CAD Software

CAD Software<@VM>Have designs on CAD? Check out these programs

By Edmund X. DeJesus

Special to GCN

Onnce the province of highly specialized hardware platforms, highly trained users and costly procurements, computer-aided design packages are now available off the shelf for desktop PC platforms and general users'at reasonable prices.

Computer-aided design programs perform a variety of functions, as these examples illustrate. From top: Parallax69 Software International's Eroiica Profi, Intergraph's SmartSketch and SoftwareForge's LinuxCAD.

These CAD offerings simplify many tasks and open the possibility of including home-grown graphics in a variety of output formats.

CAD has branched off from its origins as a drafting tool into a more accessible role as a drawing tool. Once, its primary use was for architectural or mechanical drafting'specialized activities such as designing buildings or fighter jets.

The emphasis now is on using the computer for drawing, and that changes the picture considerably. Practically every government agency at some point could have a need to lay out office space, handle maps, create diagrams of processes or hierarchies, or generate graphics for a brochure or Web site. All of these activities now fall under CAD.

CAD programs used to require sophisticated and dedicated hardware platforms that had fast CPUs, special graphics processors, expansive storage, large displays and graphical input devices. They still do, but now such machines sit on practically everyone's desk. Nearly all modern PCs have fast chips, built-in graphics processing, ample monitors, multigigabyte hard drives and mice. The rising level of hardware technology has made most machines CAD-capable.

The personnel requirements for CAD have changed also. No longer do you need a degree from MIT'and saintlike patience'to handle computer-aided drawing. If you can drag and drop a graphical element with a mouse, you can create an adequate drawing.

Besides, most CAD programs are now so object-oriented and forgiving that you can run your drawings past reviewers and easily tweak them to produce what is necessary.

With the technological and human barriers surmounted, the main question is how to incorporate CAD properly into your work environment. This process is very much like finding the right piece to a complicated puzzle.

The right CAD program has to satisfy a number of requirements before it finds a place on your machine. The first requirement is the intended final product of the CAD process.

Different CAD programs have different strengths. Think what the ultimate output will be. A diagram in a white paper? The cover of a brochure? A map for daily use? A Web site image?

The final output will go a long way toward narrowing the field of packages to consider. If you're trying to produce maps, a package that specializes in building space layout will not be of much help.

Ponder the package

A related consideration has to do with the specific features of each CAD package. You can view all of CAD's potential uses as a continuum of capabilities, ranging from high-end detailed architectural and mechanical specifications to everyday tasks such as creating a graphic to illustrate a brochure.

Each specific CAD program spans some range of that continuum. Some clearly have features clustered at the high-end of capabilities. Some address everyday tasks with no possibility of producing detailed results. Others concentrate on everyday tasks but with some high-end features.

Where do your typical tasks fall? If you have an office full of engineers, you naturally will lean toward programs with high-end features. If your office is more typical, requiring CAD for everyday tasks, you can probably ignore high-end features altogether and concentrate on packages that can handle what you do most.

Also consider the audience for the images you produce. If your images show groundwater patterns and are intended for use by experts researching possible environmental problems, you probably want a package that can handle a lot of detail.

But overall, the audience for most CAD-produced images falls into one of two categories: other agency employees and the general public.

Tips for buyers

  • Examine the hardware, software and network into which the CAD application must fit.
  • Consider the audience and the destination for the CAD images produced.
  • Match the capabilities of the CAD package with the tasks'current and anticipated'it must perform.
  • Ensure that the CAD package can import and export the graphics formats necessary.
  • Check these sources of online expertise:

    The Ultimate CAD Directory, at

    CADalyst's information about CAD technology, at

    Daratech's research on the
    CAD market,'s comparison of retail CAD products, at

For the first, you might be generating organizational charts, office layouts or diagrams illustrating workflow for use within the agency. You can generally count on an in-house audience having a good deal of knowledge about the topic, allowing you to go into more depth with less background material.

For the second, you may be creating a simple map, a brochure or a diagram showing the relationships among various agencies. When producing an image for the public, you cannot assume any special knowledge, so you need more support information and less overall detail. The general public also will likely have a greater need for visual information to help simplify understanding.

When you narrow your list of CAD products, however, don't get too narrow. The ability to create general types of output with CAD is a powerful reason for using it in the first place; CAD capability could expand the types of documents you produce.

You wouldn't buy a word processor that can only produce correspondence; a program that handles only maps might not make sense, either, unless you are certain that's all you'll ever do with it.

The current operating system of choice for CAD is Microsoft Windows NT, but CAD packages are available for other varieties of Windows, as well as for Macintosh, Unix and Linux OSes.

But there are other aspects of compatibility. Some CAD packages are more network-capable than others. This may be important if several users are collaborating on projects, or if CAD results must be shared in other ways.

It is likely that the output from CAD will appear in another form in another application'a diagram will become part of a document in a word processor, for example, requiring you to move the image from the CAD program to the other application. This is most easily accomplished when the products are compatible.

