Computer-aided design/History, Present and Future

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The beginnings of CAD can be traced to the year 1957, when Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty developed PRONTO, the first commercial numerical-control programming system. In 1960, Ivan Sutherland MIT's Lincoln Laboratory created SKETCHPAD, which demonstrated the basic principles and feasibility of computer technical drawing. Some people debate which one of these people truly created the first CAD system due to Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty's invention presenting more as a CAM system. That being said, most people agree that Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty invented the first computer-aided design system. It is interesting to note that based on his human factors cockpit drawings, William Fetter from Boeing was the one to coin the term "compuer graphic" in 1960.[1]

2D Time


The first CAD systems served as mere replacements of drawing boards. The design engineers still worked in 2D to create technical drawings consisting from 2D wire-frame primitives (line, arc, B spline ...). Productivity of design increased, but many argue that only marginally due to overhead – design engineers had to learn how to use computers and CAD. Nevertheless modifications and revisions were easier, and over time CAD software and hardware became cheaper and affordable for mid size companies. CAD programs grew in functionality and user friendliness. (1974)

3D Time


3D wireframe features were developed in the beginning of the sixties, and in 1969 MAGI released Syntha Vision, the first commercially available solid modeler program. Solid modeling further enhanced the 3D capabilities of CAD systems. NURBS, mathematical representation of freeform surfaces, appeared in 1989 -- first on Silicon Graphics workstations. In 1993 CAS Berlin developed an interactive NURBS modeler for PCs, called NöRBS.

Parametric Design


In 1989 T-FLEX and later Pro/ENGINEER introduced CADs based on parametric engines. Parametric modeling means that the model is defined by parameters. A change of dimension values in one place also changes other dimensions to preserve relation of all elements in the design -- for example, “this must be parallel with that and in the middle of ...”.

MCAD systems introduced the concept of constraints that enable you to define relations between parts in assembly. Designers started to use a bottom-up approach when parts are created first and then assembled together. Modeling is more intuitive, precise and later analysis, especially kinematics easier.



CAD/CAE/CAM systems are now widely accepted and used throughout the industry. These systems moved from costly workstations based mainly on UNIX to off-the-shelf PCs. 3D modeling has become a norm, and it can be found even in applications for the wider public, like 3D buildings modeling in Google Maps, house furnishing (IMSI Floorplan), or garden planning. Advanced analysis methods like FEM (Finite Element Method as for structural analysis), flow simulations are a ubiquitous part of the design process. CAM systems are used for simulation and optimization of manufacturing, and NC code is created and loaded to NC machines.



The past of CAD has been full of unmet expectations; this continues. Some anticipate 3D modeling without flat screens or mouse pointers -- a fully immersive 3D environment where modelling tools include special gloves and goggles. In the future, designing will be closer to sculpting than painting.

Up to now, 3D goggles cause nausea, immersive technologies are expensive and complex, and most designers prefer using a keyboard, stylus, and mouse.

While some of these optimistic predictions may come true, the more likely course is that the future changes will evolve in ways we do not see now. Still, some trends seem more likely to succeed and be widely adopted than others.

The following speculations are separated into strong probability of adoption, medium, and weak.

CAD format standardization based on XML (strong)


CAD formats will follow development in Office applications, where XML based ODF (Open Document Format) format is becoming standard. Similar standardization efforts for 3D and CAD related formats are represented by X3D.

Companies and developers will start to implement X3D import/export as default way for data exchange. This will enhance interoperability between CAD, and related applications like CAE, CAM. 3D models created in CAD could be immediately presented in web browsers that will be able to display 3D models (and to zoom, rotate ...).

Full virtual prototypes (strong)


Increasingly 3D models are defined with physical properties, especially material and optical. Developers of industrial CAD will increasingly integrate 3D modeling with analysis tools like FEM, kinematics or flow simulations. Gap between 3D model and real objects will further narrow, 3D models will look realistically and what is even more important, they will behave as in reality. Virtual prototypes are reality in high tech environments, today. In future this principle will spread even to low end 3D applications, and will become more precise on high end ones. In some cases prototyping and tests will be skipped altogether.

CAD specialization (strong)


CAD systems will continue in the trend of specialization. There are general purpose CADs, that can be enhanced for specific purpose and specialized CADs build upon generic engines like Open CASCADE. Examples of specialized CADs goes from OrCAD, used by electronic design engineers, Allplan for architects or ArtCAM for jewelry design. In the future we will see more task oriented and highly specialized CADs. However general purpose CADs will not disappear, they will have more functions (integrated analysis, kinematics and simulations), yet they will be easier to use.

Real time ray tracing


Real time ray tracing is a resource intensive process. For example one second of high resolution

Development of open source CAD (medium)


Many commercial and proprietary programs have their strong open source alternatives. There is Windows and Linux, MS Office and OpenOffice, Oracle and Firebird and so on. But there is no viable strong open source competitor to commercial CAD systems like AutoCAD or SolidWorks. Yes, there are some open source CADs like BRL-CAD, but these are not widely adopted and used in industry.

In future there may be a strong open source CAD solution. It will probably be based the Open CASCADE engine. Other probable scenario is that a CAD company will start an open source project to boost its more profitable products based on same engine (for example CAM or CAE).

Small scale and rapid manufacturing (medium)


Development of hardware and software for both rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing will change manufacturing, marketing and business processes. Improvements of hardware like 3D printers, laser and metal sintering will enable to produce complex parts effectively even in small series and from various materials like plastics, textile, ceramics or metal. Products will be bought in the form of license, 3D model will be downloaded from Internet and manufactured on hardware connected to computer in local store or even at home. Time needed for delivering product to market will be further decreased. It's also useful as special software for transferring CAD's files (as PRO-E, SolidWorks ) to CNC machines, so after modeling and drawing comes programming and easier to understand the facts of the computer aided design

Dynamic Physical Rendering (weak)


DPR - Dynamic Physical Rendering is collaborative research project between Carnegie Mellon University and Intel. This project will evolve into new representation of 3D models. Instead of 2D representations of 3D objects there will be real 3D models build in bottom-up manner. Many versatile little building blocks will form larger objects like car model according to computer program. This concept is also known as Claytronics.

CAD based on genetic programming (weak)


Genetic programming (GP) is machine learning technique that uses an evolutionary algorithm to optimize a population of designs according to a fitness landscape determined by a design ability to perform a given computational task. GP has been successfully used for development computer programs, electronic circuits and antennas. GP technique will be used for design of complex products which consists of many parts, but limited in number of types. CAD packages will incorporate GP methods to ease, improve and speed up design of hydraulics and fluid control systems or MEMS. Later will come new manufacturing processes similar to protein creation in ribosome, where 3D protein complex structures are based on only 20 building blocks (amino acids). Computer program will serve like DNA, manufacturing hardware will serve as ribosome and one machine will be able to manufacture wide range of different products.

More to Explore


  1. Brejcha, Bart (2020-02-22). "Past Present & Future of CAD". Design Engine. Retrieved 2024-03-28.