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Eagle 3D PCBs with Alibre: Overview and Alternatives

What Is This New Series About?

I will create a 3D PCB model using Alibre Design Standard V12 from an Eagle PCB project (I will be using the FP-SMC-1 an an example).  I will not cover every single little step in detail, but I plan on being complete and fairly detailed.

The same basic approach will also work with other MCAD programs; along the way I will include some notes about other design software.

Why Create A 3D Model?

After all, the PCB fab houses want Gerbers, not STEP files.

A mechanical model can  be used many ways, including:

  • Checking your PCB footprints (especially if you use STEP or IGES models from the manufacturer)
  • Check the mechanical layout of the PCB and the fit of the PCB into a larger mechanical system.
  • As an input to simulation software, including thermal modeling.
  • To create a beautiful, accurate rendering of your PCB.
    • I will not be covering this.  In fact, Alibre Design Standard does not include photo-realistic renderings; you have to have Design Professional or Expert.

Why Not Create a 3D Model?

Creating a model can take a lot of time, although once you’re experienced and have models for all your common parts, the time should be reasonable.

If you want to be able to share your results widely (e.g. export to STEP files), it will cost some money for the necessary MCAD software.

Spending more money can save a lot of time; for example, if you create your parts correctly, you can use the Eagle 3D ULP to create IDF files representing your board and its components.  Then using even more expensive MCAD software (such as SolidWorks + CircuitWorks), the MCAD software will use the information in the IDF files to automatically create a board model.

Since life isn’t perfect, the board might need some tweaking.  Also, I’ve read that Eagle’s IDF output sometimes needs some tweaking before the MCAD program likes it.

There are at least two programs for creating PCBs in Alibre using IDF files:

If you are creating a lot of PCBs at work, I would highly recommend looking at these programs.

What If I Just Want A Pretty Picture?

There are at least two free options for photo-realistic renderings with Eagle PCB:

There are some disadvantages to these programs:

  • They are not useful for mechanical engineering (using the board as part of a larger MCAD model)
  • They do not have large part libraries, and the companies that do provide 3D models typically use STEP, IGES, or Acrobat 3D.
    • However, some file translation could help.  For example, if you can convert a STEP file into STL (which CoCreate PE can do for free IIRC), you can try using the STL to POV conversion utility for Eagle 3D.  You should be able to do something similar with Sketchup.

Why Alibre Design and Eagle PCB?

The short answer: because I have them and like them.  Both programs are reasonably affordable, and fairly popular.  I’d be happy to write about all the other options if I was well paid to do it!

What Are Some Alibre/Eagle Limitations?

So far I have found a few:

  1. Alibre Design Standard does not do photo-realistic renderings
  2. I have not been able to get Alibre Design to handle PCB traces so far; I can’t extrude them (as produced by the current DXF exporter) and I can’t overlay them.
    1. This could make it harder to model SMT PCBs; on through hole PCBs, it’s obvious where the parts go.
  3. Alibre Design Personal Edition (PE) is not usable, since it cannot import STEP files; the cheapest options are either Alibre Design Professional (about $500) or trying to see if you can still grab a copy of Alibre Design Standard (e.g. Novedge still lists it for $185)

Are There Other Affordable Options?

If you want to create a solid model that you can export in STEP format, only other MCAD choice I know of that’s under $1000 and might work well is VariCAD.  The other choices have various limitations, which I might discuss in another blog post.

Or you could use different PCB design software; some programs will do at least some 3D modeling.  For example, there is Altium at the higher end (about $4,000) and Target 3001 at the lower end.  KiCAD (open source) has some sort of 3D capability.

Target 3001 does look interesting, since prices range from free to about 3,000 euros, and it can export to STEP files.  Sometime in the not too distant future I hope to take a look at it.

June 5, 2010   6 Comments

The SolidWorks World Effect? Alibre’s Lower Prices, VX 50% Sale

SolidWorks World 2010 just finished.  Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not, but at the start of SolidWorks World Alibre announced “permanent” lower prices (no guarantees they won’t change prices again, but I suspect they’ll stay the same for a while).  And VX has just about everything 50% off until March 1.

Alibre’s prices now include Alibre Translate (which was $499).  (Alibre pricing info via World CAD Access).

Alibre Product Base Price Annual Maintenance With Maintenance
Design Standard $97 $97 $194
Design Professional $497 $147 $644
Design Expert $997 $197 $1197

VX’s current sale (through March 1, 2010) is VX Innovator for $495, VX Designer for $2000, VX Mold & Die for $3000, VX 3D Machinist for $4000, and VX End To End for $5000.

