The arguments all seem to be made by people who aren’t directly involved in the process. Not sure I want to go to the length to call them all desk jockeys (or more famously typewriter jockeys) again, but you get the idea. The arguments all seem to be too close to one point of view to be able to see the whole thing, or too far from getting dirt on their mouse to understand the details.
Here’s the thing. CAD and Design overlap, and have some things in common, and some things that aren’t in common. Drafting is a quaint idea that I don’t really relate to. I’m not sure what relevance it has in today’s processes.
Product development is a process that starts with an idea, and that idea usually fills some need. The quality of the idea depends on the quality of the need. If the need is just to make more money, the idea usually turns out to be shallow and not very convincing. If the need is some way to better input data into a computer – then you’ve got a better chance. This, by the way, is why I think business types will always be shackled to needing to have real problem solvers around them.
The idea leads to identifying a need, which leads to identifying a solution. To make the solution “real”, or more than just an idea, you have to plan. “Product development” in my eyes usually starts with this idea of a solution. Inventors are tasked with forming the idea of the solution. But inventors always need help going to the next step. The next step requires the task of “design”. The design, then needs to be documented so it can be understood by others. And then the documented design needs to be manufactured.
In my experience, these phases each overlap to varying extents. And they might even be iterative, where prototyping is actually a manufacturing phase, but it’s followed by iterations of the design or even the invention. Documentation is just the CAD work. It helps you communicate the idea. My day to day work involves tasks along the continuum from invention to documentation. Some days I design. Some days I just document the design. I even go back to the beginning to help solve the original need.
One of the arguments on one of the sites said something like “CAD happens too early”. I don’t believe this at all. It’s probably someone who can’t do CAD who is saying that. CAD happens as early as it needs to, because it can be used in a number of different ways. It can be used as a 3D napkin sketch. It can be used to convey concepts. It can be used for quantitative analysis. It can be used to help visualize. It can be used to prototype or manufacture. To say CAD happens too early is to misunderstand the process, and the role technology can play in it.
There seemed to be another argument against ease-of-use for CAD. My job is not threatened if an accountant can make a stack of blocks in 3D software. Or if a high school dropout can render mighty dragons in 3ds Max. It takes more than either of those to make real products.
My job, as a professional CAD jockey is to be able to translate between the language of design and the language of manufacturing. My CAD data has to be able to take into account everything that went before, and render it in a format that allows the manufacturing process to do what it does. This is not something you learn in college, or 2 nights a week in trade school. This is something you learn by osmosis working between people with the various skills you need. You have to work with a mold builder and probably make some stupid mistakes to learn what it takes to mold a plastic part with specific characteristics. You have to work with plastics designers to understand how, why and when to use a living hinge or a snap fit or vibratory weld or heat stake.
A professional CAD jockey isn’t just a guy who makes pretty pictures, and he doesn’t need to be a manufacturing expert. But he does need to know when he needs to ask questions. He might not even be an award winning designer, but he has to be able to understand design enough to make compromise decisions between design and manufacturing, as must always happen.
Maybe my type doesn’t exist that much. I’m a degreed mechanical engineer who does mostly CAD work. Many engineers might consider detailed CAD to be beneath them, but I like to think that I bring more than just drawing lines to CAD. I bring an understanding of the complete process. I can design, engineer, and I know what it takes to manufacture. The CAD work is just translating between those two worlds in a visual language backed up by math driven geometry. I know there are others out there who do the same thing as I do. If you “only” run CAD, and don’t understand the processes that happen before and after, you’d better work at a company that takes care of the rest of it for a while to learn the ropes. I’m not sure if there’s any such thing as a “freelance CAD operator”. You’ve got to bring more to the table than that.