CAD for Every Application

I recently slipped the word “CAD” into a conversation without thinking. As a Silicon Valley startup person the word gets thrown around a fair amount here. CAD or (Computer Aided Design) is a general term for software used to design things, from cars to jewelry.

As it turns out CAD comes in many forms. Some are very complex and expensive, while others are cheap or often free. Many software packages are for a specific purpose. Some have become so common in an industry that learning them almost becomes a prerequisite.

A quick tour of Google or Reddit regarding the topic of CAD is likely to bring up nothing short of a religious war over which is the “best”. In my experience, the experts don’t draw hard lines in the sand, but understand the trade-offs between the different software packages.

This post is a quick overview of the CAD programs that I recommend by industry. As a tech professional, I often get asked about CAD for “XYZ” — education, product design, etc. This is my list and with a breakdown by industry. For each I try to give a little context.

Education / Makers — Onshape and EAGLE PCB

When is comes to education and CAD things get tricky. Many of the packages are either too simple or too complex. For high school and above I highly recommend Onshape and Eagle. Both are cheap in comparison to the more advanced packages, but can still build a healthy foundation.

Onshape is a web based program that is perfect for simple projects that need to be 3D printed or laser cut. The program quickly hits a wall for more complex designs, but is perfect for simple projects. Eagle is a program for making circuit boards, and is great for weekend warriors interested in hobby projects.

For both there is a limit to what these programs can do. Students can learn a tremendous amount from using these packages, but in most situations, they will need a mentor who has used the software before, and can show them how everything works as it can be overwhelming to a new user.


Architecture — Revit and Sketchup

The world of Architecture has long been occupied by AutoCAD, the 2D program most likely to be used to generate big paper prints used on construction sites. While the program has not gone away, others have arrived to fill in the gaps, most notably Revit and Sketchup.

Sketchup first appeared as a simple free program and quickly became a little Swiss Army Knife in the architecture industry. Users often use Sketchup to quickly try out designs, or render a building in an environment with trees and people. Newer version of the program also have VR capabilities.

Sketchup is great, but often more for quick experiments; where Revit is perfect for actually designing buildings. The program can handle everything from plumbing to electrical and provides architects with a wide range of tools that enable a variety of buildings to be quickly realized.


Fashion — CLO and Daz 3D

For a long time the world of fashion has been fairly old school and dominated by draping and paper patterns. This has recently started to change with the introduction of CAD for fashion design. Many packages now exist for doing this, one that stands out is CLO which is also owned by the same company as Marvelous Designer which is geared towards fashion for game characters.

With these programs, fashion designers can make custom patterns, and even upload old paper patterns from Vogue if they want, then simply simulate the pattern on a virtual mannequin. The virtual fashion design and the actual sample are often strikingly similar. In the future this will most likely become a trend as the ability to simulate designs is phenomenal.

For most fashion designs, a stock body type is often used for size two, six etc. What is also becoming a trend is the ability to design garments for a specific body type. A style of clothing design which is very old and from the couture tradition. For this, a number of software packages exist that enable making custom body types. Daz 3d is one, another and equally noteworthy is Poser 3d.


Consumer Product — Solidworks and Altium

As a designer in the consumer product domain I see a number of CAD packages used. There is no right or wrong answer, but the two that I see the most, and the two that I reach for are Soliworks and Altium. These are for mechanical design and electrical design respectively. A computer that runs both plus the software will run you close to $20,000, but they are amazing tools.

Solidworks is one of the most common CAD software packages that students learn and the program is incredibly powerful. What the program lacks in features, it gains in plugins, which range from injection molding simulators to thermal and fluid flow calculators. Solidworks is for professionals making real products. The cost of the program is high, but it is the perfect tool for many projects.

Altium is one of many programs used to make PCBs or (Printed Circuit Boards), and has one of the best routers on the market. After you get the hang of it, you will have a hard time going back to Eagle or simpler hobby programs. Altium is what you would want to use to make your own Raspberry Pi, or other projects with multiple high speed layers which need to be meticulously laid out.


Game Design — Maya and ZBrush

Game designers at big studios use a number of tools, but one of the most common that I see in big studios as well as the indie game world are Maya, and Maya LT — or Maya Lite. Both are modeling and animation packages used for games but also by big studios like Pixar who make animated characters used in films.

Maya is a powerful tool, and although there are alternatives (Blender), Maya is not going away and it is worth learning if you want to make games or have a job in the media industry. Characters from Maya are often used by programs such as Unity 3D or Unreal Game Engine to produce video games. Maya is used for modeling, but also for rigging, a process of giving a 3D character bones that can be animated.

A close companion to Maya is ZBush, which is a bit like sculpting with virtual clay. The program is often used with other programs. A clay sculpture might be exported from ZBrush into Maya, made into a character, then brought back into ZBrush for painting which is where ZBrush really shines. It is responsible for painting many of the characters you see in movies and characters in games.


Automotive and Aerospace — Catia and Ansys

We are now getting into big money territory. Most of the programs that have been mentioned up until now are expensive, but not sell your house expensive. There is a segment of the CAD market that is very very expensive. Not just the software, but the computers that run it and the people that use it. 

