Microstation 95 is the latest iteration of one of the most highly regarded CAD programs for personal computers. (Microstation supports PCs, MACs, and some UNIX machines.) Several people had recommended it to me over the last couple of years, and I had resisted trying it because it only permits a maximum of 63 layers for any model. That is not enough, and I felt that flaw was fatal.
Just before leaving for Pompeii, I changed my mind and arranged for a demonstration copy to be sent. When I returned, I tried to learn enough about the program to make an evaluation. I did not have enough time to put Microstation through its paces, but I was able to use it long enough to find some real virtues - and two fatal flaws. (The time for my trial was limited by the one-month-long evaluation license supplied with the software. Though a second month was supposedly arranged, no renewal of the license has been received yet.)
The most impressive virtues are the technical support and the working environment. An 800 number is available for support, and I found helpful technicians on the line. They even supplied email access and made it possible for me to send them a file to examine when a problem was especially difficult.
The working environment permits the user to open several windows at once, each as large as the screen permits, each with its own viewpoint, and each with its own set of layers showing. That is very helpful, permitting very intuitive work with complex models. It contrasts strongly with AutoCAD's less sophisticated and less useful windowing system, and it made working on complex three-dimensional objects much easier.
The fatal flaws, though, were truly fatal. The number of layers is an insurmountable problem. I tried to find ways to work around it but could not. Even though Microstation can read native AutoCAD files, I could not load the entire older propylon model for a test, since it has more than 63 layers. There seemed to be no mechanism for dealing with the extra layers when the file was opened; instead of offering some choices or simply putting drawing entities from many layers on one, the model, as opened in Microstation, contained only the first 63 layers. (I don't remember which 63 layers, but I think there were the first encountered alphabetically. I can't check that now, since the evaluation license has not been renewed.)
More surprising, I could not make the kinds of surfaces I often need. Specifically, I could find - with considerable help from the technical support people - no way to make surfaces without visible edges. That may seem an absurd need, but complex surfaces must often be made of several surfaces stitched together, each of them having no visible edge where it joins the others. We could find no way to do this with Microstation, and a specific problem from Pompeii, sent to the technical support staff as a sample, could not be solved.
Microstation was enjoyable to use in many ways, though I missed the ability to type commands quickly and easily. The technical support was very impressive, as was the multi-window working environment. But, in the end, it seems to be incapable of accomplishing some of our most important tasks.
For other Newsletter articles concerning the applications of CAD modelling in archaeology and architectural history consult the Subject index.
For a review of the latest AutoCAd release: AutoCAD Release 13
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