At the beginning of this year I was complaining that the economical crisis in Brazil was making things hard here, and guess what, now we have so much work coming in that it got hard to find time for FreeCAD! This is something normal when you are working free-lance, it is always a roller coaster, but now thanks to my Patreon campaign there is a growing piece of stability in the balance, I need to find better ways to equalize everything. But it is really thrilling.
Also since a couple of months I got a major contribution from AlephObjects, the makers of the famous Lulzbot 3D printers. They are sponsoring not only me but a wide selection of people and open-source projects related to 3D and 3D printing (they are a major contributor to Blender). These guys are carrying on their shoulders a pretty big part of the open-source 3D world!
It would really be great to see more companies involved in supporting open-source projects development. For a company, supporting a project or a developer is a rather small investment, and is a much, much cheaper and interesting way to spend money than paying expensive monthly licenses to a software company just to be able to use their software.
By supporting the development of an open-source project, even with a small amount of money, a company would probably already have a big say in the development and be able to obtain features they need way faster than waiting for a software company to decide to implement them. Also, unlike when you are renting a software license, development and formation go hand in hand. Software companies might offer training programs, but it is always a short-term thing, while getting involved in an open-source project creates a much deeper, long-lasting and sustainable relationship between the company and the software, where training and learning and new features/versions is not just a service you buy once (and everybody who worked in a company knows that both these things wear off quite fast), but a permanent feature.
Okay that was my little minute of publicity, if you are a company, be as cool as AlephObjects, sponsor me!
Now back to real news. This month I have been working mostly on small things, bug fixing, and small user experience improvements throughout FreeCAD.
Several applications (AutoCAD-based apps, Sketchup) have this "hold" system where you hover the mouse over a point for a certain time, then the software "remembers" that point and offers you new snap locations for it. Call me crazy, but I always got a bit annoyed with the fact that you have to wait a second or so with your mouse stopped, in the middle of a fast operation like drawing a polyline.
So I thought, why not let the user insert those hold points manually, wherever and whenever (s)he wants? It is now implemented, and it works pretty well: Press Q anytime, while drawing, to add such a hold point. New snap locations will become available orthogonally to that point, and at their crossings if you have more than one. This is really fast, and can easily be extended further.
This was a long-time issue, but it's finally done. When importing DAE and OBJ files (using the Arch OBJ importer), object color and transparency will be correctly rendered in FreeCAD.
When exporting to these formats, if the object has a material attached to it (currently only Arch and FEM objects can have a material), color and transparency will be taken form the material. If not, they will be taken from the object itself.
This makes exporting your architecture models to Blender for rendering much more comfortable, since all materials will be already there in Blender (same material/color in FreeCAD will create a same material entry in the OBJ or DAE file, and therefore in Blender).
@sliptonic recently released an impressive video showing how the Path module could use the Arch Panels objects. We worked further on this, and added a series of improvements that pave the road to be able to comfortably build a model such as a wikihouse in FreeCAD, and be able to create, fine-tune and export g-code directly from it.
Small things have been fixed such as bugs in the DXF importer, small improvements to the object link dialog, the ability to define which wire of a window will cut the hole in its host wall, and bugs in the scaling of TechDraw views.
A couple of Arch utility tools, as well as the new Sketchfab exporter, have also been moved out of the FreeCAD source code, and are now in a new, separate WebTools. This will allow to bundle in that workbench a series of additional python modules related to web operations, that would be annoying to bundle in FreeCAD itself. This will make it much easier to install, and thanks to the new built-in Addons manager in FreeCAD, installing external workbenches has now become a piece of cake.
I also developed a new addon workbench to use CAD Exchanger to add support to several new file formats such as Rhino's .3DM or ACIS .SAT (which allows you to export Revit families to FreeCAD!). CAD Exchanger is a paid application, but I believe there could be a good synergy there, especially if they support more commercial file formats (also dreaming of decent 3D DWG support? Lobby them!), that are beyond the reach of an open-source project. And paying for a plugin to add commercial formats support to our favorite open-source app is something I would have no problem with, certainly I'm not the only one. Let's hope this synergy will flourish.
