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CAD Through The Ages (Or from 1980, at least!)

The following is taken from a presentation I did for my fellow Architects at Barton Willmore, many of whom weren’t old enough to remember AutoCAD before it had a year in the name!

Many thanks to Roger Penwill, who allowed me to use his excellent cartoon!

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Computer Aided Design    © Roger Penwill. Used with permission

This cartoon has been around for almost as long as CAD itself, and I think it’s still very funny!

But for those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember those early days of the CAD revolution, arguing our case against the drawing board traditionalists and pushing the boundaries of new and sometimes reluctant CAD technologies, I think this is especially poignant.

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I started using CAD systems as an Architecture student in 1981, even before AutoCAD Version 1 was a twinkle in Autodesk’s eye.

As a decade, the 80’s tends to get a lot of bad press these days, and probably quite rightly so! I briefly thought about showing a photo of my haircut in those days, but only briefly!

However one good thing that certainly did come out of the 80’s was that the early part of that decade coincided with the start of the CAD revolution in the building industry.

Computer Aided Design systems began to develop beyond the mechanical and electrical engineering applications at their roots, to encompass a much wider field of design disciplines including Architectural Design and Graphics applications.

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My first introduction to using CAD came as part of a University project to produce a single CAD drawing, midway through our first year. 

The opportunity to use a CAD system, however, was not really much more than a token gesture to introduce us to the concept of CAD, the expectation on students was still very much that they should produce their ‘real’ work using traditional hand drawn methods.

CAD was still seen as the domain of Engineers and not a serious tool to be used in a more aesthetically orientated profession. CAD was perceived as taking away the human element, resulting in sterile and monotonous design.

And in some ways, they were right, the full range of CAD tools that we have at our disposal today had not yet been developed. Trying to design using free flowing curves, for instance, was especially slow and often a near impossibility.

But having had the chance to work with CAD, I was hooked, this was the future and this was how I was going to draw!

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From then on I remember having regular arguments with my tutors as to the rights and wrongs of CAD as opposed to traditional hand drawn methods.

Many of them just couldn’t grasp the concept that the computer was just a tool to replace the pen, not the Architect, and a 3D model built inside a computer was every bit as valid as one glued together with cardboard and plastic! 

One tutor actually went so far as to flatly refuse to acknowledge the work I’d done with CAD because I “hadn’t done it myself“, in his words!!

Perhaps not surprisingly, I ended up being failed on design in my degree project and had to re-submit a second scheme during my first year out!

Fortunately for me, however, during that year, the mood at the University had completely changed.

A number of the more traditionally minded staff had retired or moved on and their replacements were much more receptive to new ideas.

My re-submitted design ended up being used in brochures and posters advertising the Architecture Department’s now ‘forward thinking’ approach to the new technology.

How things had changed! Computer Aided Design was here to stay.

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But it certainly wasn’t all fun to use CAD in those early days.

The original systems ran on Unix based Mini Computers, with green wireline monochrome monitors.

This is one of the first CAD workstations I ever used. Note the thumb wheels used to control the cursor. I think I still have the blisters that those things caused!

These devices didn’t have a hard disk, the software ran from cartridge tapes, or if you were really lucky, 8″ floppy discs that slotted into drives the size of suitcases!

If you think your CAD system is slow because it takes a second or two for a command to respond, try waiting a couple of minutes for one of these things to clunk into action when switching from add to delete!

There was no 3D colour rendering or even full hidden line removal in those days. The production of one of those semi-hidden wireline images above, took overnight to process and colour was then applied by hand to the plotted end product.

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That is, if it plotted at all!

The plotter technology of the day consisted of mini-rapiodgraph pens mounted on the plotter as opposed to the relatively reliable, ink-jet print heads we use today. 

The pens could only move at a fairly pedestrian pace across the paper without skipping, and a wide variety of line thickness meant the plotter would spend most of it’s time mechanically swapping one pen for another!

Not surprisingly a single, detailed, A1 drawing could take several hours to plot!

Think about that the next time you’re waiting a couple of minutes in a print queue!

Many mornings you could arrive back at work to a pile of completely blank paper after the plotter pens had clogged up during the overnight print run!

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However, it wasn’t all that bad for long and within a couple of years, things were starting to improve.

Colour monitors were now the order of the day, inkjet and laser printing technology emerged and, thankfully, someone had invented the ‘mouse’!

Workstations even came with a hard disk.

I remember the very first CAD workstation I bought, the salesman said to me “It’s got 4Mb RAM and comes with a 30Mb hard drive! That’s all the memory and storage you are ever going to need!”

