Computer-assisted design (CAD) offers a digital way of prototyping and planning a product, building, or even an integrated system of parts. CAD designs operate similarly to classic schematics or architectural blueprints, with a number of advantages. These include greater portability, easier modification, and integration with modern production technology.

How does CAD work?

Similarly to drawing a schematic, CAD allows you to draw your plans onto a computer screen. To accomplish this, you need one of a number of different CAD software programs, such as the more venerable Auto CAD or the open-source Free CAD. One unique advantage of CAD software, however, is that the lines and shapes you draw can actually occupy a defined space similar to what you’re designing. CAD designs are inherently “3D” and can be automatically rotated from each angle, even when the design is inherently a flat-looking one, such as a circuit board schematic.

Advantages of CAD

CAD makes it easier to accomplish a number of things with design. It’s much easier to share a digital CAD design than a traditional schematic, whether delivering the design to a patent office or a manufacturer. In fact, many modern production machines can work directly with CAD files to bring that design to life. A 3D printer, for example, can take a three-dimensional CAD plan and create a plastic duplicate of what the designer envisioned within minutes.

Another advantage to CAD designs is the relative ease with which they can be submitted to, and analyzed by, a patent office. In order to qualify for a patent, a design must be checked against existing designs. This is to ensure the patent doesn’t duplicate a similar design (inadvertently or not). With paper, these designs have to be compared slowly, whereas digital designs can be quickly placed side by side on a screen. There’s even potential for algorithms to look at the digital makeup of the file and compare it to others, creating a veritable “shortlist” of possible patent conflicts.

Getting started with CAD

Great advancements have been made in the ease and usability of CAD software. However, CAD software isn’t necessarily intuitive to those who have never used it before. If you understand the basics of drafting or schematics, there are a number of online courses that can help you translate that knowledge into most CAD software. CAD software can also convert scanned images of a design into a CAD file, though this process has a number of limitations. When high-quality CAD is of the essence, it might be best to outsource conversion to companies or firms specializing in CAD design, particularly when you only need a few designs prepared for digital use.