The History and Future of 3D CAD Design & Modeling

The History and Future of 3D CAD and Modeling

The history of drafting in the field of engineering, in its more primitive forms, probably dates back 300 to 400 years as designers learned how to use descriptive geometry. However, before the introduction of 3D modeling, the birth of modern-day computer-assisted drafting appeared sometime after World War II with the development of real-time computing in the 1950s.

Pioneers in Computer-Aided Design

According to an article on 3D Innovations, two men – Dr. Patrick Hanratty and Ivan Sutherland – are considered pioneers of CAD. Hanratty has become known as the “Father of CADD/CAM.”

Dr. Patrick Hanratty

Hanratty began earning a reputation in 1957 when he worked for General Electric. During that time, he developed a computer program called PRONTO (i.e., Program for Numerical Tooling Operations). This served as the first commercial computer numerical controlling system. This system is widely known today as computer-aided manufacturing.

According to, Dr. Hanratty left GE to work at General Motors in 1962. He worked with a team at GM Research Laboratories and developed graphics for Design Augmented by Computers (DAC) during his time there. Then he left GM in 1970 to form his own company, Integrated Computer Systems (ICS). He also founded a company called Manufacturing Consulting Services, Inc. in 1971. This company is credited with developing machine-independent ADAM software (Automated Drafting and Machining).

The ADAM software is the first commercially available drafting and machining system in the early 1970s. Approximately 80% of CAD programs can be traced back to ADAM.

Dr. Ivan Sutherland

Dr. Sutherland presented his Ph.D. thesis at MIT in 1963. He called it “Sketchpad, A Man-Machine Graphical Communications System.” This system provided designers with a light-pen which they could use to create engineering drawings directly onto a CRT. The CRT could then manipulate, duplicate, and store those drawings.

One of Dr. Sutherland’s significant contributions to the CAD world was developing one of the first algorithms to remove “hidden lines” in 3D drawings. These algorithms enabled a generation of realistic renderings for CAD models.

Additionally, while Sutherland served as an associate professor at Harvard University in 1967, he teamed up with student Bob Sproull to modify an existing helicopter flight system in which a pilot positioned a camera by simply moving his head. This new “Head-Mounted Display” helped its users see and navigate a computer-generated 3D environment. One can even say that this invention signaled the birth of virtual reality technology.

Dr. Ken Versprille

Dr. Versprille also got his start in the world of CAD technology, beginning with a Ph.D. thesis that led to the invention of NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational Basis Spline). This mathematical model is regularly used in computer graphics to generate and represent curves and surfaces. So, this invention became the basis for modern 3D curve and surface modeling.

The Continued Evolution of 3D CAD

Research and knowledge continued steadily with the development of even more sophisticated programs. Those include IGES in 1980, CATIA in 1977/1981, AutoCAD in 1982, Pro/Engineer in 1988, Autodesk AutoCAD [Release]13 in 1994, STEP in 1994, SolidWorks 95 in 1995, Solid Edge in 1995, Autodesk Inventor in 1999, and Autodesk 360 in 2012.


IGES FilesAccording to Techopedia, the acronym IGES stands for Initial Graphics Exchange Specification. “[It] is a special type of graphical file format used for file transfer protocols,” says Techopedia. The purpose of this file format is to provide compatibility in systems that use different interfaces while simultaneously needing to exchange information.

So why was this file format developed? It was developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for the Air Force Integrated Computer Automated Manufacturing project, which lasted from 1976-1984. The Air Force was then able to send data over long distances to remote end systems using telephone and other slow-connection communication equipment. The IGES format had the most positive impact when there was a need for the safe transmittal of data in the case that both end systems were different.

CATIA (1977)

CATIA design history and logoTechnia Transcat describes Computer-aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) as “the leading product development solution for all manufacturing organizations.” CATIA beneficiaries include original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) through their supply chains and small independent producers.

CATIA is known to be “the only solution capable of addressing the complete product development process, from product concept specification through product-in-service, in a fully integrated and associative manner.” So, what does CATIA actually do? This software package facilitates truly collaborative engineering throughout the product development process.

CATIA was originally developed by Avions Marcel Dassault in France around 1977, who was a surface modeler aiding in Dassault fighter jet design. It was designed on the foundation of 10 years of 3D mathematics research. The original name was CATI (Conception Assistée Tridimensionnelle Interactive). Then, in 1981, the software was renamed CATIA and Dassault Systemes was established to develop further and sell the program.

Boeing selected CATIA in 1989 as its primary CAD tool. As a result, CATIA earned its reputation as an aerospace CAD tool. The uses of CATIA rapidly expanded. For instance, Chrysler began using the software for its jeep and truck designs. The General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation chose CATIA to design submarines for the U.S. Navy. In 1998, CATIA V5 became available with features specifically designed for shipbuilders. Additionally, CATIA has proven to come in handy for designing HVAC and electric systems.