Yeah, right!

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The problem with these early CAD systems, however, was that the developers had ideas that were way ahead of their time.

Even in the early 80’s the concept was to create a 3D building model rather than to emulate the traditional approach of drafting unlinked 2 dimensional drawings. These 3D models included intelligent building elements, which the systems understood as walls, roofs, doors and windows etc. This enabled quantities and performance data to be calculated automatically from the building model, ideas that were not to appear in the likes of AutoCAD or Microstation for many more years to come.

However, the fatal flaw in this approach was that this highly sophisticated software required the most powerful hardware of the day in order to run it.

Even in these days of beer at 50p a pint, for a single seat of these early CAD systems, there would not be much change out of £50K!

An upgrade of that 4Mb RAM to a heady 8Mb, could cost in the region of £1500!  That’s for a 4Mb RAM chip that you wouldn’t use as a door stop these days!

It’s not surprising therefore that the uptake of these systems was limited to all but the wealthiest of practices.

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All that makes AutoCAD sound positively cheap, doesn’t it!

And there’s the rub!

By the time we get to the late 80’s early 90’s, the relatively inexpensive PC has arrived on the mass market and PC based CAD systems have reached a maturity, although still just 2D drafting tools, to fulfil the needs of those now leaping on the CAD bandwagon.

Suddenly everyone wants to be using CAD, clients are demanding it and instead of CAD drawing skills being frowned upon, you can’t get through University without it!

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So, in a process of natural selection, the recessions of the early 90’s take their toll and by the mid 90’s most of the big Unix CAD systems had died out or had cut down and re-engineered into PC products, and the relentless rise of AutoCAD had begun!

So how has Autodesk managed to dominate the market since then, after all there were plenty of other good PC based and inexpensive CAD systems on the market at the time, such as Microstation or MicroGDS?

Not unlike the PC or Mac debate, AutoCAD rose to a position of dominance over systems that many believed actually did the job better.

Many Architects who had experience of more than one CAD system would often prefer anything over AutoCAD, after all AutoCAD still had it’s roots firmly in electrical engineering!

So how did Autodesk manage to pull it off, how did AutoCAD get us all hooked?

The answer is really quite simple, AutoCAD was easy to steal!

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By 1995, every student computer has a pirated copy of AutoCAD 12 and in spite of Autodesk’s protestations over piracy, it’s the growth of that massive user base that has made the company what it is today.

In spite of some high profile cases of  corporate piracy prosecutions, individual home users were generally left alone. Autodesk were smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them.

And so from an early stage there was a readily available pool of AutoCAD literate talent, a resource that the other CAD vendors just couldn’t match.

It is a problem that’s been faced by any design company that has tried to use one of the alternative systems on a large scale. When they reach a point where they need to employ a large number of CAD users quickly, that are skilled in that particular system, they just can’t be found!

On the other hand, everyone can use AutoCAD, and so, to avoid long delays in recruiting or training new staff, AutoCAD becomes the system of choice and is set to dominate the market to the present day.

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Over the last 30 years, therefore, CAD has developed through a variety of versions and flavours and has now moved from an unwelcome intrusion to an integral part of the architectural profession.

In recent years, Building Information Modelling, or ‘BIM’ has been the buzz word. 3D intelligent building modelling systems, such as Autodesk’s Revit are set to replace the ‘traditional’ 2D systems and move computer aided design into a new utopia, where a building’s design, construction and maintenance information are all integrated within a single building model, accessible to all that need it.

BIM is now being promoted by Government and backed by many developers and so, like the early CAD revolution, it’s a bandwagon that is moving fast and those of us who are not on it yet, will need to be soon!

The irony is, of course, that this new ‘future’ of CAD is only now achieving the ambitions of those early CAD system developers, 30 years later…

 

And finally, after creating major changes to the Architect’s working environment over the years, how will CAD affect our lives in the years to come?

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Well, we already have the Tablet PC capable of running touch screen CAD applications.

These devices are leading the way towards a new and more natural computer design process, where the users hand and eye are focused directly on the output screen, rather than separated from it, via a keyboard and mouse.

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It’s only a matter of time before the technology matures and commercially available Table PCs reach the mass market. 

We will have reached a stage where science fiction becomes science fact!

And from here, I’m sure you’ll agree, the next logical progression would be to tilt one of these up on a stand, and you’ve got a Drawing Board PC.

And so my guess is that in 5 years time, Architects will again be hunched over a drawing board, but this time the drawing board will be a touch screen, running AutoCAD 2017….

 

… and once again, this, won’t be too far from the truth!

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© Roger Penwill. Used with permission

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