CAD/CAM: Past, Present and Future

Before CAD/CAM technology, drafts, calculations and product design involved pencil, paper and a seemingly endless succession of blueprints. CAD/CAM's ongoing enhancement has made the process easier, but with the latest slew of features, some users actually find less is more.

Virtually every manmade product has been designed and manufactured using a CAD/CAM program. CAD/CAM, or Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing, is utilized in every facet of industry; from designing phones to plotting out toolpaths in die and mold shops. Although the users of CAD/CAM technology may, at times, feel frustrated by how often its software is updated, the fact is that CAD/CAM has close to five decades of history stretching almost as far back as the computer.

CAD/CAM, like the digital computer, had its inception in the military. In the mid-1950s the U.S. Air Force began testing an air defense system known as SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) to graphically depict data received on radar systems. The first computer actually rendering a program, SAGE was conceived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1960, computer scientists at MIT produced yet another project called Sketchpad, an application that is now considered to be the first design program with industrial use. A similar program sprouted up at General Motors soon after. At that time, mainframes were still large enough to take up entire rooms.

During the 1960's CAD/CAM technology continued to evolve and spread to other areas. Automotive companies were the first to adopt the technology, and used it primarily to design automobile bodies. It then quickly spread to other sectors of industry, which were only too eager to abandon traditional pen and paper methods of drafting. By 1973, CAD/CAM was being used to design industrial tools. Midway through the decade, the 19-inch monitor came out, which meant that drawings could be viewed larger than the previous standard of 11 inches. In the last half of the 70's, solid modeling software became available. It allowed users to take "geometric primitives" (basic geometric shapes such as boxes and cones) and combine them using Boolean operations. In 1982, Autodesk made CAD/CAM history when it released the first version of AutoCAD, which soon became the premiere software platform for automobile design.

At times, the history of CAD/CAM seems like the plot of a spy novel. In 1984, a Hungarian scientist named Gabor Bajor, succeeded in smuggling two Macintosh computers into his Communist-controlled homeland. With the intent of writing a 3D CAD program, Bajor and his teenage assistant used the illegal computers to create just that program, and started the Graphsoft Company. In 1985, Diehl Graphsoft introduced MiniCAD to the market, which would be considered the industry standard for CAD on the Mac. The same year Autodesk unveiled AutoCAD 2.1. Complete with 3D capabilities, AutoCAD 2.1 was another breakthrough that transformed design in the auto industry. In the late 80's and early 90's, CAD/CAM giant Unigraphics took its place as a major industry player by partnering with industry powerhouses such as General Motors, UNIX, GE and Boeing.

During the early 1990s, Unigraphics introduced hybrid modeling, which featured both traditional modeling and advanced parametric techniques. By the end of 1994, over one million units of AutoCAD had been sold, and by the end of 1995, there were about 350,000 users of generic CAD/CAM reported worldwide. In 1996, General Motors signed the largest contract in CAD/CAM's history by selecting Unigraphics as its sole vendor for vehicle development software. Soon afterwards, Unigraphics would once again transform the medium by releasing CAD/CAM software that allowed for the definition, control and evaluation of product templates. Another major advance in CAD/CAM occurred IN 1999 when Think3, a "Johnny-come-lately" to the world of CAD/CAM, introduced the first mechanical design software that could fully combine the power of parametric solids, advanced surfacing, wireframe and two-dimensional drafting on the desktop in one environment. Subsequently, a plethora of software vendors has surfaced, inundating the market with competing CAD/CAM platforms AND causing designers to be alternately pleased and confused by the sheer number of options available to them.

At present, CAD/CAM continues its steady path of progress. Much of this progress is in the form of refining past innovations to make them more efficient and user friendly. A groundbreaking CAD/CAM innovation has not occurred for a number of years, which seems to indicate that another sweeping change is just around the corner -- or maybe not. Despite the advent of 3D CAD/CAM, many CAD/CAM users still prefer to render designs in 2D. Thus, recent 3D innovations such as animated "walk-throughs" (a technique that allows designers to visually move in and around the rendered model, and see it from every possible angle) are still largely underused. The same is true of the bevy of collaboration tools currently available to the CAD/CAM user. The ability to combine CAD/CAM, with finite-element analysis and the accessibility of simulation and knowledge management, has yet to be fully embraced. Perhaps, it is in one of these areas that the next CAD/CAM breakthrough will occur. One thing that can be said with a degree of certainty is that research and development are currently ahead of user demand. When, and if, the garden-variety CAD/CAM user decides that they need to expand their range of capabilities, they will find a world of cutting-edge CAD/CAM tools at their disposal.

Sources: Computer-Aided Design – An Overview
Shefali Kumar

CAD in the Third and Fourth Dimension
Shefali Kumar

CAD Chronology

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