I have a large list of major features that I want to implement in FreeCAD and Arch, I've been talking about most of them in the previous development news, but these are all issues that require a lot of thinking, for example xrefs or walls. Very often I get comments like, why don't you make it work like in Revit (or ArchiCAD, or -name your favorite software here-). The thing is, you can rush and implement an interface quite quickly. But the really important part is not what the user sees or does, it's the underlying structure. If you design some user interface on top of a badly designed data structure, sooner or later you will get yourself limited by the limitations of your data structure. And it will be very hard to get around it if you designed a user interface already. But when you have a well designed structure, adding a good user interface on top of it is easy.
We had this discussion recently about the reinforcing bars tool in FreeCAD. It needs a better interface, that is obvious, but, more important, the reinforcing bar system behind it must be robust and flexible enough to be able to support any kind of crazy situations such as, for example, non-uniform (spline-based) curved walls. If we don't have that, sooner or later our model will fail to address a certain issue.
Then when we have such a powerful system, designing a user interface on top of it, which allows you to, for example, click a column and automatically place a series of reinforcing bars by just specifying a couple of parameters in a nice dialog box is much easier. And if you need a case that the dialog box cannot do, the underlying model can do it. You can still write a small python script that will solve the problem.
That development philosophy is at the deep roots of FreeCAD. Often newcomers complain about the lack of user-friendliness of the FreeCAD interface. But we use to think that there is a right order in software design: First make sure your base structures are powerful and flexible, then design the interface for it.
The interesting aspect is that I think we are entering a kind of new epoch in FreeCAD. Many parts of it are now pretty robust, flexible and stable. And there is a series of new developers coming in, interested in working on the interface side of things. This is also a very precise and long-term work, there is no magical solution, UI-wise. Everything is a question of testing, seeing what works best and what users like (an indication that it works well), and refining.
By the way, have you seen the revamped icons that @agryson has been working on? Also, don't forget that FreeCAD also support color and icon themes, thanks to the hard work of @wmayer and @pablogil...
Sorry for that long diversion, but there is quite some time I wanted to explain better that thing, "why FreeCAD still hasn't a better user interface". We'll get there, but first things first.
About the other major features I am still exploring and didn't find a good attack path yet:
Xrefs: I think we are close to something there (see the discussion ). I was first thinking to start with something hybrid with different "modes" where you can either make it insert, in the current document, a full copy of all the objects of the references document, with all its properties, or just a "condensed" view of those objects, but the digital project approach is totally doable and seems much more interesting.
Walls: Two things are becoming highly necessary: Support for more complex, multi-layer walls, and a more powerful system to join walls. Note that both these things are possible and working already, but the system is still a bit cumberstone. Multilayer walls is the easiest one to solve, what we need there is probably a kind of "super-wall" object, that would hold the different wall layers. The auto-joining is a more delicate issue. Currently, joining two walls makes them turn into one. But that's not cool, we need to be able to still manipulate these walls independently. Most apps do tricks to make them look like they are joined, but they are still independent objects. But I still didn't find a good idea to do that in FreeCAD.
Types: As I was writing in an earlier post, In Revit the concept of individual object almost doesn't exist. Everything is part of families (communism?). In FreeCAD, the individual object is king. Relationships exist between one and another, but the concept of a "family" is very shallow. However, working with families and types in Revit is really good. I'd like to introduce that more in the Arch workbench, and make objects more dependent on some more general definitions. However, how to do that without loosing the precious individuality, which gives a lot of freedom that Revit doesn't have? No clear idea yet.
Sorry for that long read once again, hope you enjoyed, and I'll try to find ways to manage my time better next month! Don't forget you can help me to spend more time working on FreeCAD by sponsoring me on Patreon.
