The Future of AutoCAD
by Elliot Gindis
It is a bit of a gamble to try to nail down future trends in technology, and the world of computer-aided drafting and design is no exception. One has to only look back a few years to find plenty of “experts” who were off in their predictions. New trends and innovations, appearing (and sometimes disappearing) rapidly, ensure that charting the long-term future is more guesswork than a hard science. Who would have predicted just a decade ago that AutoCAD would be again run on a Mac, that we would be storing our data and even collaborating “in the cloud,” and that you would be able to draft on a hand-held tablet?
Still, however, it is possible to discuss where AutoCAD, as well as the CAD industry in general, may be going in the coming years by sticking to the relatively near future. In this compressed time-frame of a few years we can look at technologies and trends that are already being implemented or will soon be here. Although the computer-aided drafting design industry as a whole can be considered relatively conservative, taking its time to implement new ideas (as opposed to the lightning fast telecom and entertainment industries), trends and directions do emerge within it, and some fundamental changes are on the way. Let us take a closer look by first revisiting a bit of history.
Design, AutoCAD, and Verticals
Over its long history, AutoCAD has matured and grown into a stable, efficient, effective, and very popular 2D drafting application. By design, it was meant to be everything to everyone, and for many years it was. Spanning just about every design and manufacturing industry in existence, in its peak days (arguably 1994–2006), AutoCAD was found in the offices of nearly every small- to medium-size engineering and architectural firm. This was its greatest strength and, surprisingly, its greatest weakness. By being so “generic,” it found wide application in many industries, but on the flip side, it was not specialized software and could not be made such without reworking its fundamental core.
Autodesk, of course, did not want to reinvent AutoCAD and risk losing its main audience, but AutoCAD was clearly not specialized enough for many uses. Autodesk remedied this by adding “verticals” of all kinds. This was add-on software that ran on top of AutoCAD and extended its functionality for the mechanical, architectural, civil, electrical, and other markets. With Autodesk’s marketing muscle, these verticals proved relatively successful, and an entire generation of CAD designers learned Mechanical Desktop, Architectural Desktop (ADT for short), and many others, while competitors closed in with specialized software of their own. A pattern emerged where just about any engineering or architectural subfield had a choice between AutoCAD plus a vertical add-on or another competitor or two to choose from.
Design and Solid Modeling
Meanwhile, a parallel world was evolving and thriving on its own, quite apart from AutoCAD and most types of architecture. This was the high-end and somewhat exclusive world of 3D solid modeling. For a select group of companies with the need (and the resources), using some off-the-shelf 2D application, no matter how good, was never an option. These industries included the aerospace, automotive, naval, and rail design, among others. The products these companies were designing were simply too complex to invest in 2D drafting. When they left pencil and paper behind in the 1960s and 1970s, they moved right into the world of 3D by commissioning internal development (or purchase) of high-end solid modeling software. Though true 3D software did not appear until the early 1980s, such was the beginning of applications like UniGraphics, CATIA, and their predecessor, the famous CADAM, a Lockheed staple.
These 3D modeling software applications, including later products like Pro/Engineer (later renamed to Creo), NX (a merger of UniGraphics and I-DEAS), SolidWorks, and others, had features and capabilities that were specialized to high-end engineering design, and they introduced new concepts along the way. For example, when designing a product with hundreds of parts (most of them interacting with each other), techniques like part trees, parent/child relationships, and parametric design had to be invented to keep track of everything, including interference, bills of materials, and much more. It made no sense to do anything in 2D, as parts had to be visualized and virtual models had to be built, analyzed, and tested. It was only at the very end of the process that 2D views of individual parts were produced and given to machinists to manufacture.
With the advent of CNC (Computer Numerical Code) even that was no longer necessary, and information could be transmitted directly from a model to the manufacturing machine, with a machinist overseeing setup and quality control. All these techniques developed slowly and deliberately in response to a clear need in the industry. These software applications were complex, expensive, and virtually unrecognizable to an AutoCAD user. They also often required specialized training, and to this day, you generally do not sit down to learn CATIA or NX unless you are a working (or student) engineer. There really was no industry of pure drafters as there was with AutoCAD. You had to know what you were doing in your specialty and also how to interpret the results of your design or analysis.
Merging of Industries
If you have studied 3D AutoCAD, you may already see where this narrative is going. It was inevitable that the folks from the 2D architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) world would take a look at their peers in the 3D world and ask, “Can we also do this?” The fundamental premise they saw was very simple: We all live in a 3D world, and this is the way all design should be done. Nowhere was this more evident than in the world of architecture. As early as the late 1980s, visionaries like Frank Geary commissioned Dassault, the makers of CATIA, to modify their product for architecture/building design. Architects the world over still designed everything in 2D (some still via pencil and paper), and 3D modeling was the rare exception, not the rule. Because AutoCAD was the undisputed software of choice among architects and interest was building in a 3D approach, the ultimate clash of industries was bound to happen.
