Modern Engineering and Manufacturing: What Role do 2D Drawings Play in a Digital World?

In a digital world where 3D data is the primary source of communication, why are we still using 2D drawings? I will address that question in this blog series.

By definition, a 2D drawing is a technical document that conveys information about a part, such as its geometry, dimensions, and acceptable tolerance. For decades, that definition stood strong but in today’s engineering environments, it’s apparent that the 3D model often plays that role.

What role do drawings play?

With the rise of 3D modeling and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems, some may question the relevance and necessity of 2D drawings in today’s digital manufacturing environment. Me being one of them.

As a younger engineer, with a career built around model-based definition (MBD), 2D drawings, and design-to-manufacturing communication, there has always been one question that bothered me: Why do we still create static 2D drawings in a world where almost everything has become digital? After all, drawings are a static object, a specific captured moment in the lifecycle of a part that easily becomes disconnected, out-of-date, and difficult to manage. On the contrary, a 3D model and digital data is always up to date. Seems like an obvious choice to communicate with others through a digital model.

To understand it, I often ask that question to the amazing SOLIDWORKS community, and the answers are always quite interesting, yet always the same to some extent. Below is an example of one of those conversations.

“Why do you need a drawing?”

‘I need a drawing to do my job, simple as that.’

I then ask “why?”and this is usually followed by:

 ‘I need to review the requirements and understand how to make the part.’

“Ok fair that makes sense, so you manually machine the part using an analog machine while referencing all of the drawing information?”

‘No, the CAM system uses the 3D model directly for programming the machine.’

“Ok, so why do you need a drawing?”

And, we end up in the same unresolved loop of whether drawings are being created for actual production purposes or just because we feel we need them because it’s always been the norm.

With that being said, I’ve set out to find out the true value of 2D drawings in today’s modern production processes where 3D model data is the primary source of information for manufacturing systems. The goal is to understand the role of 2D drawings, the role of 3D models, and how we can capture the value of both to finally bring engineering definition up to speed with modern engineering and manufacturing.

The role of 2D drawings in digital engineering and manufacturing

While 3D models and data have undoubtedly revolutionized the design and manufacturing processes, 2D drawings remain a fundamental aspect of engineering documentation. For years, 2D drawings have served as a universal language that enabled effective communication with suppliers, stakeholders, and quality control personnel. They provided a tangible and easily shareable medium, enabling discussions and clarifications. They are the final lingering “traditional” process that remains in the digital world to communicate between engineering and manufacturing.

In today’s manufacturing processes though, 2D drawings appear to only be a point of reference rather than the primary form of communication. They serve as a human-readable reference to convey critical design information, such as dimensions, tolerances, and geometric relationships, to the manufacturing team, but not necessarily, the means for CAM systems or machines as this is the role of a 3D model. So, one would think, drawings will eventually go away, right? Not so fast.

Through countless conversations with the SOLIDWORKS community, the reality is 2D drawings remain because of one of the key reasons: familiarity, not function.

2D drawings continue to be relevant because of their compatibility and familiarity across the industry. Let’s be honest, we are all hesitant to change. Manufacturers, suppliers, and quality assurance personnel have been using 2D drawings for decades and have developed a deep understanding of how to interpret them and invested significantly in drawing practices to ensure proper quality and communication. It is difficult to change human nature or feel that a 2D drawing is still necessary although it provides little to no value for the actual manufacturing process.

Another aspect that jumps out is the generational preference of 2D. Most managers and stakeholders today grew up in manufacturing using 2D, so it makes sense that they are comfortable looking at this method of communication; however, with the growing skills gap and people growing up with 3D, expect that to change as they become managers and stakeholders.



The role of 3D models in digital engineering and manufacturing

With the advancements of 3D modeling, CAM and robotics, the digital representation of a product has become increasingly detailed, intuitive, and packed with more information than a 2D drawing could ever convey. 3D models on one hand, provide a visual representation that allows engineers and designers to validate the form, fit, and function of a product before it goes into production.

On the other hand, they provide valuable data and information to CAM systems that is embedded in the 3D models to generate toolpaths,CAM

simulate machining operations, and drive CNC machines directly, which has revolutionized manufacturing processes. This seamless integration between 3D models and CAM systems has accelerated manufacturing processes, improved accuracy, and reduced lead times. Outside of CAM and robotic programming, the metadata that comes with a 3D model is critical to be passed into business systems like ERP, MES, Quality, and Bills of Manufacturing or Bills of Service for warranty.

To optimize the 3D engineering-to-manufacturing process, many organizations are adopting MBD practices. MBD is an approach that leverages the 3D product manufacturing information (PMI) as the primary medium for conveying product information. It involves embedding the critical manufacturing and inspection information directly within the 3D model, eliminating the need for separate 2D drawings.

By utilizing 3D PMI, organizations can achieve a seamless transition of communication from engineering to manufacturing. This integration reduces human interpretation errors, eliminates redundancy, and facilitates downstream automation processes into manufacturing systems.

Furthermore, the adoption of MBD practices improves collaboration and cross-functional communication. Designers, engineers, and manufacturing teams can access the 3D model and associated information, facilitating better understanding and alignment between departments. After all viewing and interpreting things in 3D is more intuitive, it’s human nature to interpret objects in three dimensions compared to two. In addition, the interactivity and dynamic highlighting between model and PMI offers a significant advantage when compared to a static drawing. This collaborative, interactive environment fosters innovation, reduces lead times, and enhances overall product quality.

While 3D models and downstream systems have transformed the engineering and manufacturing landscape, 2D drawings continue to hold significant value in the modern manufacturing environment.

Conclusion: there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach

But luckily there is an all-in-one solution to meet both 2D and 3D needs, and  the inspiration behind our fully browser-based role Manufacturing Definition Creator, that enables you to  create both 3D and 2D definitions, available in the 3DEXPERIENCE Works portfolio.

In my next couple of blogs, I’ll discuss how organizations are adopting integrated approaches that combine the strengths of each medium, and how you too can break the barrier between 2D and 3D with Manufacturing Definition Creator, allowing you to cater to your supplier needs without any extra work. Stay tuned! In the meantime, learn more about Manufacturing Definition Creator in this blog.


Chris Pagliarini

Chris Pagliarini

Chris Pagliarini is a Product Portfolio Manager for SOLIDWORKS. Chris has been a dedicated SOLIDWORKS user for 8+ years with exposure in several areas from research, sheet metal design, Equipment packaging & enclosures, Model-based design, and aerospace & defense design. During his free time he enjoys exploring new technology, golfing, skiing, and fishing.