How CAD Changed Product Design

Updated Nov 3, 2023
How CAD Changed Product Design

The creation of new products is one of the key drivers of the consumer society. These products are created through the process of product design. At its basis, therefore, product design refers to all the work done up to the point when the new product is in the consumer’s hands—or on their screen.

As such, product design involves a number of complex activities. It involves identifying a problem users experience and generating a solution. However, it also encompasses every aspect of the new product—the processes used to create it, its style, the materials used, its mechanical architecture, and more. Quite simply, it’s about creating a product that works.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that product design goes hand-in-hand with CAD. CAD software offers solutions that help make the design process easier: streamlining workflows, reducing the need for physical prototypes, and enabling designers to save revision histories, amongst many other advantages. In this article, we’ll explore how CAD has helped to change the face of product design—exploring the history of the discipline, the software used in design, and the new products CAD has brought to life.

Table of contents

What is product design?

Designer sketching on paper

As previously mentioned, product design refers to a complex network of activities; it can be viewed as both a noun and a process. When used as a noun, it refers to the set of properties that make up a specific product. These properties include the product’s physical form and aesthetics, as well as the function it serves. Some properties may encompass both form and function.

As a process, product design refers to the activities used to create a new product. This involves several stages, but generally begins with the identification of a problem to be solved. Designers will then define the objectives they wish to meet by creating their new product, and establish the parameters within which they will work.

Following these initial phases, designers then brainstorm ideas to create original concepts. In this first ideation phase, all ideas are welcome, helping to generate innovative responses to problems. A few promising concepts are then selected from this pool of ideas, and designers flesh them out more fully and start creating drawings. Traditionally, designers sketched their ideas out using a pencil and paper, but today, CAD is most often the tool of choice.

One or more of the concepts will then be selected, and, following numerous revisions, will go on to the prototyping phase. This is relatively self-explanatory: prototype versions of a product are created, helping bring to light any issues with the physical product. Once designers have ironed out these remaining issues, the product goes through a final prototyping stage, which represents what the finished product will look like. Finally, the model is ready to be produced.

History of product design

Product design before CAD

thornet number 14 chair

Thonet’s No. 14 chair was one of the first iconic mass-produced designs. Source: Wikipedia

The first instances of product design came as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to this, all products were hand-crafted, and though it was possible to create limited numbers of duplicates, mass production was not yet possible. Industrialization and mechanization enabled manufacturers to mass-produce items for the first time. An early example of this was Michael Thonet’s No. 14 chair, which was first introduced in 1859, and later became a ubiquitous sight in restaurants and cafés all over the world.

In tandem with mass production came lower prices and the creation of a consumer economy. Beginning in the early- to mid-20th century, product designers began to value form on an equal footing with function. Products were now sleeker and better designed, increasing their desirability and helping to drive consumer demand.

Pioneers in the field included Raymond Loewy, best known for his work in creating vehicles and locomotives, as well as logo design; Henry Dreyfuss, who created a wide range of consumer products, including the Big Ben alarm clock and Honeywell T86 thermostat; and Norman Bel Geddes, whose streamlined products and focus on form “made possible the design style of the thirties”.

Despite this focus on modernity and technological progress, the actual tools used to create these new designs were all too familiar: pencils, paper, and other traditional drawing implements. Creating and editing designs and drafts were therefore very time-consuming processes.

The beginnings of CAD in product design

Ivan Sutherland working on Sketchpad

Sutherland working on Sketchpad

The 50s and 60s saw some of the earliest developments in the history of CAD, with the development of programs such as Sketchpad. These early pieces of software went on to form the basis for much more complex future programs. In a further leap forward, at the end of the 60s, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated for the first time many innovations which would go on to become staples in modern computing—a graphical user interface, hypertext, and a computer mouse. The building blocks were therefore in place for computer-aided design software to enter the field of product design.