Autodesk’s response was to borrow a number of techniques and incorporate them into the 2D and 3D capabilities of AutoCAD. Dimension-driven design and 3D-to-2D layouts are just some of the features that filtered their way down from solid modeling into plain AutoCAD. Clearly, however, AutoCAD itself was not fundamentally changing; and another approach was needed to fill the need of customers who wanted to take things into the 3D world, both in engineering and architecture. As they were doing this, competitors wasted no time in pushing their own solutions. In the world of solid modeling, numerous mid- to low-priced products for engineers emerged, such as IronCAD, IntelliCAD, SolidWorks, and Solid Edge. In the world of architecture and design, ArchiCAD and even Rhino touted their 3D capabilities. Specialized software was also available from MicroStation, and these companies captured a significant portion of the civil engineering market. Autodesk came back strong with Inventor, a successful solid modeling software of its own. But the biggest jump toward merging 2D and 3D design was yet to come.
Revit and BIM
If migrating to 3D was all there was to architecture and building design, that would have been done a long time ago. Something else was missing from AutoCAD and similar 2D programs, a set of features that had been present in 3D solid modeling software for quite some time. The architecture world wanted those features as much, if not more, than the 3D capabilities alone. These features are best described as “relational databases” and “parametric change engines.”
Simply put, solid modeling software had far more intelligence than drafting software. Objects in solid modeling were all part of a database that tracked their positions and attributes. Everything created was part of something bigger, and everything was linked together. If you created a bracket in 3D, the 2D views were already part of that bracket, the part was tracked in a bill of materials, and its physical properties were also cataloged. If you wanted a section view, it was just a click away. The bracket was not just a collection of lines, it was a dynamic entity.
To bring these features to the architecture world was the premise behind Revit, a “solid-modeling-for-architects” software acquired by Autodesk in 2002 (originally developed by Revit Technology Corporation). Technically, Revit was what is referred to as building information modeling (BIM) software. This type of software goes one huge step beyond 2D line drafting of a facility by digitally representing all of its physical and functional characteristics in a powerful relational database. This type of software is useful not just during the design phase but throughout the entire life cycle of the facility, including its management and operation. Revit (which is short for REVise InsTantly) is, of course, not the only such software on the market; and MicroStation, ArchiCAD, Vectorworks, ARCHIBUS and CATIA’s Digital Project are all viable competitors. Revit, however, is the leading software among its peers and is credited with bringing BIM to a new generation of users.
Revit, and other available BIM software, has revolutionized building and facility design. Solid building models are first constructed, often immediately in 3D. Then, section, details, and a bill of materials can easily be generated. All views are linked together, and any changes are instantly updated throughout the entire project. An architect/designer can now keep track of all entities (doors, windows, etc.) in the design, and link cost and materials to them. Square footage and even energy usages can now be tracked in real time as the design progresses. Time and cost is also factored in (the fourth and fifth dimensions in BIM). Finally, Revit has advanced rendering tools and can produce excellent rendered images without third party software.
All this was already incorporated into mechanical design for years, but only relatively recently was it widely available to architects. Considering the advantages, such as waste minimization, shorter turnaround times, and better error detection, it is surprising this was not available sooner. There are, of course, some disadvantages to BIM software like Revit, with the chief among them being the significant retraining and upfront investment needed. It may also not the right fit for very small projects, where basic AutoCAD is more than enough.
The Future of AutoCAD
So, after all this discussion of solid modeling, Revit, and BIM, what is the future of AutoCAD? It is probably better to split this into two questions: What is the future of AutoCAD itself, and what is the future of computer-aided design in general, in light of this overall trend toward 3D? Will AutoCAD stay the way it is? Will it morph into a different software altogether?
The overall consensus is a resounding “No!” AutoCAD enjoys a very special place in the overall scheme of things. It is a very well-established and successful 2D drafting package. There will always be a need for this software in its present form. Too many clients in the design world require nothing more than what AutoCAD already offers. By being so good at the simple and basic task of drafting, AutoCAD will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely Autodesk will significantly tinker with its formula for success and its main cash cow.
However, Autodesk is changing AutoCAD in small ways. It is, e.g., incorporating as much advanced 3D as possible without fundamentally changing the identity of the software. Autodesk is also doing its best to keep AutoCAD looking modern and cutting edge by incorporating such design techniques as “heads up” display for data entry. It is also trying its best to eliminate the archaic-looking command line – but for the sake of the legacy users, the command line is expected to remain available, if needed. AutoCAD has also followed basic software modernization trends over the years, such as incorporating the Ribbon Interface design style and being offered for sale via download as opposed to physical DVDs or CDs.
The industry itself, however, is moving ever slowly, but surely, toward 3D solid modeling and BIM. A wave is spreading across the architectural profession to incorporate BIM into basic design from the ground up and not treat this approach as something exotic but rather as a new fundamental approach. Autodesk clearly recognizes this trend, and its Revit software is well positioned in the market. Expect to see this trend continue, and if you are inclined toward architectural drafting, you may be well advised to also learn Revit or another BIM-oriented software, such as ArchiCAD, Digital Project Designer, or Bentley Architecture.
In summary, it is doubtful AutoCAD itself will ever morph into another software under pressure from the industry trends; it is simply too profitable, and it will remain relevant “as is” for years to come. Autodesk will continue its yearly update and “sprucing up” of the interface and adding more and more 3D features up to the limit of its ACIS modeling kernel, but its core will remain the same. AutoCAD’s market share however will likely shrink in the coming years, with some of that going to Revit and other BIM software. Some mechanical engineers will also switch to 3D, but since that type of modeling software was already available for a long time, the main drift away from AutoCAD will be in the architectural world, not engineering.
As with any predictions, it remains to be seen how things will actually turn out, but the overall consensus is that the just-discussed scenarios are the most likely for the immediate future.