VX definitely looks more capable than Alibre, but it’s significantly more expensive (including, I’m sure, the annual maintenance fees).  So far, I’ve been able to do some things in VX Innovator I can’t do in Alibre, but Alibre has very few license restrictions.  For example, VX Innovator limits assembly creation to 40 parts maximum (it can import models with more), while Alibre Design Standard does not have any hard limits.  Also, Alibre lets you install Design on up to three computers, which is very nice for those of us with multiple PCs.

I think that if you do anything with 3D solid modeling (not surfacing), then Alibre is definitely worth a look due to its low price, lack of artificial limits, and good import/export options (especially now with Alibre Translate).  If Alibre can improve the ease of use, maybe it can become what SpaceClaim originally claimed to be: MCAD for the rest of us (non-designers), people who need to occasionally work with 3D, but aren’t designing complex parts all day long.

Right now, I’m still sticking with Alibre Design Standard V11 and VX Innovator; if I do a lot of CAD this year, I’ll look at upgrading to Alibre V12.

NOTE: Updated 2/4/10 to reflect Max Freeman’s comment.

February 3, 2010   9 Comments

Mechanical CAD, Special Deals, and Me

When I look at my traffic stats, I see there’s a lot of interest in affordable mechanical CAD.  I think that interest is good: I do not believe in pirating software, and I believe there is a place for affordable MCAD (and affordable CAM for desktop CNC machines), especially for personal use and as a tool for people who aren’t primarily mechanical designers.

I own licenses of Alibre Design Standard V11 (which I bought during the $99 sale) and VX Innovator V14 (which I bought on sale for $195).  I also have free licenses for DoubleCAD XT and CoCreate PE.

I mainly plan on using Alibre and VX Innovator, and reporting my experiences here.  They are somewhat complimentary; Alibre is a pretty standard history-based parametric modeler (with some nice features such as Acrobat 3D output), and VX is a hybrid modeler (solid and surface).

DoubleCAD looks very capable for 2D CAD, but I don’t expect to use it a lot.  I mainly use it for viewing and experimenting with DXF files created by Eagle PCB.

I do like CoCreate PE, but don’t plan on using it much now that I have Alibre Design and VX Innovator.  It’s limited to 60 parts per assembly, which I could easily exceed when modeling a PCB, and cannot export STEP files.  PTC has offered some very big discounts in the past to upgrade to the full version, but the annual maintenance  cost is way too high for my budget.

However, this is not a MCAD blog; my interest in still primarily in automation software and system integration (including PCBs).  OK, I do plan on writing more, but mostly I want to write about my experiences with affordable MCAD.  I do not have the time or interest to keep up with all the latest deals.  But I still might mention deals or MCAD news occasionally.

If you want to keep up on the latest special offers, you should visit MCAD sites such as Deelip.com and World CAD Access.  Also, if you register for the free versions (e.g. Alibre Design Xpress, CoCreate PE, DoubleCAD XT) you will receive e-mail offers.

Alibre has had a lot of good deals (maybe too many).  I’m currently sticking with V11 because I haven’t used it enough, and the improvements in V12 aren’t compelling for my uses.

VX had another sale on VX Innovator around Christmas, but they aren’t as good at marketing as Alibre; if you’re interested in a deal on VX, you should check their web store frequently.

Kubotek has had some sales, too, such as Kubotek Spectrum for $99; current deals include $700 off KeyCreator.

My latest MCAD news is here.

January 14, 2010   3 Comments

Expiring MCAD Deals: VX Innovator 9/4, Alibre 9/29

Update 9/9/09: VX Innovator is now $295 (Americas, India, Africa) until September 30, 2009.  Check here for my latest MCAD news.

Since I’ve been posting a lot about affordable Mechanical CAD software, here’s an update on two great deals:

  • Alibre’s $99 offer for Design Standard V11.2 ends on September 29, 2009; also on sale for $99 are Alibre Translate and Alibre Training Bundle.  The maintenance contract is still $299, and includes the upgrade to V12 (due on 9/29/09).
  • Time to give some attention to VX Innovator: it’s on sale for $195 until September 4, 2009 for Americas, India, and Africa (with a note that price will increase to $295 — we’ll see if that’s a permanent price cut).

I’ ve been playing with Innovator for the past couple days, and will probably buy it, too.  Some initial comments:

  • I’ve had problems installing it on two XP systems, but did get it to install on a Vista (yuck!) system.
  • There’s not much about it on the web.  I’ve tried searching for VX topics, and had a hard time coming up with useful results;  there’s much more information available on Alibre and CoCreate.
  • I was able to get it do some basic stuff without reading the manual, but with a fair amount of fiddling; overall, I’d say it’s not too difficult to use.
  • It can do some things Alibre can’t do, and works in a very different manner (which is good — if it was very similar to Alibre, Solidworks, Solid Edge, etc I wouldn’t be interested).

