How CAD Has Evolved Since 1982

Updated Jan 12, 2024
The History of CAD

While it might be tempting to think of Computer Aided Design as a relatively recent innovation, most CAD programs we use today can actually be traced back to work begun over 50 years ago. As such, CAD has had a long and rich history that spans back decades. If, however, you’re not familiar with the history of CAD, you’re in luck.

Scan2CAD has put together a complete guide covering the beginnings of CAD in the 1950s, how CAD evolved after 1982, and what the future might hold for CAD

History of CAD

Pioneers in CAD Development

Patrick Hanratty

Patrick Hanratty is considered the father of CAD/CAM because the software he developed at Integrated Computer Systems (ICS) and Manufacturing and Consulting Services (MCS) was used by more than 10 companies as the basis for their commercial products in the CAD/CAM industry.In fact, some industry analysts estimate that 70% of all 3D mechanical CAD/CAM systems available today can trace their roots back to Hanratty’s original code.

Early Software

In 1957, while working at General Electric, Hanratty developed PRONTO, an early numerical control software package. PRONTO was developed for the Kearney & Trecker Milwaukee 3 machine tool. The software processed machining statements, which had been entered onto coding sheets or keypunched into punch cards, to produce actual digital instructions that the machine tool controller used to operate the machine tool. In a sense, PRONTO was a post-processor.

Hanratty moved to General Motors in 1962, where he focused on NC software before moving to Astronautics Corp. in early 1967 to help them develop computer-based design technology. In late 1969, he set out to create his own software. Working under ICS, Hanratty and colleagues developed INTERAPT, which comprised several modules that supported basic and advanced 3D geometric construction, interactive computer-aided drafting (mechanical and integrated circuit), and interactive computer-aided machining in 2D and 3D. ICS, however, struggled to woo customers and was later acquired by System Science and Software in 1971, the same year Hanratty formed MCS.

At MCS, he developed ADAM (Automated Drafting and Machining), a machine-independent version of INTERAPT. According to Hanratty, ADAM was a separate package rewritten from the ground up. ADAM supported 3D design, drafting, and NC. It also handled different types of surfaces. ADAM would form the basis of the first version of Unigraphics, now Siemens NX.

AD-2000 and ANVIL Software

Hanratty also developed AD-2000, a mechanical design and manufacturing software, around 1973. AD-2000 boasted major functional improvements compared to ADAM. These included an interactive software development feature that enabled users to create specialized applications, 2D and 3D analysis, expanded drafting capability, and expanded surface geometry. It was AD-2000 that established Hanratty’s reputation. For instance, in 1979, Auto-trol, a hardware manufacturing company that also developed CAD software, signed a software license agreement with MCS to use AD-2000 as the basis for its new mechanical design software called GS-2000.

In 1981, MCS introduced ANVIL-4000, which was to AD-2000 as AD-2000 was to ADAM: it added many capabilities to AD-2000. The new software had five different modules that were purchased independently. These were the basic packages for controlling and viewing geometry, drafting, extended geometry, analysis, and numerical control. MCS also developed a 2D version of ANVIL-4000 called ANVIL-3000D.

While MCS released subsequent products – including ANVIL-5000; AIM (ANVIL Intelligent Modeler), an enhancement to ANVIL-5000 that incorporated parametric techniques that enabled users to create wireframe and surface models as well as modify part designs; and ANVIL-Express, an overhaul of the ANVIL-5000 software, they did not catch on. By 2002, the company was a shell of its old self, with few employees remaining.

MIT Research and Ivan Sutherland

As Hanratty was hard at work developing PRONTO, scientists and researchers at MIT were also diligently working on technology that would later form the foundation for CAD. (These technologies included programming languages, interactive design tools, NC machine tools, CAD system data architecture, display terminals, and more.)

So crucial was the technology developed at MIT that Ivan Sutherland used it to develop Sketchpad as part of his PhD project, which started in 1961. Sketchpad was released in 1963. (Ivan used the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory’s TX-2 computer, a powerful 36-bit computer that had earlier been used as a prototype for IBM machines built for a US Air Force project.)

Sketchpad was a 2D engineering design and drafting software that supported interactive design via a light pen, the predecessor of the mouse. The software pioneered human-computer interaction, exciting the world about interactive graphics and design. The software used the CAD system data architecture researchers had developed at MIT. Sketchpad supported geometric constraints and nested symbols. Unfortunately, it had limited distribution because the executable versions were designed to only run on the TX-2 computer. While it never became commercially available, it did pave the way for later CAD software. In fact, many accounts credit Sutherland with developing the first interactive graphic software for engineering drafting and design.

In this video we’re introduced to Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad

Around the same time, Timothy Johnson developed Sketchpad further to support 3D capabilities. Johnson was a research assistant at MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department. This 3D version of Sketchpad was referred to as Sketchpad III. It was the first CAD system to implement traditional three orthogonal views of a 3D object together with a perspective view of the object.

More developments arose in the 1960s, including the first digitizer from Auto-trol, and DAC-1, the first production interactive graphics manufacturing system. 

