The Evolution of CAD Drafting

CAD Drafting – The Beginning

CAD drafting, aided by Computer Aided Design (CAD) software programs has its origin in work begun back in the 1960’s. Back in 1960, interactive computer graphics was an unlikely idea more in keeping with science fiction than reality.  This was the period when computer operators used stacks of pre-punched cards that were read by computers like the Whirlwind at MIT. The Whirlwind weighed 250 tons, powered 12,500 vacuum tubes, and filled a two-story house.

Nonetheless, in the 1960’s, all the elements needed for CAD to become a reality were in place:

(1)    Development of the computer itself, which had its impetus in events following World War II.  It was the U.S. Government that financed the construction of MIT’s Whirlwind computer for national defense purposes.  With the Whirlwind, the first element required for CAD was in place – a CRT capable of displaying graphics.

(2)    The atmosphere of academic freedom at MIT allowed nontraditional research to take place.  Ivan Sutherland, a student at MIT used the TX-2 to bring together all the elements necessary for CAD in his doctoral thesis, “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System.”

(3)    Sketchpad was the world’s first CAD software but the first commercial CAM software system, a numerical control programming tool named PRONTO, had already been developed in 1957 by Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty. For that reason,  it is Dr. Hanratty who is most often referred to as “the father of CAD CAM”.

(4)    The 1960s brought other developments, including the first digitizer (from Auto-troll) and DAC-1, the first production interactive graphics manufacturing system.

(5)    Toward the end of the 1960s, interest in the commercial applications of CAD software was growing and by the end of the decade many CAD software companies, including, Application, Auto-tool, Computervision (which sold its first commercial CAD software license to Xerox in 1969), M&S Computing, Evans & Sutherland, the McAuto division of McDonnell-Douglas (actually established in 1960), SDRC (Structural Dynamics Research Corp.) and United Computing had been established.

CAD Drafting – Growth and Development

Many CAD software vendors were founded in the 1970s and many new commercially available CAD software programs were released. In 1970 M&S Computing (later to become Intergraph) was established while in the following year Dr. Hanratty founded MCS. In 1972 MCS released the ADAM CAD software which was made available as an OEM product and used by other CAD software companies, including Computervision, Gerber Scientific, and United Computing as the basis of their commercial CAD software systems.

The 1970s then was a decade which saw major advances in CAD software, especially in the fundamental geometric algorithms that CAD software was built on. Equally important, the power of computer hardware was increasing with minicomputers launched by DEC, Data-General, HP, and Prime, which reduced computer prices made CAD software accessible to smaller companies. In the late 1970s new high-level programming languages such as C and simpler operating systems such as UNIX were emerging into more wide-scale use and the first generation of graphics capable desktop computers was making it possible for engineers to experiment with programming.

With the emergence of UNIX workstations in the early ’80s, commercial CAD systems like CATIA and others began showing up in aerospace, automotive, and other industries. But it was the introduction of the first IBM PC in 1981 that set the stage for the large-scale adoption of the CAD. The following year, a group of programmers formed Autodesk, and in 1983 released AutoCAD, the first significant CAD program for the IBM PC.

AutoCAD marked a huge milestone in the evolution of CAD. Its developers set out to deliver 80% of the functionality of the other CAD programs of the day, for 20% of their cost. From then on, increasingly advanced drafting and engineering functionality became more affordable. But it was still largely 2D.

CAD Drafting – the 3D Revolution

By the 1970s, research had moved from 2D to 3D. Major milestones included the work of Ken Versprille, whose invention of NURBS for his Ph.D. thesis formed the basis of the modern 3D curve and surface modeling, and the development by Alan Grayer, Charles Lang, and Ian Braid of the PADL (Part and Assembly Description Language) solid modeler

Research became reality in 1987 with the release of Pro/ENGINEER, a CAD program based on solid geometry and feature-based parametric techniques for defining parts and assemblies. It ran on UNIX workstations because PCs of the time weren’t powerful enough for the amount of data required.  Nonetheless, —this was a game changer. The later years of the decade saw the release of several 3D modeling kernels, most notably ACIS and Parasolids, which would form the basis for other history-based parametric CAD programs.CAD Drafting – the 3D Revolution

By the 1990s, the PC was capable of the computations required by a 3D CAD. In 1995, when the first issue of Desktop Engineering was published, SolidWorks was released. It was the first significant solid modeler for Windows. This was followed by Solid Edge, Inventor, and others. The decade also saw many of the original CAD developers from the 1960s acquired by newer companies and a consolidation of the industry into four main players—Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes (which acquired SolidWorks in 1997), PTC, and UGS (now Siemens PLM)—along with a host of smaller developers.

CAD Drafting Today – The Simplicity of Outsource

Today, many years after Ivan Sutherland’s  SketchPad thesis, CAD Drafting has  entered what Clayton Christensen* would term its period of “sustaining technologies.”  These are technologies, like CAD, that most large companies are familiar with and that have an established role in the market.   Sustainable technologies no longer disrupt the marketplace like new technologies do.  Sustainable technologies are commonly in use, readily understood, and easily outsourced to focused companies that are highly efficient, effective and economical.  CAD Drafting can be outsourced to a specialty CAD Drafting company that can provide a sustaining partnership of CAD Drafting services that allow a corporation to focus on so-called “disruptive” growth areas that will propel them into future successes.

* Clayton M. Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School; and is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth.


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