The History of Engineering Design Tools: Engineering 3.0

There have been four great stages of engineering and design tools leveraged over the past 250 years to account for all mechanisms, inventions and designs that we have used to simplify our lives. This post will take a look back at the third phase, Engineering 3.0 which occurred from 1985 to 2015 roughly 30 years. This was the second phase to take advantage of computers which became increasingly powerful (Moore’s Law) during this time period. Missed parts one and two of the History of Engineering Design Tools series? Click the links for a look back at Engineering 1.0 and Engineering 2.0.

Engineering 3.0 (1985-2015)

The second generation of CAD offered a new paradigm of creating and inventing. The emphasis this time was on building designs (models) more like the world we see and live in (3D) versus simply mimicking the 2D drawings of the past.

rich1Early 3D systems were again (like Engineering 2.0 2D CAD systems) based on mainframe computers and available only to larger organizations, such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing companies. Over time, workstations based on UNIX operating systems brought the price down to the medium-sized companies.

Finally, personal computers (PC’s) based on DOS, UNIX and then Windows made 3D CAD possible for the mass market.

Some early 3D CAD users originally learned to create 3D models based on Boolean geometry, which they could put together like puzzle pieces in 3D and add, subtract or merge to create new images.

Later, the ability to create 2D forms that could be extruded, revolved or swept allowed more flexibility and speed in creating 3D models. Over time more powerful tools, such as fillets, chamfers, mirroring and holes, were made available to 3D users.rich3

Users typically engaged with a digitizer for an input device. These could range in size from 11×17 inches to as large as an old drafting board providing a certain level of comfort to users that had just moved from traditional paper drafting to CAD. A cursor with 2-16 buttons similar to a mouse was used which provided more accuracy then the mice of that generation. Some users preferred a pen feel and used a stylus which looked and felt like a pen and was still very accurate in resolution.


As these new tools evolved,many significant benefits were realized by utilizing 3D modeling versus the previous phase of 2D tools including:

  • Better Visualization – rendering, animations
  • Interference and Clearance Detection – piping, routing, complex assemblies
  • Engineering Calculations – volume, weight, surface area, center of gravity

Designs could be communicated to customers, suppliers and others more quickly and easily and understood by users who did not fully understand how to read 2D drawings.

rich63D spatial challenges could be solved by creating multiple 3D parts or even entire buildings. Imaging determining if the HVAC ducting would interfere with the Electrical Conduits or Lighting Fixtures before getting to the construction phase of a project or piping in a power plant.

Due to tradition and lack of alternatives, most 3D models were converted to old-fashioned 2D drawings to enable manufacturing. The benefit to designers was that the tedious and time-consuming part of creating communication tools could be highly automated, as top, front, right side, isometric and detail views could be created semi-automatically once a 3D model had been created.

As 3D became more and more powerful and prevalent among engineers and designers, users were able to improve designs by running simulations in order to validate designs. Initially known as Finite Element Analysis (FEA), users could test the strength of their designs based on different materials, part thicknesses, radius selection and load and constraint conditions. Analyses could be run and easily understood and communicated using color coding where red indicates the highest level of stress (von Mises)


Now, parts and assemblies could be analyzed for a greater variety of failure modes including:

  • Linear Stress
  • Non-Linear Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Thermal
  • Frequency
  • Buckling
  • Drop Testing
  • Dynamic
  • Motion
  • Cost
  • Flow
  • Plastic Injection Molding
  • Sustainability

With 3D CAD becoming mainstream and the primary tool at most companies, the challenge of managing the data had to be solved. While the system of record for many years had been physical paper based on 2D drawings either manually drafted or converted from 3D models electronically, the more common method today is to rely on the original 3D model. This is the master model for drawings and the relationship between 3D and 2D must be maintained in order to easily affect design changes during and after the initial creation.

In order to effectively manage the large amount of data, first Engineering Data Management (EDM) and then Product Data Management (PDM) tools were implemented which could track and maintain relationships between parts, assemblies and drawings, even if files were moved from one storage location to another.

PDM systems added features and capabilities such as:

  • Viewing
  • Annotations
  • Bill of Material Creation
  • Engineering Change Order (ECO) Management
  • Workflow and Routing of Documents
  • Version Control
  • Revision Control


As the Engineering 3.0 era comes to a close, it is important to note that the three capabilities that were pioneered, perfected and mass enabled:

  • 3D CAD
  • Simulation (Validation)
  • Product Data Management (PDM)

These three (3) pillars will serve as the foundation for the next revolution in Engineering, stay tuned!

The next engineering paradigm, Engineering 4.0, extends design data to downstream departments in the right format at the right time; resulting in a more efficient product development process. Read our article and infographic to learn how you can stand out with Engineering 4.0.


Rich Allen

Rich Allen

Senior Director, Product Management at Dassault Systemes SolidWorks Corp.
Senior Director, Product Portfolio Management that manages the team that focuses on the SolidWorks integrated desktop product portfolio, including SolidWorks CAD, SolidWorks Simulation, SolidWorks Enterprise PDM, eDrawings, SolidWorks Electrical, SolidWorks Plastics, SolidWorks Inspection, SolidWorks MBD and SolidWorks Composer. Rich has been with SolidWorks for the past ten (10) years, working in strategic accounts and then leading the data management products for the SolidWorks brand, including SolidWorks Enterprise PDM and ENOVIA Collaborative Design for SolidWorks. Prior to that Rich spent over 25 years in the PLM industry leading teams at United Technologies, IBM, CoCreate and was the founder and owner of several technology companies.
Rich Allen
Rich Allen