Shift from 2D to 3D Modeling

The earliest CAD systems imitated traditional/manual drafting practices. This meant that such systems only handled 2D data. However, the then-nascent CAD industry was ripe for evolution, with university research and work by innovators in car manufacturing companies significantly contributing to concepts that would anchor – and still anchor – 3D modeling.

Wireframe Design

The initial shift from 2D drafting to 3D modeling came in the form of wireframe design. It utilized geometry that represented 3D objects using points in space, with these points connected using lines. The lines represented the edges of the objects. However, wireframe geometry failed to accurately provide all the information at a glance and needed additional information. It goes without saying that better methods of representing 3D objects were needed.

Surface Design

These improved methods focused on better ways of describing and representing surfaces. In early 1960, Pierre Bézier developed a series of mathematical techniques that described curved surfaces of cars. At that time, Bezier worked for Renault. His work led to the eventual development of Bezier curves, which are widely used to describe mathematical surfaces. Renault used Bezier curves as part of its UNISURF system to create digital models. Dassault Systèmes later acquired UNISURF, which became an essential part of CATIA (Computer-Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application). (CATIA was released in 1977.)

University researchers also developed techniques for mathematically describing surfaces. These techniques included cubic curves, bicubic surface patches, B-splines, and Non-Uniform Rational B-splines (NURBS), which formed the basis for modern 3D curve and surface modeling. Researchers also worked on ways to improve these techniques.

Solid Modeling and Parametric Modeling

Beyond mathematical functions for representing surface geometry, research work also led to the development of solid modeling technology. These technologies included Boundary Representation (B-Rep), presented at a conference in 1973. Later in 1987, Parametric Technology Corporation, now PTC Inc., launched Pro/ENGINEER. This software was the first to support and, therefore, introduce feature-based parametric modeling. This program was based on solid geometry and parametric techniques for defining parts and assemblies. It ran on UNIX workstations, as PCs still didn’t have the capabilities required by CAD programs. This was a game-changer, making the user interfaces of other CAD programs obsolete. Engineers were now able to set clear parameters, features and relationships. The only thing that set back the pace of parametric modeling at this time was the difficulty with investing time and money in training, and converting legacy data from other CAD programs to Pro/ENGINEER’s proprietary data format.

The end of the 1980s brought about the struggle between 3D CAD software developers, all trying to match Pro/ENGINEER’s user interface and capabilities. (For instance, its introduction influenced competitors, like UGS – which developed what is now NX – and Dassault Systèmes to add feature-based design and parametric capabilities to their mainstream software.) This paved the way for 3D solid modeling kernels, like Parasolid and ACIS, which were later integrated into new parametric CAD programs. Parasolid was developed by Shape Data Limited for other companies to license for use in their own 3D CAD products. ACIS, developed by Spatial, was sold to many 3D CAD software vendors—most notably AutoCAD, who licensed the kernel in 1990.

It is worth pointing out that most early techniques and technologies for defining surface geometry and solid models were developed between the late 1960s and the late 1980s. This period saw research slowly turn from 2D towards 3D.

Setting the Stage for Large-Scale Adoption of CAD

History of AutoCAD - 1982 Floppy Disk

Back in 1982, AutoCAD was sold on floppy disks! (Source:

The period between 1980 and 1989 was perhaps the most significant as regards the evolution of the CAD industry. Not only did many CAD software companies and products launch during this period, but the transition from the use of minicomputers to personal computers also happened in the 1980s. (It was the introduction of the first IBM PC in 1981 that truly marked the beginning of the large-scale adoption of CAD, with commercial CAD systems appearing in multiple industries. For example, that same year saw the release of two solid modeling packages, Romulus and Uni-Solid, both of which enabled users to see exactly what their design would look like in real life. 

The following year marked an even bigger milestone in CAD history—the founding of Autodesk and subsequent release of AutoCAD, the first significant CAD program for the IBM PC. It was a huge success for Autodesk, with AutoCAD winning “The Best CAD Product” award from PC World magazine in 1986 and continuing to do so for the next 10 years. From this point on, increasingly advanced drafting and engineering functionality became more affordable. For more information, check out A Brief History of AutoCAD

However, these developments were a result of efforts from early on; efforts that set the stage for large-scale adoption of CAD. A mere decade or two earlier, CAD software was a proprietary tool for heavy industry. Companies like General Electric and General Motors had teams that developed NC software in-house, for example. In this section, we will discuss the pre-1982 era.

CAD in the 1950s and 1960s

In the late 1950s, for instance, the research arm of General Motors (GM), General Motors Research, began work on a project called Design Augmented by Computers (DAC-1). By 1964, the company was using the application to scan drawing images as well as view and manipulate the scanned images. DAC-1 ran on an IBM mainframe computer. But, in 1967, GM management decided that the DAC-1 project was too expensive. As a result, the intensity of developing solutions that applied computer graphics to design waned.

