What is CAD (Computer-Aided Design)?

Emily Engle April 27, 2021 5 min read

What is CAD, anyways? How can it improve your workflow? Find out in this complete guide to computer-aided design—from its history to what’s next.

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Designing a tech-enabled product with Autodesk’s Fusion 360.

The days of drafting with pencil, paper, and protractors are winding down as most engineers, PCB designers, and architects become experts at using CAD (computer-aided design) software. CAD is software specifically created to help draft documentation, visualize 2D or 3D design concepts using photorealistic renderings, simulate real-world functionality, and export CAD data to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software. 

Working in CAD Software

CAD centralizes product design into an automated 3D environment. Any engineering design usually starts in CAD. Whether it’s a PCB (printed circuit board) for a gaming console or an automotive application like a custom roll cage for a Corvette, CAD is the ideal all-in-one 3d modeling environment. CAD incorporates a single-sourced library and cloud-based data management to facilitate easy access to saved schematics, schematic symbols, 2D drawings, 2D footprints, and 3D models.

Once a CAD model is completed, the CAD file can then be loaded into CAM software. Autodesk’s Fusion 360 integrates CAD and CAM into one friendly and accessible environment.

In CAD, engineers can choose from preloaded models like doors and windows or start from scratch by utilizing fill-in parameters. 

CAD Software Advantages

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Innovators have continued to improve CAD software over several decades, and it continues to improve today, but what are the advantages of using computer-aided design software?

CAD programs provide several advantages over traditional drafting techniques, such as:

CAD Development History at a Glance

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It’s hard to imagine how many innovations and advancements were needed to arrive at present-day computer-aided design technology. CAD development can be traced back to the earliest drafting innovations like blueprinting, which employed perhaps the original “copy and paste” technical documentation process. About 120 years later, the first true origin of CAD came about when General Motors (GM) and IBM created DAC-1 a year after Ivan Sutherland invented Sketchpad. 

CAD Timeline

1842: Blueprinting

Blueprinting is still widely used in various applications, but the original blueprint became obsolete primarily in the 1950s. In 1842, John Herschel—astronomer, photographer, and chemist—created the cyanotype process of blueprinting. This process occurred by drawing on semi-transparent paper over another sheet of paper and applying a photosensitive potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate mixture. The drawing was then exposed to light, turning the exposed paper blue and leaving the drawing lines white.

Blueprinting was one of the first innovations to streamline the design process and contributed significantly to the second industrial revolution. Such innovations were designed to create cheaper and easier ways to accomplish tasks. 

1936-37: The Turing Machine

Since the introduction of blueprinting, there have been numerous innovations, but none more important than the creation and advancement of computers. In 1936, Alan Turing described what would later be dubbed the “Turing Machine,” which are computational machines intended to analyze the limitations of what can be computed and were designed to process real numbers. 

1943: ENIAC

A collaborative effort between the US Army and the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering brought about the first general-purpose computer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), designed to calculate artillery projectile ballistics. 

1953: Early CNC Machines

Early Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines were considerably different from modern CNC machines. Instead of an electronic display, they utilized numerical control and a cutting tool of some variety.

1963: Sketchpad and DAC-1

A decade later, Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, which incorporated an innovative graphical user interface. Sketchpad allowed for more accessible human/computer interactions using icons. GM and IBM collaborated to create DAC-1 (Design Augmented by Computer), which was used for about a decade before being replaced with a newer version.

1964: First Commercial CAD Systems

Not long after Sketchpad, the earliest commercial CAD systems, like DAC-1, were made available to GM, IBM, and aerospace corporations.

1971: ADAM

Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty of Manufacturing and Consulting Services (MCS) created a system called Automated Drafting and Machining (ADAM). It’s worth noting that this 3D CAD program was introduced in the ‘70s but wasn’t incorporated into the commercial industry.

The 1980s: Desktops and 2D AutoCAD

Desktops were produced for the general public, and Autodesk’s AutoCAD was a significant advancement for the decade.

The 1990s: Solidworks Introduced

Solidworks helped usher in gradual improvements to 3D CAD. 

The 2000s: Platform Availability and CAD/CAM Integration with Fusion 360

New platforms require new integration, as has been the case for the last 20 years. Autodesk’s integrated, cloud-based CAD/CAM software, Fusion 360, was created for many applications—from industrial design to PCB design. Today, Fusion 360 is spearheading the effort to make the design process quick, easy, and affordable.

The Future of CAD Software

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Edera Safety used generative design in Fusion 360 to create a better and more efficient back protector. Image courtesy of Edera

As CAD software continues to develop, more advancements and tools will become available to designers. Here at Fusion 360, we’re always working on giving our community access to the “what’s next” of design, including:

Stay tuned as we release exciting Fusion 360 updates each month.

Integrating CAD and CAM into product development workflows can help streamline the design process and provide high cost and time savings. With Autodesk’s Fusion 360, seamless collaboration is right at your fingertips. Try Fusion 360 today for the ultimate integrated platform.

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