Blog Article

What is 3D CAD Software?

What Is Computer-Aided Design (CAD)?

CAD, or computer-aided design, is a technology used to create 2D and 3D digital drawings, designs and drafts of products before manufacturing them. CAD software allows a variety of industries to create models to visualize details like dimensions, material, weight and color. CAD design is a process that has replaced manual drafting to make exploring design ideas and visualizing concepts much easier and faster.

Before CAD, drawings and designs had to be manually drawn with paper and pencils. To do this, a number of drafting tools like rulers, protractors and more were necessary. Calculations were also manual, which left room for errors. The entire manual process is time-consuming and quite prone to errors. With CAD software, measurements and calculations are automated to reduce the risk of error.

The electronic and automatic nature of CAD software allows engineers and designers to perfect their ideas before they begin building or manufacturing a product. Without CAD software, this iterative process requires a significant amount of manual rework. Due to the ease of changes, CAD software encourages designers to push limits and try new things without worrying about wasting significant amounts of time drawing and redrawing.

History of CAD

The origins of CAD can be traced back to the 1960s when Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad. Sketchpad allowed users to draw simple shapes on a computer screen. This was innovative in terms of computer modeling, creating the basis for CAD software. In 1971, Patrick J. Hanratty created a program called ADAM that became the first commercial graphic design and drafting system available to manufacturers.

The mid to late 1970s saw rapid growth in CAD software as silicon chips and microprocessors were mass-produced, making computers more affordable. With more inexpensive and faster processing computers, the use of CAD software extended from large firms to manufacturing and producing firms of all sizes. As more firms began using CAD programs and computers to automate their processes, people began applying CAD to a broader range of use cases.

At first, large aerospace and automotive parts manufacturers were the primary users of CAD because it allowed them to reduce the number of errors made when manufacturing very precise parts. As CAD became more available across multiple industries, the programs found their way into product design, plant layout, architecture, and many more industries. What began with simple 2D drawings evolved to complex 3D renderings that almost any industry could create.

Up until the 1980s, CAD software was only developed for mainframe computers. In 1982, AutoDesk's founder, John Walker, released AutoCAD, which was the first CAD program intended for PCs. The cost of CAD software has dropped significantly over the years, resulting in broader access to business and individuals alike.
A model of a transmission

Applications and Workflows of CAD

CAD programs and CAD-related tools have found their way into a number of industries and have many applications. Here's a closer look at some of the most common applications of CAD:


There are many fields of engineering, including civil, mechanical, building and electrical engineering. CAD plays an important role in all areas of engineering. Because there are so many engineering fields, there are several different CAD programs engineers can use. For example, engineers use CAD to create models and designs for mechanical components and use simulations to test the strengths and weaknesses of the designs before implementing them.


CAD drawings give construction workers plans to base their work on. While architects commonly create drawings for building plans, construction workers may also use CAD to draw designs or edit existing plans so they're fit for construction.


Architecture has become one of the most prominent industries for CAD programs. Whether it's a private contractor or a large firm, architects rely on CAD to draw and design structurally sound and precisely measured buildings and other structures. CAD helps simplify many aspects of designing building layouts.

Product Design

From wheelchairs to computers to playground equipment, CAD software is widely used to design and visualize products before they go through manufacturing. Designers can use CAD to determine how parts of a product will function. Without CAD, designers would have to spend time creating prototypes and trial products to figure out how their designs will come together.

Automotive / Aerospace Design

CAD has long been used to design cars, trucks, earth-movers, planes, rockets, and more. Designers can use CAD to create visuals of potential new designs, which they then use for marketing and consumer research purposes. After using the software to design each part of the vehicle, CAD programs also allow automotive and aerospace manufacturers to simulate a number of tests and real-life situations so faults and safety risks can be resolved before making and assembling the parts.

Types of CAD Models and Drawings

With such a wide range of industries that use CAD, it's no surprise there are numerous types of CAD models and drawings. CAD data is typically either 2D drawings or 3D models. 2D drawings are how CAD first started, and are still primarily used for manufacturing specifications, blueprints, patents, and more. 3D models are full digital representations of a product and come in a variety of forms.