The first industries to adopt CAD software for design use were the automotive and aerospace engineering fields. Key reasons for this were the greater precision and speed offered by CAD when compared to traditional design techniques. In these early phases, generic CAD software did not exist. Instead, companies generally had in-house programs which were specialized to suit the needs of the business.

The early 1970s saw the creation of the first 3D CAD programs, giving designers the chance to create three-dimensional objects on screen for the first time. CAD saw rapid growth through the late 70s and early 80s, and there was a shift from specialized programs to more general drafting software. Exemplifying this sea change was AutoCAD, which was released in 1982. From this point forward, a wide range of industries began to adopt CAD as part of the product design process.

CAD in product design today

From its humble beginnings, CAD has developed ever more complex capabilities over the years. No longer are designers constrained to working with 2D drafts, or even 3D wireframes—now, product designers create 3D solid models, whose virtual properties can be defined to match those of the intended finished object. Designers can then use CAD software to perform analysis on their virtual model without needing to create a physical prototype first. This gives them the ability to test how their design will react to heat, pressure, physical stress, and other conditions.

CAD software is, therefore, no longer simply a high-tech replacement for traditional paper drawings. Instead, it is helping to augment designers’ capabilities by providing new methods of drafting and analysis that would have previously been impossible. Not only that, but CAD also enables designers to create new pieces quickly, with a high degree of mathematical accuracy. Additionally, CAD has given designers the power to easily modify their work and has dramatically sped up the design process.

Which CAD programs do product designers use?

Given the diverse range of products created using CAD, a wide variety of programs exist to cater for the needs of product designers. In this section, we’ll explore a few of the most prominent.


SolidWorks model of a flashlight

SolidWorks model of a flashlight

One of the best known CAD programs used in product design is SolidWorks, the flagship program of 3D design giants Dassault Systèmes. SolidWorks is a solid modeling software which enables the creation of 3D solids within numeric and geometric parameters. It is noted for its user-friendliness and the high degree of productivity that it allows for. SolidWorks helps designers to edit their pieces with greater speed and efficiency, whilst still meeting the stringent requirements of their clients.

Recognizing the value of the product design field, Dassault Systèmes also released SolidWorks Industrial Designer (SWID) and SolidWorks Conceptual Designer (SWCD). SWID includes support for intuitive freehand sketching, simplified design evolution, and realistic rendering, making it easier for designers to create a range of varied concepts. SWCD focuses on designing for mechanical components, with key features including sketch motion, deformable 3D geometry and mechanism synthesis.

Alternative parametric modelers

Rendering of a car in Autodesk Inventor

Rendering of a car in Autodesk Inventor

Whilst SolidWorks may be one of the best known programs for product design, it’s far from the only one on the market. Even SolidWorks’ parent company Dassault Systèmes offers an alternative in CATIA. Compared to SolidWorks, however, CATIA is a far more powerful tool. Whereas SolidWorks focuses on parametric modeling, CATIA is a complete product lifecycle management program. As a result, many heavy industries, including the aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding sectors, make use of CATIA at practically every stage of a product’s design.

Competing with CATIA in the high-end market is PTC’s Creo software (formerly ProENGINEER). The software aims to allow for product development “from concept to digital prototype”, and it was the first major parametric feature-based 3D modeling program in CAD. With the launch of Creo 4.0 in December, PTC integrated new features to account for the growth of 3D printing, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things.

Meanwhile, competing with SolidWorks on a more direct level is Autodesk’s Inventor software. Inventor offers both freeform and parametric modeling, and, as we covered in World of CAD XII in April, now offers new sets of model-based design and engineering tools. It aims to simplify the process of product design, allowing users to “focus… on designing, not the interface”.

Surface modelers

Rhino jewelry screenshot

Jewelry being created in Rhino, a surface modeler

Meanwhile, other software distinguishes itself from the likes of SolidWorks by focusing on freeform surface modeling rather than solid modeling. Surface modelers are useful when a designer needs to create forms to an extremely high degree of accuracy; examples can be found in the automotive and aerospace industries. These programs can be more complex to use, but are invaluable for industrial design.

