Find & Compare the Best CAD Software
Computer-aided design (CAD) is a general term for using computers to help design things, from commercial products to machines and buildings.
CAD software, in particular, are tools and apps that you can use which make the design process easier and more efficient.
There are 4 broad categories of CAD software:
Historically the oldest kind, 2D CAD software essentially consists of drawings on a flat plane that represents just the length, width and contours of the object you’re depicting.
Many of the most famous CAD tools, such as AutoCAD, come from this tradition.
They’re analogous in many ways to blueprints, which function as universal descriptors of an object that multiple designers and manufacturers can work with.
Advances in computing technology later enabled the rise of 3D CAD tools, which allowed designers to also model the depth, height and width of their materials.
In turn, this made it possible to create lifelike simulations of the desired object, appropriate for presentations to non-technical audiences.
Due to technical limitations of the time, initially only modeled basic geometric concepts such as arcs and lines, forming what are called wireframes.
These are still used today for their simplicity, but compete with more fully-featured ‘surface model’ tools.
Surface Modelling steps beyond wireframe representations by letting designers texture the exteriors of objects, giving them a more lifelike appearance and simulating how they react to light or external forces.
The final and most advanced type of CAD software is solid modelling software.
Combining the strengths of wireframe and surface modelling tools, these tools aim to model every part of the final product, both internal and external.
Designers can go so far as to mark each component’s density, dimensions and construction materials to calculate the physical characteristics of the final product on the fly.
This allows vast amounts of iterative design to be done entirely from within the bounds of the software.
Many businesses across multiple industries use CAD software. Some of them include:
CAD software sparked a revolution in the manufacturing world due to how much easier it made designing and creating interesting new products and machines.
But it’s worth taking a step back to consider its benefits in more detail, along with some of its inherent drawbacks.
A key advantage of designing things on a computer is that you don’t have to deal with the hassle of real-world materials.
You can sketch out a design without needing to worry about how you’re going to source the fabrics or metals, and you don’t have to book time in a workshop to start putting together a prototype.
Computers allow us to quickly create new designs from the comfort of our desks, with all the standard amenities they provide, like being able to easily undo mistakes or share our work with others.
On the other hand, computers aren’t perfect. Digital systems are more prone to failure than pen and paper schematics, and as technology advances, old file formats can become obsolete or unusable.
One of the greatest strengths of computers is working with numbers, and CAD systems make use of that to make producing designs more precise and accurate.
Rather than the inherent ambiguity of paper-and-pencil drawings (how thick are your lines, for instance?), you can detail materials and structures with measurements precise to fractions of a millimeter.
Beyond this, every CAD system comes with preset algorithms for identifying the start, midpoint and end of any straight line in a model, making symmetrical and interconnected illustrations much easier to create and maintain.
CAD software is inherently more powerful than traditional approaches to design. 3D modelling, for instance, lets you render photorealistic images of what your product will look like without enlisting outside artists to provide illustrations.
But a downside to this power is that these tools are often very complex for designers not used to the CAD workflow.
Even if your teams have already used CAD before, switching from one platform to another can feel like having to learn everything again from scratch.
You’ll have to judge for yourself whether the onboarding process to move your business to a new CAD tool is worth the increases in productivity and effectiveness it promises.
The digital nature of CAD tools makes it far easier than ever before for teams to work on designs together, even if they’re physically separated.
This is important, as the vast majority of changes needed in industrial engineering processes are ultimately due to miscommunication between different elements within the design team.
By harnessing the power of the internet for real-time communication, CAD tools allow physically remote teams to stay fully in the loop on what each other are doing.
Picking the right CAD tool can have a massive impact on the profit margins of a business.
The advanced features of newer apps can greatly cut down on downtime, spur efficiency and let designers work to their fullest potential.
But every CAD tool out there competes on a core few factors that you might not be aware of – what are they, and how should they inform your purchasing decision?
A factor that’s become more prominent in recent years is whether a given tool is cloud-based – which essentially means you access it through the vendor’s website, rather than installing it on your local machines.
Being based on the cloud has numerous attractive qualities, but there are also some provisos to keep in mind.
The biggest draw of cloud software for many is that it comes with no set-up or installation headaches.
You can simply email the link to the web-app to everyone on your team, and you’re ready to start working within minutes of buying your license.
But what you gain in simplicity, you lose in control and reliability.
You don’t have as much control over how cloud software is configured, which can be important in the CAD world.
Furthermore, you’re reliant on both your internet connection and the software vendor’s connection being reliable – if either go down, you’re entirely locked out of the product you paid for.
Many companies, however, are willing to take that risk due to one final advantage of cloud-based software: how well it gels with remote-working environments.
Because you don’t have to install anything, employees can work and collaborate on designs from their personal computers at home, rather than having to venture into the office.
Rather than simply making a judgement based off of the pricetag on the vendor’s website, you should conduct a full audit of what you expect your return on investment to be when picking a new tool.
In other words, its price should be weighed against the other benefits it would bring to your company.
A tool that’s more expensive upfront might have a killer feature that will allow you to design your next product twice as quickly, more than making up for its higher initial cost.
The pricing model might also differ based on whether the product is web-based or locally installed. Web apps are usually billed monthly, as a service, whereas traditional software is typically bought outright.
The cloud model is often more appealing to companies as it’s cheaper in the short time and helps avoid vendor lock-in – if you decide it’s not for you a month in, you’ve only spent a few dozen dollars at most, not thousands.
If you’re in manufacturing, it’s very likely that you’ll be interacting with other companies who use CAD software different from your own.
You’ll need to be able to work with the designs given to you by suppliers and clients, and CAD interoperability is what facilitates this.
While there are industry-standard file formats in specific areas of CAD, such as 3D design, you shouldn’t assume that this means every design in a format your software supports will work.
Open formats, like IGES and STEP, mean that it’s easy for software developers to create files which are compatible on the surface but don’t work well with other programs in reality.
When you’re looking to pick up a new CAD software tool, you should conduct practical, hands-on tests to make sure it can integrate into your existing workflow and intelligently handle the kinds of files your business partners are using.
Manufacturer guidelines are a good starting point, but they shouldn’t be your stopping point, either.
Because computer-aided design is inherently complicated, it’s worth looking for programs with online documentation and tutorials that aim to make the onboarding process easier for you and your staff.
This is especially true if you’re looking at 3D CAD solutions, as these programs tend to be more complicated than their 2D counterparts.
Something else to consider is that many CAD tools are taught as a matter of course in university design courses, meaning that a large portion of the local workforce will already be familiar with them.
It’s usually a good idea to check the syllabus for local educational institutes to see what programs your next generation of employees will be familiar with.
But in the short-term, you should also check if the program you’re interested in has a strong, active online community.
It can be crippling to a production workflow if your CAD software runs into an error of some kind and there’s no forums or message boards where you can get advice. Use our comparison function on this page to find the best CAD software for you.
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