A History of CAD Innovators

History often points to one or two people who took risks to innovate and bring about change – in a way that often ripples through several generations. This holds true in design and computing.

A Brief History of Design

Prior to the mid-20th century, any industry that required designs relied on draftsmen, designers, and engineers doing calculations and drawings by hand. These industries included shipbuilding, aerospace, automotive, medical, architecture, engineering, even movies and theatre. The process was a long, tedious road involving ideation, prototyping, creation, and scaling – though often not so cleanly and clearly.

The Development of Computing and Design

As computing developed in the mid-20th century, companies and research institutions began experimenting with the fields of design and engineering. After all, engineers and mathematicians have used machines for calculations since the 1800s. Soon, the idea of drafting on computers took hold, and by the early 1960s, the industry was talking about computer-aided design (CAD) and subsets including electronic design automation (EDA), mechanical design automation (MDA), computer-aided drafting (using software to create a technical drawing), and computer-aided geometric design (CAGD).

CAD software has innumerable uses, but its purposes, though broad, are vital in the world of design – so much so that they have become defaults in design. The purposes of CAD are to:

  • enhance a design’s quality
  • increase the designer’s productivity
  • improve design communication (appearance and vital information, such as materials, processes, dimensions, tolerances, etc.)
  • create a database for manufacturing

Over a generation, from the 1960s to the 1990s, computing systems evolved rapidly. In the 1960s, computers were huge, outsize machines that only major companies like General Motors, Ford, or Lockheed could afford.  A commercial CAD software system called Digigraphics debuted, but its cost of $500,000 per unit was severely prohibitive.

The Father of CAD/CAM

The 1960s saw many large industrial corporations exploring with in-house design programs and languages. Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty is vital to the shift in CAD that made it a worldwide standard. But let’s start with his first accomplishment.

In 1957, Hanratty was employed by General Electric. Having already earned his PhD from the University of California, Irvine, he was a programmer for the industrial giant. That year he wrote PRONTO – an early numerical control programming language that was the basis for computer-aided manufacturing (CAM).

Within a few years, Hanratty moved to General Motors Research Laboratories, where he helped write and develop Design Automated by Computer (DAC), the company’s proprietary, in-house CAD software.

(Simultaneously, other designers were working on computer-aided design variants. The most famous early version, Sketchpad, was developed by Dr. Ivan Sutherland at MIT. Sketchpad allowed the designer to draw with a light pen on the computer’s monitor, literally creating computer graphics.)

In the early 1970s, CAD systems were limited to industrial computers that had private languages that used algorithms to create two-dimensional design. Hanratty founded M&S Computing, a consulting firm, 1971. The company’s goal was to support user design interfaces in the language of the application, instead of in programming terminology. To that point, CAD systems were proprietary, meaning there was no standard.

M&S Consulting soon developed a program called ADAM, short for Automated Drafting and Machining. ADAM became the basis for many CAD programs that the company sold to about a dozen start-up companies. Today, industry analysts estimate that 70-90 percent of current commercial drafting software can trace roots back to Hanratty’s ADAM program.

Thanks to his major contributions to the worlds of CAD and CAM, before the two systems were fully integrated, Hanratty became known as the father of CAD/CAM.

Making CAD Accessible

As the cost and size of technology shrunk, more companies could use advanced technologies. By the early 1980s, CAD software systems were running on 16-bit microcomputers (with 512 Kb of memory and under 300 Mb disk storage), totaling about $125,000 per unit. As such, CAD had become a decently accepted part of design innovation for industrial companies.

But its cost was still generally prohibitive to consumers who were looking to engage with the software as a hobby.

In 1982, a group of 16 people in California pooled together just under $60,000. John Walker, a young programmer, had spearheaded this effort with one major goal: to create a CAD program that would cost no more than $1,000.

Walker founded the company Autodesk, and his team of 16 released the first version of AutoCAD.

[CAD personal set-up, circa 1995. Image Source]

Today, AutoCAD is one of the bigger names in CAD, though its price can still be prohibitive to hobbyists and professional consumers familiar with the technology. Thanks to many innovators and companies, several more affordable, full-service CAD options are available, perfect for the at-home user (hint hint: PunchCAD).

As technology often goes, computing has become more economical and efficient, so computers can do more. This is true of CAD – with every iteration, CAD can do more. Importantly, it has become more accessible to users. We know this firsthand with our own line of CAD products and the future looks awfully bright for CAD users of all stripes.






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