Is CAD Too Hard?

I just sat in on the Mechanical Congress at COFES,  a slightly moderated discussion among CAD company representatives, analysts, and CAD users.  This year’s unofficial theme wasn’t much different from previous years – CAD is too hard. 

Most of the comments came from engineers or engineering managers whose normal duties don’t include much CAD work.  They noted that is shouldn’t take a CAD specialist to work with company data.  I agree.  Look back at the early days of 3D CAD for some examples of how difficult is was – you really did need highly trained CAD operators.  But CAD programs like SolidWorks have made it easier than ever for the occasional user to create, modify, and analyze models.

Matt Lombard recently wrote about the Democratization of 3D CAD.  Matt makes some good points about ease of use, and some of the comments are interesting as well.  I was thinking about what Matt wrote while I listened to the discussion, and now it has me wondering…

Is CAD too hard, or is CAD too easy?

Richard Doyle
My official title is Senior User Advocacy & SolidWorks User Groups - but most people just call me "The User Group Guy". I've been a SolidWorks user since 1997, and was one of the founding members of the SWUGN Committee. Since starting the Central Texas SolidWorks User Group in 1999, my career path has led me to DS SolidWorks and a dream job supporting the SolidWorks User Group Network worldwide.
Richard Doyle
Richard Doyle

Latest posts by Richard Doyle (see all)

  • Hi Richard-

    Great post! RE:”Is CAD too hard, or is CAD too easy?” Here are my views; CAD is easy, however, many Engineers and Users have poor organizational skills that cause their CAD usage to become “harder” than it should be.

    For example, as a Contractor/Consultant, I see many Users/Companies fail to take advantage of existing SolidWorks Tools such as the Design Library, Templates, 3-D Content Central, PDMWorks, etc. The result is they think CAD is “Too Hard” when in fact their own skills, or lack thereof, are the root of the problem.

    Thanks, Richard, keep up the good work.

    Devon T. Sowell

  • Jim Collins

    In my opinion CAD is too easy. What has happened is that anyone can now generate a professional looking drawing. It used to be that if you had the training to generate a drawing, you also had the knowledge of what to draw.

    My 17 year old neice is taking CAD in a Vocational School. I have volunteered to help out there several times and was appalled by what they were teaching. These kids can produce the prettiest drawings that you have ever seen, but they have no idea what they are drawing. I took Drafting at the same school 25 years ago when it was pencil and paper drawing. When we did a spur or worm gear we learned how to calculate the dimensions of the tooth and what those dimensions meant. We learned about sizing bosses for the type of bolt that was being used and for wrench clearance. These kids are learning none of that these days. I have interviewed candidates for a Mechanical Design position who have had a portfolio of beautiful drawings, but who have failed a simple modeling test.

    Instead of the simplification of CAD being a help, I think that it is actually a hinderence because it has resulted in a decrease of the quality of the people using it.

  • Hello Jim-

    Great post! I’ve seen exactly the same problems at my local community college, the same college I graduated from and where I taught for one semester. When I attended, the degree required an advanced math course, manufacturing processes, and advanced drafting. You couldn’t even take the CAD portion until these courses were taken first. All that has now gone away. The only classes now taught are strictly CAD based. “Click the mouse to obtain this result”. RE:”but they have no idea what they are drawing.” This is very true at this college. For this, and other reasons, I stopped teaching there after one semester.


  • Ian

    Howdy Jim,

    I don’t think advanced CAD courses should be a reserved for students who have demonstrated they understand the prerequisite courses. I think it should be taught the same as you’d teach a class on photoshop or illistrator. I find that many people are not good at drawing. A 3D CAD program, like SW, makes the process of designing, developing, and evoloving an idea more efficent to everyone. For example, an old gearhead wouldn’t use CAD to design up a part, they’d scribble out a rough sketch and then start machining metal away. I believe CAD allows them to refine their idea before they start wasting material. The same goes for the younger generation except they are developing an idea on concept and creativity alone, and not worrying about if it will pass an engineering standard. I also think you’re overlooking the fact that most kids that come out of school aren’t going to just start an engineering company and start making cars. Most graduates are going to be hired by a company because their computer literacy and efficency when it comes to designing on a computer, not because they’re engineering experts. The skill of visualizing in 3D and being able to make what you visualize is much more imporant than the ability to know your design will pass engineering standards when it’s produced. It seems to me 3D visuallization should be more of a fundemental than engineering formulas.

  • Jim Collins

    The problem is that these schools are not requiring the other classes at all. I graduated from a Community College in 1999 with a degree in Machine Design. That meant that I had to take all of the CAD classes plus some light Engineering classes. There were no classes on fastener types or grades, material types, design conventions or shop practices. If I hadn’t went into that school with my previous Drafting education and 15 years of mechanical experience, I wouldn’t have known a damn thing when I graduated. These schools are advertising CAD as a high paying, cutting edge career and then just teaching them how to draw pretty pictures on a computer. I have interviewed several graduates from these schools and can’t even offer them an entry level position, because of their total lack of mechanical knowledge.

    The college that I went to asked me to come back to help judge a drafting contest that they hold every year for high school students. While I was there I asked several of the teachers why they don’t teach the subjects that I mentioned. Their answer was that since their class is an elective they have to make it fun and interesting in order to attract students. If the class earns a reputation of being “hard” then the students won’t enroll and the teacher would be out of a job.

  • Ian

    O I C. I was under the impression that the kids being trained in these classes are atleast recieving some hands on experience after they design up something virtually. The printing company i work for has a maintanence shop and an R&D shop full of mills and lathes and a cnc, with all the old gearheads to run them. I’m a youngun that only had AutoCAD experience from highschool before i started running the CNC and drawing up parts and trouble shooting code. I suppose I’m in a different basket, since i work with atleast 15 guys that are twice my age and have lots of machining experience, so i have a lot of brains to pick when I can’t answer my own question.

