Why so many CADs? And can I switch between them?

Feb 18, 2021 | Hot Topics

I am often asked, especially by people who are new to the CAD world, what the differences are between all of the CAD tools on the market. What’s the best? And what happens if I don’t like the product I started with — can I switch?

There are no easy answers –to any of this– because it’s so dependent on the use case. You wouldn’t use a BIM (Building Information Modeling) product to design a mechanical assembly — though you could, since both model solids and surfaces and their relationships to one another. But it wouldn’t be ideal and you’d spend a lot of energy to make it work, that you could otherwise apply to innovative designs. Specialist offerings evolved to take out some of that friction and to tailor the product for specific use cases.

I recently took a trip down memory lane, back to when I first saw a CAD product in 1982. It was called Autokon, and helped the shipyard lofting department figure out how to flatten the complex curvatures of hull plates and arrange them on a flat steel plate for cutting. Back then CAD came on a dedicated computer with a teeny little monitor, a wired pen, and a small electronic drafting board … and it was awesome. I was hooked.

Autokon was a one-trick pony. All it could do was lofting, but that was the norm back then. Computers were nowhere near as powerful as they are now, the input device choices were limited, and the graphics were awful. Simpler was better for many reasons.

Even today, CAD products are targeted to meet specific end-industry requirements, the training and expertise of likely users in those industries, the types of systems that CAD output has to feed into, and so on. Libraries of starter parts are industry-specific, drawing/output standards may be, too. While you can do more or less anything with any CAD product, that may not be the most efficient way to go. As you explore CAD choices, think about functionality, cost, training, and what your project partners use. It’s a decision you’ll likely live with for a while.

But it doesn’t have to be permanent. You might have very good reasons for wanting to change, and need to consider whether soldiering on with what you have is better or worse than the cost of switching. And there is a cost. Always. Moving from one CAD product to another might be easy or … it might not. I wrote a case study about that a while ago for Siemens where I created a framework you can use to think about these things, from part conversion to training costs. I just updated it — take a look here (you do need to register).