In an era transitioning swiftly from mass production to mass customization, the demand for custom products is skyrocketing. Traditional manufacturing, plagued by bottlenecks and a scarcity of specialized engineering resources, often falters in offering complex, configurable solutions.
Enter CAD automation: an emerging technology revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. By streamlining custom design processes, CAD automation unlocks lucrative avenues for growth. For ambitious manufacturers, it can facilitate the sale of customizable products at premium prices while reducing operational costs.
This article delves into the mechanics of CAD and design automation. It explains how this technology is enabling manufacturers to meet contemporary market demands with maximum efficiency and profitability.
Defining CAD Automation: A Guide for Manufacturers
Before diving into CAD automation and the impact it can have on your entire organization, let’s quickly define CAD (Computer-Aided Design). This technology has been around for over 50 years and is still critical in industries like manufacturing, engineering, and architecture, to name but three.
CAD is software used to create, analyze, modify, and optimize 2D or 3D models. Its interactive outputs enable users to view and manipulate objects from different perspectives. By providing a comprehensive representation of an object before it's built, the CAD process leads to high-quality, high-margin products that stand the test of time.
But while CAD has transformed the productivity of engineering teams worldwide, it’s still far from perfect. Advanced CAD systems are complex and feature-rich. They require significant training and experience to use efficiently, making product development costly.
Designing products using CAD software is undoubtedly faster than pen and paper, but it’s still slow and laborious. This bottleneck is a serious issue for engineer-to-order manufacturers. It extends customer wait times, delaying quotes and orders for custom products. And with CAD engineers bogged down in transactional tasks, there’s no time left to focus on innovation, which stifles growth.
CAD automation overcomes the sluggishness inherent in the CAD process. As the name suggests, it automates repetitive CAD tasks, letting manufacturers generate technical, production-ready drawings without human intervention. It’s making engineering services far more agile and efficient and liberating engineers to focus on R&D.
But it’s not only CAD users that benefit. Sales teams gain greater autonomy. They can now generate CAD drawings themselves without the help of experienced engineers. The manufacturing team also benefits. They can be confident that every design that reaches them is valid without performing manual checks. (Because rules-constrained machines have drawn up plans rather than fallible human beings.)
CAD automation ultimately benefits customers the most. Manufacturers can customize products specifically for them (rather than the broader market.) Custom products solve unique problems and generally provide a better return on investment. CAD automation also speeds up the sales process. Instead of waiting weeks for quotes and drawings, customers can download them on demand.
In the next section, we’ll explore these benefits in more detail.
How CAD Automation Bridges the Gap Between Sales, Engineering, and Manufacturing
The traditional engineer-to-order process is slow, expensive, and prone to error. Still, manufacturers are experiencing skyrocketing demand for custom products, each requiring custom engineering and CAD work. Let’s look at the typical engineer-to-order process and its inherent weaknesses.
The typical engineer-to-order process looks like this:
- Initial Customer Interaction: A customer works with a sales rep to customize a product for their needs.
- Sketch Creation: The sales rep sketches what they think the customer wants and sends it to engineering.
- Engineering Assessment: The engineering team has to decipher the napkin sketch and hope it doesn’t contain any inconsistencies. If it does, it’s rejected and returned to sales for another customer engagement.
- Manual Design Work: If the design passes muster, the engineer manually creates CAD drawings, sometimes in consultation with the production team.
- Customer Approval Process: Assuming the customer is happy with the price and any relevant sales drawings, the engineering team generates a BOM, and the manufacturing process commences.
- Final Review: The final product is showcased to the customer for acceptance. (Hopefully, it looks like the drawing!)
There are several problems inherent in this manual process:
- Miscommunication: The risk of the sales rep incorrectly understanding the customer's requirements is high.
- Inconsistencies in Design Requests: The 2D drawing (or "napkin sketch") approach can lead to ambiguous or incomplete information being passed to the engineering team. This lack of clarity can cause delays, rework, or the creation of an impractical design.
- Feedback Loop Delays: If a CAD customization is rejected by engineering or the customer, it must go through the consultation process again. This back-and-forth can lead to project delays, higher costs, and customer dissatisfaction.
- Customer Approval: The final product must meet the customer's expectations as initially outlined and interpreted through the product design sketch. If the product deviates from these expectations, it might not be accepted, leading to reputational damage, additional costs for rework, and potential financial losses.
- Dependency on Key Personnel: This process is highly dependent on specific individuals at each stage. Any inconsistencies, mistakes, or miscommunications can be magnified if there's a lack of CAD standards, well-documented procedures, or key personnel are unavailable.
The Benefits of CPQ with CAD Automation
CPQ software has removed much of the complexity from the engineer-to-order workflow, particularly the sales portion. It uses predetermined product and pricing rules to automate and simplify how customizable products can be configured, priced, and sold.
Thanks to CPQ, sales reps can configure complex products without the risk of mistakes. If they try to design a product that can’t be manufactured, the CPQ will alert them of the problem. The solution also calculates prices and generates quotes in real time, letting customers place immediate orders.
Most CPQ solutions, while transformational, lack the CAD and design automation capabilities required to handle the sale of highly complex configurable products. Delays are unavoidable, exposing manufacturers to the risk of valuable customers defecting to more responsive competitors.