If you are making a car or airplane you are most likely forking over tens of thousands for programs like Catia and Ansys. Catia is the big brother of Solidworks, and is famous for having one of the best surfacing tools in the industry, used to make sleek curves on cars and planes. Catia is a leading standard, but programs such as NX are also popular, both can be used to design a car or plane, but also the factory it is manufactured in.

Ansys in an entirely different animal but also very important. Ansys is the leading standard for simulation. If you are designing a race car or perhaps airplane in Catia or NX, you will want to simulate the performance without actually building it. This is where Ansys comes it. The program simulates everything from heat to aerodynamics and is used to design everything from heat sinks to airplane wings.


Architectural Rendering — 3D Studio Max and Vray

Ever see those renderings on craigslist that look so real that they might be the actual house? Yes, well I think they are annoying too, but architectural rendering is a big industry as it enables architects to paint a picture of what the real project will look like before building.

There are no shortage of programs for generating these images, but a couple have risen to the top as industry standards. For animating architectural projects, 3D Studio Max is a favorite among architecture firms. It interfaces with many of the popular programs such as Revit, but also give fine grain control of camera angles and scenes.

3D Studio Max is a powerful program, but it is often used with other programs that are used to generate amazing renderings. Some of the more popular include Maxwell, and VRay which is my favorite. It is worth noting that these programs will take a while to learn and will require and decent computer to operate, but the end result is unmatched.

Product Design Rendering — Keyshot and Cinema 4D

The world of super realistic 3d rendering is very big, but certain programs tend to emerge for different industries. When it comes to ID (Industrial Design) or product design, Keyshot is an industry standard. Setting up a scene in 3D Studio Max may require a day of tweaking, where Keyshot is very quick to dial in.

Many of the product rendering you see in marketing material are made with Keyshot. Many Industrial Design firms not only use the program, but setup a dedicated server rack just for rendering with the program. The cost is high for both, but the end result is difficult to achieve with other programs, although some like Solidworks Visualize come close.

For animated visualization, Keyshot has an animation package, but it is fairly limited. Sky is the limit when it comes to animated 3D graphics. One of the more popular programs in the space includes Cinema 4D which is known as powerful but also quick to use. Great for advertising and marketing material.


Telescope Design — Solidworks and Zemax

Getting to the bottom of the list now and digging deep. Not many people are designing telescopes, but optics is more common than you might think. Cameras, glasses, fiber optic cables and many other devices require optics to function. There are no shortage of solutions, but my favorite for this is Solidworks and Zemax.

Solidworks has been covered so I will not spend too much time talking about the program, other than to say it is powerful because of the plugins which exist, notably packages such as Zemax. When designing a telescope or other “optical pipeline” you want to simulate rays of light which is where Zemax really shines — no pun intended.

With Zemax you can simulate a light source, like an LED, and simulate the light rays emanating from the source. You can then design structures around the source, a set of lenses that focus the light, or perhaps channel it into a light pipe or fiber optic cable, a prism to split light frequencies — sky is the limit. Might want to pick up a copy of “Modern Optics Engineering” before taking the plunge.


Jewelry Design — Rhyno and RhinoGold

Rhyno is a powerful 3d program and should be on your list of applications to check out. Where it really shines is free-form modeling. Rhyno is popular with architects, industrial designers, jewelry designers and others who want to explore form. Like Solidworks, it has a number of plugins, notably for jewelry design.

If you want to make jewelry, there is nothing that says you must use Rhyno and RhinoGold, but the two together have certainly become a part of the jewelry industry. Rhyno by itself is a powerful 3D modeling program and is often used as a bit of swiss army knife by 3D modelers. RhynoGold adds a powerful set of tools for making jewelry which are worth knowing about.

The journey from sketch to ring, (necklace, bracelet) has many steps. First the design can be rendered, made into a 3D printed prototype, then eventually sent to a jeweler. They will most likely 3D print it in wax, do a casting in precious metals, and set stones. The best starting point for such a project is probably a program like Rhyno with a little help from plugins like Rhino Gold.


Closing Thoughts

The last bit to mention is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to CAD. There are a collection of packages, and for many professionals a collection of programs is key. I know many architects who use a collection of four or five programs on a day to day basis for example.

This may seem overwhelming, but after you figure out what you are building or designing the right software will most likely become obvious. For every program I mentioned above there are alternatives. Solidworks competes with Inventor, Catia with NX etc.

The perfect tool for you may have shortcomings for someone else. Specific industries get stuck on tools. If you start designing tractors, you may find that CREO is the tool your company uses. These programs and many others are floating around for different reasons.

If you have the choice to pick a CAD solution, take some time to look at the trade-offs. You might be saving a little money on software, but then find yourself struggling to find engineers who want to use the tools which have been purchased.

I see a lot of startups try to skimp on workstations, or use a student version of a program. Both are a bad idea, as competent professionals will see this as amateur hour and find a better place to work. Get good tools and hire good people, it will end up saving you money in the end.