One key example of surface modeling software is Autodesk’s Alias family. Unlike programs such as SolidWorks, Alias does not offer a high degree of mechanical detail; instead, it specializes in creating precise curves and surfaces, and is aimed specifically at the automotive sector. There are five different programs within the family of software, ranging from Design, the most basic, through to Surface, which allows designers to create production-ready surfaces.

Also prominent in the world of surface modeling is Rhino. This software offers powerful tools for both Windows and Mac users for a much lower cost than its Autodesk and Dassault competitors. Rhino claims to offer the accuracy needed to take practically any product—from a simple piece of jewelry through to a jumbo jet—from concept to production.


Screenshot of Sculptris

Sculptris, an example of CAD freeware

Whilst most product design professionals will primarily work with commercial CAD software, a number of free alternatives now exist, helping to democratize the industry by allowing newcomers to gain a foothold without breaking the bank. SketchUp is a freemium software which comes with a 3D Warehouse: an open online library storing a vast array of 3D models, which can be used in either SketchUp or another CAD program.

Other free alternatives include Tinkercad, which is perfect for beginners, and can be opened within your web browser; Sculptris, an introductory program which is ideal for 3D sculpting; and Blender, which allows users to create 3D models with photo-realistic rendering for free. Check out our guide to the 14 top free CAD packages to learn more about some of the great 3D modeling freeware on the market.

What are the advantages of using CAD in product design?

Whilst CAD has exerted a major influence on many industries, it has been particularly revolutionary in the field of product design. The move from drafting with paper and pencils to creating designs on screen has vastly increased efficiency and reduced waste—but that’s only the beginning. There are a number of varied advantages to using CAD for product design, many of which have had a deep impact on the field.


Set square

One of the most obvious positives to using CAD is the increased accuracy that it offers users. After all, even the most accurate sketch or pencil-and-paper drawing will contain some small errors. Meanwhile, CAD software is built around working with vector images. These vector images are defined by mathematical coordinates, in contrast to both physical drawings and raster images (which you can learn more about in our raster vs vector guide). Additionally, vector images contain lines and objects rather than pixels. The result of these characteristics is that vector images offer extremely accurate information about a specific design.

The mathematically defined nature of vector images is a particular advantage in the field of product design, as it removes the issue of drawing to scale. Once you’ve created your design in one particular scale in CAD software, you can then change the scale without losing any accuracy and while preserving the definition of the image.

CAD software makes it even easier for designers to draw accurately thanks to the advent of tools such as grid snapping. This involves drawing lines and objects within a rectangular grid; doing so enables a designer to be sure that their design is of a specific length, area, or volume. It also means that designers can keep the intended relation between different lines and objects.

From two dimensions to three

Screenshot of Blender

Create 3D models in CAD, such as this figurine in Blender

Traditional paper sketches were limited by the medium on which they were drawn—it’s hard to display a 3D object on a 2D surface. Unfortunately, in the field of product design, the need to view an object in three dimensions is imperative, as it ensures that the design meets both a consumer’s needs and their aesthetic specifications.

The use of CAD software changes all of this. 3D modeling software, such as SolidWorks, grants designers the ability to design in three dimensions from the start, as well as extending existing two-dimensional objects into the Z axis.

Designing in 3D offers designers several major advantages, not least of which is the ability to create a virtual object that resembles what the finished product will look like. 3D CAD software also typically comes with the possibility to view a virtual model from a number of different viewpoints, with the ability to pan around the model. It’s even possible to view the internal workings of a product by changing the opacity of outer layers. 

The ability to see the “finished product” in a virtual space not only gives a more realistic, immersive experience to clients, but also makes it easier for a designer to detect and fix any flaws that may exist in their design. Before the dawn of 3D CAD software, many of these faults may have remained undetected until the design reached its prototyping stage. As such, 3D CAD software enables product designers to fix design flaws more easily, work more efficiently, and save money.