Also, have a look on our ongoing wikihouse-based project in Brasil, be sure to have a look at the FreeCAD files!
FYI, the image above has been heavily reworked in inkscape, but the sheet is originally exported from FreeCAD.
Last couple of weeks I've had the opportunity to do some work in Revit. This was highly welcome as my knowledge of that application was becoming rather obsolete. Having a fresh, new look on it brought me a lot of new ideas, reinforced some ideas I already had, and changed a couple of old perceptions too. So I cannot resist the temptation to do a little comparison between Revit and FreeCAD.
For who is not used to this blog, you must be warned that I am one of the developers of FreeCAD, and therefore my opinions here cannot be anything else than strongly biased. But for the sake of the exercise, I'll do my best to keep as neutral as possible, and look only at the technical side (I won't mention all the open source side of things).
The most important point I think, is that both pieces of software are surprisingly more similar than we use to think. Working in your spare time on a small open source project, and getting bashed all over the internet about how perfect Revit is, you end up thinking your humble work is phenomenally behind what thousands of Autodesk programmers can produce. It turns out that's a pretty wrong perception, I think. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but FreeCAD comes out surprisingly well compared to Revit, and is actually better in many areas.
I'll start with what is similar in both apps. Both are fundamentally based on constrained sketches, that is, 2D shapes where you can put constraints (radius, length, etc), that you extrude to form 3D objects. Other extruded 2D shapes can then be used in boolean operations (union or subtractions) to produce the final object. So, very fundamentally, the modelling process in Revit is not very different than FreeCAD. In both apps, you'll find these profiles everywhere, underneath almost any object.
Both applications use reference planes to draw onto. In FreeCAD, there are several modalities depending on the workbench, but the concept is the same: You define a work plane, which is a plane in the 3D space, then you draw your 2D shapes on that plane, then you extrude.
The higher-level objects, like walls, structures, windows, etc... are in both applications convenience wrappers around these basic modelling tools. It would be a hassle to have to draw every outline of every wall you need in your project, so the wall tool does that for you, you just need to draw the baseline of the wall, and the whole modelling operation (make the 2D contour + extrusion) is performed automatically for you, and performed again every time you change something to the wall definition.
All the rest, that makes a full BIM application, is basically extensions around this modelling "core". It also surprised me how little the Revit core has been modified over the years. All the new features of these recent years are in that area around the core, not the core itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, when you think of it, BIM work is composed of a very big part of theses things that are not solely 3D modelling.
The bad sides of both applications are also surprisingly similar, and, even more surprising to me, equal in number and annoyance. In FreeCAD, due to its young age, and the fact that there is too little work spent on the BIM module (don't forget you can help me to remedy the problem!), all kinds of shortcomings, limitations and incomplete features cross your path all the time. Fortunately you can work around these most of the time, and your ability to find and use these workarounds grows with your FreeCAD experience, up to a point that it doesn't annoy you anymore. That typically happens with all FreeCAD developers, so it's important that new users report the problems they encounter.
In Revit, my impression is that you basically encounter the same amount of annoyance. My even deeper impression (a secret I won't hesitate to reveal to you now, exclusively!) is that in the perfect world of Revit, where "everything works", so to speak, programmers are extremely reticent to add anything that could "stain" that perfect model. So all kind of external, hybrid, workaround features are vetoed or minimally implemented because they couldn't avoid, but highly discouraged.
But, more useful than the rant, I also made a list of points that I found good in both applications, with the obvious idea to gather things to improve in FreeCAD.
So no more shame, let's claim it loud, yes, FreeCAD is as good as Revit! "As good as" doesn't means "the same", though, and their philosophy and workflows are very different. Revit will give you more comfort and speed, FreeCAD will give you more freedom. I don't know if we'll ever reach the comfort level of Revit (I'm not convinced that it wouldn't force us into options that would harm the freedom side), but on the question of speed, there is still a lot to be done, no doubt we'll still see huge improvements in that regard.
