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Alto Revit!
Alto: Although the word Alto is associated with music, it is Spanish for Tall. The Latin word Altus means high or deep.
This is the article I originally posted at in Sept. 19, 2011.
After the two 3Dconnexion reviews I wrote a while back, I decided to put the SpacePilot PRO (SPP) to another test in my latest ambitious project, the Alto Saxophone. This time, I wanted to find out how it would fare in a family with multitudes of complex shapes. So for the benefit of Revit 2012 users, here is my latest update on this amazing 3D device...and the alto saxophone!
Please note that Autodesk just recently supported 3Ddevices from 3Dconnexion with the 2012 release of their products. They will not work in the older versions of Revit.
This project took me three weekends to complete. This translates to five working days if I had to do it in a regular office environment. Before I got started, I researched everything there is to know about the alto saxophone, including its construction and the famous musicians who used it. I’ve always been intrigued by its breathtaking complex shape. And so for my birthday last month, I bought myself an alto saxophone! My intentions were to learn how to play it and create a Revit saxophone family. After several practice sessions, I took the neck attachment piece and began to model it. This part is called the Crook and it is the bent piece of metal where the mouthpiece is attached to. The crook alone is a fairly complex shape because of the Octave assembly. It took me about a couple of hours to finish the general shape. Later on, I went back to it after finding out a solution on how to model the swooping metal piece around the base. Figure 1 shows the final modeled part in Realistic visual style.
Figure 1

Inspired by the outcome, I began modeling one part at a time after my regular working hours. To make a long story short, I spent the next three weekends modeling the obvious parts that can be seen by the eye.
Creating a complex family such as the Alto Saxophone family
To explain how I modeled this wonderful instrument will be difficult in this article. Instead, let me give you a few pointers on how to go about creating this type of complex family. They're general principles and procedures I apply to all the families I create:
  1. For beginners and intermediate users, you have to know your modeling tools. Learn how the Form tools work. Read Revit books, blogs and articles. Experiment. This might be hard to do in an office environment so your best bet is to do it at home. If you can't afford to buy Revit, get the 30-day free trial copy. After 30 days, you can still use the program but you won't be able to save and print. That's fine. Get a screen capture utility program to document your progress. Start out modeling simple objects such as tables and chairs. Start a file and fill them with notes on modeling procedures, methodologies and strategies. Collect families. Study how they are created. There are sites where you can download families for free such as RevitCity and Autodesk Seek. Ask questions. Your best friend is the Revit guru in your firm or an experienced user.
  2. A lot of complex families look extremely difficult to model because of their general shape and the parts attach to them. However, if you take each part and model them separately, you'll find that they're not that difficult to create. In the case of the alto saxophone, its overall shape is very intimidating. But looking closely at the parts, most can be created with solid extrusions, swept blends and revolves combined with voids. In this type of family, I wasn't after an exact replica but rather, an accurate simulation. For some parts that I had difficulty with, I improvised by creating families nested to each other and again nested to another. You just have to be creative with the family editor tools as they have some limitations.
  3. Study and master Revit work planes. The alto saxophone family contains a lot of work planes. Take advantage of the Orient to View and Orient to a Plane>Pick a Plane methods from the ViewCube.
  4. Open multiple views and create new ones with the section tool. Use the Work Plane viewer (Home>Work Plane>Viewer). In some occasions, I stretched Revit across my two 24" monitors so I can have as much as eight to ten windows open at the same time.
  5. Do an extensive research of the object you want to model: The internet is your most valuable resource. Get hold of cut sheets, dimensions and photos. Learn its manufacturing process. Communicate with the manufacturer and ask for brochures and catalogs. Some companies post youtube videos of their product manufacturing process. Watch them. If possible, get hold of a similar or actual object you want to replicate or base your design from.
  6. Nest families. The alto saxophone would have been extremely difficult to model without nested families. There are many nested families on this model. Most of them are face-based. Some contained voids that automatically cut holes on the saxophone. Some contained other nested families.
  7. Make use of parameters. The alto saxophone family contains rods with various lengths and distances from the surface of the body. I created a simple face based parametric family where I was able to control their lengths and distances.
The SpacePilot Pro (SPP)
The alto saxophone was so much easier to visualize with the SpacePilot Pro. I was able to navigate to every part of my model with just a push, pull or twirl of the controller cap. My sight and concentration was fixed on the model as I was rotating the SPP and trying to figure out modeling solutions and strategies.
The SpacePilot Pro's programmable keys
In the first weekend I spent creating this family, I paid close attention to how I draw the profiles in Sketch mode. Based on this observations, I reconfigured the programmable keys again for a smoother work flow. Here is my latest configuration (see fig. 2):