AutoCAD by AutoDesk (Released in 1982)

The company Autodesk, Inc. developed and marketed AutoCAD, whose major claim to fame is that it was one of the first CAD programs friendly to personal computer use.

The first release of AutoCAD only used primitive shapes such as lines, polygons, circles, arcs, and texts to build complex objects. The most up-to-date version, however, provides a full set of tools handy for 3D solid modeling.

According to Design Build Academy, CAD was first applied in large corporations including aerospace, electronics, and automotive industries because only the large corporations could afford computers capable of performing the necessary calculations to design their products.

As CAD software became available for personal desktop computers, the application became commonplace in the construction industry.

Use of CAD software sent many draftsmen to the unemployment lines during the early 1980s, especially in small and mid-sized companies. The software enabled engineers to do their drafting work.

Autodesk released AutoCAD 2000i in mid-2000 when the company took it to the internet with its first web-enabled CAD software. In the brave new world of internet connectivity, this software enabled output drawings viewable with a web browser. Not only that, some basic online collaboration became possible using Microsoft Net Meeting.

Pro/Engineer a.k.a. Pro/E (1988)

Pro-Engineer LogoSamuel Peisakhovich Geisberg established Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) in 1985, and the company released its first product Pro/Engineer in 1988. PTC’s first customer was John Deere, the company well-known for its agricultural and lawn care products, among several others.

The release of the first version of Pro/Engineer enabled PTC to secure venture capital funding. Pro/Engineer was the first software to make feature-based solid modeling a commercial success for PTC. The Pro/Engineer software integrated CAD/CAM/CAE (Computer-aided Engineering) that was useful for manufacturers regarding design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. With continued innovative technology and “no-holds-barred sales tactics,” PTC became a force to be reckoned with in the CAD industry until the mid-1990s.

However, the introduction of Microsoft Windows NT, along with the growing availability of commercial geometric modeling libraries, empowered a new generation of low-cost competitors. These competitors managed to put the squeeze on PTC’s sales for many years. When PTC introduced a new, upgraded CAD product named Pro/Engineer Wildfire, the company once again demonstrated its resiliency by establishing itself as one of the leading Product Lifecycle Management software providers.

This PTC product became known as Creo Elements/Pro in 2010.

AutoCAD [Release] 13 by AutoDesk (Released in 1994)

Some of the enhancements that became available on Windows and other platforms in AutoCAD R13 include the following (although this list is hardly exhaustive):

  • Screen layout – The size and placement of most components are easily customizable.
  • Floating toolbars – This is a collection of commands organized by category.
  • Flyouts – This enables users to choose several different commands from the same place on the toolbar
  • Tooltips – It labels the varying commands on the toolbars; also, the status bar shows more detailed descriptions
  • Command Window – The drawing area is separate from the command window. Each of them has separate, floating, and scrollable windows.
  • New Menu System – This new version features a simplified menu with most commands being available on toolbars. However, if this does not meet with expectations, users can load a full menu similar to those in earlier versions.
  • Learning AutoCAD – The Windows version provides a 10-lesson online tutorial to help new users master basic AutoCAD commands. DOS and UNIX versions of the software tutorial come in printed form.
  • Quick Tour – New users can familiarize themselves with basic AutoCAD concepts. Those include:
  • Spell Check – Who wants to look foolish in front of a boss or client because of spelling errors? Nobody! So, R13 provided a built-in spelling checker.
  • Drawing Preview – There was no need to attach or open a drawing to get a peek at it. The dialog box contains a preview area displaying an image of a selected drawing.

These are just a few of the listed upgrades contained in AutoCAD.


Like IGES, STEP is a neutral file format enabling the transfer of files between various CAD programs. It is a more current version of the earlier IGES, but is considered more reliable. STEP files are capable of producing 3D files. These models are useful for analysis, modeling, or drawings. STEP files, however, do not permit editing because there is no feature tree. However, these files work well for sending or receiving work for customers.

SolidWorks 95 (1993)

The company was founded in 1993 “on the idea that 3D solid modeling can take advantage of more cost-effective Windows PCs to bring a powerful, but easy-to-use, 3D design solution to every engineer.”

The release of SolidWorks 95 in 1995 reduced the average cost of 3D CAD software from $18,000 to $4,000. The software was built on Microsoft, and not only did it reduce software cost, but it cut training time from three months to three days.

This economical program has gone through a long series of upgrades, the most recent being released in 2016.

Solid Edge by Siemens

Siemens describes Solid Edge as follows:

“Solid Edge is a portfolio of affordable, easy-to-use software tools that address all aspects of the product development process. Solid Edge combines the speed and simplicity of direct modeling with the flexibility and control of parametric design – made possible with synchronous technology.”

AutoDesk Inventor

This software offers a variety of user benefits including the capacity for seamless teamwork.

In a video on the AutoDesk Inventor, representatives of Pacific Northern, a company that creates retail jewelry displays and in-store fixtures, praised the new Inventor software for the advantages they saw that it would provide them.