BTW, I’m not interested in running cracked copies of software (e.g. Solidworks).  I’m interested in using software that’s affordable for anyone to use commercially, and I think that companies that produce good software should be rewarded.

September 2, 2009   No Comments

Alibre’s $99 Deal Is Good for PCB Design

I’ve blogged recently about Alibre’s crippling of Design Xpress.  Well, for a limited time, Alibre is now offering Alibre Design Standard for $99; I like this deal and have already paid for a license.

I am using MCAD software to model the PCBs I design because I can catch several types of design errors, including incorrect footprints and mechanical interference.

My requirements are pretty simple; what I want is an affordable system that can:

  • import STEP and IGES files, since I want to use the manufacturer’s models if at all possible
  • import and extrude DXF files, so I can easily create a model of the printed circuit board itself
  • create assemblies using a fair number of parts (>50 should  be enough most of the time)
  • export to STEP file (required) and 3D PDF, so I can share my work with others who aren’t using the same CAD software
  • be fairly easy to learn and use — I’m primarily a software guy, occasionally designing PCBs, but I’m definitely not a mechanical designer.
  • cost under $250

None of currently available free commercial MCAD programs meets all these requirements.  For example, I am fond of CoCreate PE, but it does not export to STEP or 3D PDF, and is limited to 60 parts per assembly.

At $99, however, Alibre Design Standard meets all these requirements, so I will be using it now for all my PCB modeling.  I still want to experiment with and blog about other possibilities, but I don’t expect to get around to that anytime soon.

Some commentators feel this is a desperation move by Alibre.  I think it is a good deal, because:

  1. Alibre is getting a lot of publicity
  2. They are getting cash flow from Design Xpress users they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise (I’ll call these people, including myself, the non-serious users).  In my case, Design Standard currently isn’t worth $999 (or even $500) to me, so Alibre received $99 from me that they wouldn’t have earned otherwise.
  3. Since Alibre has not cut their other pricing, and support and maintenance is not included (Design Standard + 1 year support and upgrades is $398), their support costs are not going to skyrocket, and they probably won’t be devaluing their products.
  4. They will still be getting more money from the “serious users” (who would be willing to pay >$500) because these users will be paying annual maintenance.
  5. They have increased their chances of upselling in the future.  Once I am used to modelling with Design Standard, I am more likely to pay for maintenance or upgrades in the future.

Go here for my latest MCAD news posts.

August 17, 2009   5 Comments

Alibre Design Xpress 11 won’t import STEP files

Alibre continues to restrict Alibre Design Xpress’ functionality; in Xpress 11 after the 30 day evaluation runs out, you can only import AutoCAD (DWG, DXF) files, and export STL files.

I’ve used Xpress occasionally since it was introduced in 2005, and I’ve never had problems importing STEP  (or IGES) files until recently.  Since I mainly use mechanical CAD to model PCBs populated with manufacturer provided part models (typically in STEP or IGES formats), this means Xpress is no longer useful.  As far as I’m concerned, Xpress is now basically just a trial version — great if you want to evaluate Alibre Design before buying, but not useful on its own.

Since I’m not making any money from the PCBs, my budget for MCAD software is basically $0 (OK, I might go up to $250 for software that did a really great job).  If I were primarily doing mechanical design, especially for money, then my budget would be different.

I’m still thinking about what I want to do; my default option is to model in CoCreate PE, which only exports STL and VRML files, but at least it imports DWG, DXF, STP, and IGES files, so it’s still easy to model PCBs in CoCreate and check that all the pieces fit together.

Go here for my latest MCAD news posts.

August 7, 2009   5 Comments

Alibre Design Xpress: Now a secret

It appears that Alibre is now trying to keep Design Xpress (the free version, with limitations such as five unique parts per assembly) a secret.  There are now no references to Design Xpress on Alibre’s home page or Products page.  Many of the links, such as the product page for Design Xpress and the feature comparision, now return “Page does not exist” errors.  However, a page giving the differences between Design Xpress and the Design trial still exists.

Although I haven’t tried downloading and installing to verify, it appears Xpress still does exist, since the registration page for the Design Professional trial still says: “After 30 days your trial converts to Alibre Design Xpress, which has no time limit.”

Go here for my latest MCAD news posts.

