Top Design Applications Create a Versatile Engineer

Cabe Atwell

March 1, 2013

4 Min Read
Top Design Applications Create a Versatile Engineer

An engineer is a tool, once looked at by an employing company as a Swiss Army knife of talents to be wielded at every whim. Through my years as a contract engineer I have noticed a few trends. Trends and fads demand that engineers expand their knowledge. It never stops, it never slows down -- a momentary lapse and the engineer in obsolete.

The following is a collection of applications that can make anyone adept at engineering. These programs are available to anyone, and can take them from no experience to proficient in a short amount of time.

Computer-aided drafting
The versatile engineer can design it themselves. Of course, the part in question can be drawn on paper, even in a 2D computer-aided drafting (CAD) package like AutoCAD or Draftsight. Those are old, tried, and true standards. It is 3D Solid Modeling that will be the expected standard in the near future. Keep in mind almost every project requires a shape.


If a circle can be drawn on a piece of paper, it can be drawn to an exact size in a 2D CAD program and it can be as easily drawn in 3D CAD and extruded to a desired length. Despite the multitudes of features, options, and methods, CAD programs can be broken down to just a handful of base operations. The first tutorial on whatever program chosen is all that is needed to start drawing 3D, in most cases. Everything learned past that just adds to how well the tool is put to use. Once familiar with this system, picking it up on any other 3D CAD platform should be easy.

For example, AutoCAD Inventor draws parts in almost the same fashion as SolidWorks. Alibre Design, another application, was designed to be a direct competitor to the ease of SolidWorks. It too draws in the same way.

In certain situations, the engineer wouldn't even have to draw the part. A lot of companies like to design using off-the-shelf components. Almost every component out there, like a bolt or a box, has a 3D model that can be downloaded and added to any drawing. In other words, assemble a 3D model of a complete enclosure, to use the example again, without drawing a thing.

Let's say an enclosure is drawn, what next? Having it drawn means nothing if it cannot be fabricated. Most 3D CAD packages can output a handful of file formats. The easiest way to see these parts made is to simply load those files onto a 3D printer and let the system start building. Most printers will handle the common output 3D files. If not tasked with prepping the system, proper maintenance of the 3D printer is important, but that one is easily handled by reading the manual for it. Printing is not the only option. These CAD packages can output G-code, the reduced instruction programming language used for numerically controlled (NC) machine-tools, also known as CNC machinery.

SolidWorks, for example, has a third-party plug-in (Solidcam) that when run can output the G-code needed to run on any type of machine, be it a mill, router, lathe, etc. A less expensive competitor for the SolidWorks platform, Alibre Design, has a number of similar product add-ons that can do the same. The outcome will look like a throwback to BASIC programming, where each line is a simple tool path command. Although nothing is perfect, just relying on the CAD software's G-code output will usually handle the job, error-free.

Computer-aided manufacturing
Aside from using a 3D printer for 3D models, G-code will have to be run on some CNC machines. The G-code program has to be run on a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) system. In many cases, this is done on a terminal at complete turnkey CNC machine. However, sometimes a machine is built or retrofitted in-house -- in a do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion. Most of the time, passing the G-code onto the resident machinist is all that is needed. Don't stop there -- familiarizing one's self with how CAM packages operate is well worth while. Being able to handle the in-house machinery looks like an engineer who knows how to get work done.

About the Author(s)

Cabe Atwell

Cabe is an electrical engineer, machinist, maker, cartoonist, and author with 25 years’ experience. When not designing/building, he creates a steady stream of projects and content in the media world at element14,, MAKE ─ among others. His most recent book is “Essential 555 IC: Design, Configure, and Create Clever Circuits.

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