Many engineering professionals have come to view CAD as something of a commodity, not an area where much innovation can be expected. CAD tools continue to get better, however, with software delivering powerful capabilities for the evolving product design process.
"Increasingly, CAD is not the center of product design anymore," admitted Diego Tamburini, who leads manufacturing industry strategy at longtime, venerable CAD vendor Autodesk.
"It used to be that design was about someone sitting in front of a CAD tool designing a part or assembly," Tamburini told Design News in an interview. "Now it's more about understanding the requirements of the product, the functional design. Then, at some point in that process, you use CAD to define the geometry."
Design engineers know that product design grows out of requirements generated through market research and investigation of customer needs. The initial product idea is reviewed and tested at the conceptual stage before the organization commits to a full-blown engineering design. To support the initial product conceptualization, designers increasingly use freeform industrial design and digital prototyping tools.
For example, solidThinking Evolve, by Altair, is intended to let industrial designers quickly generate sketches and renderings, free of "the constraints of engineering-oriented CAD tools," while allowing the export of digital models for others in the product development process to use. For instance, Paolo Capeci, head of design at electronics firm Korg Italy, says this approach gives his team the flexibility "to manage the frequent design modifications that occur during the product development process."
Similar solutions, such as SolidWorks' 3DExperience and Autodesk's Alias product, allow two-dimensional sketching, modeling, surfacing and visualization for design engineers without having to commit to the level of parametric modeling required with CAD.
From such 2D starting points, designers move into 3D renderings using direct modeling, accomplished by a set of design tools that are less restrictive than full-blown CAD. Direct modeling is possible using Autodesk's Fusion 360 product, as well as with the Solidworks 3D CAD offering.
As product development continues, the design can be rendered "with increasing levels of definition," Autodesk's Tamburini said. A full-featured parametric CAD solution can be used to develop the manufacturable version of the product, supplying all the geometry that is needed for manufacturing and the other phases of the product lifecycle. Such capabilities are embodied in Solidworks 3D CAD and in Autodesk's AutoCAD, Inventor, and Fusion 360. The Creo CAD line of products, from PTC, includes sketching, direct modeling, and parametric CAD solutions.
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While recognizing that CAD now must be a function of a larger digital development ecosystem, Gian Paolo Bassi, the CEO of SolidWorks, a subsidiary of French software firm Dassault Systemes, suggests that CAD still has considerable potential for innovation. Considering the implications of the Internet of Things (IoT), Bassi said:
"As everyday design items, such as refrigerators, transition from ordinary objects that people update occasionally, to appliances that are connected via cloud to become 'smart-fridges,' engineers must rely more heavily on integrated design technologies. Designing for IoT will increasingly demand seamless integration between mechanical, electrical and electronic systems."
CAD software will have to step up considerably to meet this need, Bassi stresses. Engineers will need CAD tools that can help them achieve that new level of integration in such areas as "electrical schematics, ECAD designs, mechanical rules and constraints, data and project management, supply chain management and more."