CAD stands for Computer-Aided Design. It is simply software or technology enabled with functions for designing products and documenting the design process across many industries. It is highly useful in disciplines like mechanical design, industrial design, aerospace engineering, robotics, automotive design and architecture.
CAD improves designer productivity, therefore product designers use it to create unique designs, product functions and layout, and also to view their detailed designs in 2D and 3D formats from various angles. This speeds up the manufacturing process. Great CAD software should have several features including editing tools, 2D and 3D template models, customizable tool palettes. This is in addition to an accessible user interface and excellent support network.
CAD is often used in conjunction with product data management (PDM) software which have evolved lately into more complex product lifecycle management (PLM) applications. Thus, it is common for many leading CAD vendors to also offer PDM and PLM systems in tandem. There are several very large vendors on the market today and a few smaller niche vendors providing specialized CAD or PLM systems. This article covers the more popular vendors and products available specifically for the manufacturing industry.
Autodesk has many strong software products and services for manufacturing and engineering. The most notable, AutoCAD, remains the premier CAD software application. Originally released in 1982, this modeling application was one of the very first commercially successful CAD systems. Since then, it has undergone several improvements and upgrades by the developer.
The fact that AutoCAD has been around for some time before other CAD software makes it the industry standard CAD software. It is full of features and specific functions like 3D models that can be converted to STL files for 3D printing. It also offers excellent mobile and web-app functionality to users.
AutoCAD is designed for professionals with experience in programming models. There is a free, fully functional version that can be downloaded and used by students. Free licenses are also available for most of its entire suite of AEC vertical packages, which include AutoCAD Electrical and AutoCAD Architecture.
However AutoCAD has two main setbacks:
- watermarking on its free software editions which make designs look less-than-professional; and
- functions that are often hard to understand.
It is important to note that while AutoCAD may still be the gold standard and classic choice for engineers, Autodesk has introduced several other compelling products that are in some ways superior to AutoCAD. These include Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Revit for CAD design, For PLM, we have Autodesk Fusion360 and Autodesk Vault.
Every evaluation of new CAD and PLM applications should have these powerful Autodesk offerings on the shortlist.
Dassault Systèmes is a true leader in the CAD/PLM space. Their Solidworks 3D modeling software is testament to their solid engineering prowess. Other popular Dassault software include several CAD applications such as CATIA and ENOVIA (collaborative design). Their PLM applications include the impressive SmarTeam.
Dassault’s original software product was CATIA. It launched in 1981, around the same period as AutoDesk’s AutoCAD. It should also be noted that Dassault’s DraftSight product remains a stalwart 2D CAD application with a loyal following and newer 3D capabilities.
Dassault’s top CAD product for manufacturers is unquestionably Solidworks which it acquired in 1997. This parametric featured-based model CAD software is preferred by many designers because of its easy-to-learn user interface and advanced features such as reverse engineering and design validation tools.
Solidworks has a safety function (Faculty of Wizard) that examines your designs for structural vulnerabilities or mistakes, allowing you to isolate and fix these issues before your final design.
SolidWorks also has some special features such as a system of NURBS so you can create very thorough curvatures. This is in contrast with several CAD software offering polygonal modeling. It works with dimensional sketching making residing easier. A great thing about Solid Works is that even with all such advanced features, the cost is still low relatively compared to other CAD tools on the market. Dassault wisely continues to invest heavily in this strategic product.
CATIA is an acronym for Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application. Developed by Dassault Systèmes, it serves as a multi-platform application with different software suites for CAD such as CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing).
CATIA is a standard and highly advanced engineering tool used by designers in the creation, modification, analysis, and optimization of their designs. It works by innovating product design through the various approaches that leverage existing tools through the stages involved in product design.
CATIA’s specialized functions is its primary appeal for creative and industrial designers, automotive designers, mechanical engineers, and so forth. It is preferred to design products relating to automotive, ship building and architecture. CATIA users are also able to collaborate and share their designs and experience to other users through the 3D design community run by Dassault Systèmes.
Formerly Parametric Technology Corporation, PTC is another major CAD technology publisher which began operations in 1985. Their premier product is PTC Creo (formerly Pro/ENGINEER and affectionately called Pro-E). It continues to be one of the darling CAD applications in the market today.
