It’s robust and powerful, and someday, you may be using it.
For engineers and designers in the United States, Russia doesn’t often come to mind when thinking about sources of CAD software. Yet, Russia is one of the global centers for the development of advanced CAD software.
Russia’s rise to preeminence in CAD software development was spurred by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, after which many of Russia’s top minds in the physical and theoretical sciences found themselves reduced to penury. Beginning in the mid 1990s, as economic reforms allowed private investment in Russia, multinational corporations, including IBM and Intel, started to take advantage of the large pool of highly-educated scientists and mathematicians in Russia. Intel, in particular, recognized that Russia was an ideal venue for the development of mathematically intense graphics software.
One notable CAD vendor that, early on, recognized the mathematical strengths of Russian software developers was Dassault Systemes. In 1996, DS started working with the Russian Research Institute of Artificial Intelligence, and, subsequently, with Ledas, a spin-out of the institute and the AI Lab of the Institute of Informatics Systems in Novosibirsk, Siberia. DS and Ledas worked together continuously until 2011, successfully completing 11 major contracts. The components developed by Ledas as part of that relationship were incorporated into DS’s CATIA V5 and V6 CAD programs, and have, according to DS, proven their reliability and performance in a full industrial context.
While DS was one of the first CAD vendors to develop software in Russia, they were not alone for very long. By the late 1990s, Russia was on its way to becoming a major force in CAD and CAE application and component software development. There is no complete list of Russian developed CAD and CAE programs, but it’s not hard to find examples. FlowEFD, from Mentor Graphics, and FlowVision, from Capvidia, are both highly advanced Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) programs developed in Russia (not by the same people, but by people who at least know each other.) TurboCAD, from IMSI, BricsCAD, from Bricsys, and IntelliCAD, from the IntelliCAD Technology Consortium, are all developed in Russia—as are the Open Design Alliance’s Teigha interoperability libraries, which are used by hundreds of CAD vendors around the world. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant CAD program that doesn’t include component technologies developed in Russia.
With all the success that multinational CAD companies have had with Russian software development, it’s hard not to ask, what about Russian CAD, developed for the Russian market?
It’s an interesting question, with an interesting answer. CAD development for the Russian market started in 1989, somewhat after the arrival of the PC, and somewhat before the break-up of the Soviet Union. It has been ongoing, ever since.
But it’s not been easy. The largest CAD vendor in Russia is Autodesk, and their biggest selling—or more accurately, most popular—product is AutoCAD. In Russia, for many years, the biggest competition for domestic CAD vendors came from pirated copies of AutoCAD.
From the perspective of an engineer in the United States, there are at least three really interesting Russian CAD companies, with products that are in the same league as those from companies with more familiar names. They’re companies you should know about, not only because their products are good, but, because, as organizations, they’re battle-tested. They’ve proven that, even while enduring economic and political upheavals, they can innovate, and deliver high-quality products that can handle tough problems.
Founded in 1989 by Alexander Golikov and Tatiana Yankina, ASCON was one of the first CAD developers in Russia and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. Over the years, it’s grown to become the largest native Russian CAD/PLM company, with 550 employees, of which 200 are in research and software development.
ASCON’s flagship products are KOMPAS-3D and KOMPAS-Graphic, 3D and 2D CAD programs, respectively, that compete in the mainstream market.
KOMPAS-3D and KOMPAS-Graphic both use ASCON’s internally developed C3D geometric modeling kernel. Rather than being patched together, they have been designed, from the beginning, to provide a unified 2D/3D solution, supporting a wide range of modeling methodologies. In 3D, this includes solid modeling, and sculpted surface modeling, using explicit, parametric, or variational direct modeling methods. That last method—variational direct modeling (VDM)—is based on solver technology developed by Ledas, and now owned by Bricsys, which has been integrated into the C3D kernel. It is distinguished in supporting smart editing and reparameterization of models, irrespective of whether they were originally created in KOMPAS.
While KOMPAS includes a full feature set in its standard form, ASCON offers a large number of optional components, including steel structure design, 3D piping, kinematic simulation, mechanism design, photorealistic rendering, mold and die design, and quite a bit more.
To give you a sense of KOMPAS’s capabilities, it’s used by more than 7000 industrial and engineering organizations in Russia and abroad, and finds application in a wide range of disciplines, including machinery, automotive, electronics, shipbuilding, atomic energy, aerospace, defense, plant design, civil engineering, and architecture.
KOMPAS has a reputation for solid reliability, and excellent interoperability. With the inclusion of variational direct modeling, it’s likely to be quite capable in hybrid workflows, where you need to work with CAD data from multiple sources.
