What is CAD? A Guide From Definition to Application

What is CAD?

CAD stands for Computer Aided Design and encompasses a variety of systems to help manufacturers, designers, engineers, architects, and countless other professionals as they strive for efficiency and expansion. 

According to Jon Peddie Research (JPR), the market has become increasingly strong due to the advancements in digitalization of software tools. JPR estimates that the industry revenue of 2021 amounted to $9.4 billion compared to $8.8 billion in 2020. This suggests an increasing attention to computer-based offerings, especially when considering the growing need for better graphics for PC and mobile devices.

What is Computer Aided Design?

In an age of speed, Computer Aided Design takes out the tedious process of drafting designs by creating 2D and 3D renderings. This software is not limited to drawings as it essentially has automated the design process from start to finish.

Engineers use CAD systems to log parts for larger machines, draw up schematics on high and low levels, and analyze functionality. While the design process before was largely segmented and potentially confusing, the tenets of CAD streamline the design process and promote greater communication within organizations. 

two people looking at an assembly in a cad program on a computer

Types of Computer Aided Design     

The types of CAD are varied in approach and function. Some are based in a more tangible way, while others draw up complete schematics of a design. Below are the most used types:

2D CAD creates your typical flat drawing and includes the basic geometric shapes. This design is used to create a simplified, more direct draft and was used in the 70s before the development of modern systems. 

3D Modeling differs from 2D CAD as it works to provide a fuller, more encompassing view of what the designer is aiming to achieve. This model can be broken up into 3 essential types as listed below.

Surface Modeling 

Is the most advanced and comprehensive of the 3D modeling methods. This is often used by engineers to create schematics of cars or planes as it precisely defines the curvature of surfaces on parts. For example, special attention may then be given to how air flows over the part and the way in which a design can provide efficiency. Where the other models work to create realistic or block-like designs, surface modeling highlights movement. 

a CAD user looking at a cross section of a part in a design program

Solid Modeling 

Is widely used by engineers to create 3D shapes. This modeling is easier to learn and doesn’t require as much training. Overall, it is a tool for engineers to create more basic objects and to understand a design’s functionality. 

What is CAD used for?

CAD is used to draft the dimensions of parts and assemblies that used to have to be drawn by hand through a very tedious process. More importantly, it allows for changes and updates to be made without scrapping the entire work and starting over. This has sped up the design process and improved the quality of designs across a variety of industries. As the world continues to focus on the importance of automation and efficiency, these systems provide a way for designers and engineers alike to create renderings before the product is constructed. This way they can edit and enhance the overall design before going to the prototype stage. 

two hands drawing straight lines on a piece of paper to create a handmade draft of a design


Today architects can use 2D and 3D to render accurate designs rather than relying on hand-drawn ones of the past. Now an architect can craft a 2D design to emphasize the layout of a structure and then create a 3D design that is more aligned with real-world dimensions. These 3D designs also offer walk-through options for the architect to visualize a realistic rendering. This further enhances the goal of the final building, potentially leading developers and buyers to better understand the process as well. 

Product design

Product Designers primarily create products that people use like chairs and tools. They can use CAD to increase efficiency throughout the design process. In the past designers would have to spend hours drafting and then editing designs, often carving clay or using other model making methods to prototype designs before drawing them, which led to a less than efficient process. Designers can now increase the quality of the product without producing countless prototypes before the final. Ultimately, this process reduces the rate of error and provides a more collaborative approach to creating a product.  

3D printing  

3D printing has become a popular technology for designers and amateurs to use. Manufacturers also use 3D printing to build prototypes using CAD software. Some have coined this process as additive manufacturing as it creates a physical object from a digital model. This is due to the additive nature of 3D design in which the designer continues to add to the original, rather than eliminate as seen in other processes. This printing process is also extremely adaptive, especially with use of material. Manufacturers and designers often use plastic and metal materials, but this can be further extended to concrete, human tissue, and aesthetic dentistry

a 3d printer next to some 3d printed parts and a computer with a slicer open

CNC routing and machining

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) routing refers to the cutting of materials with a computer operated machine creating parts with two or three-dimensional features. This sounds much more technical than it is, as it is used to produce signs, frames, molding, and even furniture or musical instruments. A CNC router uses CAD applications to produce extremely consistent and exact products based on the geometry embedded in the CAD file. Hobbyists, engineers, and even artists use CNC routers for various woodworking projects as well as for industrial purposes.

Laser cutting and engraving  

Similar to CNC machining or routing, laser cutting and engraving uses a computer operated machine to cut through materials in a flat plne (two dimensions), resulting in a precise product. Manufacturers often cut sheet metal for construction or aviation/automotive purposes. Newer machines are even starting to offer training for operators to fabricate quicker. 

While laser cutting, and the fabrication process, have become relatively inexpensive, there are still large volumes to produce. Advancements in technology work to better train operators to safely increase output. The training aspect has largely barred companies from expansion, as specialized fabrication knowledge has traditionally been limited to CAD designers and machine operators, requiring years of training and experience. Currently, this emphasis on training opens the door for more fabricators to become employed and quickly learn the industry in a safe manner.

However, hobbyists can use scaled-down versions of this process to craft signs and create entire businesses around this system. For example, a Cricut machine is a simplified CAD process for amateurs to engrave and personalize ornaments, coasters, cards, and shirts. This suggests the potential streamlining of CAD offerings for those with less technical experience. And, how the nature of design is meant to be all-encompassing to create products with efficiency and ease. 

a laser cutter cutting a sheet of metal


The manufacturing industry uses another term similar to CAD called CAM, or Computer Aided Manufacturing. CAM tools take CAD data and use it to create instructions for how to manufacture the product. Fusion 360 is one type of software that integrates traditional CAD with CAM. This streamlines the process rather than segmenting each into different components. With the rise in machine application, manufacturers have had to create an entirely new process by taking older, tried mechanisms and invent an intuitive one in its place. 3D data now provides an immersive view of a factory floor and even better assembly instructions. These instructions help the assembly process move seamlessly with limited error. 

