3D In AutoCAD

Today I had an interesting discussion on Twitter with an equally interesting person. This person was of the opinion that “AutoCAD was marvelous for it’s purpose, which is drawing lines, circles and arcs“. Soon the conversation moved to the 3D features of AutoCAD and this person went on to say, “Those that need 3D have pretty much bought it. Those that have AutoCAD are staying with it in many cases. I’m sure the market has matured much more than many of the vendors publicly acknowledge. AutoCAD has had 3D for decades. I used to model bicycle parts and rendered them in 1995“.

Actually, this person is right. 3D has been in AutoCAD for quite some time now. I remember way back in 1999, I used AutoCAD Release 12 for DOS to model a bus in 3D, complete with interiors and all, took it to 3D Studio, applied materials and lighting and created a walk-through animation.

Of late I have been hearing people from Autodesk repeatedly say that they are transforming AutoCAD from a 2D drafting and detailing application to a 3D modeling and analysis one that comes with 2D drafting and detailing. Well, lets see exactly what has been happening to AutoCAD for the past few years. Let’s make than ten years.

I have AutoCAD 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 installed on my computer in office. I also have AutoCAD 2000. Simply love the way it starts up. I use it when I want to sketch something really quick. Click the image below to open it in a new window.

This are screenshots of the Solid Editing sub-menu of AutoCAD (Modify > Solid Editing). The number of menu items added to this sub-menu from 2000 to 2010 is zero. In ten years Autodesk could not find any new solid editing command to add to this sub-menu.

Lets move on. Click this image.

These are screenshots of the 3D Operation sub-menu (Modify > 3D Operation). As you can see in 2007 Autodesk added a few commands to check for interference, slice and thicken objects. But after 2007, nothing more was added.

Now click this image.

These are the screenshots of the solid creation sub-menu (Draw > Solids in 2006 and earlier, Draw > Modeling thereafter). Hey, wait a minute. The interference and slice commands were not added in 2007. As it turns out there were simply moved to the 3D Operation sub-menu from here.

What was indeed added in 2010 was this Mesh Editing sub-menu (Modify > Mesh Editing). This was because in 2010 Autodesk added the SubDMesh object to DWG and needed commands to edit them.

Now there are two ways to look at this. One way is to say that, apart from the SubDMesh, Autodesk has not added any major 3D modeling related feature to AutoCAD in a decade. The other way is to closely analyse the way these commands have changed over time and look for enhancements in the way these commands work. For example, the addition of the Move/Rotate/Scale gizmo may look like a UI enhancement. But actually it can very well be considered as a 3D modeling enhancement because you can do wonderful things with solids using these gizmos.

Arguments like these can go on and on. And frankly there is really no point to them. The thing which interests me most is whether AutoCAD will ever be able to shake off its image of being a 2D drafting and detailing solution. There is something else bothering me. Something that this interesting person said “Those that need 3D have pretty much bought it.” Is that really the case? Will orienting AutoCAD towards 3D modeling at this point in time make any difference now? Should Autodesk have done this way earlier? Probably before people started moving from AutoCAD to 3D modeling systems like SolidWorks? How many AutoCAD users today actually want to go 3D now when they haven’t done so in all these years?

If you are someone using AutoCAD for 2D drafting and detailing, I would like to know what you think. Do leave a comment.

  • Using AutoCAD for 3D is like using a pair of pliers for a hammer. Will it work if you are stuck with only pliers? Sure. Is it the right tool? Nope.

    Here is what I told Randall in an article recently.

    It's all merging. I think everyone has speculated on this but I see the products becoming one in the near future. Look at the icons and some of the commands. How AutoCAD now has geometric constraints. Grips in Inventor is akin to what boolean solids in AutoCAD used to be. There is some good and some bad to this. AutoCAD sketching is superior but it's all bogged down with a lot of baggage. Inventor would bring true
    3D to AutoCAD. DWG will become the universal file format for 2D and 3D.

    And things will get way more complicated. My guess is they will be one program in less than three years.

