The rosy future of drafting software

(Image Source: Daniel McCullough via Unsplash)

I often hear the word “legacy” or the phrase “legacy data” to describe the use of drawings for engineering work. Yet 17 years after Autodesk bought Revit and 22 years after Dassault Systemès bought SolidWorks, drawings remain the primary medium for communicating design intent. Surveys show that — depending on the specific industry — there are between four and ten active seats of 2D CAD in use for every seat of 3D CAD. The engineering software industry talks about models, but in reality drawings are used more often.

There are many competitors, but AutoCAD remains the top dog in drafting. Autodesk reported fiscal year 2018 revenue from AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT at $401 million. (Image source: Autodesk)

Despite the proven utility of 3D, there are still many in both AEC and manufacturing who believe drawings will never be completely replaced by models as the fundamental representation of design intent and assembly/fabrication instructions. There is nothing “legacy” about using drafting software for ongoing projects.

For a recent research project, I had conversations with developers who not only agree with the current use of drawings as an acceptable practice, but foresee improved engineering workflows thanks to the continued development of drawing technology.  

“Drawing is the act of articulating a closer look,” says Rob Snyder, founder of CAD consultancy Tangerine Media and holder of multiple patents on CAD technology. “Years from now no one in this industry will speak about ‘the end of drawing’.” Not because drawing will have been eliminated by modeling, Snyder claims, but because “it will have evolved.”

Graebert is the second leading source of DWG-based drafting technology in the world after Autodesk. It creates its own line of drafting tools, delivered as an innovative “Trinity” of desktop, mobile, and cloud (browser-based) products. (Image source: Graebert Gmbh)

Drawing and modeling are media, Snyder notes, and media innovation is an additive process. TV did not replace radio, and motion pictures fused sound with image, so too the future of design will be found in the advancement of generating and placing drawings in a modeling environment.

Drawings will be in-situ within digital models, Snyder says, “as it has been since 2012” in technologies like Bentley’s Hypermodel. New CAD technologies are under development that will simplify the ability to generate drawings as elements of a digital model.

Bentley Systems has become a leader in enterprise-class software for construction, infrastructure, and related operations. Its CAD software MicroStation supports the DWG file format popularized by AutoCAD in addition to its own DGN drafting format. (Image Source: Bentley Systems)

Models offer wide and expansive context; drawings provide narrow, specific context. “[Models] surpass our human ability to wrap our minds around them,” says Snyder. The extend of both project understanding and model completion will require the use of drawings as “devices for looking at models purposefully.” The deeper a team goes into a project, the more drawings are required for full understanding. As construction finishes, Snyder says, the 3D model regains primacy as a digital asset for facility management. The same shift of primacy happens in manufacturing as the part or product moves from engineering to manufacturing and sales.

Thanks to the value of drawings, 2D CAD will become a utility as ubiquitous as word processing, says Cedric Desbordes of CAD developer Graebert GmbH. Drawings will continue to play a major role in communicating design intent. “People who used to receive only drawings on paper or as a PDF will be offered to interact with drawings in a more productive way,” says Desbordes. The ubiquity of mobile computing combined with cloud-based access to data opens up new ways to use and share drawings within projects.

Echoing Snyder’s view, Desbordes says smarter 3D “is not replacing the need for documenting projects in a more detailed way. Instead of trying to convert DWG users to BIM users it is about working on workflows that will allow users to collaborate with BIM users in a productivity-driven workflow.” In the near future Desbordes believes such workflows will be assisted “to a great degree by AI processing.” For example, Desbordes envisions a CAD tool that can analyze a picture of a bridge and provide searchable attributes or offer design suggestions.

Bricsys has been building an alternative approach to BIM based on its drafting software BricsCAD. Engineering software conglomerate Hexagon was so impressed it bought Bricsys in 2018. (Source: Bricsys/Hexagon)


  1. Hi Randall,

    Thank you for the aticle! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Although, I have a question, who owned bought SolidWorks before it was bought by Dassault Systemès?

    • SolidWorks was the name of the company and the product. It was started by a group of programmers, led by the current leaders of Onshape, Jon Hirschtick and John McEleney. SolidWorks was revolutionary as the first 3D CAD modeling product made for Windows.

  2. Randall:

    Good article. One thing you didn’t touch on and the one thing that bothers me greatly is not “Legacy Software” but “Legacy Drafting Skills”. At least in the highway industry. Engineering Schools (at least in the US) have all but dropped drafting or engineering graphics from the curriculum. While I understand that the amount of information that colleges and universities is growing exponentially, the basic need to be able to communicate graphically (i.e. create usable and understandable construction drawings) is paramount even in today’s highly computerized environments. It is not only the ability to create engineering drawings but the ability to read them also. Unfortunately the industry isn’t picking up the slack or even providing the “on the job training” that they use to.

    Again enjoyed the article thought I would add my two cents for what it is worth.


  3. I agree with everything you say in this article. I used AutoCAD for my whole career. I designed with it and used it in conjunction with other CAD programs to create Technical Illustrations. It shakes hands with Adobe Illustrator in both directions and works well with Autodesk Inventor. Since retirement I miss doing creative things with the software. Drawings are really worth a thousand (and more) words.

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