In the mid-1960s, Renault and Ford began developing computer-based graphics systems that defined complex surfaces using mathematical functions. (Renault’s work included the development of Bezier curves and surfaces and the UNISURF system that later became part of CATIA). Others, like Lockheed California, developed systems that aimed to improve drafting productivity. What these early systems had in common is that they ran on large, expensive IBM mainframe computers.

CAD in the 1970s

The formation of hardware manufacturing companies like Applicon and Computervision around 1969 led to the development of minicomputers. The emergence of these manufacturers made the cost of computers more manageable for businesses. These manufacturers also developed software to help sell the minicomputers. However, the manufacturers’ computers were only designed to run their software.

The minicomputers cost about $150,000 in 1972 (about $1.083 million in 2023, adjusted for inflation). Despite still being considerably high, the cost was manageable compared to the cost of mainframe computers a decade or two earlier. In fact, to justify this cost, these systems were marketed on the basis that they could lower the production cost and increase productivity. They were run round the clock.

The companies included:

  • Auto-trol, which developed Auto-Draft, GS-100, and GS-200, GS-2000, GS-3000, Steel-3D software
  • Applicon, which developed BRAVO!
  • Computervision, which developed CADDS
  • Calma, which developed Design Drafting and Manufacturing (DDM) (introduced in 1977), Dimension III, Calma-Draft Architecture (a 2D architecture program) and Calma-Draft Facilities Layout (a 2D facilities layout program), GDS II (an electronics design package), and DraftStation (a 2D drafting software introduced in 1985)
  • Intergraph, which developed the Interactive Graphics Design System (IGDS), a mapping and drafting solution; Plant Design System (PDS); and, later, Solid Edge


CAD in the 1980s

As stated above, the 1980s indeed turned the tide, leading to the large-scale adoption of CAD. The 1980s saw the introduction of engineering workstations, which ran on UNIX-like or UNIX operating systems. These workstations performed most of the graphic processing and ran the application software. The minicomputer and mainframe computer’s roles were relegated to file management rather than providing the computing power. (Specialized workstations called servers later took up the file management role.)

Engineering workstations were cheaper than both the mainframe computers and minicomputers. The cost stood at below $50,000 (about $193,500 adjusted for inflation) a few years after their introduction. The rollout, adoption, and increased popularity of engineering workstations were accompanied by the founding of more than 20 manufacturers of these devices.

The 1980s also saw the rise of vendors of CAD software. These vendors replaced the hardware manufacturers who were initially making computers and developing software to market them. These vendors included IBM, which had partnered with Lockheed’s CADAM Inc. to sell CADAM and later with Dassault Systèmes to sell CATIA. Moreover, Autodesk, Bentley Systems, and Parametric Technology Company (PTC) were founded around the same time. Autodesk was founded in 1982, Bentley Systems was founded in 1984, and PTC was incorporated in 1985. AutoCAD was revolutionary—setting the pace for the development of other CAD competitors. 

The commercialization of CAD software and the decline in proprietary software led to difficulty amongst CAD developers in differentiating their software from each other’s. This decline in proprietary software also led to the rise in aerospace and automotive manufacturers buying CAD software from commercial vendors. Boeing, for example, announced in 1988 that CATIA would be used to design and draft the new 777 aircraft. This created $1 billion in revenue for IBM-Dassault.

Aircraft profile of Boeing 777

Boeing 777 aircraft profile. Image source: Flight Global

The 1990s: PCs, PLM and the Internet

By the 1990s, the PC was finally capable of the computations that 3D CAD required. This led to turmoil for the UNIX workstations. While many users required the CPU power provided by UNIX workstations, many were far more satisfied with the performance of PCs. This move from UNIX to PC was transformational. CAD software slowly started to become accessible to millions of engineers and consumers who previously couldn’t afford the technology.

This decade saw the emergence of mid-range systems that were implemented to run only on personal computers (PCs) running Windows. They were more affordable than full-function systems like CATIA and Unigraphics (now Siemens NX). They cost between $3,000 and $6,000 per seat, about 25% of the cost of full-function systems like CATIA at that time. 

In 1995, the first significant mid-range modeler for Windows was released—SolidWorks. It was so successful that after just 2 years, Dassault Systèmes acquired it in 1997 for $320 million. Solid Edge, a program based on ACIS, was released later that year. The following year saw the release of Autodesk’s Mechanical Desktop—their first 3D solid modeling product—which quickly became the number one selling 3D CAD software in the world. Autodesk continued their success with their release of Autodesk Inventor in 1999.

Scan2CAD v8 on a CD-ROM

Fun fact: Did you know that Scan2CAD was founded in 1996? To find out more, check out the History of Scan2CAD.

Most 3D CAD programs by the end of the 1990’s had reached the same point—all offering similar features. The push for new innovations in the world of 3D CAD finally started to slow down. Instead, interest was now directed at product data management software, which had been successfully used in Boeing’s 777 paperless design with CATIA. A great deal of energy was also spent on the struggle to become “Internet-enabled“, with the main focus upon enabling users to view 3D CAD models in web browsers.

