Bentley Systems' new product is not your average CAD program. It is made up of several applications and has been written in Java, programming language of the Internet. But how will these changes affect the user?
MicroStation J is the latest product from Bentley Systems. Rather than a single piece of software, it is an umbrella package encompassing several products aimed at construction and manufacturing customers. As such, it represents a shift away from the policy of selling a base platform, such as previous versions of MicroStation, and then selling add-ons, such as Terrain modelling software or the TriForma CAD package.

MicroStation J is no longer built around MDL – MicroStation Development Language. Instead, it is based on Java, the programming language closely associated with the Internet. In the future, this will allow third parties to develop their own applications to link with MicroStation, or allow Java applets to be downloaded from the web.

MicroStation J includes the TriForma J package for architects, Digital Terrain software for civils specialists and the geographical information system GeoGraphics. There is also a CAM package for manufacturers and a program for process plant design. Users can switch a single licence between applications by simply copying the licence code into the new application with no additional charge. But anyone wishing to work on two applications simultaneously must buy an additional licence, costing £500.

Installation is from a CD and takes no time at all. But beware – it no longer loads into the Win32app directory. The software establishes a new root directory called Bentley, under which the program directories are installed. Therefore, users of previous versions of MicroStation will have to re-path their seed files and project-specific data. Installation does not overwrite your existing version, so this will need to be removed separately.

Despite the radical change to the programming environment, the visible differences between MicroStation J and MicroStation 95 or SE are not that great. Existing MicroStation users can switch to J without retraining, and J is compatible with previous versions. The only significant changes are improvements to 3D modelling through the introduction of Bentley's "Parasolid" solid modelling, which enables users to design freeform and complex shapes.

J is for Java

MicroStation J's main innovation is the use of the Java development environment. As well as providing an operating platform for software developers, Java enables a shift from traditional drafting tools, such as lines and arcs, towards using intelligent objects to build a central model from which drawings are generated. An intelligent object is a drawing of a component, such as a window or a door, that can be sized to meet specifications and regulations, so if the height or thickness of a wall changes, the window or door will update automatically.

However, anyone hoping to boot up MicroStation J and start designing with Java intelligent objects will be disappointed. So far, no object libraries have been created using Java script. But the theory is that, in future, a window manufacturer will use Bentley's version of the Java language – JMDL – to develop its range of windows. It would be published on the Internet and consultants would download the required window frame directly to MicroStation. This window frame would include plan, section, elevation and 3D graphics, and would know how to represent itself graphically at different scales and how to interact with the wall into which it is inserted. So, in principle, a user would only have to place it once throughout a project.

However, product manufacturers may be wary of committing themselves to Java unless Bentley's main rival, Autodesk – creator of AutoCAD software and a very influential player in the architectural field – announces its intention to use Java objects.

In the short term, using Java or any other language to generate objects means, unless you are an experienced programmer, you cannot create an intelligent object. I would like to see the introduction of a Java graphical editor that enables the user to create generic objects using simple point-and-click techniques as in TriForma.

Especially for architects

Architectural program TriForma offers an integrated approach to design and drawing production. It enables users to design in 3D, then extract plans, sections and elevations from the 3D model. TriForma has a tool to calculate sections, where the user defines a section plane, then TriForma calculates the true section and removes the hidden lines.

The section is attached to a reference file where text symbols or other information can be added. Each time the 3D model is revised, the changes are automatically reflected in the section. To highlight changes in the section, TriForma appends an additional file to the section reference file, which shows only the changed elements denoted by a red outline. TriForma contains parametric libraries, including doors, windows, walls and structural components. These, I suspect, will eventually become Java objects. A graphical editor allows the user to create parametric objects, where, within certain constraints, you can define your own variable objects.

Future additions

A key component of MicroStation J has yet to be added. ProjectBank is still at the test stage and should be available by the middle of the year. It is a central project database where all the building files are held. But each file is also an intelligent object – it knows how it fits into the overall project model. A drawing is extracted from the project bank and any changes made to it automatically update the central model. It also means that drawings can be worked on simultaneously by different operators. ProjectBank will at first only support MicroStation's native DGN format, but by the end of this year, it will also support Autodesk's DWG format.

The industry's holy grail has long been communication and data transfer between disparate systems, such as AutoCAD and MicroStation. This would be the precursor to a central project model and an integrated approach to construction. It is virtually impossible to change company IT preferences, and, in almost every case, there will be various CAD systems on a project. With ProjectBank, Bentley has opened up its systems to inter-operability. Let's hope that other CAD developers do the same to achieve this goal.

The lowdown

Pros Roaming licence Parametric objects Solid modelling Compatible with all Bentley applications ProjectBank: due mid-1999 for DGN. DGW will be added by the end of 1999 Cons No Java graphical editor No Java object libraries yet available Costs MicroStation J costs £4250 for new users Upgrade costs £1200 Subscribers to Bentley’s Select support programme will be charged £550 Charges for ProjectBank to be decided