Is AutoCAD Still Relevant?

July 17, 2014 6 min read

Editor's Note: We asked Brian Benton to contribute to our blog with a Guest Blog Post. Join the conversation by leaving a comment or send a tweet to @Novedge and let us know if you use AutoCAD. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed within guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Novedge.

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I have been using AutoCAD professionally since the early 1990s, back when it was essentially the only product Autodesk had. There were exceptions of course and there were other products from different companies. But from Autodesk, AutoCAD was their foundation product. If you were in any AEC (Architecture Engineering Construction) business you were likely using AutoCAD to create your drawings.

Eventually things changed, just as they always do, and we were given new products to try out. Autodesk made a few purchases here and there and these acquisitions transformed into Inventor, Civil 3D, Revit, and other products. Competitors to Autodesk have established themselves where they can and today we have a plethora of CAD options. 

Many industries dictate to users which CAD system they will be using, and for good reason. The platforms are designed for those specific industry needs. So what about AutoCAD? What industry is it tailored for? Does it fit anywhere? Should you be using a different CAD package? AutoCAD is a 30-year-old program. Is it even relevant these days?

AutoCAD is perhaps the world leader in CAD use and with good reason. Here are a few of its leading features.

  • Hundreds of 2D drafting and editing tools, commands, functions, and abilities.
  • Sheet Sets. The Sheet Set Manager is an in AutoCAD tool that provides project and file management as well as archiving, printing and data sharing.
  • Parametric Constraints. AutoCAD designers can use parametric and geometric constraints to “control” the design of their 2D models.
  • Dynamic blocks allow for quick and easy manipulation of pre-saved line groups (called blocks) in order to reduce drafting time by reusing what was already created.
  • Data referencing. AutoCAD can reference, or link, other AutoCAD files. This allows multiple users to work on one project at a time, provides a way for managing a main data file, provides an ease of use method to create multiple construction drawings for one data set, and creates an environment were data is shared easily. AutoCAD can also link data from Office software files like spreadsheets and word processing programs.
  • Data is easily extracted from AutoCAD objects into a database that can be integrated into a spreadsheet.
  • AutoCAD’s user interface can be altered to any users preferences quite easily and per project. This allows users and companies to make sure they have the exact tools they need available in the most efficient way.
  • AutoCAD’s 3D tools are also amazing. It can create (and edit) solids, surfaces and even meshes. Once the model is created AutoCAD can also preform photorealistic renderings as well as simple animations.

Anything can be drawn in AutoCAD, animated, rendered, or printed. It has the toolset to fit any design need.

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That being said there are other CAD products available that are better than AutoCAD, but in very specific circumstances.  One example is Autodesk Revit. Revit is designed to fit the specific needs for Building Information Modeling (BIM). Its toolset is meant for building design and construction purposes. It can take a structural design from concept to completion using tools for design and coordination during construction. Revit incorporates tools for architectural design, MEP, structural engineering, and construction. AutoCAD can do this too, but not in the same way and nowhere nearly as efficiently.

Here are some aspects of Revit in where it excels when compared to AutoCAD.

  • Parametric components. Revit uses intelligent building components to improve design accuracy.
  • Energy Analysis. Revit has built in tools that provide a means to analyze the energy efficiency of your model.
  • Structural Analysis. Revit and analyze the structural features of your model showing stress, force, etc. and allows for designers to easily improve their design as needed.
  • Bidirectional associativity. A change anywhere is a change everywhere.
  • Conceptual design tools. Sketch freely, and create free-form models.
  • Architectural/Structural specific tools. Structural reinforcement tools help users define and visualize concrete reinforcement.
  • Material Takeoff tools allow users to easily calculate/track detailed material quantities.

Revit is a much better tool for this type of work because its tools were designed specifically for this specific industry.

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Another example is Inventor. Inventor is used for mechanical and industrial design work. Again, AutoCAD can do this but Inventor’s toolsets are better suited for the task. Inventor is a design program offering tools for 3D mechanical design, documentation, product simulation, and digital prototyping. Here are some of Inventor’s tools:

  • Freeform modeling shape creation. Inventor provides tools that allow for creative and direct model manipulation. Start with a regular object then use the freeform editing tools to make any adjustments you’d like.
  • Large assembly design. These tools allow for speedy creation, management, and documentation of complex models and assemblies.
  • Sketch constraint control. Create “sketches” that can easily be turned into your model. Use constraints to assist in a quick model creation.
  • Sheet metal design. Inventor has Sheet Metal tools that allow users to create their sheet metal designs simply while enabling designs that are complex. It has punch tool parameters as well as custom bend tables.
  • Assembly design and ease of assembly. Inventor allows users to control their designs data for large assemblies in order to work with single components or on full assemblies. It automatically validates interference and mass properties accordingly.

Inventor surpasses AutoCAD’s abilities in 3D machine and industrial design. It is a better-suited tool (than AutoCAD) in this case because it was designed for this one type of task. If you work in this industry Inventor is the relevant tool.

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In the industries mentioned above AutoCAD is not likely relevant. It’s not because AutoCAD can’t get the job done, it’s that there are tools designed to fit the specific needs of these industries. AutoCAD is a drafting tool. That was its original purpose. Revit is an architectural/structural building information modeling tool. Its tool sets have a limited use. That means they do their job very well and better than AutoCAD. However, Revit can not be used for machine design, but Autodesk Inventor can. 

Since there are better tools than AutoCAD for specific industries should AutoCAD even be considered? It depends. In the cases, or similar cases, mentioned above, AutoCAD is probably not needed where as Revit or Inventor are the software of choice. But what about the cabinet designer? What about the environmental engineer? What about the textile industry? Many clothing manufactures use AutoCAD to design the patterns for their clothes to be mass-produced. This process is similar to what is used a machine shop cutting steel with a CNC machine. In this case they cut out cloth. You might be able to implement something like this in Inventor, but AutoCAD’s superior 2D tools are better suited for this task. 

AutoCAD continues to be one of Autodesk’s best selling products. This is due to its world wide adoption as one of the most used CAD programs. It is a true drafting tool in that it can be used to create construction documents for any industry. It is as universal as a good old fashioned drafting board with T-square.

AutoCAD may have issues; I won’t dispute that. It has thirty years of legacy code still in it, even though Autodesk has removed and or replaced thousands of line of code along the way if not millions. As it stands now AutoCAD cannot take advantage of some current hardware like multiple core processors, which may or may not hinder its performance. However if it is used primarily in a 2D model environment then that fact may not matter.

AutoCAD also has several “vertical” products with AutoCAD Electrical and Mechanical to name a few. There is also AutoCAD Map and Civil3D. Civil3D is used by surveyors and civil engineers around the world. Most of what you do with these products is essentially AutoCAD with extra “industry” tools on top.

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AutoCAD is relevant in certain circles, in others, not so much. AutoCAD will continue to be relevant around the world for a long time because of these circles and its “jack of all trades” tool set. It has been around for over 30 years which means it has a huge user base. Familiarity means people are naturally drawn to it. This familiarity, user base, and expansions (not to mention Autodesk is branching its mobile CAD services off of AutoCAD) means that AutoCAD has a long future ahead of it.

To read more of Brian's tips and advice, check out his CAD-a-Blog and connect with him on Twitter.

Leave a comment or send a tweet to @Novedge and let us know if you use AutoCAD and why. 

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The Edge: Do You Revit?
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