  • Sean,

    Autodesk is unifying a lot of stuff, specially the graphics systems. Lets see where this is headed.

  • QubeIt

    I think AutoCAD is still valid as a tool in the toolbox, just not for serious 3D modeling. Sure you can create some really impressive looking models with its toolset, but leveraging that data downstream is where the usefulness of those models falls straight off the cliff.
    The primary difference between AutoCAD and parametric modeling (IMHO) is that with AutoCAD you are able to put garbage in and get moderate quality (in the form of drawings) out. The primary *advantage* of that is speed. You could mock up some dumb geometry quickly and annotate it to reflect your design intent with in a short amount of time. Where as with parametric modeling (Solidworks, Inventor, etc.), if you put garbage in you'll get garbage out. Parametric modeling requires that you have the foresight to properly plan out your model or design so it gets built in a stable manner. This takes time on the front end, which is a paradigm shift for how some companies have been doing things for many years.
    I think that this hits home for companies that do most of their production in-house (whatever that may be). Their in-house shop probably has an intrinsic knowledge of the product they are producing so, with AutoCAD, shortcuts with the geometry and drawing creation can be done and the design intent will be simply “understood” by the shop floor. Now, obviously, this is not the best way to communicate designs for many reasons, but it's the legacy of years past that have a deep rooted niche in the way many in-house job shops accomplish things, hence the reason that there are still so many companies that use AutoCAD primarily.
    If there are companies that are already modeling to communicate their design intent (instead of using 2D) then switching to a parametric modeler is an easier step and, in my opinion, a no-brainer. But for companies who do everything in 2D, then making a switch to 3D is a big enough step let alone parametric 3D. It's a paradigm shift, period. No matter what all the marketing hype says.

  • Brian,

    Totally agree. I can relate to your view of how shortcuts in 2D drafting and detailing can be “understood” by people on the shop floor. At my first job I used to write AutoLISP code that automatically created workshop ready 2D drawings of busy body structures and assemblies by taking input from designers. As always there are bugs in any man made computer program. But I was quite surprised at the reaction of the desginers. More than often, they would be “okay” with a drawing missing some detail. They had a view that the guys on the shop floor would somehow “understand” or “figure it out for themselves” which they almost always did.

    After I left that company to start my own business I made it a point to leave that attitude behind me.

  • kellings

    A similar conversation has been posted at mcadforums.com. I don't understand why someone would use Autocad for 3D when Autodesk has far better 3D tools available with Inventor and Revit.

    Inventor is easier to learn than Autocad3D is (even if you know 2D Autocad). The tools are more robust. Documenting your 3D model is far more powerful. Giving motion to your model is possible in Inventor while it isn't in Autocad 3D.

    Autocad is the flagship product for Autodesk. But that isn't because it is the most technologically capable product availabe from Autodesk. It is simply used by the most people.

    I think Autodesk needs to draw the line between Autocad and Inventor/Revit. You want 2D? Then use Autocad. It is the best 2D tool available. You want 3D? Then Autodesk should be pushing you to Inventor and Revit. It won't be long and you won't be able to go back to 3D in Autocad.

  • I believe if Autodesk adds Fusion style direct modeling into AutoCAD, it would be a killer. I hope they eventually do. Imagine this. The most popular and widely use CAD system offers its users the complete freedom to model as they think. It would be a great concept modeler. They could add several post design Digital Prototyping features to it as well, which mostly need a 3D solid, irrespective of how it was created. Frankly, I cannot think of a single reason why they should not do it.

    So as I see it 3D in AutoCAD has tremendous scope.

  • I agree with Sean and kellings. As someone who has done 3D modeling in AutoCAD, I feel it is definitely the wrong tool for doing 3D compared to packages like Inventor and SolidWorks.

    Does Autodesk even need to try to use resources to add more 3D capability to AutoCAD? I definitely don't think so! I would tend to agree with this “interesting person” that most folks who want or need 3D are already there. If not, I don't think starting out with 3D in AutoCAD is the right direction to take.

