What started as hours drawing on paper is now hours designing in CAD creating photorealistic models, writes Trevor English.

Engineers require a number of tools in the modern era to be effective during the design process. From computer-aided design tools to 3D printers to virtual reality, technology today is only furthering just what engineering can do.

We take a look back at some history of the engineering design process as well as look at some of the tools that allow modern engineers to effectively do their job. 

The beginnings of engineering drafting and design 

To many engineers out there of the younger persuasion, drawing out plans by hand may seem like a myth, but in days not too long past, teams of workers would spend weeks drawing out plans for a simple part.

Examining the history of engineering drafting and design equivocally means looking at the history of man, the history of building things. Drafting and design have been around since the dawn of time.

The earliest recorded history of engineering drafting was in 2000 BC, of which we have a fossilised aerial view plan of a Babylonian castle. Since then, and with the advent of paper, engineering drafting has been fairly analog.

For the majority of drafting’s history, it was an art form perfected by skilled designers and essential to a culture’s infrastructure. For quite a long time, engineering meant getting out paper and drawing out plans and designs by hand.

The modern age of engineering drafting was ushered in back in 1963 when a man named Ivan Sutherland invented a little program called SketchpadThis was the first graphically interfaced CAD program – if you can call it that – to allow users to create x-y plots.

By no means were engineers of the day using this program on a daily basis or even at all, but it started what is now a booming computer-aided design industry all centered around engineering design.

A significant intellectual and financial investment was made in the 1960s into CAD programs by engineers at Boeing, Ford, Citroen, MIT, and GM. Likely evident by the companies involved, CAD emerged as a way to simplify automotive and aerospace designs.

Due to the significant lack of processing power compared to today’s standards, early CAD design required large financial and engineering capabilities.

The birth of AutoCAD and other CAD technologies

However, thanks to Moore’s Law and the rapid growth of electronics, CAD capabilities expanded steadily over the next half-century. Right in the middle of that growing advancement, the engineering world saw the foundation of Autodesk and the release of 'AutoCAD Release 1'. 

Admittedly the marketing and naming department wasn’t as good as it is today back then. At the time of its release, AutoCAD was ridiculed by the then leading CAD software companies, but it continued to grow in the engineering community.

At this time, it was the computer hardware available that was holding CAD programs back. Despite the massive effort by the technical field in the early 1980s, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that CAD software became capable enough to be practical in engineering design.

After significant competition from competing CAD design firm Parametric, Autodesk took the leading market share of the CAD industry in 1992, valued then at $285 million.

CAD software of the time wasn’t what we think of today, however, as leading programs functioned in 2D. It took market demand for 3D CAD software to be released in the mid-1990s. It’s growth ultimately exploded into the current CAD market with the programs we see today.

There’s no shortage of capable competition in the computer design industry, which is beneficial to the engineer. The history of design and drafting is one of paper, rapidly bookended by digital expansion.

Engineers today have been made dramatically more capable than engineers of the past. I, for one, am glad to be an engineer in the modern age, and I’m sure you are too.

Moving on from the roots of the engineering design process, we can see how we've gotten to where we are today. CAD tool shave allowed us as engineers to create realistic-looking parts on our computer screens with ease.

One of the biggest advancements that CAD has brought engineers is the ability to render parts or assemblies to their near-final appearance. This helps bring the engineering design process into reality and even pushes it a little bit into the future. 

Understanding the importance of CAD-based renderings

Many of the product pictures you see in marketing brochures or across the web probably aren’t pictures at all, they are digital renderings of complex designs.

In a world of steadily improving rapid prototyping and fabrication processes, the ability of an engineer to see their design, in reality, is growing easier.

For most of the history of engineers and craftsmen visualising a design in its fullest sense didn’t happen for others until the product was assembled – only the engineer with the idea could visualise a design in its full specter natively.

This problem of the restricted vision of a product’s actualisation in the design process was one that has always been overcome with sketching. Eventually, our sketching abilities improved and turned digital, making even the least artistic engineer an inspired creator.

When CAD entered the marketplace, it was rudimentary at best. Even with its drawbacks, it soon rocketed past the point that any hand sketching techniques could keep up with. As visual processing power increased in the 1990s and early 2000s, virtual renderings of products became more common.

Renderings in the beginning

The problem with renderings for most of their life has been that they aren’t easy to make. CAD and rendering tools were often very separate programs. Their capabilities rarely overlapped, and the people who worked on each rarely met.

An engineer who wanted to develop a rendering had to send his final design off to somebody possibly a little more artistically minded and somebody who was an expert in respective rendering software.

Stepping back for a moment, we need to realise something. Engineers have always designed products. Whether it be the new theatre for Shakespeare’s premiere play in years past or the new Samsung phone, engineers design things for other people to use.

This means that engineering has always inherently required some form of marketing. Engineers can design a product that works all day long, but if it isn’t visually stimulating, consumers won’t want to use it.

Now to the present.

Modern rendering tools

Rendering tools are now fully integrated into CAD programs. Engineers can render a completed looking product before any of the fine unseen details are worked out. Modern CAD capabilities have made the rendering, design, and engineering processes virtually synonymous.

What used to take companies weeks and hefty sums of money can now be done completely in-house by the engineers on staff. While some engineers may not appreciate the possibility of extra work, it has only given us more power to create and influence.

Nearly every company, major to minor, used to outsource their renderings to specialised firms – much like how many companies still deal with their graphic designs today.

Other than saving companies money and giving more power to the design engineer, renderings have enabled product development timelines to shift in line with the 'I want it now' fast-paced consumer culture of the present.

Since visually accurate and believable renderings of products can be produced at the beginning of the design process, marketing teams have the freedom to plan releases when they want, not just when the engineers are ready.

For all practical purposes, once a design is finalised from a visual perspective, a company can release compelling renderings of the product to the public – even when none of the more refined engineering is completed.

As engineers in the modern world, we have to understand the need to be able to demonstrate our products visually as soon as available. The integration of CAD and rendering tools has made it easy to engineer and design at the same time.

For most modern CAD products, renderings are automatically updated when a design is changed in the CAD software, making the life of the engineer even easier.

Renderings are only going to become more important to the modern engineer. Understanding the visual tools available to you as an engineer will only make you more valuable.

This article was written by Trevor English and first appeard in Interesting Engineering.