We've witnessed dramatic advances in CAD usability, speed, graphics, “intelligence,” and automation over the past few years. But even the best 3D mechanical-design packages leave plenty of room for improvement. As with every area of computing, 3D mechanical-design software still needs to be faster, easier to use, and more useful for communicating with nonengineers.

In the years to come, 3D CAD software will steadily improve engineering productivity by speeding the design process, suggesting options along the way, and identifying problems earlier. The software will “think” for designers and anticipate what they are creating. If they are creating weldments, for example, preconfigured pipes, beams, tubes, and angle irons will automatically fall into place. Software will also increasingly offer smart layout and materials options and assess the structural integrity of a design as it is created. Such improvements will help speed time to market and reduce the risk of product failure.

In the long term, engineers and designers won't be the only ones designing products. Consumers will play a bigger role in designing and customizing the goods they wish to buy, much like Dell permits today, but on a grander scale. CAD software will help drive mass customization.

Yet right now, CAD software mostly relies on 2D technologies, clunky input devices, and oldfashioned output devices. Some CAD packages are still too difficult for engineers to use, much less consumers. Moreover, there are numerous and cumbersome steps to get from design to manufacturing. A big reason for all this is revealed in the 3D/2D paradox. It holds that 2D CAD is destined for obsolescence, but only after 3D CAD vendors build more 2D functionality into their products.

Consider: One-quarter of the world's designers and engineers design in 3D. Three-quarters design in 2D, which is logical because manufacturers still work from 2D drawings. To answer market demand, 3D CAD vendors are making it easier all the time to produce 2D-manufacturing drawings from their 3D models. In the long run these 2D drawings may prove superfluous.

When 3D CAD vendors help the rest of the world move to 3D design (and they will), 3D will ultimately become the articulation mechanism between design and manufacturing. Models will go to assembly and out the plant door without necessarily being translated into 2D. So paradoxically, software vendors are perfecting the production of 2D drawings from 3D models, a process that will render 2D design obsolete. Until then, the design-to-manufacture process will unfortunately take a performance hit.

Another key development in the future of CAD will be a reduction in the time it takes to get design data into a CAD system. As designers embrace 3D, keyboards will increasingly strike users as primitive. A bold new development in input devices is the increasing accuracy and speed of 3D scanning, which will dramatically reduce the time needed to design and manufacture products. With 3D scanning, a user could push a button, scan a part she wishes to duplicate or modify, and view it onscreen as a 3D model, complete with detailed design data.

Output devices such as printers will also go 3D, making it easy for design engineers to communicate with nontechnical customers and to check form, fit, and function before moving to production. Although 3D printing technology is some two decades old, the 3D printers themselves now cost less than $30,000, making them affordable for smaller businesses. This development will let more customers hold a 3D prototype in their hand earlier in the product-development process, a quantum leap from viewing 3D models on a screen. Here again, the result is better products moving more quickly to market.

I recently read about another exciting output device that could potentially play a similar role in CAD's future. A company called Actuality Systems Inc. is commercializing a low-cost scalable 3D holographic display. The broadcast image will appear in 3D, viewable as a hovering form (versus 2D image) from any angle.

These are just a few of the innovative developments the future of CAD will bring.

SolidWorks is a developer of software for mechanical design, analysis, and product-data management.

John McEleney
CEO
SolidWorks Corp.
Concord, Mass.
www.solidworks.com