What Are My Options for Modeling AutoCAD Data in 3D?

It’s no secret that AutoCAD by Autodesk is the design software standard across many industries. You would be hard pressed to look at any city skyline and not see many buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure that were designed using AutoCAD. With each new release it also includes even more features that push the limits on what is possible in computer drafting. As an engineer in training, there is hardly a day that I don’t spend at least several hours drafting in AutoCAD.

All of that said, however, there are still times when all or most of a project is drawn in 2 dimensions. While this is perfectly acceptable to get data to the point of construction drawings in many cases, there are also many times when it is beneficial or even necessary to get all of that 2D linework into 3 dimensions. This post isn’t intended to give step by step instructions on how to do so in every way possible. Rather, this post is a starting point for a few of the more popular methods that you may have a better understanding of your options.

  • Within AutoCAD Civil 3D. This is the most obvious solution and, often times, the easiest. Since Civil 3D was included as a standard part of the AutoCAD functionality a few years back more and more features have been added to the three dimensional toolset. Whether you are creating a pipe network, modeling a roadway corridor or developing a parking lot surface, Civil 3D is a powerful method to give the third dimension to your data.
  • Import into InfraWorks. This is my personal favorite method. InfraWorks was released by AutoCAD (although it existed before then) about three years ago and has continually grown in popularity and features since then. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of InfraWorks is that it will directly take .dwg files and use the linework as a sort of backbone for various 3D features such as roads, pipes, coverage areas or even 3D objects like signs.
  • Import into Sketchup. This is one of the more common methods of getting data out of AutoCAD and into a workspace where it can be more easily modeled in 3D. While the free version of Sketchup may allow some file types to be imported and exported, you will want to pay for the full version for best results in importing and exporting data.
  • Import into 3ds Max. If you own 3ds Max and are comfortable using it, this should be your number one options as it is the most robust and powerful option. However, most don’t own it and most (including myself) are usually overwhelmed when attempting to do even the most basic tasks. For that reason, it shouldn’t be your first option unless you have substantial training and/or experience using this software.
  • Import into 3ds Max using Civil View. This is mostly for roadway projects but is a very cool plugin that shows a lot of promise. Civil View allows 3ds Max to understand the alignments and other features designed in Civil 3D so that these smart features can have attributes attached to them such as striping, vehicles or barriers.

Do you prefer to model all of your data in 3D right within AutoCAD or do you use another software program to do the heavy lifting for you? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: Autodesk