    As far as shortcuting the design process and letting the shop guys figure it out, that is just plain lazy crap design, IMO. Sure, it may work for them now, but what if it has to be sent out for some reason to another shop? Some way or another, this will come back to bite you in the butt. (I am glad that you recognized that, Deelip!)

    I think eventually Autodesk will consolidate their products; there are inroads already, with being able to detail Inventor models in Mech. Desktop. (Possibly even more now, I am several years out now of Inventor/AutoCAD experience.) But I think it will be later rather than sooner to see an all-in-one package.

  • Brain,

    Firstly, I don't think many will start out in AutoCAD for 3D modeling. Secondly, judging by the AutoCAD wish lists that get voted on ever year, one does not get the impression that many users want more 3D modeling features that they already have. This addition of 3D features to AutoCAD appears to be an Autodesk initiative, which must be commended, irrespective of the reason why they may be doing it now and not earlier.

    As Henry Ford so eloquently put it, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

    Of course, if Autodesk had pushed 3D in AutoCAD earlier in the game, things may have been a bit different.

  • Love Autocad for 2D, Love Inventor for 3D.

    Creating a 3D model in Autocad may be slick, but creating a drawing from your 3D model is a pig (And not to mention a parts list).

    Untill I can produce co-ordinated plan, section and detail drawings as easily in Autocad as I can in Inventor, I won't be using 3D Autocad for my shop drawings…

    (P.S I skipped Mechanical desktop…)

  • Using AutoCAD to do 3D modeling for Mechanical Design is clearly using the wrong tool for the job. However, using 3D for stuff like architecture, and it may turn out to be something useful. But then they have Revit. Ouch!

  • kellings

    As Henry Ford so eloquently put it, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

    By your analogy, Autodesk is taking the horse (autocad) and making it faster (3D). I don't want a faster horse. I like the horse for what it is good at (2D). Now I want an automobile. (Inventor/Revit).

  • Kellings, absolutely love the way you twisted that around. 😉

  • kellings

    I do what I can 🙂

  • jimquanci

    One thing I have learned and relearned again and again is the world is a big place and customer needs vary greatly. There is no one tool that “does it all”. Depending on what you are trying to design and what the “deliverable” is YOU are getting paid for (concepts, drawings, models, physical parts, machines buildings, etc.), the nest tool will vary. Plus there is the cost of learning and competantly using one or several tools – and the capabilities and needs of other people you work with (which really vary greatly by industry, country, state/Province). For some folks AutoCAD is about drawings. For others it about conceptual design (don't care about drawings or manufacturing) and for others its getting that part made (for some parts, AutoCAD 3D works just fine). There is no crisp/clear line when one should use AutoCAD vs Inventor vs Revit vs and number of other Autodesk and non-Autodesk design and analysis tools. You balance what you know, the time to learn something new, the deliverable (you get paid for) this week, the expected deliverable next year and make a decision on what is best for YOU. One needs to spend real quality time in someone else's shoes before knowing enough to give a good recommendadtion on what they “should” be using. Working for Autodesk, and having a background in mechanical engineering, and getting a small amount of hands on time with AutoCAD, Inventor and Revit, I do see their varied stremgths and weaknesses – and “choosing the right tool for the job” is sometimes easy – but at other times its not and one can efficiently get the job done with any one of a few different tools. I am surprised every day by what creative customers have done with our products – using our products in ways our product managers and engineers never envisioned – which is why being in a design related profession is so much fun!

    Our stats show the AutoCAD installed base is slowly but surely learning and using 3D more and more – this is not a zero sum game where all people who need 3D are already using it. Dare say AutoCAD is probably one of the top 5 most popular 3D design tools on the market today. 3D is very much not just about faster more accurate drawings – but about exploring ideas – something one can do with most Autodesk (and competitive) products. An off the wall thought… these days most mature design products allow you to explore your ideas… the “right” design product may be mostly about what you want to do after exploring your ideas – the deliverable (which is often dictated by your customer/manager and not yourself).

