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What Is CAD Design? – Simply Explained

Genaro Ponce
Nov 28, 2019

CAD design is an essential tool for professionals of all kinds, but what exactly is it and why is it so important? Find out in this overview of CAD design!

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Contents
What Is CAD Design?

What Is CAD?

Ivan Sutherland using SketchPad
Ivan Sutherland using SketchPad (Source: xataka.com)

Computer-aided design (CAD) refers to computers being used to assist the design process in all sorts of industries. With CAD software, it’s possible to build an entire model in an imaginary space, letting you visualize properties like height, width, distance, material, or color before the model is used for a particular application.

It was 1962 when the computer scientist Ivan Sutherland created the first computer graphic program, known as “SketchPad”, which allowed people to write or draw simple figures directly on a screen with the help of a special pencil. This marked the start of all future CAD software.

At first, CAD was used only for research purposes, but in the 1970s, big automotive and aerospace companies started developing their own software, expanding its applications to other industries in the 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that tools like CATIA and AutoCAD were born, making it possible to be used in many professional sectors.

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What Is CAD Design?

Advantages of CAD

CAD simulations in SolidWorks
CAD simulations in SolidWorks (Source: blogs.solidworks.com)

There are several benefits of using CAD as a design and analysis tool:

  • Visualization: It allows you to create and visualize 2D or 3D objects and make as many changes as you need with less effort than drawing it on paper with a pencil.
  • Detail: Digital representation in CAD is very close to real life, making it accurate up to a certain level. You can also add as much detail as you need.
  • Optimization: Finding fails during the design process is very difficult but CAD software can help in a very reliable way, even though they are not perfect. The more sophisticated CAD programs even allow you to run simulations to test for imperfections.
  • Specialization: There’s CAD software for almost every professional sector with specialized features and tools for each one, making it widely applicable.
  • Realization: You have the possibility of bringing your digital design to the real world in the form of a physical object with the help of fabrication technologies and CAM software, which would be more difficult and expensive with traditional fabrication methods.
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What Is CAD Design?

Applications & Workflows

Product design with CAD
Product design with CAD (Source: converge.design)

Why is this technology so important for many professionals? Here are a few of the biggest professional sectors that rely on CAD:

  • Architecture: Architecture is one of the most demanding disciplines when talking about CAD; there are so many elements involved during the design of a project that one almost needs software support.
    • Example: Large design companies usually use BIM modeling software like Revit or ArchiCAD to improve productivity, but small design firms more typically combine different tools in their workflow. This is the case for architect Eric Reinholdt, for example, who runs a YouTube channel and his own studio, called 30×40 Design Workshop. He claims to use AutoCAD, SketchUp Pro, Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom for his daily work.
  • Product design: Industrial designers use CAD software not only to visualize an object but also to understand and confirm how it will function. Tools like Fusion 360, Inventor, or SolidWorks are the most commonly used.
    • Example: Grovemade is a company focused on developing high-quality wood products. They use Fusion 360 in their workflow of CAD and CAM tools, making work more efficient.
  • Graphic design: Professional graphic design also makes use of 2D or 3D CAD software to create visualizations. This kind of software lets designers add effects, typography, shapes, and backgrounds to improve their visuals.
    • Example: Matthew Encina is a designer and content creator who uses Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects as his main tools to develop branding and interactive experiences for his clients.
  • Engineering: Given the many and diverse engineering fields, the types of CAD programs used by engineers is also many and diverse. Some of the most common targets include infrastructure, buildings, circuits, telecommunications networks, thermodynamics, mechanical parts, medical devices, and manufacturing.
    • Example: In a complex project made possible thanks to BIM, the Engineering Research Center of Brown University in 2017, the architecture firm Kieran Timberlake, and the company BuroHappold Engineering coordinated design and the construction through Revit models.
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What Is CAD Design?

Manufacturing: CAD & CAM

Goliath CNC operated with CAM software
Goliath CNC operated with CAM software (Source: opendesk.cc)

As we’ve discussed, CAD is a visualizing tool that involves 2D drawings and 3D models, but how can you convert them into physical objects? Here’s where computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) comes in. CAM uses numeric control software that encodes automated instructions for a specific machine, processing the data for manufacturing methods like

CAD and CAM work better when they’re integrated because they provide more control over the design and fabrication process.

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What Is CAD Design?

Disadvantages of CAD

A handmade sketch can also be a powerful visualization tool
A handmade sketch can also be a powerful visualization tool (Source: sf.funcheap.com)

CAD has proven to be a problem solver for many professional areas, so it’s generally difficult to find drawbacks. There are, however, limitations:

  • Licensing: Higher-end tools typically come with high prices, whether subscription-based or one-time fees. The main exception to this is if they’re being used for educational purposes.
  • Time: The use of CAD or CAM takes time. Properly creating and executing designs comes with a certain amount of overhead, including the time associated with training.
  • Hardware: CAD and CAM tools often require powerful (and expensive) hardware to perform optimally.
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What Is CAD Design?

Workstations

A powerful workstation for high end creativity
A powerful workstation for high end creativity (Source: usam.in)

Hardware can vary wildly depending on the content you’re going to produce. There are three main elements that you need to be wary of in order to set up a good workstation for your CAD needs:

  • Processor: Here you’ll need to check out the number of cores and threads the processor has because some CAD tools benefit from multiple cores and others aren’t able to handle them or don’t need them.
  • Random-access memory (RAM): This is one of the elements that most CAD applications benefit from. Having sufficient RAM guarantees better performance in multi-tasking processes like rendering or working with different programs at the same time.
  • Graphics processing unit (GPU): Graphics cards are a must-have when talking about CAD, as they directly make visualization possible. When it comes to GPUs, the two biggest names are Nvidia and AMD. Once again, you’ll have to check out the software requirements to choose correctly because most graphics cards will work, and not all programs consume a lot of graphics memory.
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What Is CAD Design?

Final Thoughts

Generative design with Project Dreamcatcher
Generative design with Project Dreamcatcher (Source: Autodesk)

These days, CAD is in constant evolution, bringing updates and new features with every new version of a particular tool. And that on top of the huge range of options available for different professional use cases.

Tools are becoming more powerful by the year. Some new projects involve AI, as is the case with Autodesk’s experimental software Dreamcatcher, which is not only a visualization tool but also a generative design program that gives designers the best solution given specific parameters.

According to Andreas Vlahinos, CTO at Advanced Engineering Solutions, someday we’ll need CAD software to emulate human intelligence in order to realize some tasks, thus “smart” CAD software is potentially lying in wait in the future.

(Lead image source: santa-matt.info)

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License: The text of "What Is CAD Design? – Simply Explained" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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