By the end of the decade, amongst the decline in technological innovations, many original CAD developers from the 1960s had been acquired by newer, larger companies. These companies eventually consolidated into four main competitors: Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, PTC, and UGS (now Siemens PLM).

CAD in the 21st Century

The Growth of CAD Software and the Internet

The beginning of the 21st century marked the release of client-side CAD tools and web-enabled CAD. Alibre released Alibre Design in 2000, as the first 3D CAD software able to perform client-server 3D modeling over the Internet. Autodesk subsequently released AutoCAD 2000i, which was their first web-enabled CAD software. Autodesk continued its success into the 21st century with constant updates to its popular AutoCAD product, including tool palettes in 2003, dynamic block functioning in 2005 and support for Macs in 2011.

The next decade also saw the growth of other popular CAD programs—Revit, Creo, SolidWorks and many more.

For a better look at major CAD releases from the 1950s onward, click below. 

Major CAD Releases from 1957 to present day

1957  Green arrow pointing right PRONTO
1962  Green arrow pointing right Auto-trol
1963  Green arrow pointing right Sketchpad
1972  Green arrow pointing right ADAM
1973  Green arrow pointing right NX Unigraphics (Siemens NX)
1977  Green arrow pointing right CATIA
1981  Green arrow pointing right Romulus, Uni-Solid and the first IBM PC
1982  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk founded and the release of AutoCAD
1984  Green arrow pointing right BRL-CAD
1986  Green arrow pointing right Turbocad
1987  Green arrow pointing right PTC Creo Elements/Pro (previously Pro/ENGINEER) and ArchiCAD
1988  Green arrow pointing right Parasolid
1989  Green arrow pointing right ACIS
1990  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk 3ds Max
1993  Green arrow pointing right SolidWorks founded
1995  Green arrow pointing right SolidWorks release, SolidEdge, Blender and C3D
1996  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk Mechanical Desktop
1998  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk Maya, IronCAD and Rhinoceros 3D
1999  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk Inventor, QCAD and Open Cascade
2000  Green arrow pointing right SketchUp, Alibre Design and Revit
2002  Green arrow pointing right Medusa, FreeCAD and ShapeManager
2004  Green arrow pointing right KeyCreator
2006  Green arrow pointing right ProgeCAD
2007  Green arrow pointing right SpaceClaim
2008  Green arrow pointing right NanoCAD
2009  Green arrow pointing right Autodesk 123D and Sculptris
2011  Green arrow pointing right LibreCAD
2012  Green arrow pointing right GrabCAD Workbench
2013  Green arrow pointing right Fusion 360
2015  Green arrow pointing right Onshape


While the last two decades involved the race for innovations in 3D CAD, the beginning of the 21st century brought about a period of sustainability in CAD software. Rather than bring forth new, innovative software, vendors were now interested in product data management (PDM)—trying to reduce concept, design and manufacturing time. Ford’s release of the Ford Mondeo proved this was possible in late 2000. The Ford Mondeo was designed over the Internet using Ford’s C3P (CAD/CAM/CAE/PDM) platform, in a third of the time traditionally required. This success proved that the integration of CAD software, PDM and the Internet could give designers and engineers the perfect way to collaborate and create in a time-efficient and convenient manner. Vendors found that using PDM and PLM (product lifecycle management) would therefore eliminate prolonged development times and increase workflow. 

Availability of CAD

Growth in Technology 

The 21st century also brought about another evolution in the computing platform. With the introduction of PCs, smartphones and tablets on a large scale, CAD became available on cloud, web and mobile technologies. It’s now possible for engineers to work with CAD on any Mac, Windows PC or tablet. Of course, the availability of CAD also brought about an increased use of this software by the consumer public.

Nowadays, CAD systems are compatible with all the major platforms—Windows, Linux, UNIX and Mac OS X. Some systems even support multiple platforms. They don’t require special hardware, unless you’re using a CAD program that involves intensive tasks—then you might need high-speed CPUs and large amounts of RAM. This is a far cry from the early days of CAD.

In addition, the interaction between human and machine has altered. Typically, designers make use of a computer mouse with CAD programs. However, designers can also make use of a pen and digitizing graphics tablet. Furthermore, there’s been a lot of development in the CAD-human interface interaction—from touchscreens to VR/AR. This will be discussed in the CAD and the Future section.

Now, onto the different types of CAD available…

2D CAD Programs

These programs create ‘flat‘ drawings of products or structures. These drawings are made up of lines, circles, curves and so on. The programs will often include libraries of models, Bezier curves, splines and polylines. There are different ‘levels’ of 2D CAD programs. Some are free and open source; typically these programs are more simplistic, without the difficulties of scaling or placements. Examples of 2D CAD freeware include QCAD and LibreCAD.

There are of course, the more complex ‘high-end’ programs—the most recognizable of which is AutoCAD.

Screenshots of QCAD and AutoCAD

Screenshots of QCAD and AutoCAD

3D CAD Programs

3D CAD systems essentially create a realistic model of what your design may look like in the real world. They’re useful for aiding designers in finding flaws that they might have otherwise missed. These programs can be split into two types: parametric modelers and direct/explicit modelers. There is 3D wireframe and the incorporation of 3D ‘dumb’ solids into programs like AutoCAD—you can learn more about that here

Parametric modeling requires designers to use “design intent“. This means that they have to think of the design as a real world representation of the object—changes can, or cannot be made, the same way changes would or wouldn’t be made to a real world object. Parametric modeling therefore requires the designer to think and plan ahead—considering every action.

Direct or explicit modeling gives designers the ability to edit geometry without a history tree. Essentially, designers can quickly create 3D designs which they can then modify through direct interactions with the model geometry.

Some popular 3D CAD programs include Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks and PTC Creo.

Rendering of a car in Autodesk Inventor

Screenshot of Autodesk Inventor

The Rise in Industries Using CAD

Fusion 360 and Onshape logosThe availability of CAD in the 21st century was undoubtedly aided by the trend of cloud-based CAD. It was first mentioned by a major company in 2010, when SolidWorks featured it at their World 2010 event. It then took a several years for cloud-based CAD to become a mainstream topic in the CAD industry. This trend has since helped to change the way the entire CAD industry works. With cloud-based CAD, designers across the world can simultaneously work on a CAD model. Autodesk jumped on board this trend with their release of Fusion 360 in 2013. This was closely followed by Onshape‘s eponymous product in 2015. 

The availability brought about by the Internet and cloud-based CAD led to the spread in use of CAD software across industries. Originally, CAD was predominantly used in heavy industries alone. Nowadays, however, you would struggle to find an industry that doesn’t use it. Check out a few examples of industries using CAD below:

  • Mechanical engineering
  • AEC sector
  • Aerospace
  • Fashion
  • Industrial design
  • Entertainment
  • Computer Graphic Animation (CGA)
  • Civil Engineering
  • Machinery
  • Medicine

This rise in use of CAD has increased over the years. In fact, virtually no product today is created without the use of CAD software—through design, simulation and manufacturing. CAD’s importance also brought about the breach of CAD skills into the career sector. If you’re in any design sector, you’ll see many advertised jobs that require CAD skills. Skills in many different CAD programs are highly valued, be it in AutoCAD, SolidWorksRevit, or one of the myriad of available programs. For more information, check out AutoCAD careers or Freelance CAD.

Global Impact of CAD

It is easy to appreciate the impact of CAD, first on design-centric industries like architecture, interior design, and engineering, and subsequently on other sectors. Before the introduction of computer-aided design, manual drafting dominated the space. Then, producing engineering drawings was a complicated and challenging process that took a fairly long time, even for straightforward designs.

Fast forward to today; tasks that took days to complete now take a few hours. The evolution of CAD has also ensured that the designs are way larger than those created in the pre-CAD era. So pivotal has CAD become that design firms require such software to be – and remain – competitive.

Impact of CAD on Design Process and Engineering

Positive Impact

CAD plays a supportive and complementary role in the design process. It:

  • Simplifies otherwise complicated design projects
  • It quickens the design process
  • Stores large design projects
  • Eases communication and information sharing with people involved in the project
  • Promotes better visualization
  • Supports and simplifies analysis
  • Eases the process of editing and revising designs (improves quality)
  • CAD programs can be easy to pick up on, and they allow for repeated designs and 2D or 3D drawings.

Negative Impact

At the same time, however, CAD has altered traditional practices and the fundamental skill sets of engineers and designers. Before CAD became ubiquitous, the design process was anchored in sketching. Then, designers and engineers were trained with pen, pencil, and logbooks. The design process would begin at the conceptualization stage, wherein the student engineers and designers doodled their ideas. These doodles would later become more detailed drawings, again prepared by hand.

Today, computers have replaced this manual process and, ergo, the fundamental skill sets required in engineers. While this is a good thing, given the myriad benefits of incorporating CAD in the design process, it has changed designers’ and engineers’ approaches to the design process. First, student engineers feel pressured to be proficient in CAD to meet the expectations of the workforce. This has meant that educators have had to change the training approach to fulfill this requirement.

Secondly, CAD has eliminated sketching, which was previously vital in the conceptual stages of design. As a result, there is always a risk that students might pick an idea and develop a model based on the idea but discover in the end that the model is not viable. Thus, CAD has been seen as a technology that takes away from the creative design process, especially if students immediately jump onto CAD tools after coming up with an idea.

Impact of CAD on Manufacturing

CAD has significantly enhanced the market side of manufacturing in many ways, including:

  • Precision: CAD mitigates against human error and ensures accurate dimensioning, thus improving the quality of parts and products. (It is, however, vital to point out that despite how much CAD has evolved and how sophisticated many programs are, it’s still possible to make errors.)
  • Automation: CAD is often used together with computer-aided manufacturing, which produces instructions in the form of G-code and M-code that control the movements of machining tools. The resultant automation improves productivity and reduces wastage.
  • Prototyping: CAD eliminates the need for physical prototyping by allowing designers to perform virtual prototyping. In addition, it aids in rapid prototyping, which reduces the time it would have otherwise taken to create prototypes.
  • Cost effectiveness: There’s no need to manufacture physical prototypes when you can use CAD to create hundreds of prototypes that can be improved upon without any cost.
  • Enables simulation and assembly line interaction: CAD allows designers to visualize and test designs before manufacturing. In this regard, the technology accelerates the development of the product as well as manufacturing by reducing or eliminating assembly errors.
  • Product Lifecycle Management (PLM): CAD software can be integrated with PLM tools, enabling workers to manage product lifecycle across its lifetime.
  • No restrictions. With how sophisticated and complex some CAD programs have become, design is slowly becoming limitless.

Needless to say, it’s clear to see why CAD was adopted across so many industries. Virtually everything in the modern world is created using CAD technology, because its design process is so sleek and so powerful. Obviously, the pros and cons of CAD are susceptible to change. CAD is still evolving, and with it, so too will its advantages and disadvantages. A decade down the line, who’s to say what CAD will or won’t be capable of? 

Challenges Faced by the CAD Industry

But as the CAD continues to evolve, it continues to face challenges that can negatively impact its adoption and continuous evolution. These include:

  • Cost of workstations
  • Cost and accessibility of CAD software
  • Software piracy
  • Training requirements and learning curve
  • Interoperability

Cost of Workstations

Prior to the development and increased proliferation of personal computers, the most prevalent challenge affecting the CAD industry was the lack of affordable computers. At that time, only reputable educational institutions and manufacturing companies could afford mainframe computers and, later, minicomputers. As stated, it was not until the 1980s that engineering workstations became more affordable and somewhat cheaper, of course, relative to the prices of earlier computers.

The trend of CAD workstations being expensive has not abated many years later. Now, these workstations are more expensive than regular computers. The best workstations for CAD can cost anywhere between $1,500 and $4,000, if not more. It is worth pointing out that this price only covers the system unit; it does not consider the prices of the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers. In contrast, budget personal computers often go for less than $1,000 for the entire setup. Similarly, the best laptops for CAD are also more expensive – costing more than $1,500 – than budget laptops.

While justified, the price locks out budding professionals and freelance CAD enthusiasts who do not generate enough income to afford or justify the purchase of such expensive workstations. At the same time, the price can discourage engineering or architectural startups from investing in capable computers, impacting their competitiveness.

Cost and Accessibility of CAD Software

Before the 1980s, the CAD industry was dominated by hardware companies that dabbled in software development, creating applications that would help market their computers. These companies designed and built workstations that only ran their software. And with a typical system (computer and software) going for between $80,000 and $150,000 per seat, they were expensive.

The 1980s saw the introduction of standalone software like AutoCAD, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, MicroStation, and more, which were comparatively cheaper. For example, the initial version of AutoCAD and the second version, AutoCAD-86, released in January 1983, were priced at $1,000. CATIA, on the other hand, was made up of 54 different software packages. It was priced at between $6,000 and $40,000 per seat, depending on the combination of packages selected. On its part, Pro/ENGINEER, now Creo, cost $9,500 when commercial shipment began in 1988.

The more affordable prices, relative to the prices that existed before, made CAD software more accessible. Another factor that promoted accessibility was that the licenses were offered in perpetuity. However, this is no longer the case presently. Most CAD software applications are offered under a subscription model. While this model reduces the upfront costs, it is more expensive in the long term. This, coupled with the high subscription fees, has reduced the accessibility of CAD software for businesses and individuals.

For example, in 2015, long before Autodesk scrapped the old pricing model in favor of subscriptions, AutoCAD’s perpetual license ranged between $4,195 and $6,295, depending on the package. Presently, AutoCAD costs $1,975 per year. Moreover, regarding Creo pricing, the most expensive package costs $26,100 per year, compared to the $9,500 charged for a perpetual license when it first shipped in 1988 as Pro/ENGINEER. By comparing these numbers, AutoCAD and Creo are more expensive now than before.

Software Piracy

The high subscription prices and the resulting lack of accessibility, unfortunately, lead to software piracy. In 2018, the value of unlicensed software was $8.6 billion in the United States, according to the BSA Global Software Survey. Of course, the figure would be much larger if the study considered the entire world. Software piracy robs software developers, leading to less software innovation and low returns on their investments.

To combat this vice, software developers like Dassault Systèmes implement sophisticated anti-piracy mechanisms built into the software to catch cheats. These developers also utilize the criminal justice systems in various jurisdictions to prosecute offenders. While this approach has succeeded in India and the United States, it is still costly for software companies.

Training and Learning Curve

Now more than ever, CAD software is capable of performing complex operations. This is thanks to their built-in advanced features and processing capabilities. And with developers regularly adding new features with each new version, the number of features grows by the day. Such software can be problematic to both seasoned users and beginners. The former group may require regular training to keep abreast with the latest tools and features, which, though important, may not be sustainable from a cost and productivity standpoint. If you’re running a business, you won’t want to constantly fork out for staff training for a particular CAD program. On the other hand, the latter group may find the software hard to grasp. This is because the number of features and built-in capabilities influences the ease or difficulty of learning how to use the application.


Most CAD software utilizes proprietary file formats that hinder interoperability; as a result, software A cannot open a file created using software B or vice versa. For instance, CATIA does not natively support AutoCAD’s native file formats, DWG and DXF. To get around this problem, some developers license the technology required to save the files using the proprietary formats. In other cases, some applications allow you to import non-native file formats.

However, these alternative approaches are not sustainable, given the sheer number of applications and file formats in the market today. One of the ways to deal with this issue once and for all might lie in CAD standards and standardization. This approach will ensure that 2D designs and 3D models can be shared and opened across different software.

Educational Influence on the Evolution of CAD

Although university research is credited for the invention of CAD, CAD began entering the academic environment in the 1990s. Since then, software developers and academic institutions have strived to prepare students for the workforce, initiating individual or collaborative programs to address talent shortages in the marketplace. These companies take on different approaches, including creating experiential, hands-on maker space courses that incorporate their software or providing proprietary solutions that learning institutions then use in teaching, technical assistance, industry collaboration programs, and continuing education. Thus, education has dramatically influenced the evolution of CAD by ensuring that more and more students acquire the necessary skills to work in the CAD industry.

For a long time, Dassault Systèmes has partnered with universities around the world, establishing programs to train and upskill students and prepare them for the workforce. Similarly, Autodesk has partnered with various universities to help prepare future industry talent, equipping them with the capabilities and digital skills required by the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry.

On its part, Siemens Digital Industries Software is empowering engineering education and the next generation of digital talent. The company, which develops and sells software like NX and Solid Edge, offers multi-disciplinary student engineering software, tools, training, and curriculum. Additionally, Trimble, the maker of SketchUp and Tekla Structures, works with academic institutions around the world through its Education & Outreach program. The program enables students to access the latest ideas and technology, as well as industry professionals, to adequately prepare them for the workforce.

Other CAD software development companies have also individually partnered with educational institutions – universities and secondary schools – to advance students’ skills in preparation for the future. These include Bentley Systems, PTC, Graphisoft, Bluebeam, and more.

The Future of CAD

So far we’ve managed to discuss the history of CAD, where it originated and how it progressed. We’ve even looked at the evolution of the technology and industries using it. But what exactly does the future hold for CAD? Check out the main trends that are set to explode in the next decade below.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality 

Augmented Reality is technology that allows real-time visualization of CAD models in the real-world environment. Current AR software makes use of devices like smartphones or tablets—capturing the surroundings with a camera and placing a digital effect over it to view the model. Past successes in AR include Pokémon Go—the trend that took everyone by surprise. AR has many applications for CAD, like allowing designers to view their CAD models from different angles before they’re even produced. Companies like Augment have created apps that allow designers to view their 3D models from SketchUp, Revit, SolidWorks and other CAD software—see it in action below. 

Virtual Reality, by comparison, immerses a user in a simulated world using a headset. It has been extremely useful in the gaming community, with products like Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Samsung VR. It’s also been useful in CAD, allowing designers to interact with models directly. Companies like Virtalis and Mindesk are working with CAD companies like Autodesk and SolidWorks to integrate VR into their software offerings. Autodesk is also looking to make its software compatible with Microsoft’s VR product HoloLens, which will have an exciting impact on CAD.

Needless to say, AR/VR-driven CAD is a fascinating trend that could have huge repercussions in the design industry. In the future, designers might be able to send customers products that can be looked at in a real-world format using AR—before the product is even manufactured. In addition, designers might be able to run CAD software like SolidWorks or AutoCAD with a VR headset and essentially create models like virtual sculptures, completely by hand.

Of course, VR/AR has many steps to take before it’s perfect. One of the main issues with this technology is the need for headsets, which aren’t very practical or appealing to the consumer market.

Cloud in the Future

Cloud-based CAD has already been reached by some CAD companies—with many more looking towards it in the near future. With this trend comes the possibility of never having to worry about software updates ever again. With cloud-based CAD, the software would be available in your browser, without the need for upgrades or downloads. In addition, issues like data management might even become obsolete. There’s no need to save several copies of a design or worry about overwritten data when your cloud-based CAD software is able to track everything you do.

Generative Design 

A major upcoming trend in CAD is the concept of CAD technology being able to ‘think‘—anticipating a designer’s next move and making a reciprocating move accordingly. This is otherwise known as ‘Generative Design‘. Designers will soon be able to choose the best design solution by working alongside computers to create an ideal design. Autodesk is currently working on Dream Catcher—a program that can generate hundreds of unique designs in hours, as opposed to the days it can take a human to create a single design. This will surely have a huge impact on the CAD industry in the coming years.