Figure 2 
I basically retained most of the configurations I showed in my previous article. However, I added a Delete button and located it at the upper right of the controller cap, next to an Undo key. This way, it's still within reach of the thumb and can't get accidentally pressed. The drawing tools are still on the left cluster while the modifiers are on the right cluster. Since I was using the ViewCube's Orient to a Plane>Pick a plane command a lot, I added a Set Work Plane shortcut and assigned it to the Menu key. I also added the Move and Slice commands on the upper right keys. The small screen is a great feature that I took advantage of by setting it to display my keys configuration. By my estimate, I cut my modeling time by about 25% with the use of the programmable keys.
Keyboard, Mouse and SpacePilot Pro Location
The main obstacles I had to overcome in using the SPP are my previous work habits. I still had the tendency to use the keyboard to type commands such as TR (for trim) instead of the one-button key from the SPP. To overcome this problem, I rearranged my desk layout. Here's what I ended up doing: I placed the SPP closer to the middle of the keyboard shelf and moved the keyboard on the upper part of my desk (see fig. 3)!

Figure 3
This made the SPP feel more natural to use. I still had to reach out for the keyboard to type other shortcuts. You can only program so much one-key commands on the SPP. Also, if you noticed, there is a yellow material on the key assigned to Esc_Twice (see fig. 4).

Figure 4
It's a little piece of paper from a post-it note that I taped to it. It helps a lot when I'm concentrating on my work. I can clearly see it in my peripheral vision while looking at the screen. Getting to the right keys is so much easier. It also delineates the Option keys from the draw tools.
Revit Walkthroughs and 3D devices
We all know the value of walkthroughs in client presentations. Revit's walkthrough feature is great for creating movies. Although rendering times can take hours (visual style set to Rendering), the final product is very compelling. A 3D device, however, can be a great time saver as another form of presentation. You can use it to navigate a project in live presentations. In situations when you have to send your clients some updates, you can create a quick walkthrough incorporating any of Revit's visual style. All you have to do is use a 3D device to navigate a project and record it with a screen capture program. The time involved is very minimal. There are no rendering times. The recorded movie can further be embellished with transitions and callouts. The final movie can then be:
  • emailed to your client
  • uploaded in a site where it can be downloaded
  • posted on YouTube for private or public viewing
In the following clip, the time it took to generate the walkthrough with the SPP is the length of the movie itself (four and a half minutes). Editing and adding the notes and transitions took another half hour. So in about an hour, you have a decent walkthrough you can use to convey design iterations.
Finally, here's a rendered walkthrough of my alto saxophone family.
Take it from me, creating complex objects will make you a good overall modeler! In late 2009, I had a four-month stint working for a company that incorporated Integrated Project Delivery system into their workflow. I was seated beside talented Revit modelers who were using Revit Structure and Revit MEP. Together, we modeled a very complex casino addition. This project consisted of complex archways, cornices, balustrades, ceilings, walkways, walls and other complex architectural elements. Most of them were created as families. Guess what? It was a breeze for me to create them compared to some of the custom families I create. If you shrink any of these architectural elements to the size of, say for example: a can opener family, the kitchen appliance is actually more difficult to model (see fig. 5).

Figure 5
The SpacePilot Pro (or any other 3Dconnexion device) is here to stay. I might be repeating the comments of some other users, but really, I just can't imagine modeling without it. 3Dconnexion has their hands full as to its development. There are so many exciting design possibilities with their products. Check out their Facebook site and see what other users have come up with  in terms of 3D device design.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article.
Disclaimer: I am not connected with 3Dconnexion. I wasn't asked to write this article nor was I compensated for it.