Those advantages include:

  • The ability to shorten the lead time on product development
  • The possibility of reducing the number of software products used from three to one
  • Bridging the gap between the company’s creative and mechanical teams
  • Providing an accurate image to one customer of how display parts fit together along with the ability to move parts and pieces around so the customer could determine the most enticing way to display their watches
  • Improves engineering and design efficiency

In another video on the AutoDesk Inventor website, DIS-TRAN representatives talk about the advantages Inventor has given them. DIS-TRAN is a company offering solutions for high-voltage open-air substations. The company provides all the equipment necessary to build substations at a construction or job site.

Here are a few advantages this company credited Inventor with:

  • Elimination of a lot of rework, which improves the efficiency of CAD design and engineering experts
  • Autodesk Inventor has shortened lead times between engineering and design by at least 20%
  • Inventor enables a project to advance from the conceptual to the design phase with little or no error
  • Enables increased drawing and quote accuracy

AutoDesk A360 Drive

This most recent upgrade of AutoDesk software offers the many advantages of the cloud in its software. Those advantages include:

  • Safety
  • Ease in storage and file sharing
  • File accessibility anywhere
  • Collaborative improvement

Cad Crowd’s Place in 3D CAD History

Brief Rundown of Cad Crowd’s Company History

Cad Crowd entered the CAD market in 2010. Its co-founders MacKenzie Brown and Mikeal Abramoff established the company in Calgary, Canada. In that year alone, 100 companies signed up with this fledgling business.

Then Cad Crowd enjoyed plenty of success in 2011 as it won a total of $60,000 that included a $50,000 TecVenture prize.

The TecVenture award was established by the TEC Edmonton company. This company’s vision is stated here:

“The prosperity resulting from TEC’s programs, working in partnership with the community, will contribute to Edmonton being recognized as one of North America’s leading regions for wealth creation through innovation.”

The TecVenture competition provided financial incentives, feedback, business training, and mentoring desired by aspiring entrepreneurs and fledgling companies entering the marketplace. Participants submitted “the ultimate business plan for the chance to win a cut of the $150,000 that Tec gave away annually.

There were three competition categories from which to choose:

They were:

  • Fast Growth
  • Telus ICT
  • DynaLIFE Health

A panel of business and financing experts judged the business plan submissions. This prize was discontinued beginning 2017.

More Cad Crowd Milestones

Then, in 2012, Cad Crowd received seed funding from angel investors. Additionally, the company re-launched its website to focus on being a CAD contest platform, with 30 contests going live online. Cad Crowd ended the year with the availability of 600 CAD experts.

By the end of 2013, Cad Crowd had accumulated 2,500 global designers and more than $100,000 in design projects. During 2014, Cad Crowd opened an office in San Francisco, and in Los Angeles in 2017. By 2018, Cad Crowd would boast 20,000+ CAD designers & engineers.

Cad Crowd now enjoys a leading marketplace position offering CAD drafting services, 3D modeling, contract manufacturing, and patent services. Cad Crowd’s online community connects clients with product development and design services that can provide clients with the expertise they need to push their products into the marketplace.

The Future of CAD

Discussion of the history of 3D in CAD would not be complete without a little peek into its future. There are three important developments shaping the future of computer-aided design software.

A Growing Emphasis on Personalization

The majority of software vendors have steadily added features and expanded their portfolios over the course of time. The goal has always been to address the largest number of users’ needs. However, a considerable number of users need features are not provided as part of the currently available software packages.

As a result of this demand, the future of technology lies with products that are easily configured and augmented. Software products in the future should simplify users’ discovery and ability to test software “add-ons” as well as third-party vertical applications capable of complementing a base product.

The Cloud Will Continue to Improve Collaboration Capabilities

Challenges in collaboration are nothing new to the world of product development. These challenges are the impetus that moves new collaboration capabilities ahead. After all, the current design and product development environment involves many stakeholders (often from different companies) engaged in product design projects.

The move to cloud-based design technology has clearly been set in motion by AutoCAD. A360 Drive promises to free up constraints in place that allow only a single user to work on a design at one time. Use of cloud and web-based technologies will make it possible for more than one user to work on a model at the same time.

Universal Access to Rich Data and Valuable Insights

The ultimate value of data stored in the cloud will be realized when insights can be provided to users, design team managers, and executives. However, the data provided will be exclusively available to the companies and users creating it because of its presence in the cloud.

Any question a stakeholder may have about a design project is easily answerable. Some of these questions may be:

  • How many people within a department have touched a model?
  • How many hours has a project involved? This will include different disciplines and tasks.
  • Where can workflows be improved?

The answers to such questions will serve hugely with strategic decisions regarding resource allocation, IT investment, and talent acquisition and development.

Cad Crowd continues to stay abreast of the forever-advancing developments in the world of 3D CAD design companies and other engineering technologies by providing professionals in these areas. Our professionals constantly seek the most up-to-date technologies to provide the most awesome product design and development services. Give Cad Crowd a try by contacting us and learning about the diverse service options we offer.