. Unfortunately, when I rotated the view, the pieces often unmated, flying off to distant reaches of the canvas, where I'd have to go to retrieve them. The Alibre rep I spoke to explained that I needed to activate a setting for each piece in my lamp assembly and then align each of their axes with the master assembly's Y axis. It makes sense once you try it--but small, crucial details like that often threw me.
Design PE has several work modes, including new part, new sheet-metal part, new assembly (composed of multiple parts files), multiview drawing (suitable for printing), and bill of materials. When I tried to insert multiple parts into an assembly, the application let me select them from a window; but then it reported that the parts weren't "found," and asked whether I would like to replace my selection(s). This time, the Alibre rep explained that I had erred by creating copies in the Windows file system; I was supposed to use Save As within the application. The copying approach doesn't seem to cause problems for other applications, though.
When I made mistakes, I usually retreated from them via the undo command--but that command often was grayed out because the app limits undos to stacks of operations. For example, if you stay in 2D sketch mode, you can readily undo anything you've been doing within that mode; but once you leave 2D sketch mode, your ability to undo any earlier work there is gone. Alibre says that the application is far more complicated than applications like Microsoft Word, and I see the point--but Adobe Photoshop is pretty darn complicated, and it offers many levels of undo and the ability to remove individual operations nonlinearly. An application that involves using many steps to create fine details would benefit from supplying a more typical undo scheme.
One of Design PE's new features is an in-place editing framework. You can right-click to gain access to context-sensitive commands, freeing you from having to use the menus for some work. But you'll still have to click lots of icons (which are tiny and unlabeled), enter data into dialog boxes, and switch and enable editing modes frequently. Once you get used to the program, you'll have a better sense of how and when to use all these commands and boxes, but it's still a symphony of many small operations.
In addition to exercising your math skills, you can use Design PE to produce printable designs to guide you in your own workshop; or you can send your finished creations to a business that accepts one of the app's exportable file formats and have it machine your design. Alibre suggested Ponoko.com and Shapeways.com.
Need creative inspiration? You can download compatible, premade parts and then insert them into your own assemblies and edit from there. I found many free parts files on Lynxmotion.com and TracePartsOnline.
Alibre Design PE has a large enough feature set and a low enough price to make it a worthwhile investment--if you're willing to invest the time and brain cells necessary to learn how to use it. People who prefer that their software titles begin with "My" or end with "for Dummies" might want to steer clear.