I took note of a series of small things I'll try to fix or add in FreeCAD, but also identified these more generic areas that I'll try to improve in FreeCAD:
PS - Half the stuff on the images in this post was done by Ryan
I'll start adding a date to these "Arch development news", it will be easy to look back and motivate me to write them more regularly. A monthly report seems good I think, no?
Long time I didn't write, but that doesn't mean things have been quiet down here, it's actually more the contrary. To begin with, I've had the opportunity to do a job with Revit. There was a long time that I didn't really use Revit intensively, so this was a great opportunity to get back on track with it. I gathered a lot of observations, ideas, and things that compare quite favourably to FreeCAD (favourably for FreeCAD of course ). This is too long to put here, but I have written another post specifically about that, that I'll publish later this week.
I also collected a long list of Revit rants, but since a lot of people are doing that all over the net already, my article will rather concentrate on the positive points I found in both apps.
Now the ideal would be to get an ArchiCAD job! Anyone has an ArchiCAD job for me?
I've otherwise been working on a couple of own projects directly in FreeCAD, and implemented a couple of new features o the way:
This is not only mine but a real teamwork. Finally we have a simple but functional tool inside FreeCAD to install external workbenches and macros. No more need to go to the web, download and install, all this is done directly from within FreeCAD. Installing workbenches will still require you to restart FreeCAD, and it's currently still not very enjoyable to browse and explore available addons, but we're working on it.
In Revit, objects can display 3 levels of complexity: coarse, medium and fine. For each of these levels, you can define geometry that must appear or not. So for example, you can have a sink object that is made of a box and a more detailed curved geometry. Then you set the box to only appear in coarse mode, and the other geometry to appear in medium and fine.
In FreeCAD I now implemented a similar concept. It is still in test, so it might change depending on what people think of it and how it resists day-to-day use. Basically, each Arch object now has a new "Hi Res" property which is a link that can point to another object. They now also have a "Hi Res" display mode. If you set the display mode of the object to "Hi Res", and the object has its Hi Res property set, the geometry of the HiRes object is displayed, instead of its own. This happens entirely at the 3D view level, so the Arch object keeps its own shape. It only displays another. But selection still works, inside the 3D view you don't see that it's not the real shape of the Arch object.
Of course so far other tools and workbenches (TechDraw, etc) are unaware of this, and will continue to look for the objects shape. But if the system works well, it will be easy to simply use the Hi Res shape instead, if present.
So this is not Revit's (or ArchiCAD's) coarse/medium/fine system, but it seems to me that the cases where you really need three different levels are rare... And if three, why not four then. This systems seems much more flexible to me, you can basically use any shape/object (meshes too) as hi-res version of another, with all the possibilities and flexibility that this offers. And, if we need a third mode in the future, most of the work will be done already, it won't be much work to add it.
In the image above, the concrete blocks are the Hi-res version of the walls, and the wooden panels, with all their cuts, too. Check the whole file too (you will need a very recent version of FreeCAD).
There is a discussion thread about this feature on the forum, all ideas are welcome!
This system has another aim too: It paves the road for a pretty powerful external reference system we're currently thinking about (discussion thread here: Everybody used to Autodesk applications knows the X-Ref system: You have a file, and you embed it into another file. However, if you know this, you probably also know the bad side: If you embed a couple of heavy files, your "master" files becomes quickly unbearably slow. People coming from the mech engineering world, and software like Solidworks or Catia know another way: You cannot simply embed any file into any other. You need to prepare the base file somehow, either by organizing your objects inside somehow or by saving it under another file type, the methods differ.
