Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Free Open Source Software for Mechanical Engineering Students, Researchers & Professionals

Looking at the AICTE's list of Open Source alternatives to commercial s/w for Engineering students, and also at the chaos going on in this respect in several engineering campuses, I present here, based on my own experiences, a list of open source solutions for such learning and research situations, in particular, and also for industries.

As I have understood it, the basic set of ideas leading myself and several of my colleagues (for example, at IIT-B, University of Alaska Fairbanks, MIT, 2nd one from MIT, Virginia Tech, Harvard, London School of Economics, Sports Biomechanics Lab at UCDavis, San Francisco State University, The University of Utah, The California Institute of Technology (Caltech)) to the use of such software, since past about 20 years, are as follows:

1. Since there is perpetual shortage of funds, these free alternatives become the natural choice and a natural refuge for students, researchers as well as for professionals. In the Indian education scenario, it was surprising a few years back and is painful, even now, to see students taking bank loans to fund their education. Really tragic and painful stories are being now found in the media.

2. From the social perspective of a researcher and a s/w writer, I find it difficult to accept that such s/w should remain captive under the contemporary fund-owners. Each of such s/w is fundamentally a magnificent storehouse of knowledge and experiences of countless man/woman-hours of countless dedicated researchers, professionals etc.

3. In this discussion, the English word "generic" is very important. As per dictionaries, the word-meaning of "generic" is:

a: characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things; not specific:

b: of or relating to a whole group or class, not sold or made under a particular brand name

Obviously, the second word-meaning above is simply amazing! There is a concept of generic software, very much like generic medicine.  Thus, for example, for the generic 3D mechanical modeling s/w like Creo, Solidworks, Catia etc., there is the powerful open source alternative in the form of FreeCAD. It was really wonderful to find that the steps (like 2d drawing, pocketing, extruding etc.) encountered while undergoing a training on a commercial 3D modeling s/w, were found almost the same  in the online documentation/tutorial of FreeCAD.

Moreover, for a particular generic category of s/w, one may find different industrial entities using different commercial s/w, not much unlike different doctors prescribing from different brands for the same "generic medicine".

4. Particularly in the education institutes and universities, the objective is to impart the student the basic understanding of the s/w in a particular "generic" category. For this objective, the open source alternatives should be the natural choice, keeping in mind a comprehensive view of the situation. Also, it may again be emphasized that almost all of these s/w are widely used in research as well as industrial situations.

 The list (not complete, indeed):

1. Operating System: Linux, in the form of its several distributions. The most commonly used distributions being - Debian, Ubuntu and Fedora. For further motivation, see: 1 & 2.

2.  Office s/w: LibreOffice. No probs at all!!

3. C/C++: Most of the engineering students begin their coding experience with learning C/C++ on the blue TurboC/C++ ide which itself is known to be freely downloadable. However, the open source alternative gcc (used with vim and gnu make) provides a universe of advantages in terms of industry-readiness, comprehensive documentation etc. Still, if one wants to use the the blue TurboC/C++ ide, it is easily installable on Linux.

4. Painting, simple line-diagrams and 2D drafting: xfig.

5. AutoCAD: AutoCAD itself has been freely downloadable and installable via AICTE support since about 5 years. Moreover, there is DraftSight from Dassault systems.

6.3D modeling: As already discussed above, in the context of mechanical engineering, this is the most important case of free and open source alternative in the form of FreeCAD (ref.: University of Alaska Fairbanks, MIT, 2nd one from MIT, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Sports Biomechanics Lab at UCDavis, San Francisco State University, The University of Utah, The California Institute of Technology (Caltech)) which must be used in place of commercial alternatives.

7. Matlab: Octave is the Linux-community  solution I have myself been using since past several years. Scilab is another alternative, very strongly being advocated, for example, by academia from IIT Bombay.

8. CAM: "LinuxCNC controls CNC machines. It can drive milling machines, lathes, 3d printers, laser cutters, plasma cutters, robot arms, hexapods, and more."

In conclusion, with increasing laptop population (each laptop costing less than 10% of the expenditure on a typical engineering/technology UG degree (BTech/BE)), the best alternative to mechanical CAD and/or simulation labs would be to encourage students to bring to class their own laptops loaded with s/w solutions listed above, and/or, may be, the student versions of the commercial software.

The shortcomings found in these open source s/w, if any, should be removed by collaborative contributions from academia, governments etc. Indeed, this has already been happening since past several years.

Please do contact/comment for your suggestions, clarifications etc.

No comments:

Post a Comment