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I study a degree which requires its students to utilise the many features of Autodesk software for design purposes - It is AutoCAD software which we use most frequently, and since release of the 2011 and 2012 versions, I have continued on using this (2010) version to complete my studies. This isn't because I dislike the new AutoCAD's, rather that I think they're incredibly similar, and feel the new additions to the software's don't help me to improve my technical drafting quality or ability... but I have tried them all!
For those who don't know, 'drafting' is the process of drawing through computer software; plans, sections, elevations and 3-dimensional views of structural entities - be them houses, bridges or tea-cups. Anything goes. Now there are many industry standard software packages available, but Autodesk have (as far as I know) led the way since the mid-1980s, and the version being reviewed here is their 24th release since the original 'AutoCAD 1.0' in December of 1982.
I use AutoCAD predominantly for the drafting of 2D elements (plans, sections and elevations) of buildings only. Though this does include some experience of landscape design, I haven't used the software for 3D production - because for that I use Revit and Sketch Up. I think that AutoCAD is more set-up for 2D drafting, and here's why:
This is the first thing you're prompted to learn about the software, how to set up layers. Layers are the names, headings or groups under which lines are drawn. Before you draw a line you select which pre-defined layer you wish to categorise that line under - be it 'external wall', 'insulation', 'fencing', etc. - then when you draw that line it will appear on the page with the properties of its layer. Layer properties are easily set-up and defined in AutoCAD, and they include line colour, thickness (mm), type (i.e. continuous, dotted, dashed, etc.), and many more. What isn't written into the layers properties is the lines length or shape (path) as these things are decided when you actually draw the line in the space. I think AutoCAD does an excellent job at keeping this process simple and straightforward. Using the layer icon at the top a separate window will open listing all the layers and their properties (and there is no limit to the amount of layers you can create) with another icon allowing you to make more.
Of course, lines are what make up drawings. Be them curved, straight, hatched, coloured, faded, thick/thin; they are the substance to a drawing, and they have to be clear, concise and contain all the right properties so that they are not mistaken by professionals reading the drawing for the wrong type. AutoCAD has an icon for drawing lines (located at the top left) though the software allows you to draw without even touching the mouse through keyboard commands. A common process of drafting would be: Pressing L and enter (begin a line at a point), typing 1200 and enter (the length in mm), pressing <90 (the line direction - 90 degrees - straight up), enter. Of course, before you draft you select your layer. AutoCAD makes it easy to draw lines and after just a few hours of use it becomes second nature - as does a lot of stuff within the software!
Poly-lines are used commonly within the software, they are lines which are connected so that when selected they highlight together. So a shape like a square can be clicked on and moved around as that shape instead of as four separate lines. Poly-lines make manipulating a drawing less confusing and easier. Lines can be grouped into poly-lines after having been drawn too.
When drawing technical details like a section (cut-through) of an internal wall, certain parts of the drawing will be 'hatched'. For instance, a standard masonry brick is always filled in with the same pattern of lines, as is a section of insulation board. Hatching helps people reading the drawing to clearly see what's what. Usually I'll assign hatching as one of my layers so that I can set the properties as very thin and faded so that the lines aren't confused with structural lines. The hatching icon opens a new window where the type of hatching can be defined; so that's its pattern, scale, and several other things to do with its appearance. Once defined another icon ('pick points') leads you back to the drawing space where you select the inside of a closed circuit of lines to be hatched. AutoCAD can get very irritating at this stage, as for some reason the software always seems to suggest there to be a gap in the lines when clearly there isn't. It can take a lot of fiddling about to get the hatching covering the right area.
Usually once a drawing is complete (all the lines and hatching is in the right place) you will add dimensions to give the detail visual scale when reading it. Dimensioning is critical as it allows readers to accurately set out works on site, any mistakes can be very costly indeed. Luckily AutoCAD's dimensioning tool is very simple and easy to use (like the rest of it), within the window which pops up, scale, line type, arrow head type, text font, and much more can all be set through the properties. Drafting the dimension lines onto the drawing is straight forward. Often though, at this stage you'll start to realise some of the lines are the wrong length or shape and amendments will be needed - but this is 100% human error and isn't a fault of the software.
To give drawings depth and greater meaning, AutoCAD allows you to add text which is automatically connected to (crucially) curved lines with arrow heads to point to certain areas of the drawing. They must be curved so that they are not mistaken for construction or structural lines and hatching. They are usually faded to blend with the background and are often grey in colour as well. AutoCAD allows you to change the options and properties of the annotations similarly to the dimensioning - in a logical and straightforward way.
When it comes to printing your drawings, you need to 'set them out' on a screen which shows them within the measured boundaries of a page. Usually technical drawings will be set out onto A3 and A2 pages, but AutoCAD caters for all sizes (even ones not universally used) - you set the boundaries. These 'layout' pages appear as tabs at the bottom of the drawing page and can be accessed at any time. Right-clicking on a tab and selecting properties will allow you to set the size and characteristics of the space. When you actually click onto a layout, you can then draw out what's called a 'viewport', which is essentially an invisible box acting as a gateway into the drawing space. You can then manoeuvre into view the drawing (or section of a drawing) you wish to be displayed on the sheet. Multiple viewports can be created on one sheet as well which is great. Once you have your drawing within the confines of the viewport gateway you can adjust the scale they will appear on the sheet when it is printed via a drop down list on the bottom right - new scales can be created if the one you need isn't present (i.e. 1:500, which I think is missing). You have to remember that before you start laying out your work, all stages of work previous have been completed in the general drawing 'space' which doesn't work to any 'scale'.
You can also draw objects and create annotation and text boxes within the layout space, so borders, drawing information, drawing notes, etc. can be created with ease.
All parts of the software I have described above are drafted within an unlimited theoretical 'space'. The scale (size) of individual lines and drawings can be as vast and as tiny as imaginable - there are no limits. So, theoretically you could have a 2-dimensional square measuring 1 million mm x 1 million mm in size, with another square 2 million mm to the left, measuring just 0.01 mm x 0.01 mm - all the 8 lines used to draft those two squares would be within the space of the AutoCAD file, but you would have to zoom and negotiate about the space to bring them into focus.
This scenario brings up the question of, how?. How can you possible negotiate into view (so that you can add detail and expand on those squares - manipulating them into new shapes with additional lines of different properties perhaps) those two squares? This is something AutoCAD software has mastered. Using your mouse wheel you can efficiently zoom about the drawing, with wherever your curser happens to be, being the point at which the zoom is aimed. Also, pressing in the mouse scroll will bring up the 'pan' curser head so that your view can be changed whilst staying at the same distance from the drawing - bringing parts you wish to see into view.
Different keyboard and mouse buttons can be assigned to different abilities in the options panel within the software. Everything is inter-changeable making the software ever more flexible.
When you save a drawing everything is saved, the drawings within the file, the layouts and viewports, the individual set-up you have... everything. It's all saved as a DWG file, and the more detail you put into your work the greater the file size will be. Another good system in operation within AutoCAD is the Auto-save function. Every 5 minutes (this time limit can be changed in the options panel) your work will be saved automatically into a file within the 'program files' of AutoCAD on your PC. This is to help prevent work being lost through PC failure - because even in just 5 minutes a lot of work can be completed within this efficient software if you are a professional drafter. One annoyance with this system is the tendency for the drawing to 'lag' or jolt every time a save occurs.
I hope I've covered all necessary areas of the 2-dimentional element to the design software. This is a very detailed platform from which very detailed drawings can be quickly and accurately drafted to a high standard. This is software which breaks cultural boundaries, regarding language and ability - it takes time to get into it and to understand it, and I hope this review helps, but believe me once you're in you're hooked. It is addictive in a strangely productive way!! Give it a go (even just for fun); it may even lead to a career some day.
AVAILABILITY: Legally this software has to be downloaded from the Autodesk website (available in multiple languages) but it has leaked to other places.
PRICE: What's fantastic is that if you're in education this software is completely FREE. If not it is over £1000! So basically you have to be a company with proper funds to set up your design studio (and it is the same with other software CAD).
I have used AutoCAD 2008, 2009 and 2010 and they all vary slightly. 2009 was a big departure from the normal format of AutoCAD, with the inclusion of the menu ribbon and a slightly new interface (although most people ended up changing the view back to the 2008 equivalent!) I use AutoCAD's 2D functionality for work so I cannot comment on the 3D capabilities.
I received 2010 as part of a maintenance contract and I didn't actually NEED it. I loaded it up hoping that it would be a little easier to use, have a few more features and be as good as ever, if not better. The first thing that struck me was it took longer to load up, but it does have new features so it is understandable. For the functions that I use it for, all I can see is the menus have changed again, things are a little harder to find (for those who don't know all the short cuts).
I want to say that as a light, 2D user I have noticed a big change but I haven't. I'm sure that the heavy user or AutoCAD professional will have a different viewpoint, but as far as I'm concerned there is not much difference and I have actually reverted back to using the 2009 that I know and understand. It would be interesting to hear about other users views, especially on the 3D functionality that I don't use.