AutoCAD Is Still the Champ
Roopinder Tara posted on April 27, 2017 |

Our office is swarmed daily with new product news, gee-whiz technology, and each and every “paradigm shift.” In the midst of it all, I was surprised to get an invitation to the launch of AutoCAD 2018.

“AutoCAD—is that still around?” asked one of our editors.

It seems as though it never went away. Rumors of AutoCAD’s demise, helped by the rise of Inventor or Fusion 360 on the mechanical side and Revit on the BIM side, were … well, just rumors.

“We still have millions of users,” assured Rob Maguire, director of Autodesk’s AutoCAD product line.

Maguire has gathered a handful of “influencers,” aka social media wonks, power users and select old media, to Autodesk’s San Francisco office to see that the patient is not only alive and well, but is being improved. (Read more about the product improvements in our previous report.)

Figure 1. Not only is AutoCAD important to Autodesk, but AutoCAD technology is also vital to other Autodesk products, says Rob Maguire, director of the AutoCAD product line.

Figure 1. Not only is AutoCAD important to Autodesk, but AutoCAD technology is also vital to other Autodesk products, says Rob Maguire, director of the AutoCAD product line.  

The dozen or so of us gathered in Autodesk’s office. We wondered when we had last seen each other. It was definitely before we started being called “influencers.” We recount the days when an AutoCAD release was Autodesk’s biggest news—highly anticipated, occurring 18 months or 2 years, max. A major release was trumpeted months in advance by a PR staff, with a wave of information going out to the press and bloggers. The CAD world would wait with bated breath for our reports. That is what we liked to think. In the last couple of years, major releases of Autodesk software have not even warranted a press release. If we were lucky, we heard about it, someone at Autodesk wrote about it on a blog post.

As much as a “big R” (release) gave us news to report, it was not always a welcome event for users. Change, even when made for the good, can be hard. Maguire addressed this.

“We’re changing the way we release products,” said Maguire. “We strive for painless upgrades, migrate customer settings by detecting what customers already have in place. We can do it painlessly and then tell the customers what has changed, so they are aware.”

Maguire told us that despite the volume being turned down on what was once Autodesk’s flagship product, the AutoCAD team has always been busy. The newer products get more of the marketing dollars, he said. They need it. Good old AutoCAD is a known quantity, more or less.

Figure 2. The user interface was scaled and icons were updated in AutoCAD 2017 for 4K displays. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Figure 2. The user interface was scaled and icons were updated in AutoCAD 2017 for 4K displays. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

But everything needs to change with the times, and AutoCAD will not rest on its laurels, said Maguire. The AutoCAD team has revamped the graphics engine with AutoCAD 2018. For example: the new 4K monitors require a graphic revision of the software or the icons and text render unusably small on a high-resolution screen. While there are more pixels to contend with in a 4K monitor (3840 pixels × 2160), AutoCAD 2018’s 4K monitor support reduces the need for anti-aliasing and the corresponding graphics processing.

Disappearing is the need to regenerate curves after zooming in because the display shows them as faceted. Curves are more likely to be displayed based on their pure mathematical definition, which is always smooth.

A dashed line is shown as a straight line on which a mask is overlaid, making it appear dashed. This is much easier than sending instructions for 18 separate lines, said Maguire.

Figure 3. AutoCAD 2018’s SHX recognition tool analyzes clusters of geometry (i.e., lines, polylines, etc.) from a selection set to help you locate the correct font.
Figure 3. AutoCAD 2018’s SHX recognition tool analyzes clusters of geometry (i.e., lines, polylines, etc.) from a selection set to help you locate the correct font.

CAD drawings and PDFs can contain quite a bit of text. Reading in a PDF often means having to interpret text with optical character recognition (OCR), which does its best to convert graphics into text. If OCR is unable to recognize text as text, it means that CAD programs will store letters as collections of lines, arcs and polylines. For example: A lowercase “a” will become hundreds of little line segments rather than a single ASCI character. Even if AutoCAD does recognize it as text, the software may have had a hard time mapping to the right font, guessing incorrectly or substituting a font that is not even close to the correct one. AutoCAD 2018 promises to do much better in this regard, giving the user a choice of what fonts to pick if the software can’t identify it. 

Figure 4. In AutoCAD 2018, the selection window stays with you when you pan and zoom.
Figure 4. In AutoCAD 2018, the selection window stays with you when you pan and zoom.

In what may become its most loved improvement, the selection of components will no longer be interrupted by zooming and panning around. In AutoCAD 2018, the selection window persists as the screen moves over the geometry.

AutoCAD Is Almost 35

When AutoCAD debuted 35 years ago, it was of little concern to Maguire, who was then in first grade. In that span of time, the programmers have been quite busy. Maguire inherited what may be the oldest and biggest mess of code behind any CAD application. Autodesk counts 14 million lines of code in the latest AutoCAD version, an amalgam of old code (part of the code from the original release still works, they say) that grows with the code that is added with every new release. It’s “bloatware,” said Steve Johnson, an Autodesk critic, who chafes at the 2.7 GB of files he had to download before he could draw a single line.

Maguire, 40, graciously defers to the old timers, who have launched into a litany of “I knew AutoCAD since…” it contained “two floppy disks,” “tablet and puck,” “DOS” and other fond remembrances.

The venerable AutoCAD has undergone quite a transformation in its time. Like the transition from DOS to Windows, AutoCAD also went full 3D years ago—a fact that still escapes many of its users, who remain content to use only its 2D functions.

“Hey, 2D is sufficient for many tasks,” said Maguire, rising to their defense. There’s no shaming of 2D users on his watch. “2D is great for schematics, sheet metal…” Maguire said. “I bet there’s still a tremendous number of floor plans made in 2D by architects who may not want to admit it.”

Figure 5. Point clouds? Yeah, we do that, says Rob Maguire, product manager of AutoCAD. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Figure 5. Point clouds? Yeah, we do that, says Rob Maguire, product manager of AutoCAD. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

AutoCAD’s handling of point clouds is second to none of the company’s products, said Maguire, proud that his 35-year-old product can handle gee-whiz technology that most have heard about only in this century.

Still, he concedes that AutoCAD’s greatest use is in 2D. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Not only is making AutoCAD a big project, so is testing it. Getting a general-purpose workhorse to perform in all the situations it encounters is simulated with 85,000 test cases before its release. This is after an ambitious, months-long, multiuser beta testing.


About Maguire

Maguire is a mechanical engineer by education, with a BSME from University of California, Berkeley. He has added an MBA from Boston University. He most recently joined Autodesk in 2008, but first started with Autodesk in 2000 as a test engineer.







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