Revise and remake

Before CAD, if you wanted to create a new version of a product based on an existing design, you’d either have to trace over the existing design by hand, or simply create a new sketch and hope that the differences with the original weren’t too great. And if you made any errors in a design as you were creating it, it was either a question of grabbing the eraser or starting over (yet again). Not exactly an ideal situation.

Luckily, these problems have been all but erased by CAD. If a product designer using CAD makes an error during the design process, then removing it can often be as simple as clicking ‘Undo’. Making more substantive edits is almost as easy, and, crucially, each individual object within your design can be edited individually, without altering any of the objects or lines to which it is connected. And—provided you’re following our CAD file management tips—fixing even the biggest of mistakes can be a simple case of opening up an earlier copy of your document, thanks to a file’s revision history.

When it comes to creating a new variant of a design, the process is similarly easy. For starters, changing colours, materials and swatches can often be achieved in just a couple of clicks. Meanwhile, it’s simple to open up an existing design, edit certain features, and create something new—no longer does a designer need to start from scratch. This means that it’s easier and quicker than ever to create customized designs that meet a client or customer’s needs or desires.

Production-ready designs


Fluid dynamics software, such as XFlow (seen in the screenshot above), allows designers to rigorously test their products in a virtual environment

As previously mentioned, the use of 3D CAD software can help designers to create highly accurate, realistic virtual renderings of a design, reducing the need for multiple prototypes, and speeding up the time between initial concept and end product. However, recent developments in CAD software have brought designers even closer to the point of totally production-ready designs.

Part of the reason for this is that modern CAD software now provides detailed information on how different parts and materials would behave under certain conditions. Product designers can now, for example, perform tests such as stress analysis, computational fluid dynamics, and finite element analysis. These tests show the effects of different forces on a product, and effectively mean that a CAD design can now function as a virtual prototype.

Designs created in CAD software have a further advantage in that, as vector images, they can be converted directly into G-code, which can then be used by various types of CNC machines. As such, this has also made possible several new manufacturing techniques, ranging from new CNC innovations through to multi-material and multicolor 3D printing. Such techniques mean that the idea of going directly from a virtual model to a finished product is close to becoming a reality.

The complete product lifecycle

Blue recycling bin

Not content with creating incredibly accurate product designs, CAD software now aims to account for every stage of a product’s lifecycle. This goes beyond the traditional goals of product design—creating a product that meets a customer’s needs and specifications—and encompasses everything from manufacturing through a product’s usable life towards its disposal and recycling.

Every aspect of product lifecycle is now taken into account: for example, one piece of software may enable designers to create bespoke tools in order to manufacture a certain product; a different program may enable them to find the most efficient layout for the factory where a product is manufactured; other programs may deal with what happens when a product reaches the end of its usable life. The result is that the field of product design is now far broader than it was before the CAD era.

What are the drawbacks of using CAD for product design?

Though CAD has brought numerous benefits to the fields of product and industrial design, not everyone is convinced that its impact has been wholly positive. Some have noted that the old method of drafting via sketching on paper “remains a basic tool for speeding up visual problem solving”. Sketching can help develop a designer’s capacity for creative thinking and enable them to create innovative solutions to the problems they aim to tackle.

Those who design exclusively with CAD, however, may find themselves more constrained to certain ways of thinking and drafting. This means that, whilst the products they create may be more visually appealing, they may fail to adequately solve the initial problem. After all, as noted by Unver, “computers can only enhance a good concept”—so, if using CAD means that designers fail to go through a proper problem solving process and jump straight into the drafting phase, the products they create are unlikely to meet the public’s needs.

Another issue is that, when drafting a product in CAD, designers may focus too much on how their object appears in a virtual space, rather than keeping in mind the real-life utility of the product. This problem has perhaps been exacerbated by the rise of 3D printing—which makes it easy to create a finished product within a matter of hours, but has also helped to further sever the link between the designer and the product.

