CAD Report: Inside IronCAD 2018

MCAD underdog continues legacy of innovation and ease-of-use with its latest release.

0 January 31, 2018
by Ralph Grabowski

Over the industry’s history, there have been a few MCAD systems that shook up the way we think design ought to be done. They make their impact, change our way of working and then fail.

For example, Alibre proved that MCAD could run on a remote server and be displayed over the Internet on a local computer. Today, we call this “CAD on the cloud,” but the online version of Alibre failed, because in 2000 the Internet was just too slow. The program was rewritten as a desktop program and remains there to this day.

Figure 1: Zooming and panning a large assembly model in IronCAD 2018

XCAD was launched at a jaw-dropping price of $500 in an era when MCAD was supposed to cost $5,000 or even $50,000 per seat. Then, the upstart CAD package made the eye-raising claim it would sell a million copies worldwide – at a time when 100,000 was considered a really big number. It also failed when it couldn’t update the software quickly enough. Last I heard, it was being sold only in its native Hong Kong. (Note that there are many other unrelated systems named “XCAD”.) Nevertheless, it pioneered the idea that MCAD software could cost a trivial $500 or even $0, and that a vendor could sell a million copies or more.

TriSpectives introduced us to interactivity in MCAD, such as dragging-and-dropping 3D IntelliShapes from catalogs onto models, complete with mating (a.k.a. geometric snaps). It had 3D Illustration to generate 2D drawings of 3D models that remember they are 3D. SmartRender adjusted rendering modes to maintain speed and the TriBall cursor (a.k.a. manipulator) interactively edited solids.

In fact, TriSpectives presented such radical ease-of-use that another reviewer proclaimed the new program to be “the Pro/E killer.” But Pro/E flourished while TriSpectives was killed off. Sales failed to match the hype, and I’d argue that so much interactivity was mind-blowing to staid engineers. Real MCAD was, after all, supposed to be difficult to master, not as easy to use as MS Paint.

Following its collapse, TriSpectives was split into parts: Autodesk bought some of the technology, while the MCAD program was rebranded as IronCAD. Today, it’s owned by Chinese software company CAXA under the name of IronCAD LLC, and is priced at around $4,000. The primary users of IronCAD are machine designers and sheet metal fabricators.

IronCAD’s Unique Features

It’s a rare to find an MCAD program today that doesn’t have every single one of those user interface innovations first introduced by TriSpectives’ brilliant programmers. Yet, IronCAD continues its streak in being unique. It is, I think, the only MCAD system that offers both mainstream modeling kernels – Parasolid or ACIS. You choose one of them when you install the program. For instance, you would choose Parasolid when you work a lot with Solidworks or Solid Edge/NX; choose ACIS if you work with Inventor or BricsCAD.

Figure 2: IronCAD drawings can include multiple states of a mechanism shown in different colors

Well before Siemens PLM launched Synchronous Technology for doing both history-based and direct modeling in one model, IronCAD was the first to combine the two modeling systems.

IronCAD 2018 retains all the UI functions from that first release and has gained more in the following two decades, naturally. Flexible Shapes are a more convenient version of IntelliShapes; as you place them, they cut automatically through parts and – if necessary – prompt for a size.

Here’s an example of the intelligence in IronCAD: Model a tube and then cut 45 degrees off. When you place the next tube, IronCAD uses the same stock and cuts 45 degrees off the new item, automatically.

Unfortunately, not all IntelliShapes are Flexible Shapes, but IronCAD representatives tell me they are adding more to catalogs as customers request them. In fact, the company is making the design intelligence in Flexible Shapes available to users other than designers. They see the built-in ease-of-use suitable for sales people, so they can put together a preliminary design while seated with the customer. Additional industrial parts are available free from online sites, such as Traceparts.

In traditional MCAD, one part is modeled per drawing (or tab), and then multiple parts are joined into an assembly. IronCAD does not have that limitation, because its drawings can have as many parts as you want; creating an assembly is as easy as selecting the parts and clicking the Assembly button.

IronCAD 2018

To make it easier to start with IronCAD 2018, there is a new-user interface that reduces the commands displayed by the ribbon. For people coming over from Inventor or Solidworks, a sketching starts on the xy-plane, as they would expect, but this isn’t the way IronCAD normally works.

Pressing the ‘S’-key brings up an on-screen interface that has been in IronCAD for a long time, but now appears at the cursor and has a new ring appearance; it is called the “automatic heads-up display.” The content of the ring changes, depending on the current operation – such as working with surfaces, sketches or sheet metal – and the commands displayed by the ring can be customized. The folks at IronCAD figure it has the added advantage of exposing useful commands users might not even know are available.

Large-assembly performance is a big deal in MCAD these days. If your computer has a dedicated GPU, from nVidia or AMD, IronCAD 2018 will zoom and rotate very large assemblies smoothly. The trick to changing the speed from 4-6fps to 40-60fps is to temporarily turn off transparencies, edges and reflections.

“Mechanism mode” is where we rotate parts to see them move and check for collisions. In IronCAD 2018, collision detection is faster and simpler with selected components: You see the red warning for just the couple of parts we select.

When we create drawings from mechanism, we can now specify alternative position views, to show the mechanism in its collapsed state, fully extended state and normal state. Each of the states can have a different style, colors and linetypes. We can dimension between the different states, to show the lengths of extensions and angles of rotation.

The software’s shrink-wrapping function simplifies models. This is useful when sharing models, to reduce the size or hide proprietary aspects. With it, we specify which parts we want to keep and which to remove, such as all holes smaller than a certain size or all hidden parts.

Figure 3: Viewing an IronCAD 3D model in the Chrome Web browser

IC Web Viewer exports the model as an HTML file so that any modern Web browser can view it. There are several types. The full or low-data versions are for laptops or mobile devices while local or server versions are for local networks or for Web servers. When opened in the browser, we can toggle the visibly of parts, change viewpoints, section the models and set different render types.

The new feature I like the best is default templates for sheets, called Bulk Drawing Creation. The templates specify where the views should be located, as well as the view direction, flat or folded views, and even the title blocks. Elements can be toggled off, such as fasteners, surfaces and 3D curves. The automatically-generated views, naturally, can be edited and dimensioned as needed.

IronCAD 2018 supports multiple sheet templates. Once set up, a single click sets up many sheets with the specified layouts. Sheets can be shared with other drawings. Related to the automation of layouts, we can now specify which edge of the sheet metal part aligns with the x-axis and the location of the origin. Selected views can be exported, such as to DWG files.

The ‘S’-key for the first time is also available in sheet mode and is useful for dimensioning flat parts. New shortcut keystrokes adjust the look of each dimension, such as relocating the text and toggling post- and prefix text for individual dimensions. The properties of any dimension can be adjusted and instantly applied by IronCAD 2018; there is no need to erase and reapply, as in some other CAD packages.

A list of user-defined strings can be pre-defined – such as Typ, Common, and Pre – and then quickly selected while placing dimensions. One final new feature I want to mention: Automatic hole quantities. We use it to place a leader to one hole, and the leader text reports the number of all holes of that size.

IronCAD is a remarkable product that’s been leading the industry for two decades. It is priced a touch lower than other mid-range MCAD packages, but includes more than the base versions of its competitors. The remarkable new features in the upcoming release show that IronCAD hasn’t lost its lead. According to the company, IronCAD 2018 is scheduled to ship around December 15, 2017.

Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD on his WorldCAD Access blog ( and weekly upFront.eZine newsletter. He has authored many articles and books on AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other design software.

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