Examining company notes from the birth of Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif., and its design software, AutoCAD, reminds us of the original dreams behind computer-assisted design.

AutoCAD was created to bring CAD capabilities to the newly introduced desktop IBM PC and allow "serious computer-aided design" to be done on desktop machines, rather than very expensive, dedicated workstations.

Literature prepared for the product introduction in 1982, as recorded on a voluminous Website of company records maintained by John Walker, company founder and co-author of AutoCAD, defines the goals for the product and the problems it set out to solve. Some are not much different from the goals of many CAD products today.

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1. The Internet
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2. Computer Aided Design
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3. Lasers
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4. Analysis Software
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5. Personal Computers
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6. The Fax
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7. Critical Path Method
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8. Calculators
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9. Mobile Communications
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10. Global Positioning Systems
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"The benefits of CAD are faster, more accurate generation of drawings, more efficient [revisions], the ability to use predefined symbols, eliminating time-consuming repetitive work and automatically assuring adherence to drafting standards," the early literature proclaimed.

The literature also said the system would maintain "a database containing every element in the drawing." Users could attach information to electronic objects. In a drawing of an office, a desk might carry its manufacturer, model number, date of purchase, price and depreciation information. This information could be retrieved and modified from within the CAD program or sent to other programs to prepare bills of materials, job costing reports or inventory updates.

A CAD system could become a "graphic database," allowing design information to be taken directly from drawings and easily linked to other application programs.

Jumping forward to today, the major CAD vendors still are jousting over their relative ability to meet similar goals. The leading edge of the technology has shifted from drafting 2-D drawings to generating them as reports based on underlying data, as the ideas of designing with object-based 3-D modeling gain ground.

Autodesk competitor Keith Bentley, director and co-chief technology officer at Bentley Systems Inc., Exton, Pa., says much has changed in 20 years, but much is still the same. "The role of paper has hardly changed for the end user, despite the almost universal use of CAD," he says. "You still have project managers with rolls of plans spreading them out on the hoods of pick-up trucks."

The way data moves onto paper has changed greatly and end users may not necessarily care whether the paper was generated with new technology, but Bentley believes that CAD would not be high on the list if builders were asked which tool of electronic technology they would give up. "I’d have to think CAD would be the last," he says. That is because CAD has succeeded in providing accuracy, repeatability and speed of delivery–qualities increasingly in demand. "CAD has changed the world of design substantially through ease of use, speed of use and reduced cycle time," Bentley says.

Bentley is excited about the progress with CAD because he says he is beginning to see change in one of its limiting fundamentals–the paper deliverable. "If you start with the same input and finish with the same output, it’s not going to change the world no matter how much change you bring to the part in the middle. You have to change the input or the output to really change things," Bentley says.

ATTACHED DATA. AutoCAD power was demonstrated at debut.

Bentley sees the marriage of CAD data and global positioning systems as capable of bringing about just such a change. Civil construction is on the frontier, with construction and earthmoving controlled electronically by CAD and GPS. Similar capabilities will spread through the rest of construction in time, he predicts. "You’re going to find carpenters with a tool belt with a hammer hanging on one side and a GPS with a screen on the other," Bentley says. The device will tell the worker: "‘You are at X and this is what you do today,’" he says.

People eventually will look back and say, "‘Do you remember when we used to create drawings?’" Bentley predicts.

(CD Graphic courtesy of Thornton-Tomasetti, center courtesy of www.Fourmilab.com)