Tackling the issues

Vectorization process for Nike logo

Converting a sketch from raster to vector maintains both creative thinking and accuracy

Though it’s clear that there are some downsides to using CAD for product design, some solutions have been created to help bridge the gap between traditional sketching and modern design processes.

One such option is the introduction of virtual sketching tools into CAD software. Using graphics tablets and other touch screen interfaces, designers are now able to “sketch” their designs on a virtual surface. This freehand approach is helping to reestablish the link between designers and their products and bring an element of creative problem solving into the CAD design process. Meanwhile, it retains CAD’s advantage over traditional paper sketching in eliminating physical waste and making it easy to revise a design.

Alternatively, designers may wish to stick to sketching in a traditional pencil-and-paper manner before bringing their designs into a virtual space. For these designers, conversion software exists. Conversion software takes a raster image—which is essentially a fixed bitmap made up of pixels—and creates a vector representation of it using automatic tracing. This vector image—most commonly a DXF file or DWG file—can then easily be edited and opened with CAD software.

Conversion software can be split into online converters and dedicated conversion programs. Whilst it’s generally free to use an online tool, there are numerous pitfalls of online file converters, including security issues and poor quality outputs. Designers looking to convert their sketches to a CAD-ready vector image should instead turn to dedicated software such as Scan2CAD: the ultimate vectorization software, which not only includes automatic image conversion capabilities but also comes with a wide range of raster editing tools, ensuring that a user’s sketch is converted as faithfully as possible into a usable vector image.

Products designed using CAD

Nowadays, CAD software is so ubiquitous that it could almost be easier to count the list of products which were not designed using it. CAD now dominates in fields as diverse as home appliances, consumer electronics, and furniture. Below, we have selected just a few examples of products designed using CAD.



The launch of the iPod changed the fortunes of Apple—and the way we listen to music

One of the most ubiquitous designs of the 21st century, Jonathan Ive‘s design for the original iPod sparked a revolution in the way we consume music. Its friendly design marked a major departure from the cluttered music players that defined the market in the early 2000s, and, crucially, was both simple to use and desirable to own.

Tip Ton chair

In 2008, designers Barber & Osgerby were approached by the Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturers, who needed advice on furniture for a secondary school in Tipton, England. Barber & Osgerby saw an opportunity to create a new form of chair that would aid concentration whilst offering both good design and good value. The Tip Ton chair was thus born, offering forward tilting and different seating positions without needing any moving parts. Barber & Osgerby also took into account the school environment, and created a virtually indestructible, stackable, and easy-to-maintain chair. View the Tip Ton chair’s CAD data here.

Louboutin fragrance bottle

Thomas Heatherwick's Christian Louboutin Beauté fragrance bottles

These Christian Louboutin Beauté bottles pushed the boundaries of glassware

British designer Thomas Heatherwick‘s projects have varied in scale from the 2012 Olympic cauldron to his range of spinning top-esque stools, Spun. He’s also worked alongside the Christian Louboutin fashion house to design a unique fragrance bottle. Heatherwick intended to subvert the traditional form of a fragrance bottle by putting a hole in the center of a rectangular bottle. The design was inspired by the idea that “liquid is alive”, with liquid flowing around the bottle, whilst it also evokes femininity, individuality and sensuality.

Lily light

Janne Kyttanen‘s Lily light, designed for the Freedom of Creation studio, was more than just a nice lamp—although it was undeniably aesthetically appealing. It was also the first product to demonstrate the possibilities offered by 3D printing in the field of interior design. At the time, 3D printing was an incredibly expensive manufacturing tool. Kyttanen’s task, therefore, was to achieve a big impact with a small light, whilst still ensuring that the end product was commercially viable.