But this could give way to an amazing idea, that Jürgen (FreeCAD's idealist and godfather) emitted several years ago already, and that is not even ours, since it has for example been implemented in Digital Project. Anyway, in the software world, as in all the culture world, nothing is really only your idea. It's always something that travels... Okay okay, the amazing idea: When embedding a file, instead of bringing the whole contents into the host file, you would only bring a lightweight version, or a "ghost" of it. In FreeCAD terms, that would mean only importing the OpenInventor representation of the objects contained in the file, which is what the 3D view of FreeCAD is made of. In other terms, you would bring only the 3D representation, not the BRep geometry.
Without the BRep geometry, you can go very far. The 3D view of FreeCAD can display several millions of polygons without problems on an average system, and keep everything pretty fluid. In the case of BIM, this could probably allow to display huge and complex buildings with all their details. All the heavy calculations would be left in the embedded file, and not be used in the host file.
But the OpenInventor representation is currently not stored in FreeCAD files (it is calculated by the engine on-the-fly). We need to find a way to store it, so another file could just load that representation, and nothing else, without the need to calculate it.
The easiest way seems to be the PartDesign way: You place all your geometry inside a "body" object, which stores a copy of the OpenInventor representation of its contents. When you load the file from somewhere else, you could just load that representation, and you would get a lightweight copy of the body contents.
Of course. that's the plan with PartDesign. But on the Arch side, we have an opportunity to do some testing quicker than there, firstly because Arch is programmed in Python, which makes it much easier to experiment, and secondly because less people are using it, so we need to be less careful, it's not such a big problem if we suddenly break something. And it happens a lot in FreeCAD, that some features are tested and tuned in Python first, and then some day become fast, rock-solid C++ features.
So that's the plan, and the Hi-Res system was a first step in playing with these concepts, now the way is open to try to play with external files too.
Do you know SketchFab? It is a platform where you can upload 3D models and view them inside a web browser, without flash or any other plugin (it uses webGL which is now built in all major browsers). SketchFab has free and paid accounts, and although the platform is not open-source, the team behind it is very friendly to open-source projects (some people behind it actually come from the Blender community). I begin to use SketchFab more and more, because it is very easy to show models and ideas to clients with it, without having to make them install software.
So this week I [coded an exporter] for it, which now lives in the Web workbench of FreeCAD. All it requires is to create an account on SketchFab, select the objects to upload, give a name and a description, and press a button. SketchFab has a pretty good built-in scene and material editor that allows you to fine-tune your model afterwards.
The exporter offers your several formats to export to, the one that works best for BIM models is the OBJ + MTL, because it will carry better materials info, but there is one mode that is particularly interesting which is the .iv (OpenInventor) mode, that literally sends to SketchFab a copy of the 3D view of FreeCAD, which gives very nice results:
So this could become a very good way to showcase your FreeCAD models to people who don't have FreeCAD.
Recently I had to work with models with a lot of non-orthogonal planes to work in. It is always when you have to eat your own dogfood that you become painfully aware of the shortcomings. Switching workplanes is very quick already, select a face, press "WP" and it's done, but there were two problems: first there is no way to set your view perpendicularly to the current working plane, which is often useful, and, if you choose one of the ortho planes (XY, XZ or YZ) very far from the model origin point, you won't see the grid.
So one thing I added is a checkbox in the "Select Plane" dialog to recenter the grid to the center of the current view. And another little utility is a macro to Align the view to the currnt working plane. If you install that macro (which is now easy with the addons manager!) and give it a keyboard shortcut, the workflow becomes very good: Select a face, press WP, then press the key you used as a shortcut for the macro, and you find yourself looking perpendicularly to your working plane. If you have the Snap to Working plane button on, then you are really working in a perfect 2D environment, like in the Sketcher.
The different Draw Styles of the FreeCAD 3D view have also received keyboard shortcuts, and Werner added two more modes. One of them, named "shadeless", gives actually very nice "hidden lines" aspect, you would almost think you're in Revit!
Don't forget you can help me spending more time working on FreeCAD, by sponsoring me on Patreon. Every dollar is a little more time I can dedicate to it!
As the tradition dictates, I put a couple of images of what I'm working on at the moment: