How CAD Has Evolved Since 1982

Updated Jun 28, 2019
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

Table of Contents

History of CAD

CAD Before 1982

The Beginning of CAD

During World War II, computing underwent a lot of development. Patrick Hanratty, “the father of CAD/CAM”, developed PRONTO (Program for Numerical Tooling Operations) the first CNC programming system, in 1957. 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.

Not long after, Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad in 1963 as part of his thesis at MIT—titled ‘Sketchpad, A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System’. Users could interact with the program through a screen, a light pen to draft and a set of buttons to set parameters or constraints. The program overall was primitive in design by today’s standards, but it was highly complex for its time. While it never became commercially available, it did pave the way for later CAD software. More developments arose in the 1960s, including the first digitizer from Auto-trol, and DAC-1, the first production interactive graphics manufacturing system. 

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

The start of the 1970s saw research slowly turn from 2D towards 3D. Milestones in this research include Versprille’s NURBS invention, which formed the basis for modern 3D curve and surface modeling, and the development of PADL (Part and Assembly Description Language) by Grayer, Lang and Braid. ADAM, a CAD software used as a basis for commercial CAD software systems, was released in 1972. CATIA (Computer-Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application) was released later in 1977, bringing engineers into the world of 3D modeling.

Setting The Stage For Large-Scale Adoption

The emergence of UNIX workstations in the 1980s truly revolutionized the computing and CAD markets. A mere decade or two earlier, CAD software was a proprietary tool for heavy industries. By the 1980s, however, commercial CAD systems began to appear in the aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding industries. It was the introduction of the first IBM PC in 1981 that truly marked the beginning of the large-scale adoption of CAD. 

History of AutoCAD - 1982 Floppy Disk

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

The 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


The CAD Revolution

AutoCAD was revolutionary—setting the pace for the development of other CAD competitors. However, CAD software was still predominantly 2D-based. This all changed in 1987 with the release of Pro/ENGINEER. 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. 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.

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.

In 1995, the first significant 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
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 logos The 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.

Still not sure how CAD has managed to evolve with the times? Check out its pros and cons below. 

The Benefits of CAD in the Modern Era


plus-sign  Quicker design processes. Designers can create prototypes in mere hours—manufacturing can follow soon after.

plus-sign  Cost effective. 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.

plus-sign  Ease of use. CAD programs can be easy to pick up on, and they allow for repeated designs and 2D or 3D drawings.

plus-sign  No restrictions. With how sophisticated and complex some CAD programs have become, design is slowly becoming limitless.


minus-sign  Software can be expensive. Buying a CAD program can set you back a lot. Of course, your budget depends on whether you’re a hobbyist or you’re running an entire business.

minus-sign  Training can be expensive. If you’re running a business, you won’t want to fork out for staff training for a particular CAD program.

minus-sign  Errors are still possible. Despite how much CAD has evolved and how sophisticated many programs are, it’s still possible to make errors.

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? 

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

CAD has grown and changed radically over the years—and will only continue to do so with time. 

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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