In the late 1980s, seven graduate students of the Moscow State Technological University “Stankin” started working together, with the goal of creating a parametric CAD software package for industry. By 1989, they had a usable piece of software, and they started providing it to Russian manufacturers at no charge. In 1992, they officially registered Top Systems Ltd.
Their CAD product, T-FLEX, has been continuously developed through the years, and has evolved into an exceptionally capable system, supporting unified operations for all types of documents and entities, including drawings, assembly drawings, solids, surfaces, parts, parts with multiple solid bodies, assembly models, sheet metal, and bill of materials.
People who are familiar with the CAD market point to Pro/Engineer as the first parametric feature-based 3D solid modeling CAD system. Most CAD systems that have come since have pretty much copied the Pro/E approach, using a similar form of history-based parametrics. At first glance, T-FLEX seems also to be following this approach. But only at first glance.
Parametrics are at the core of T-FLEX. Any thing in T-FLEX can be related to anything else. Variables can be assigned at any time for component names, visibility, material, or any numeric or text attribute of any entity. They can then be processed with any algebraic or logical expression to control the behavior of the design. Parameters can be calculated from graphic dependencies, using, for example, measure and distance functions. Parameter values can be dynamically selected from internal tables, or external Excel, database, or other types of files, depending on the conditions of other parameters. This capability is used by T-FLEX to create parametric library elements.
T-FLEX lets you create parametric 2D drawings from scratch, with no limit on the number of constrained 2D entities. T-FLEX parametric sketches (for 3D operations) immediately update to any changes, regardless of their source. T-FLEX includes fully parametric drawing documentation, including dimensions, tolerances, text, and drawing notes. You can create parametric 2D assemblies by inserting parametric 2D components with complex parametric relations. And you can create fully parametric 3D assemblies.
As a start, the flexibility of T-FLEX parametrics allows you to explicitly add design intent to 3D models and assemblies, rather than relying on the implicit intent in their construction history. An obvious use of this flexibility is to create families-of-parts. But the logical extension to this is much more interesting: with T-FLEX parametrics, it’s possible to implement mass-customization systems, such as assemble-to-order, configure-to-order, and engineer-to-order. It’s even possible to use T-FLEX as an Internet engine in these applications.
T-FLEX includes an impressive set of capabilities beyond parametrics. It supports integrated surface and solid modeling, and direct editing with retained history. It includes extensive detailing and annotation tools including PMI (Product and Manufacturing Information.) Associative bill of materials (BOM) and integrated sheet metal design are included standard, as are a broad set of import/export CAD data translators.
Top Systems offers a substantial number of optional modules for T-FLEX, including mold design, Finite Element Analysis, motion simulation, weldment design and documentation, dynamics, and CAM.
Spend some time looking at nanoCAD, and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that it’s not particularly exotic, for a CAD program. Its user interface looks not too dissimilar to AutoCAD. Its command set is rather like AutoCAD too. It reads and writes AutoCAD compatible DWG files. And it has an API that’s rather like AutoCAD’s as well.
There are only two things that really set nanoCAD apart. First is that it’s a really well-crafted program. There’s nothing slap-dash about it. Second is that it’s free, for commercial, educational, or other purposes, as an individual or corporate user.
The obvious question to ask is how Nanosoft, the developers of nanoCAD, can get away with giving this program away. The answer is that their main business is CAD application development, for various industries. They charge for those applications, which they build on nanoCAD. They give nanoCAD away.
As an aside, you might wonder why the developers at Nanosoft didn’t just license IntelliCAD, or some other AutoCAD compatible program. While they probably won’t say this out loud, the answer becomes evident when you use nanoCAD. As I said before, it’s a really well-crafted program.
If a software developer is going to build CAD applications, the obvious platform to choose is AutoCAD. Except, of course, for the fact that it’s expensive. Trading genuine AutoCAD for an AutoCAD clone (which is cheaper, but of unknown quality) might seem like a reasonable choice for most CAD developers. But there are a very few software developers out there who have both the experience and the skill to be able to build a serious CAD program from scratch, and do it better than most of their competitors. Though I can’t prove it, I believe that’s the case with the developers at Nanosoft.
Did I mention that it’s a really well-crafted program?
If you need an AutoCAD compatible program (and many engineers and designers need one from time to time), nanoCAD is a sweet choice.
UPDATE: More interesting things continue to happen in the Russian CAD market. Starting this week, on April 11, key participants from ASCON, Top Systems, Fidesys, and Ledas will be attending COFES: The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software, in Scottsdale, AZ. I’m pleased to say that I’ll be there with them.