Benefits of CAD

  • Increase in Productivity 

As the age of automation grinds on, industries must focus on how they spend and save money, while also attending to growing demands. These systems focus on replication and accuracy to result in margins being hit. Manufacturers can better train employees with these intuitive systems and potentially reduce cost along the way. 

  • Improve Precision 

Mistakes are inevitable in any human-driven task, however, with a computer system in place, employers can catch errors before they even occur. Limited human error also leaves more room for quicker prototyping thanks to the advent of direct design transfer. This means that users can take a model and transfer it directly to the machinery. 

  • Better Quality and Details 

As mentioned, errors of the past have been repurposed thanks to inventive software. CAD software has become predictive and can work to avoid potential mistakes. In the past, designers had to go through numerous iterations and drafts all the while potentially missing key components. Now, designers are free to experiment, but are safeguarded by the intuitive programs put in place. This has created a safer, more enjoyable process from start to finish. 


  • Reuse and Repurposing 

Cost is a large component in how companies optimize for future processes and goals. So much so, that many have made efforts to reuse and repurpose older design systems to ensure better processes are in place. Rather than reworking what already works well, engineers have strayed away from mass customization. Now the goal is adaptation of previous systems and not reinvention. This gives engineers more time to focus on creating quality designs, rather than searching for various components. Streamlined systems have become standard to the benefit of production and consumption. 

  • Factory Optimization

Design optimization within industries has been transformed thanks to optimized systems within CAD programs. For example, internal information sharing of internal content between employees can help to clarify goals within teams. Aside from the internal structuring, these systems capture actual factory processes and can then replicate them for future use. This optimizes the factory and manufacturing process to result in faster production for the future. 

  • Better Visualization

Architects, designers, and engineers have greatly benefited from the power of visualization via CAD systems. An architect can now complete hyper-realistic renderings to showcase their attention to detail. Designers and engineers are able to create products with ease and may also be able to tackle environmental challenges. CAD drawings can show an underground view to create data for investigation and remediation needs. Environmental engineers and scientists can then better track conditions and draft plans for future improvements. 


Disadvantages of CAD

  • Licensing cost

Most comprehensive software has a fee associated, or a license to use. These costs can add up and may be cumbersome for smaller companies looking to provide services on a leaner budget. While there are free software options, they may not be as comprehensive or even as adaptive as what is needed. 

  • Time (Learning Curve)

For those unfamiliar with the technical side of CAD systems, there can be a large learning curve to consider. Companies must spend time to train employees on the nature of the software and how it relates to the machines that are potentially used. 

  • Hardware requirements 

To even run a lot of this software requires a high bandwidth and computation, which many companies must consider. While some of this is made easier with cloud-based software, companies must still consider the costs associated with this as well. 

How Does CAD work?

This system functions more intuitively than many often think. While there are technical components that are to be mastered, the nature of this process is to create models using simple elements. The ultimate goal is to simulate real-world conditions which only enhance the world around us. 

Designers create renderings (2D and 3D) and then continue development by creating models to ultimately test for performance. They conduct simulations to test the reliability, functionality, and efficiency of the model. 

Examples of CAD Software

There are several types of software for companies to consider, however, some are more comprehensive than others. It’s important for a company to consider their needs and technical expertise before jumping into the process. Below are a few of the most used software systems. 


AutoCAD is owned and managed by Autodesk, which is a software developer. It can be used to draft, engineer, and automate 2D and 3D designs with a streamlined workflow made for teams. 

It is mainly used in architecture, design, engineering, real estate, and construction. It is also one of the better-known systems that is widely used by professionals and even students. 


Blender is a free, open-source software system used by artists to create 3D CG content. Their offerings include rendering, modeling, sculpting, animation and rigging, VFX, and simulation among a few others. 

This is a system supported by hundreds of contributors and is based around the importance of an open and collaborative approach to design. The community is essential to keeping Blender running and is probably a better approach for artists rather than more technical engineers.


SketchUp is a highly customizable system as they offer options for free use, a go option for field use, a pro option for traditional professional use, and options for students. Like AutoCAD, Sketchup is payment based and has a mix of personal and team-based options. 

Again, this is a system meant for a variety of clients and could be an option for companies looking to enhance their design offerings. 

How can I Learn CAD?

Today there are so many offerings and systems to learn CAD easily and with little, if any, money upfront. Companies can find free or paid programs to educate employees on the latest industry trends. Whereas, in the past there was a learning curve to overcome. Even amateurs or hobbyists can do the same and translate skills into potential employment. CAD has ushered in an era of open communication and has proven extremely useful to progress a variety of industries.

We recommend choosing a program you can start using for free, and looking up free tutorials on Youtube. That's always a great place to start.

How to Choose the Best CAD Software for Your Design Projects

It’s important to understand your company’s offerings and goals before deciding on the right software. AutoCad is one of the better-known systems for professionals and is tailored for engineers and architects alike. However, if you have a smaller budget and are more designed-based, such as a graphic design company, Blender may be a better option. Blender is also based around a community approach, which means that you may benefit from learning about this system from others using it. Similarly, Sketchup also has student-based features for those just learning CAD. It also has large, tiered payment options for companies of all sizes. 

Our favorite is Onshape for many reasons. It is cloud based so that it can run on any computer, including Macs. It also has a clean and simple interface, powerful modeling tools including featurescript, & branching and merging.

Ultimately, when choosing the best software for your offerings, you must consider cost and scope. While there are more systems than the three discussed, it is beneficial to research and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each. 

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