Polder Sofa

Polder Sofa

Hella Jongerius’ Polder Sofa reflects the Dutch landscape while avoiding tradition

Designed by Hella Jongerius in 2005, the Polder Sofa is a playful, unique design which eschews the symmetry typically associated with sofa design. Instead, it opts for an irregular design, divided up by strict lines, which is intended to reflect the appearance of the Dutch landscape from a bird’s eye view. You can explore the CAD data for this project yourself at Vitra.

The future of CAD in product design

Whilst CAD software has already impacted upon the field of product design in innumerable ways, there are still exciting developments on the horizon. CAD has already evolved dramatically since its beginnings in the 1950s, and the future of CAD looks set to bring even more innovations, with new ways to create and share. We can expect these changes to have major repercussions for the world of product design—here are just a few of the anticipated impacts.

CAD in the cloud

Cloud connected devices

Traditional product design processes have generally been serial in nature—each step taking place after another. However, modern businesses are moving away from this model. Today, agile product design is becoming increasingly common, with teams working on tasks simultaneously, and often from varied locations. As this way of working increases in prevalence, even today’s standard desktop CAD software will begin to become increasingly obsolete.

The rise of cloud-based CAD looks set to address these issues. Working in-browser rather than at a fixed workstation means that users can work from any location, teams can work on a project concurrently, and tasks can be completed much more efficiently. This means that team members can provide near-instant feedback and work in a much more collaborative way. In turn, this can stamp out any issues with a design quickly and help foster innovation.

VR and AR

In our most recent monthly news roundup, World of CAD XIII, we discussed the arrival of 3D CAD program MakeVR on the HTC Vive virtual reality platform. The software was just one example of a growing trend: CAD is moving beyond the bounds of the traditional screen and moving into virtual and augmented reality.

The advantages of moving into VR and AR are clear: whilst 3D CAD software has long allowed designers to view their models in three dimensions and from a number of different viewpoints, VR and AR offer a much more realistic perspective of how a product will look in a physical space. An additional benefit to using such programs is that it takes the guesswork out of creating an object: you can see the development of your product as you create it in real time.

Many VR/AR programs have also put greater emphasis on usability and intuitive design, meaning that the learning curve for newcomers is set to be much less steep than it is for traditional CAD software. In some programs, creating a new product can be as simple as (virtually) pulling, pushing, and stretching it into existence. In turn, this means that more people than ever will be able to enter the field of product design, helping to increase the pace of innovation and democratizing the industry.

Full virtual prototyping

Product lifecycle management software and advanced tools within today’s CAD software enable product designers to test practically every aspect of a product virtually before ever using any physical materials. Now, work is being done to get rid of the “practically” and move towards full virtual prototyping—i.e. going straight from a CAD model to the production line, with no need to create prototypes in between.

At present, it’s unclear to what extent this will become a reality. After all, even the most sophisticated CAD model may still have a flaw or two that can only be detected when created in the physical world and exposed to real-life stresses and forces. However, as the technical capabilities of CAD software expand, a future without prototypes may become possible.

Additive manufacturing

Rova3D Printer

ORD Solutions’ Rova3D machine is just one example of a 3D printer that prints in multiple colors using several nozzles

As one of the decade’s most buzzworthy manufacturing developments, additive manufacturing is most definitely here. Nonetheless, while 3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing even now, many of the most exciting developments in this field are still to come. With 3D printers gradually decreasing in price, it’s not too hard to imagine a future where they’re an ubiquitous feature in our homes—in much the same way as PCs are today. Ray Kurzweil even projected that 3D-printed fashion would be commonplace within a decade.

In turn, the rise of additive manufacturing opens up near-endless possibilities when it comes to customization. A future where people can print their own individually designed phone case or lampshade isn’t too far away. This paves the way for major disruption to the current global supply chain. The technology also is low on waste, and allows for local production—incredibly important advantages in a world facing climate change.

It’s clear that CAD has already had many major impacts on the field of product design—both positive and negative—and will continue to do so in the future. We here at Scan2CAD will continue to follow developments closely—check out our news section for everything you need to know as it happens.

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