From UNIX to virtual reality: Where CAD’s going

How designers and engineers tackle development has changed significantly with computer-aided design (CAD) tools, and organisations in every industry now use the software tools to expedite the development process and create better end products.

Given the rapid growth of CAD, we sat down with Solidworks expert Alex Kok to learn a little more about how it's changing the world, from prototyping hip replacements to designing next-generation rocket engines.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at where CAD came from, where we are now and where the software is likely go in the very near future.

Turning back the clock

CAD first emerged in the late 1960s, right around the time American astronauts were first preparing to jet off to the moon and their Russian counterparts were struggling to keep up.

Interestingly, it's in this aerospace sector where CAD got it's start. Only the massive industrial giants involved in the production of military and civilian aircraft, as well as spacecraft, had the money to invest in such a radical new form of design. A far cry from the easy-to-use software and hardware available now, these organisations had to spend significant resources on room-sized UNIX computers capable of actually running early CAD software.

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This continued for a time, with CAD remaining largely inaccessible to the public and smaller businesses without substantial budgets. That is until a man named Bill Gates released the first version of what would eventually become a global phenomenon – Microsoft Windows.

Solidworks followed, being the first piece of desktop-class CAD software available on the market. While not many people believed it would happen at the time, Solidworks quickly established itself as the CAD software of choice for designers and engineers.

What's more, the development of Windows-based CAD, thanks to Solidworks, meant the industry could finally move away from the massive, space-intensive computers of the past.

Established and growing

Walk into any product design studio, automotive manufacturing department or home office and you'll see CAD software running flawlessly on desktop PCs. It's certainly a departure from the $50,000 UNIX workstations of old.

The fact is, even laptops now have more computing power than what was required to send the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. Basically, it's possible to do a lot more with a lot less.

It's also clear people are realising how much they can do with CAD software on modern PCs. Jon Peddie Research, a firm focusing on design and multimedia, found that the CAD market reached US$8 billion in 2014, with a total of 5.15 million users.

Growth isn't set to stop here, however – far from it. By 2017, Jon Peddie Research expects that the CAD market will reach US$8.7 billion globally. The reason for such significant growth? The organisation pointed to the availability of training and courses, as well as the transition from 2D to 3D in certain industries.

Forward to the future

So, what developments are we set to see over the coming years? While laptops and desktops are the primary terminals for CAD (both for professionals and enthusiasts), evolution isn't slowing.

It's not a stretch to imagine that an engineer begins his or her morning with light CAD work on a smartphone before transitioning to a laptop on the train and then a desktop at work – all the while working on the same project.

When talking about using smartphones as part of a CAD workflow, the first reaction for many will likely be one of dismissal. But, it's important to remember how people viewed Windows when it first started to enter the market after UNIX. Windows was often seen as a Corolla – reliable, certainly, but quite basic. UNIX, on the other hand, was the Ferrari – powerful and fully-featured.

We're on the cusp of a similar transition now, as devices continue to become even more powerful, with certain new phones even including quad-core CPUs. Using these devices to power CAD workflows isn't a leap of the imagination.

But what's beyond mobile? Where's the next area of technological growth for CAD software?

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Enter the Matrix

For a designer or engineer, visualisation is key. Whether putting together a new wind turbine motor assembly or mocking up packaging for a food item, seeing how the finished item will look is critical to a successful outcome.

So, how can visualisation improve to ensure the best possible end result? The answer may lie with Matrix-esque technologies.

Virtual reality has taken off in recent years. Headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are soon set to hit the market, bringing about a change in the way we view digital media.

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Virtual reality headsets essentially feed dual images to two screens within a headset, and lenses within the headset distort the image so to the user it feels like reality. When paired with CAD software, it becomes possible to view models and products in a number of different environments. Motion-tracking in these units allows users to tilt their heads around and see a virtual space from all angles.

In the not-too-distant future, CAD software users may be putting together products entirely within virtual worlds – certainly a far cry from the UNIX workstations of old.