The most advanced CPQ solutions are different. Thanks to their enhanced visual configuration and CAD automation capabilities, they streamline the entire engineer-to-order process from start to finish. Customers can often configure a product themselves in 3D and purchase on the spot.
With a CPQ solution that has CAD and design automation functionality, the engineer-to-order process looks like this:
- Customer Self-service Configuration: Customers use an interactive, visual product configurator to select the specifications and customization of their product.
- Automated CAD Generation: Once the customer finalizes their product configuration, the system automatically generates the necessary 3D CAD models.
- Immediate Customer Feedback and Approval: Customers can review the CAD customization and quote in real time.
- Automated BOM and Routing Generation: Post-approval, the system automatically creates a Bill of Materials (BOM) and production routing. This information is sent directly to the production floor, eliminating potential communication errors.
- Streamlined Manufacturing: With clear, detailed instructions and designs from the automated system, the manufacturing team can commence production without the typical back-and-forth with engineering.
This process flow is not just an improvement on the typical engineer-to-order workflow. It fundamentally transforms how sales, engineering, and manufacturing teams operate and collaborate. Here's a detailed look at these advantages:
- Reduced Errors and Rework: Automating the generation of CAD drawings and models based on the specific configurations chosen by the customer eliminates manual errors and miscommunications
- Super-Fast Sales Cycles: Instant quotes and automated CAD drawings expedite the sales process, helping close deals faster.
- Enhanced Customer Experience: Real-time visual feedback and interactive product configuration elevate the customer's buying journey. Improved responsiveness makes your company a pleasure to work with.
- Streamlined Manufacturing Processes: Automated BOM and routings provide clear production directives, optimizing manufacturing workflows and reducing lead times.
- Scalability of Custom Products: Your company can massively expand customized product offerings without substantial increases in cost, operational complexity, or production time.
The fewer human interventions involved in processing a customer's order before shipping, the better. Every manual touch or handoff introduces potential confusion, miscommunication, and errors.
Implementing CPQ with CAD automation eliminates these intermediary human steps, fully automating the journey from shopping cart to shop floor. This saves time and money and allows manufacturers to command premium prices for customizable products.
To drastically reduce design cycle times from weeks to minutes and enable your sales team to sell with unprecedented confidence and speed, embracing CAD automation is the key.
Here is a rundown of the most common CAD automation-related questions we are asked, along with some concise answers:
What Is CAD Automation?
CAD automation involves using technology to automate specific tasks within the CAD process. Automated functionality can be baked into your CAD tool, or your CAD tool can be integrated with third-party automation applications.
CAD automation can be relatively basic, like in the case of error-checking, where automated processes verify drawings against certain sets of standards or checks. Batch processing is another straightforward example, where a change to one CAD model is applied automatically across an entire group of files.
Other types of automation are more advanced. They might require integration with another core system, like CPQ or ERP, to share product information directly to and from the CAD model.
Can You Automate CAD?
Yes, you can automate CAD, and many people are. It’s the best way to boost efficiency and expedite the design process. There are several ways to do it. Advanced CAD systems like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and Autodesk Inventor allow custom scripting and programming. CAD integration with tools like CPQ can also drive the process.
Why Do We Need CAD Automation?
Automating repetitive CAD tasks unlocks huge gains in engineering productivity and efficiency. It eliminates manual errors, accelerates the design process, and ensures consistency. Furthermore, automation liberates engineers from tedious grunt work. This allows them to focus their skills on high-value, strategic tasks that drive innovation.
Automation also empowers other parties across the engineer-to-order lifecycle. Sales reps and customers can take greater ownership of customizations without constantly relying on engineering for one-off requests. This speeds up sales cycles and slashes lead times.
Is there AI for CAD?
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are increasingly used to automate CAD. AI can optimize designs automatically and suggest improvements. Newer generative AI tools can help with scripting, making highly complex engineering concepts accessible to non-technical people. Tools like ChatGPT can already make 3D CADs of simple objects, and their capabilities are continuously evolving.
Is AI replacing CAD designers?
AI suffers from hallucinations and unpredictable errors, so it’s unable to replace CAD designers yet. It also lacks the best engineers' creative insight and complex problem-solving ability. However, while AI might not replace CAD designers soon, it is already boosting efficiency.
One of the most exciting developments is in the field of generative design. Engineers can input design goals, parameters, limitations, and constraints into AI software and generate hundreds of possible design permutations in seconds, turbocharging speed and innovation.
How difficult is learning CAD?
Some people find learning CAD relatively easy, while others find it feels impossible. How difficult it will be for you comes down to your background (whether you have received training in engineering or related areas) and time (how much time you are willing to devote to mastering the craft.)
Fortunately, the barriers to learning CAD are constantly lowering. There are thousands of hours of free training videos on YouTube. Cloud-based tools like Sketchup are much easier to get to grips with than more advanced “professional-grade” CAD platforms like AutoCAD. CAD automation, AI, and no-code programming languages are making CAD even more accessible to new entrants.
Is CAD software outdated?
Quite the contrary, CAD software is still fundamental to architecture, manufacturing, engineering, and many other industries. The market is growing–it was valued at $9.89 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $14.13 billion by 2027. The software constantly evolves and improves with regular updates. Competition between the leading players fuels innovation.