  • AutoCAD became a 3D package with R13 and it was missed by all mostly because of the other issues of R13 but in the main because Autodesk's and it dealers were incapable of seeing the obvious because they were too busy looking for the next thing.
    MDT, as I have said many times, took AutoCAD in the direction it needed to go for we mechanical designers and the flexibility of working in 2D, 3D, 2D&3D, solids and surfaces and any combination of these simultaneously within the same interface was streets ahead of all BUT; Autodesk had a group of imports with their own agenda and they took Autodesk down the road of becoming an industry follower and – Inventor was born and with it a mess that has cost Autodesk customers enormous loss in both productivity and profitability.
    That all history but it is worth remembering. With respect to your questions Deelip;

    “There is something else bothering me. Something that this interesting person said “Those that need 3D have pretty much bought it.” Is that really the case?

    Quite possibly so as the market plateau’d a long time ago but it is worth remembering new users continue to come on board and working their way thru’ the AutoCAD environment in 2D and 3D cannot be a bad thing for industries.

    “Will orienting AutoCAD towards 3D modeling at this point in time make any difference now?”

    There is no need to “orient” AutoCAD to 3D – it has 3D and it has 2D they are just tools. We keep saying this but still go off on a tangent. Just continue to improve the capability of ALL the TOOLS and let the customer decide what s/he uses for what task and when – simply forget whether AutoCAD is 2D or 3D it unimportant – that it is AutoCAD with all the abilities is ALL that is important!

    “Should Autodesk have done this way earlier?

    Yes – and they did but they ‘blew it’ and threw it away – marketing’s mistake.

    “Probably before people started moving from AutoCAD to 3D modeling systems like SolidWorks?”

    Yes – I guess I covered this in my comments about MDT

    “How many AutoCAD users today actually want to go 3D now when they haven’t done so in all these years?”

    I think you would be surprised just how many – when properly advised. Based on the information and enquires I receive and that I know several training institutions get – enquires about how to work with 2D (AutoCAD) still outstrips signing up for 3D. In those 2D classes I find at least a quarter want to know about 3D and I always give them a taste (2D course or not) but only a few interested in 3D have an actual requirement that would see the effort return value for money.
    And this is must never be forgotten. At the end of the day 3D has to earn its keep and make money for those using it and, it will not do that for some as effectively as 2D will.

    I like (Autodesk’s VP) Guri Stark’s take on this and I am looking forward to this argument.

  • My cad is closing when ever i am opening a 3d application with a windows error message. This is not happening in my laptop. What should i do? I am asking this question to many.

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  • Nice to see consolidation of this software.

  • Jen

    I work for a small company where I am the only CAD user. I would love to have Revit in all of it's flavors, but my company can't afford to purchase an half-dozen specialized tools for all the different work I do, so I use AutoCAD. It may not be the best tool, but it is the most versatile. My work is mostly 2D, but I am using the 3D tools more and more.

  • Samantha

    AutoCAD is an evergreen tool and its usability in drafting is unbeatable. At the same time i Feel the 3d models created through them though are bit time consuming but then that doesn’t mean AUTO CAD needs to be generalizeds just for drafting. You can also go through few work done in Auto CAD executed in the following link http://www.caddoutsourcingservices.com/architectural-2d-drafting-services.php

  • Murray

    How much call is there for more manual tools for 2D drafting? So many 3D modelers produce much of their own 2D output, and isn’t it more likely that the capability of those automation tools is going to eventually marginalise manual CAD drafting (and AC ubiquity), just as 2D CAD marginalised pen-and-paper skills?

  • Not agree with Deelip Menezes,  I think autocad is the best one for cad modeling

    • I am not thinking so. Any specific reason or features?

  • Today in recent engineering industries three- dimensional 3D is the best technology as compared to 2d in autocad. it is easy to used by engineers and inexpensive.

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  • cad design services

    nice post..