Creo’s rich thirty-year history as CAD software makes it one of the leading and most functional CAD software on the market. It comes with the power of several tools for creating and editing 3D models. As a product engineering software tool, it helps designers create and interact with 3D CAD geometry, enabling them make quick engineering decisions.
Creo integrates several functionalities like motion, thermal, parametric or direct modeling, which designers can use to create or edit their designs. It is ideal for additive manufacturing because it hastens and automates the product development process, and also helps designers to seamlessly integrate technology for greater productivity.
The updated Creo 5.0 version released in 2018 is an improvement on its predecessors with upgraded features like an easily navigable user interface and more understandable layout.
PTC has several other great engineering applications including Windchill, a product lifecycle management solution that is web-based. According to a 1999 PTC announcement, there are more than 25,000 customers across industrial equipment, consumer products, aerospace, electronics, apparel, footwear, retail, automotive and high-tech industries. PTC’s PLM products address products, assets, applications, processes and services.
PLM has made inroads in the Internet of Things with its preliminary IoT acquisition with the $112m takeover of ThingWorx. It has also acquired IoT connectivity management provider, Axeda Corporation, IoT predictive analytics company Coldlight, and industrial connectivity provider Kepware. They continue to signal their strong intent in the Augmented Reality space with the acquisition of Vuforia and strategic partnerships with Microsoft and ANSYS.
The last of the big four is Siemens, the German engineering giant. They offer several products for engineers including Mentor Graphics, PADS, Xpedition/DXDesigner, SolidEdge, NX and Team Center.
NX (formerly UG) was first released in 1978 although the software has changed considerably through the decades. NX is an alternative to Creo, CATIA, Autodesk Inventor, and SolidWorks and primarily has applications in design (parametric and direct solid/surface modeling), engineering analysis (static, dynamic, electro-magnetic, thermal, using the finite element method and fluid, using the finite volume method), and manufacturing finished design by using included machining modules.
Originally Intergraph, Solid Edge is a 3D CAD, parametric feature and synchronous technology modeling software. It offers assembly modeling, solid modeling, and 2D orthographic view functionality for mechanical designers. It links to many other PLM technologies through third-party software and runs on Microsoft Windows.
For PCB design, Mentor Graphics PCB tools are integrated, flexible, scalable & easy-to-use while Teamcenter is Siemens’ suite of PLM software applications. It was originally built by UGS Corporation, which is now Siemens PLM Software. Siemens PLM itself traces its roots back to 1969 pre-dating both Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes.
Hexagon PPM is another popular vendor in the engineering software market with several popular products including Cabinet Vision and CADworx. It is a key division is Intergraph Corporation, an American software development and services company. Businesses, governments, and organizations globally, subscribe to Intergraph’s enterprise engineering and geospatially powered software.
Cabinet Vision is an award-winning design software for woodworking professionals. It is the most widely adopted design and manufacturing software for custom cabinet and room design, material optimization, photorealistic renderings, bidding and costing, bill of materials, and cutlists.
Armed with a powerful S2M center, it can automatically create machine-ready G-code for CNC flat table routers, point-to-point machines, panel saws, drill and dowel machines, chop saws, and other specialized CNC machinery.
Cabinet Vision is an accessible dialog box that shows every point measurement to take in the room. The laser in a device with Cabinet Vision should be pointed at the desired location, and the button within Cabinet Vision clicked to take the measurement.
CADWorx is an integrated series of CAD software for plant design and automation. It is either an AutoCAD-based or BricsCAD-based system. CADWorx provides intelligent drawing/database connectivity, advanced levels of automation, and easy-to-use drafting tools.
CADWorx also features the world’s only intelligent link between CAD and pipe stress analysis. Capable of increasing accuracy and improving quality of deliverables for designers and engineers alike, CADWorx users report productivity improvements of nearing 75% more than previous 2D CAD software methods, and 50% over prior 3D methods. CADWorx saves time on projects.
Bentley Systems, Incorporated develops, manufactures, licenses, sells, and supports computer software and services for infrastructure design, construction, and operation, the company’s software is used extensively in architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and operations. Bentley’s software are applied in the design, engineering, building, and operations of massive constructed assets like railways, road networks, bridges, buildings, power plants, industrial plants, and utility networks. Research and development is paramount to the company that they dedicate 20% of revenues to it.