    To tell you the truth, I didn’t take the CAD coarse while i was at college because i could tell after talking to the professor he wasn’t going to teach me anything new about CAD, and only what the engineering standards were. I was quite offended when he dismissed my highschool work as all wrong because of little things like font sizes, title blocks, view placements, trailing and leading zeros in dimensions. I thought he completely overlooked the fact that i knew CAD, and i view that as the more difficult part to teach. Standardized blocks and fonts and view placements are something that, yet still imporant, can get in the way of the meaning of CAD, which is still about the design. I understand your concern, but in my situation, i might still be an ignorant machinist, but i have a good number of people that are very experienced at machining but they themselves are ignorant when it comes to computers. It’s a nice trade-off that it seems isn’t too common place.

    Regardless, i still feel it’s more imporant to know how to use the programs than to be muddled down in implementing the proper standards on your creation while designing, but my opinion could be largely determined by the way i’ve been raised. Regardless, thanks for the critical thought lesson. It’s good to know that some of these college CAD coarses aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I was starting to feel bad about not enrolling in one.

  • Jim Collins

    I always thought that the objective was to use CAD to design something that can actually be built. These schools are turning out people who are proficient at using the software, but have no idea how to actually design something that can be built. CAD is a tool, just like a saw. Anybody can use a saw to hack up a piece of wood, it requires additional skill and knowledge to use that saw to make something functional out of the piece of wood.

  • Ian

    I agree, but to compare the complexity of any CAD package to a handheld tool, whose purpuse is to cut wood in half, i think is belittling how difficult it can be for some people to just grasp the concept of constructing and visuallizing in 3D, and then demonstrating their comprehension. Maybe these CAD courses shouldn’t be sold as the holy grail of design that some colleges are selling it as, maybe they should be the introductions to more precission oriented classes. Perhaps the teachers have been teaching the more advanced skills first for the last 20 years. Maybe students should be able to learn 3d CAD without prerequisites so they can experience it, and then be pushed on to more engineering oriented courses, ones that focus more on the standards and practices. For the people that can’t write legably, can’t draw a straight line, can’t draw in perspective or isometric, 3D CAD, or just 3D modeling in general, is a way for them to express the ideas they have without basing it on their skill with a pencil. I think CAD is a very real art, but it requires a lot more precision than most other forms of art, which almost makes it not seem artistic, but thats what SW is trying to do, right? by allowing you to focus on the overall design you aren’t focusing on the details so much…actually that sounds more like architecture than art…hm…

  • Jim Collins

    I agree with you about students needing to learn 3D CAD without prerequisites. If I was setting up a two year program, the entire first year would be dedicated to learning the software. The second year would go into the elements needed to be able to create a successful design.

    All they are doing now is teaching the software and then telling these students that they are ready to go and get a design job. That is why we have to interview 15-20 people and then pick the one that we think we can train.

  • Ian

    Well…who do we need to talk to to get the colleges teaching the right stuff? If i were in those classes, I’d expect to learn every aspect of these CAD programs, and be sorely dissapointed upon an interview that my college coarses didn’t properly prepare me…so I’d feel like I wasted my money and time. Any suggestions?

  • Ian

    I mean these are my peers ur talking about. They need to know they don’t know what they think they know before they can’t do anything about it…did i say that right…yeah thats right…

  • Rodney Hall

    I see Solidworks users every day that have learned how to be dangerous with CAD! I watch them jump in with both feet creating models, assemblies and drawings quickly and without careful thought and planning. This leads to CAD models where each user is doing his / her own thing and creating a huge mess. This creates a spider web of poorly planned parametric links every which way, that no one can easily comprehend now or in the future. CAD ease of use has lulled users to sleep and their brains cease to function!

  • Rodney,

    I completely agree. Just because you *can* doesn’t mean you *should*. I have a friend that uses as his email tag line – “Freedom is not the right to do as you please, but the liberty to do as you ought.” It’s a little spartan, but in the right direction anyway.

  • Peter Heath

    I believe that CAD has also led to the creation of “modelers” who understand how to create CAD data, but have little to no understanding of Design or Engineering. From the comments above, the schools are turning out the modelers. Since this modeling is usually based on some existing information, this is the type of job that will be able to be outsourced. See the recent $49 remastering offer that has been out. CAD is a tool and in itself does not teach anything about design or engineering – just like Word does not teach you about writing.
    Also, the current modelers tend to capture a linear thought process, not the creative process or the real design decisions that went into a product design. With the complexity and cost to develop CAD software, it will be difficult to take the next leap and create a CAD tool that really supports the design process and not just an editable model.
    By the way, have you ever tried to edit a model in any system built by someone else? It’s worse than changing a program written by another person. At least with software you can refactor, that is very difficult with CAD models.
    We’ll save the translation of those models for another day…

  • A course, any college, community college, or even at-home-course should well prep and teach a person who takes up autoCAD drafting, much of everything from its basics to the actual design aspect, otherwise as a potential new employee that the student wants to become, it’d be highly disconcerting to find out one is not appropriately, or accurately prepared for a job in the industry. I guess there are exceptions with those who are hired just because they know the design aspect of it, thats it. I’m interested in taking a course, so now being aware, i wanna make sure that i’m well-schooled in it. Anyone interested in taking up drafting/design, do your research well before you start, you don’t wanna find out later you don’t much know nor understand other, perhaps crucial elements of the job.

  • To operate a CAD is simple. But if someone doesn’t know what he is doing about it, he would be in big trouble. The concept behind it should matter.