Solid models

Solid modeling is kind of like working with very precise digital clay. Solid modeling is good for mechanical and machine applications, as well as natural objects. This type of modeling is the most commonly used and tends to be easier for users to learn. One drawback of solid modeling is that it may have a harder time generating extremely organic shapes.

Surface models

Surface modeling involves a different workflow than solid modeling, but the results are similar in that a manufacturable 3D model will exist. Surface modeling allows more creative freedom to achieve highly organic shapes.

Technical drawings

Technical drawings are 2D documents that provide detailed, scaled specifications for how an object, product, or structure should be constructed. These drawings can be mechanical, architectural or electrical.

Site plans

Site plans are similar to floor plans, though these drawings depict how an outdoor site will be used. Site plans are scaled, aerial drawings that often include parking lots, landscape designs, sidewalks, building footprints and water lines. The goal here is to show where everything is in relation to other objects.

Floor plans

Floor plans provide various views of a structure to help visualize the footprint of the structure. This type of scaled diagram shows the shape, size and placement of rooms and objects in a building. For example, these drawings are helpful to use when determining the layout of furniture and where objects will fit.
Though far from extensive, this list provides some examples of common CAD outputs designers frequently use to visualize and manufacture their products. Most CAD software specializes in one or a few types of industry-specific model or drawing creation toolsets.

Cost of CAD Software

The cost of CAD software can vary significantly. Some programs offer free versions and others can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The more expensive software tends to have more advanced features and tools, making them more suitable for companies and designers who have lots of CAD experience or are designing complex products often. Simple versions with a single purpose, like 2D interior design mobile apps, are likely to have little or no cost.

Try to narrow down the CAD features that are most essential to your needs. Doing so will help you avoid overspending on a program that has more features you're unlikely to use while also making it easier to learn. 

Another aspect of CAD prices to be aware of is whether you're paying one time for a license or have to make recurring payments for a subscription. Subscriptions can have some advantages but come at the cost of paying every month in perpetuity and typically also require you to keep your data in specific places that may not be ideal for your business.

2D CAD vs. 3D CAD

What's the difference between 2D CAD and 3D CAD?

2D CAD may seem limited in comparison to 3D CAD because users can only create two-dimensional designs. However, this makes it perfect for drawing plans, blueprints and layouts. 2D CAD can be used on any computer and is often the more cost-effective option of the two. Users can design using layers and different line types. Though seemingly simple in comparison, 2D CAD is still a powerful designing tool today.

Around two decades ago, 2D CAD was the only option for designers looking to automate their design processes. Since then, 3D CAD has changed the way designers imagine their products. 3D CAD programs allow designers to build realistic models of objects and parts and simulate how parts will work together. Because these programs offer more features and functions, many 3D CAD programs may require a more powerful computer to run efficiently.

2D and 3D CAD are both incredibly useful tools for designing in any industry. Ultimately, the best software for your designs will depend on the features you need to successfully create them.

Why Choose Alibre

There are numerous CAD programs on the market today, making it a challenge to find the right fit for your design needs while also being cost effective. Alibre's CAD software is designed to be a high-value, cost-effective design solution that fully addresses the needs of most mechanical engineering requirements.

When choosing CAD software, you should be confident in the program you're getting. At Alibre, we're dedicated to providing our customers with innovative solutions. Alibre has been providing customers around the world with affordable and professional CAD software for more than 23 years. When you choose Alibre, you become part of a community of designers. Our community features a forum and gallery for asking questions, sharing ideas and looking for inspiration. We also provide licensing options so you only get what you need and aren't overpaying for features that are not meaningful to your design process.

Try Our CAD Software

Alibre CAD software focuses on the most common tools that designers need. This can save you from spending thousands of dollars on extra tools that have nothing to do with your design needs. When you purchase Alibre design software, you'll own it forever. Whether you pay in full or space it out over 10 interest-free payments, once you buy it, it's yours — no subscription necessary!

To try Alibre's CAD software today, request a free trial or explore the features of our programs to determine if it's right for you.
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