Key Bentley software product lines are MicroStation, ProjectWise, and AssetWise. Several Bentley products have been based off the Microsoft Azure cloud platform since 2014.
MicroStation is Bentley’s CAD software platform to two- and three-dimensional deign and drafting. It is used widely in architecture and engineering. It is capable of generating 2D and 3D vector graphics objects and elements. It also includes BIM (Building Information Modeling) features. MicroStation CONNECT is the most recent version, and runs on the Microsoft Windows operating system.
MicroStation was initially for creating construction drawings. It has however, evolved to include advanced modeling and rendering features, including boolean solids, keyframe animating and raytracing. It offers specialized environments for architecture, civil engineering, mapping, and plant design.
Bentley revised its native DGN format in V8 to include additional features as Digital Rights and Design History. This is a revision control ability permitting reinstating previous versions globally or by selection. It also offers better support to import or export Autodesk’s DWG format. Data restrictions fro earlier versions such as limited design levels and drawing area were removed by the V8 DGN file format. CONNECT uses the V8 DGN file format.
MicroStation is also able to write and read various CAD formats (DWG, DXF, SKP, OBJ, and more) and produce media output as rendered images (BMP and JPEG), animations (AVI), 3D web pages in Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) and Adobe’s PDF.
Altium specializes in PC-based PCB design software and robust tools for PCD designers. In other words, they provide electronics design software for engineers who design printed circuit boards. Designer is its flagship electronic design automation software package for printed circuit boards. It is the evolved version of the DOS-based PCB design tool, Protel PCB (later Autotrax and then Easytrax).
It became Altium Designer 6.0 in 2005. The first version to offer 3D visualization and clearance checking of PCBs directly within the PCB editor.
There are four main functional areas within Designer’s suite:
- Schematic capture
- 3D PCB design
- Field-programmable gate array (FPGA) development and
- Release management.
Features common across reviews include:
- Interactive 3D editing of the board and MCAD export to STEP.
- Integration with various component distributors, allowing search for components and access to manufacturer data.
- Cloud publishing of design and manufacturing data.
- Simulation and debugging of the FPGA with the VHDL language, and ensuring that expected output signals are generated given a set of input signals.
Ansys develops and markets engineering simulation software. Their software can be applied to product and semiconductor software, as well as create simulations to test durability of a product, its temperature distribution, electromagnetic properties, and fluid movements.
Ansys acquisitions include other engineering design companies involved in electronics design, fluid dynamics, and various physics analyses.
Ansys SpaceClaim is actually a product of Ansys acquisition, SpaceClaim. SpaceClaim is a solid modeling CAD software. It runs on Microsoft Windows and targets the mechanical engineering niche. Its approach to solid modeling uses design concepts resulting from pulling, moving, filling, combining, and reusing 3D shapes.
There is also SpaceClaim Engineer for end-users. SpaceClaim software are also licensed for OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Ansys, CatalCAD, Flow International Corporation, and Ignite Technology. Ignite markets a version of SpaceClaim used for jewelry design.
Four tools express SpaceClaims’s 3D direct modeling technology through its user interface: pull, move, fill, and combine.
Pull is the most feature-heavy. It contains most tools found in traditional CAD systems, and relies on user selections and secondary tool guides to determine behavior. An example is the Pull tool on a face by default offsetting the face while on the edge, Pull rounds the edge.
Move repositions geometry and components, and is applied to make patterns (arrays). Fill on the other hand, will often remove geometry from one part by extending geometry to fill the surrounding area. This is mostly used to delete holes and rounds from a model. SpaceClaim Engineer has more specialized tools for model preparation.
Combine is responsible for boolean and splitting operations like merging and subtracting parts from each other.
Let’s mention here that these functions were developed in the ACIS modeling kernel licensed to SpaceClaim by Dassault Systemes.
Aras is the American developer and publisher of product development software, Aras Innovator. Aras Innovator is used for product lifecycle management and various other applications.
Aras Innovator has been open-source software since 2007, and Aras Corp provides key software updates and technical support as subscription services.
The Innovator is based on the Microsoft .NET Framework and SQL Server and is dedicated to managing product lifecycle management business processes.
Other applications of Aras Innovator include lean product development, advanced product quality planning (APQP), collaborative product development, and new product introduction (NPI).
