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Auto-trol's Tech Illustrator First of Its Type To Become NT Native

Technical 3D illustrations demonstrate how physical products look in a manner that is more comprehensible than the usual CAD model displays, or images produced from general purpose graphic design applications. These illustrations are primarily used for the technical documentation of complex products such as electronics, aircraft, jet engines, and automobiles. This documentation, in printed and electronic forms, includes part catalogues and "how to" instructions for areas such as manufacturing, testing, troubleshooting, installation, maintenance, and product training.

This work is typically performed by trained technical illustrators instead of drafters or graphic designers. Programs specifically tailored to illustrators have been available for well over a decade. The high-end technical illustration application market is much smaller than the CAD or graphic arts market, and there have only been two competing vendors whose products have traditionally only been available on the various UNIX platforms.

One of those vendors, Auto-trol Technology recently released native Windows NT versions of its venerable Tech Illustrator Plus (TI+) and Tech Illustrator Express (TIx) software applications. These NT versions are bi-directionally compatible with the latest UNLK versions for HP and Sun (Solaris). InterCAP Graphics is the other vendor and while its Illustrator 2 and QuikEdit programs are available on more UNIX platforms (HP, Sun, IBM and DEC) they are not available on Windows.

Some companies have managed to produce technical illustrations quite well using Windows-based CAD programs such as AutoCAD and CADKEY. However, this does not always work, especially with high-end CAD software that is UNIX-based.

According to one Auto-trol customer we spoke with in the automotive field, "Some automobile manufacturers have tried with little success to use existing CAD/CAM systems for illustrations. Success is limited and the textual graphic merge for documentation is not cost effective."

Among the top items TI users cited to us as compelling reasons to use TI were major file converters, standard typefaces, compliance with industry delivery standards such as ATA and CALS, and a friendly user interface that can be customized for the Pluls version. These customers still used a slew of other software packages including Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, CorelDraw, ArborText (an SGML tool), Visio, AutoCAD, and InterCAP QuikEdit (which was cited several times for offering great drawing tools).

Technical Illustration Workflow

Jeff Kumm, the product manager for Tech Illustrator provided the following list as a typical work flow for a technical illustrator:
  1. Receive job assignment
  2. Allocate reference data (if applicable - 3D design data, existing hard copy or digital art hard copy of digital engineering multiviews, photos, line art scans, text galleys, etc.). This step often requires research on the part of the illustrator, together with data conversion (e.g., IGES, DXF, CGM, TIFF, G4)
  3. Create artwork - either from scratch - or utilizing acquired illustration reference data.
  4. Submit to checker (electronic or harrd copy review)
  5. Revise art to pick-up checkers marks - resubmit
  6. Upon approval, convert art to required downstream publishing format (EPS, CGM, etc.)
  7. Check in approved art.

According to Kumm, "Illustration assignments vary greatly, ranging from simple schematics and orthogonal diagrams to complex explosions and assembly views depicted in either axonometric (isometric, diametric, or trimetric views) or multi-point perspective."

Let's take a closer look at the third step, create artwork. CAD parts are often imported as IGES format files. Some CAD geometry may be deleted to better match how the part would really look. The imported parts are then "masked" which essentially makes them separate entities from each other so that when one covers another you don't see the portion of tile bottom entity that would be blocked from view in real life (it's the kind of feature you would expect). Parts are then mated to form the desired assembly. The appearance is then accentuated by adding thin and thick lines, shadows and stippling (graduated dot patterns to simulate depth). Accompanying text is often added at this stage as well using TI.

History and Current Status of TI Offerings

The genesis of what became TI, ATIPS, began in 1977 on the Sperry-Univac minicomputer, and was subsequently ported to the UNIX-like Apollo workstations in 1982. In 1985 Tech Illustrator was formally introduced into the UNIX market where it had gone through 10 releases with a proprietary, menu-based interface. TI was available as a high-end product (TI+) and as a mid-range product (TIx), and there were multiple versions of each that differed by capability. The multiple versions of both products were consolidated into single versions for each that include both raster and vector capabilities.

In mid-April 1998, Auto-trol began shipping Tech Illustrator 11.0 for NT whose interface is very toolbar centric compared to the menu centric arrangement of the UNIX version. The mid-range TIx NT is sold on a client/server model. The first purchase includes the server software, one client or user license, file converters, and license management. Additional clients are available. Seventy-five copies have been sold since its release, in terms of price TI Express is comparable to InterCAP's Quik Edit and it is arguably a more user friendly and robust application according to one company that uses both programs

TI Plus 11.0 for NT and TI Plus 10.0 for UNIX are both sold as standalone applications. TI Plus offers more powerful features and some additional functionality such as a stronger text editor, 3D tools, toolbar customization and an API. While Express does not permit user interface changes or the creation of macros, it can use macros created in TI Plus. Both offer respectable import/export filters along with rendering and annotation tools.

There are over 700 UNIX seats of TI that are currently on maintenance agreements. Auto-trol plans on migrating many existing UNIX customers to the new NT version. Even so, a port of TI 11.0 to UNIX is being considered along with a client/server version of TI Plus.

Training classes are provided at Auto-trol's headquarters in Denver and at customer locations. TI User's Reference for both NT versions is provided in the PDF format. A self-paced tutorial is expected to ship in mid-July for TI Express NT, and a PDF version of this tutorial will be included with both applications upon availability later this summer.

Auto-trol claims that its TI sales are split evenly between existing customers and new customers which is an impressively high number for new sales. TI is sold directly in the U.S. and by resellers in Japan (Nissho Electronics) and Scandinavia (Metimur).

Auto-trol believes the technical publishing market is a sensible area for enterprise document management systems such as their own KONFIG® CM (formally CENTRA 2000®) system. The company noted that while companies have such systems in place for their engineering departments they often are not extended into the publishing side of companies.

Reprinted from Engineering Automation Report, July 1998, Volume Seven, Issue Seven.
© 1998 Technology Automation Services.

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