Has Computer Aided Design (CAD) improved our lives?

We all remember how CAD would save the world and make our engineering lives more productive, error proof, and repeatable. Well the jury is in and it’s far from the end all be all.

CAD software is just one of many tools that we engineers use.  It has its value but I have found that it’s not for everything and in many cases it can hinder getting the work done.  It does not take the place of a thinking brain and sometimes it will lengthen the time line on certain projects.  When using CAD people will sometimes go into a black hole and design something that may be a bad idea to begin with, and instead of being trashed right then and work on the next iteration, there is now a beautifully articulated drawing complete in every way that is discarded and worthless. Sometimes something is designed in CAD that just needed a rough sketch.  In the past we could take paper and hand sketches over to a machine shop and work with them and get the parts more quickly than the time it takes to get a 3D model.

At one point one of our customers forced us to switch from one CAD software program to another product.  It cost us $60,000 in hardware just to make the change and we experienced a drop in performance since the engineers had to learn a new program.  The first year we looked at the mechanical engineering cogs for weldments, tools, machined parts, and sheet metal material, looked at the design and engineering hours and normalized the cost of living, cpi, and for everything we’ve bought since the conversion.  The ratio was dead steady and then there was a decline in productivity with a hard cost of $300,000 and a soft cost for training and learning of another $300,000.  Upgrading and going to new systems all the time is a complete waste of money.  If you think you’re going to be more efficient, you’re not.  The feature set increases faster than you can learn to use them and implement them.

Another time when using CAD software is inefficient is concepting.  This is the initial phase of design and it doesn’t replace a good artist or hand sketcher and a competent engineer. In concepting scale reviews aren’t important.  For example designing a car in CAD isn’t as good as building a model on the floor where several people can walk around it and look at it.  Way too many people have only one tool in their toolbox, CAD.  It replaces thinking for action and they can struggle all day drawing some image rather than going and getting a piece of wood and testing it.

What has your experience been?  Has CAD software improved your workplace?