Bicycle generated by Project Dreamcatcher

Bicycle designs generated by Project Dream Catcher

Other Possibilities

Many anticipate a fully immersive 3D experience with CAD in the future. This may include modeling tools like special gloves and goggles (as opposed to headsets), making the process closer to sculpting than painting. There’s also the possibility of bringing voice commands into the fold. This would enable designers to draw and control CAD with their own voice. Of course, CAD requires a lot of precision, so a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that designers have the maximum accuracy required—whether it’s for touchscreen technology or voice commands. Essentially, the most important aspects of future CAD technology and software are ease and speed—it’s all about making the design process fast, efficient and convenient.

Comparative Analysis

A number of technological advancements emerged – or evolved – around the same time as CAD. This section will, however, focus on technologies that, years later, have impacted or aided in the evolution of CAD as we know it today. These include:

  • Personal Computers
  • Graphical user interface (GUI)
  • Internet
  • Artificial intelligence (AI)

Personal Computers

It is no secret that personal computers helped drive the adoption of CAD. Starting in the 1980s, engineering workstations, which had a smaller form factor than the larger computers that were being developed previously, entered the market. These smaller computers had improved processing and storage capabilities and were more affordable. Today, personal computers are ubiquitous, found in most – if not all – modern homes and offices. They are powerful yet small. For instance, workstation computers, which are a category of powerful personal computers and include both laptops and desktop devices, can run even the most demanding CAD software.

Graphical User Interface (GUI)

GUI is a user interface that allows users to use graphical icons to interact with smartphones and computers. It replaced the command-line interface. The technology’s roots trace back to the early 1970s. However, it was not until the 1980s that GUI began being embraced, perhaps due to the commercial availability of computers with a GUI. (The first GUI-based computer was released in 1979.) The existence of GUI made the development and use of CAD software, among other products and activities, much more straightforward. It enabled users to use applications that others developed without having to learn commands or the underlying mechanisms of computers. GUI is still prevalent today, with all CAD software and most operating systems supporting it.


Like CAD, the Internet resulted from research. The internet technology started in the 1960s as an extension of the networking concept, with the development involving parallel research initiatives at MIT (1961 to 1967), RAND Corporation (1962-1965), and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) (1964 to 1967). The Internet, as it is known today, grew from a packet-switching network called ARPANET. The first public demonstration of ARPANET was held in 1972 at the International Computer Communication Conference (ICCC), the same year that electronic mail (email) was introduced.

As researchers were experimentally validating and using the internet technology, other networks and networking technologies were being pursued by scholars and US federal agencies. The resultant networking technologies started being rolled out by the mid-1970s. They included MFENET, SPAN, CSNET, NSF, USENET, and BITNET. It is worth pointing out that their implementation, along with the accompanying policy decisions made and implemented by federal agencies, shaped the Internet of today.

The commercialization of the Internet began in the early 1980s. At that time, players in the industry started developing competitive, private network services and developing commercial products that implemented the internet technology. Fast-forward to today, and the Internet has facilitated connectivity on a grand scale. It has birthed technologies such as cloud computing, e-commerce, the Internet of Things (IoT), edge computing, streaming, communication, and more.

In the domain of CAD, software developers and users have embraced the Internet. The former now have websites, some of which support e-commerce. As a result, users can purchase and download software. In some cases, the software can be virtually operated through application streaming services such as Amazon AppStream 2.0. This solution provides users access to desktop applications from anywhere. Software companies have also embraced cloud computing to support collaboration.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence came into the limelight quite recently, thanks to the rollout of generative AI technologies. However, AI is not new. Its foundation was laid decades ago, in the 1950s. The first AI program was presented in 1956 at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on AI. The following year marked the beginning of an era in which AI flourished. This era of bloom was driven by the increased capabilities of computers in that they were more affordable, had higher processing capabilities, and could store more information. It is worth pointing out that AI thrived despite the lack of public hype and government funding.

In its formative years, the technology was obviously not as sophisticated as it is presently. It could not perform such tasks as natural language processing or abstract thinking. (However, these tasks’ basic proof of concept existed.) These tasks, which were among the end goals of AI, were achieved in the 1990s and 2000s.

Today, AI is everywhere and in most – if not all – industries. The influence and role of artificial intelligence in the CAD industry, for instance, cannot be refuted. AI powers various aspects of the CAD industry, including design and modeling, analysis and simulation, building information modeling (BIM), manufacturing, and data management. AI is poised to continue influencing these and other aspects well into the future.


Since its formative years in the 1950s, CAD has grown and changed radically over the years—and will only continue to do so with time. It has changed traditional practices, revolutionizing numerous industries, including engineering, design, entertainment, fashion, machinery, AEC, aerospace, and medicine, to mention just a few. It has also led to a rethink of how learning institutions prepare students for the workforce, with many CAD software developers and schools partnering to equip students with market-ready skills. CAD’s growth and evolution has been in tandem with other technologies, including personal computers, graphical user interface, artificial intelligence, and the Internet. 

To learn more about the CAD industry, consider reading The Engineering Design Revolution – A History of CAD (2008) by the Dave Weisberg, which we have referenced while writing some of the sections in this article.

Want to stay updated on all the latest developments in CAD and beyond? Check out Scan2CAD’s blog, covering everything from How Multicolor 3D Printing Works to CAD Freeware

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