June 24, 2009   6 Comments

Viewing STEP files

Why am I interested in viewing and measuring STEP files?  Because I can make a better automation PCB if I can use STEP files.  Mechanical engineers, of course, like 3D models they can import and use in assemblies, but I am mainly concerned with PCBs.

There are a variety of standard 3D file formats, including IGES, STEP, 3D PDF, STL, VRML, ACIS, and 3D PDFs.  The most common formats for electrical components are IGES, STEP, and, recently, 3D PDFs.  My experience is that STEP files typically import with fewer problems than IGES; 3D PDFs are very nice for viewing parts, but unless the file creator took the proper steps, cannot be used for measuring.

My uses for STEP files include:

  • Viewing parts.  I can’t synthesize 3D parts in my head from a set of 2D drawings, and sometimes it’s very useful to see what a part looks like.   I really like to have real parts to play with, but that’s not always possible.
  • Sometimes the manufacturer’s 2D prints do not give all the information I want to create my PCB component shape.  I can get any dimension I want from a STEP file.
  • It’s very easy to screw up PCB connectors.  Doing a quick assembly of the PCB and components lets me verify that my drill sizes are correct, check for cable orientation, and such.

Since I am not doing any heavy duty mechanical design work, I did a bit of research into free MCAD programs that can view and measure STEP files, and preferably create small assemblies.  I found one program specifically designed as a STEP file viewer, IDA-STEP.   The free version of IDA-STEP does not measure.

However, most free MCAD programs can import and then measure STEP files.  I took a quick look at five different programs, listed below.  CoCreate PE is my favorite of the bunch; it seems the best match for a non-mechanical guy like me.

  1. CoCreate PE
  2. PowerSHAPE-e
  3. Alibre Design Xpress Note: since Alibre has dropped STEP import from Design Xpress, it is no longer a good choice.
  4. IDA-STEP
  5. Acrobat 3D PDF
  6. CAD Exchanger (a program to convert between CAD file formats, but it also works as a viewer)
  7. CADFaster|QuickStep is another CAD file viewer with free and paid versions; when I get time, I will give it a short test.

Note that the free versions of MCAD programs exist primarily for marketing reasons, and the terms can (and have) changed at any time.

There are other free Mechanical CAD programs that might be able to read STEP files, including:

January 26, 2009   11 Comments

Viewing STEP files with Alibre Design Xpress

Update 6/24/09: Alibre wants to keep Design Xpress secret, and has removed several of the pages linked to below

Update 8/7/09: Alibre has removed STEP file import from Design Xpress, so it’s no longer useful as a STEP file viewer.  (OK, you can import STEP files during the first 30 days, but after that, you’ll have to pay or find something else).  Go here for or my latest MCAD news posts.

Alibre Design Xpress is the free version of Alibre Design.  It is significantly less capable than Alibre Design Standard.  Limitation include only 5 unique parts per assembly, no advanced modeling tools, and no advanced drawing functions.  Alibre has a feature comparision here.  However, Xpress can still do a lot, including create assemblies (many free versions can’t), import and export files in various formats [import DXF, DWG; export STL], be used professionally, and create 3D PDFs.

With the free version of any proprietary software, the terms can change at any time.  My Design Xpress license allows 25 5 [changed when updated to V11] unique parts per assembly.  Until recently, the normal Xpress limit was 10 unique parts; now it is 5.

In any case, Design Xpress makes a fine STEP file viewer [for 30 days].   You can drag and drop STEP files onto the Xpress Control Panel (but not a part or assembly window), or use the Import menu or button.  This brings up the Import dialog box, which controls how the STEP file is imported.

Alibre 11 STEP file import options

Alibre 11 STEP file import options

STEP files don’t always import correctly, so it’s good to have these options available.  Note that these options do affect how quickly the part is imported.

I tested Alibre using the same Norcomp HD26M part; it imported without a problem.   I rotated, panned, and zoomed the part without problems.  Since I often end up with the part at weird angles, I appreciate the View–>Orient–>To Plane… menu which snaps the part view back to a plane.

I found measuring a little tricky at first, mostly because what I thought I was selecting wasn’t what I really was.  I was viewing the part looking straight at the front; when I rotated the part a bit (as shown in the picture below), I easily selected the features I wanted.

The Linear/Pairs measurement options takes the first mouse clicks after you select it; I could not figure out how to reset the points being measured without closing and re-opening the measure dialog.  So I had to be careful where I clicked the first two times.

HD26M STEP model in Alibre Design Express

HD26M STEP model in Alibre Design Express

January 13, 2009   No Comments