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Geometry for Modeling and Design

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Many different geometric shapes were used to model this jetboard. The wireframe view of the top cover reveals several regular geometric shapes used to model the interior components. The graceful lines of the outer hull are defined by the irregular curves used to model it. (Courtesy of Leo Greene,

Coordinates for 3D CAD Modeling

2D and 3D CAD drawing entities are stored in relationship to a Cartesian coordinate system. No matter what CAD software system you will be using, it is helpful to understand some basic similarities of coordinate systems.

Most CAD systems use the right-hand rule for coordinate systems; if you point the thumb of your right hand in the positive direction for the X-axis and your index finger in the positive direction for the Y-axis, your remaining fingers will curl in the positive direction for the Z-axis (shown in Figure 4.1). When the face of your monitor is the X-Y plane, the Z-axis is pointing toward you (see Figure 4.2).


4.1 Right-Hand Rule


4.2 The Z-Axis. In systems that use the right-hand rule, the positive Z-axis points toward you when the face of the monitor is parallel to the X-Y plane.

The right-hand rule is also used to determine the direction of rotation. For rotation using the right-hand rule, point your thumb in the positive direction along the axis of rotation. Your fingers will curl in the positive direction for the rotation, as shown in Figure 4.3.


4.3 Axis of Rotation. The curl of the fingers indicates the positive direction along the axis of rotation.

Though rare, some CAD systems use a left-hand rule. In this case, the curl of the fingers on your left hand gives you the positive direction for the Z-axis. In this case, when the face of your computer monitor is the X-Y plane, the positive direction for the Z-axis extends into your computer monitor, not toward you.

A 2D CAD system uses only the X- and Y-coordinates of the Cartesian coordinate system. 3D CAD systems use X, Y, and Z. To represent 2D in a 3D CAD system, the view is straight down the Z-axis. Figure 4.4 shows a drawing created using only the X- and Y- values, leaving the Z-coordinates set to 0, to produce a 2D drawing.


4.4 2D CAD Drawing. This drawing was created on the X-Y plane in the CAD system. It appears true shape because the viewing direction is perpendicular to the X-Y plane—straight down the Z-axis.

Recall that each orthographic view shows only two of the three coordinate directions because the view is straight down one axis. 2D CAD drawings are the same: They show only the X- and Y-coordinates because you are looking straight down the Z-axis.

When the X-Y plane is aligned with the screen in a CAD system, the Z-axis is oriented horizontally. In machining and many other applications, the Z-axis is considered to be the vertical axis. In all cases, the coordinate axes are mutually perpendicular and oriented according to the right-hand or left-hand rule. Because the view can be rotated to be straight down any axis or any other direction, understanding how to use coordinates in the model is more important than visualizing the direction of the default axes and planes.

The vertices of the 3D shape shown in Figure 4.5 are identified by their X-, Y-, and Z-coordinates. Often, it is useful when modeling parts to locate the origin of the coordinate system at the lower left of the part, as shown in Figure 4.5. This location for the (0,0,0) point on a part is useful when the part is being machined, as it then makes all coordinates on the part positive (Figure 4.6). Some older numerically-controlled machinery will not interpret a file correctly if it has negative lengths or coordinates. CAD models are often exported to other systems for manufacturing parts, so try to create them in a common and useful way.


4.5 3D Coordinates for Vertices


4.6 This CAD model for a plate with 6 holes has its origin (0,0,0) at the back left of the part when it is set up for numerically-controlled machining. (Courtesy of Matt McCune, Autopilot, Inc.)


4.7 The part is clamped in place during machining. The back left corner of the part is the 0,0,0 location during the machining process. (Courtesy of Matt McCune, Autopilot, Inc.)

Specifying Location

Even though the model is ultimately stored in a single Cartesian coordinate system, you may usually specify the location of features using other location methods as well. The most typical of these are relative, polar, cylindrical, and spherical coordinates. These coordinate formats are useful for specifying locations to define your CAD drawing geometry.