Numerous professionals and companies around the world trust Arena for their Cloud PLM, quality management systems (QMS), and requirements management.
Arena focuses on integrating distributed teams as they keep track of latest product design with unstructured information silos. Innovative products demand mechanical, software, and electrical teams cooperate with external partners throughout the product development process.
Arena PLM is cloud-based making it easy to deploy, configure, and use from any location, making it easy for everyone to observe new product development and introduction (NPD/NPI).
Regulated defense suppliers must comply with US export controls like ITAR and EAR. They can deploy Arena PLM on AWS GovCloud.
Cadence Design Systems, Inc. is a multinational electronic design automation (EDA) software and engineering services company. The merger of SDA systems and ECAD, Inc. in 1988 formed the company. It makes software, hardware, and silicon structures for designing integrated circuits, systems on chips (S0C) and printed circuit boards.
Cadence acquired OrCAD Systems to bolster its position in the shrink-wrap PCD Design Tools market.
OrCAD is Cadence’s software for electronic design engineers and electronic technicians. It can create electronic schematics, perform mixed-signal simulation and electronic prints for manufacturing printed circuit boards.
OrCAD is really a suite of products including a schematic editor – Capture, an analog/mixed-signal simulator – EE Pspice, and a PCB board layout solution – PCB Designer Professional.
Microvellum targets woodworkers who need to meet customer demands. It helps them build products on time and on budget, in the face of pricey labor and scarcity of skilled workers. Microvellum software streamlines the numerous processes related to wood product design, production, engineering, and production so projects can be built on time and with precision.
For 3D models, Microvellum offers the Solid Model Analyzer (SMA). This powerful tool makes it flexible to process 3D models from virtually any solid modeling application, such as Solid Works, AutoCAD, SketchUp Pro, and Inventor. For design teams that build unique products in a separate modeling application or receives models from outside designers, SMA allows seamless manufacture of these 3D models without any need to re-engineer them.
Mitre Software Corporation
Mitre Software focuses on speeding up the work of busy geotechnical engineers, and AcornPipe is preferred for isometric piping drawings. AcornPipe is cost-effective and user-friendly.
It is highly innovative software that allows users to click through a piping drawing, set up specifications, create weld maps, and allocate heat numbers and inspection information easily.
AcornPipe provides adequate support in all aspects of industrial piping design, fabrication, installation, estimation, inventory control and quality control.
Oracle does not provide a native CAD application, but acquired Agile in 2007. Agile remains a leading PLM option for larger, enterprise manufacturers. Agile’s PLM solutions underpins the product innovation and introduction process in many industry types – life sciences, consumer packaged goods, industrial manufacturing, and high-tech.
AutoVue Enterprise Visualization is a suite of Oracle products suited for delivering web-based capacity to access, view, annotate (digitally) and collaborate on technical and business documents, without the need to invest in specialized CAD tools.
With the right documents available to the right resources when needed, AutoVue can enhance decision making and tailor improvements in customer’s engineering and document intensive workflows, like design reviews and approvals, asset management, maintenance operations, and more.
AutoVue is the industry leader for AutoCAD and hundreds more 2D CAD, 3D CAD, ECAD and office formats.
Trimble develops many different business applications and entered the CAD market in 2011 with the acquisition of Tekla. Trimble’s EC-CAD and MEP range of construction management software, services, and hardware improve workforce productivity.
Tekla is a software suite for analysis and design, detailing, and project communication.
Tekla Structural Designer is a software solution for building analysis and design. Structural engineers working on concrete and steel buildings use Structural Designer a great deal.
Tekla Tedds automates repetitive structural and civil calculations, providing key calculations, sketches and notes.
Tekla BIMSight builds information model-based construction project collaboration. It is able to import models from BIM (Building Information Mananagement) applications with Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) format, DWG, and DGN. Users can also do spatial coordination (clash or conflict checking) to prevent design and constructability issues. By sharing models and notes, communication during construction project is made possible.
Tekla Structures is BIM software for steel and construction detailing, precast, and cast in-situ. It gives users the ability to create and manage 3D structural models in concrete or steel, guiding the process from concept to fabrication. The shop drawing creation process is automated. CNC-files are created, along with files to control precast concrete manufacturing, control reinforcement bending machines, import PLM systems, and so forth. Structures is available in various configurations and environments to suit various culture- and segment-specific needs.
