The (Serious) Problem with CAD

It’s probably a bold statement to say that something has a serious problem when it has been responsible for the majority of the infrastructure built in the past 30 years, along with many other of man’s finest innovations.

Yet, there it is. I said it.

CAD has a serious problem.

To break down the issues with CAD you need do nothing more than break down the words that make up the acronym- Computer Aided Drafting.




Drafting was the original tool of engineers and designers as it was the simple practice of taking a pencil to paper to go through the mental process of building something before it was actually built. Straight edges, protractors, planimeters, stencils and a host of other tools were developed to help the graphite/paper process of producing construction documents for the many decades before computers were born.

It didn’t take long after the advent of computers for technicians to realize that computers could do a lot of the heavy lifting that draftsmen were burdened with. Soon, the same tools and processes that had taken place on paper with pencil were now taking place on computer screens with computer mice. Drafting was now aided by computers.

For decades this was a huge leap forward in the design process. Edits and iterations were especially benefited by the ability to edit on the fly without time consuming erasing. Dimensions were automatic and circles were perfect.

But unfortunately, CAD has lasted too long. Computers have long since advanced past the abilities to simply aid in the drafting process. The ability to build in 3D with modeling linked to databases has been around for decades now. Yet still, most civil engineering projects involve drafting almost identical to how it was done a hundred years ago- only now it is in pixels and not pencil.

So what is the solution? Well, we will get to that. But before the punchline, I want to illustrate some comparisons of why CAD is out dated. The following are comparisons of what could also be old products and processes helped by new technologies.

  • Jet powered bicycle instead of an airplane.
  • A cassette player retrofitted with a touch screen instead of an iPod touch.
  • A GPS system that prints out turn by turn directions on your dash instead of reading the instructions aloud with a graphical interface.
  • Using a typewriter to write a book and scanning these pages into a computer instead of just writing the book on a laptop.
  • Computers recreating an outdated design drafting process instead of simply using Building Information Modeling (BIM) in 3D from the very beginning.

CAD has simply evolved wrong, as you can see by the ridiculousness of the rest of these examples.

And yes, BIM is the solution, but even BIM has some obstacles. The first of which is that BIM was developed for buildings and not so much for civil projects. CIM (replace building with civil) is becoming a buzzword in certain circles, but it is in the very early stages. Trying to use tools developed strictly for BIM will only get us a little farther than recreating the drafting process on computers.

Fortuntately individuals much smarter than myself and involved in actual companies that produce software are aware of this situation. InfraWorks is a great first step at making a software package that thinks 3D for infrastructure projects. More will come and they will all continue to be refined.

Someday projects will be completely created in 3D before any ground is broken. [Note: I understand that most civil projects have large portions created in 3D during the design process including watersheds, roadways, parking lots and so on but there are still many elements of these projects that remain annotative or 2D such as striping, signs and retaining wall cross sections.]

My business is heavily involved on taking CAD designs and making them 3D to create still and animated visuals in full disclosure. I appreciate the process as it has developed because it has allowed me to make a niche for myself that is a near perfect intersection of my passions and abilities.

That said, I am excited for the convergence of CAD and 3D. I don’t believe for a second that it will put me out of business as there will always be opportunities to render, animate and flirt with whatever is next on the horizon of technology for civil projects. That’s where I will hang out.

But in the mean time, excuse me while I go hop into my Harley drawn buggy.

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One thought on “The (Serious) Problem with CAD

  1. Gregory 7 years ago

    I am completely amazed by the lack of education in drafting today. Drafting is used with template tools, pencil, ink, CAD and BIM. Along with graphic software packages. The bottom line is documenting your design professionally. I started in 1985 at the ripe old age of 18 fresh out of an engineering high school. After 5 years my co-workers were graduates from JHU, Penn State and University of Maryland engineering programs. We basically learned design together (OJT) with me teaching engineers how to draw. The rare bird was a PE that had mad Microstation or Autocad skills. Then to be challenged even further was to go to a Land Developer and set-up a Microstation CAD network with CAD standards for Architects and Interiors Designers and blend with the MAC graphics department. It was there where I learned foam modeling from CAD drawings and had the revelation in 1995 that we needed to do this in 3D, modeling in Microstation with rendering……anyway I need to get back to my 2D & 3D projects in AMEP & Revit MEP……drafting is a lost Art…..replaced in college by software classes that have nothing to do with drafting.

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