Absolute Coordinates

Absolute coordinates are used to store the locations of points in a CAD database. These coordinates specify location in terms of distance from the origin in each of the three axis directions of the Cartesian coordinate system.

Think of giving someone directions to your house (or to a house in an area where the streets are laid out in rectangular blocks). One way to describe how to get to your house would be to tell the person how many blocks over and how many blocks up it is from two main streets (and how many floors up in the building, for 3D). The two main streets are like the X- and Y-axes of the Cartesian coordinate system, with the intersection as the origin. Figure 4.8 shows how you might locate a house with this type of absolute coordinate system.


4.8 Absolute coordinates define a location in terms of distance from the origin (0,0,0), shown here as a star. These directions are useful because they do not change unless the origin changes.

Relative Coordinates

Instead of having to specify each location from the origin, you can use relative coordinates to specify a location by giving the number of units from a previous location. In other words, the location is defined relative to your previous location.

To understand relative coordinates, think about giving someone directions from his or her current position, not from two main streets. Figure 4.9 shows the same map again, but this time with the location of the house relative to the location of the person receiving directions.


4.9 Relative coordinates describe the location in terms of distance from a starting point. Relative coordinates to the same location differ according to the starting location.

Polar Coordinates

Polar coordinates are used to locate an object by giving an angle (from the X-axis) and a distance. Polar coordinates can either be absolute, giving the angle and distance from the origin, or relative, giving the angle and distance from the current location.

Picture the same situation of having to give directions. You could tell the person to walk at a specified angle from the crossing of the two main streets, and how far to walk. Figure 4.10 shows the angle and direction for the shortcut across the empty lot using absolute polar coordinates. You could also give directions as an angle and distance relative to a starting point.


4.10 Polar coordinates describe the location using an angle and distance from the origin (absolute) or starting point (relative).

Cylindrical and Spherical Coordinates

Cylindrical and spherical coordinates are similar to polar coordinates except that a 3D location is specified instead of one on a single flat plane (such as a map).

Cylindrical coordinates specify a 3D location based on a radius, angle, and distance (usually in the Z-axis direction). This gives a location as though it were on the edge of a cylinder. The radius tells how far the point is from the center (or origin); the angle is the angle from the X-axis along which the point is located; and the distance provides the height where the point is located on the cylinder. Cylindrical coordinates are similar to polar coordinates, but they add distance in the Z-direction. Figure 4.11a depicts relative cylindrical coordinates used to specify a location, where the starting point serves as the center of the cylinder.


4.11 Relative Cylindrical and Spherical Coordinates. The target points in (a) and (b) are described by relative coordinates from the starting point (3,2,0). Although the paths to the point differ, the resulting endpoint is the same.

Spherical coordinates specify a 3D location by the radius, an angle from the X-axis, and the angle from the X-Y plane. These coordinates locate a point on a sphere, where the origin of the coordinate system is at the center of the sphere. The radius gives the size of the sphere; the angle from the X-axis locates a place on the equator. The second angle gives the location from the plane of the equator to a point on the sphere in line with the location specified on the equator. Figure 4.11b depicts relative spherical coordinates, where the starting point serves as the center of the sphere.

Even though you may use these different systems to enter information into your 3D drawings, the end result is stored using one set of Cartesian coordinates.

Using Existing Geometry to Specify Location

Most CAD packages offer a means of specifying location by specifying a the relationship of a point to existing objects in the model or drawing. For example, AutoCAD’s “object snap” feature lets you enter a location by “snapping” to the endpoint of a line, the center of a circle, the intersection of two lines, and so on (Figure 4.12). Using existing geometry to locate new entities is faster than entering coordinates. This feature also allows you to capture geometric relationships between objects without calculating the exact location of a point. For example, you can snap to the midpoint of a line or the nearest point of tangency on a circle. The software calculates the exact location.


4.12 Object snaps are aids for selecting locations on existing CAD drawing geometry. (Autodesk screen shots reprinted courtesy of Autodesk, Inc.)

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