TinkerCAD is also another top CAD software with several features which include a browser-based 3D design and modelling tool, Click-to-3D print, fast, (ability to complete models and designs in minutes) and an accessible user interface perfect for beginners.
TinkerCAD features a block-building concept that allows users to develop models from a set of basic shapes, and also has an online software that comes with a store of millions of shapes that a user can choose from.
It is well-suited for any skill level, as it has several functions that appeal to students, newbies, as well as experienced professionals. Its 3D printing solution and a direct connection with 3rd party printing services gives it an added benefit over other CAD software in the market.
TinkerCAD has definitely helped many designers to develop high quality products for consumers.
SketchUp is 3D design software that makes 3D modeling accessible to everyone. It is used for a wide range of drawing applications like architectural, landscape architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, film and video game design, and interior design.
An amazing feature that makes SketchUp stand out from its order CAD software counterparts is its neat and well-organized interface. Users are not bogged down with too many buttons and complex functions that can be hard to understand especially by newbies using the CAD software. Rather, it offers a simple intuitive interface and several basic tools to help users create your 2D and 3D models.
Another benefit of SketchUp is the exchange repository feature integrated into its CAD software as well as a store where more than 2 million SketchUp models are available for download by the user.
The SketchUp pro version has several features of its own. Apart from its ability to create simple 3D designs from scratch, you are also able to either edit or export these designs. Its editing toolbox is large with the addition of more advanced tools to help you with your design like solid modeling.
Lastly, this is a great tool for making architectural designs due to its ability to help users generate technical plans, reports, and lists to complement the fanciful renderings common to CAD software. These generated technical plans are good for planning, executing and analyzing building projects
Our list would be simply incomplete without FreeCAD which, deducing from its name is a completely free CAD software. Despite being free, its features are quite amazing and they include BIM, software with finite-element-method (FEM) support and parametric 3D modeling which is very suitable for designing realistic models of any size and modifying designs.
The parametric 3D CAD modeler erases the hassles with editing, since designers just need to go back to model history and change parameters to get a new model whenever they want to modify a document. FreeCAD Is easy to read and highly customizable.
It is open-source and as such it can read and write several open file formats namely SVG, DXF, IGES, DAE, STEP etc. FreeCAD also has a moderate toolbox with several advanced tools. However it might not be the best CAD software for your professional designs, but it can serve as an excellent training tool which is advisable to use before purchasing CAD software with paid licenses and subscriptions.
While FreeCAD’s original purpose was mechanical product design but expands to a wider range of uses in engineering (architectural or electrical). Functionality can be extended using the equally open source Python programming language.
It supports various file formats: DXF, SVG, STEP, IGES, STL, StereoLithography, OBJ, SCAD, IV, IFC, and its own native file format.
TurboCAD 2018 Deluxe is a basic and powerful 2D/3D CAD software tool recommended for individuals new to CAD software because of its easy to learn and use interface. It comes with several tools that can be used to draw, annotate, modify and create dimensions to facilitate the creation and development of high quality models in your product design process.
Its other features include: a highly customizable UI, XREF support, and mechanical tools highly preferred by product engineers like 2D/3D Boolean operations, revolve, extrude, sweeps, a conceptual selector and tools that can be used to light up and highlight 3D objects. TurboCAD users can share their designs with other 3rd party CAD software like SketchUp and AutoCAD.
It is notable that CAD runs on Apple Inc.’s Macintosh platform as well as Microsoft Windows. The Mac versions are built off a separate codebase. They are not directly comparable with the Windows versions. Both 2D and 3D tools are contained in TurboCAD Mac Pro, while the standard version is for 2D drafting only. A High Sierra-compatible version of TurboCAD v10 was released in February 2018 by IMSI Design.
There is a plethora of CAD software, tools, and suites on the market. Having explored more popular CAD brands, their commercial and open source CAD options, it is important to note that other notable products exist. These include: OpenSCAD (a script-only based modeler using its own description language), Rhino, Aliax, and Ali. CADTALK ERP connects with most of the CAD systems on this list transforming the engineering bill of materials into manufacturing bills of materials, routings, and items inside your ERP system. Schedule a personalized demonstration today to learn more.