Users must consider graphics formats for input, output and storage.

Many CAD makers have their own proprietary formats for storing their native graphics files, and each claims that its format is superior to others. It almost doesn't matter what format you store the native graphics in as long as the CAD program can produce output in any other format. But if you are sharing the native graphics files with other users, you should be able to store the graphics in a format that everyone can access easily. This will simplify the interaction and collaboration.

It is important that the CAD program can import and use images in a great variety of input formats, and most CAD programs can, either embedding them without change in an image or translating them into the native format.

Another consideration has to do with inputting non-graphics format, such as numerical data that becomes graphical data. For example, crime data applied to different areas on a map could turn those areas different colors depending on the numbers, visually indicating high and low crime rates. The input data might come from a spreadsheet or from tables of information.

If you handle this kind of information, check carefully that the CAD program under consideration has the capability; most retail packages do not. In fact, this one factor could push you out of the off-the-shelf CAD market and into the higher-end products.

Output formats are straightforward enough. The CAD program must be capable of producing output in a format appropriate to its destination. The prime example these days is producing .gif or .jpeg files for Web pages. But if your image is feeding into a page layout program, for instance, you must be able to create output that the next application can handle. This is usually not a problem'most CAD programs support a myriad of output formats'but it never hurts to check.

Caligari's trueSpace4 integrates advanced radiosity to account for diffused light reflected from surfaces in the images it creates. It's priced at $595.

An interesting feature of the burgeoning CAD market is the expanding selection of third-party add-on packages. These can transform general-purpose, everyday CAD programs into topic-specific applications.

For example, there are many graphical symbol libraries. By using one of these in-depth symbol libraries, you can add the detail to an ordinary diagram that makes it useful to an expert audience.

Other packages add capabilities, such as precision geometric drafting, to CAD programs.

The tricky part is that add-on packages may be not one-size-fits-all. Granted, symbol libraries are usable by almost any CAD program. But the packages that add capabilities are usually tuned to a specific program's application programming interface. Add-on vendors most often orient their products toward CAD heavyweights, such as Autodesk Inc.

If you have your eye on certain add-ons'and there are a lot, for almost any application'take compatibility into account. It may influence your decision about which CAD program to buy.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass.

Vendor Product Platforms Description Special features Price
Asvic Engineering & Software
Charlestown, Australia
Mech-Q Professional Pack Win9x, NT Plug-in mechanical with structural and piping modules 2-D or 3-D mechanical symbols, fasteners, bearings, housings, gears; 2-D and 3-D piping package; metric and ASTM Structural Steel shapes $595
Autodesk Inc.
Cupertino, Calif.
AutoCAD LT 2000 Win9x, NT 2-D CAD tool with AutoCAD 2000 compatibility Access content in any drawing, unlimited Redo, share data via Internet and e-mail $559
AutoSketch Win9x, NT Tool adds 3-D look to 2-D drawing AutoSnap, rich text capabilities, natural-language search tool $99
Easy Kinematics Win9x, NT Extension to AutoCAD for mechanical design and motion simulation Design complex mechanisms, view them working, detect geometrical and interference problems $99
BGI-Belgian Graphic Interface
Brussels, Belgium
DMX Desktop Mapping ActiveX 32-bit Windows Includes ActiveX components Retrieve, display and edit 2-D vector data; create GIS and CAD viewers; reads and writes DXF, DGN and SHAPE; zoom, pan and fit $850
Caligari Corp.
Mountain View, Calif.
Caligari trueSpace 4 32-bit Windows Performs 3-D modeling, photorealistic rendering and animation 3-D text, architectural design and walk-through, smooth organic shapes, multimedia presentations $595
Data Becker
Needham Heights, Mass.
Complete Interior Designer Win9x, NT Interior design tool Design customized floor plan; 80 predesigned blueprints, library of more than 1,100 surface textures and patterns and more than 2,100 objects; 3-D walk-through $19
Deneba Software
Denebacad Mac OS, Windows Cross-platform CAD Fast rendering, 2-D design and drafting, 3-D modeling, AutoCAD compatibility, library of more than 2,000 2-D and 3-D objects and symbols $552
Diehl Graphsoft
Columbia, Md.
Vectorworks Mac OS, 32-bit Windows Object-based CAD 2-D drafting, 3-D modeling, high-quality rendering, dynamic worksheet function, scripting language $790
IMSI Software Publishing
Novato, Calif.
Floorplan 3-D Design Suite 32-bit Windows Interior and exterior design Landscaping and floor-plan design, LightWorks rendering, real-time walk-throughs, integrated materials editor, customizable symbol database $45
TurboCAD Professional Win95, NT General CAD Customizable user interface, SDK extends technology and capabilities, raster-to-vector technology, AutoCAD and MicroStation file sharing, ACIS-based solid modeling, LightWorks photo-realistic rendering $241
Intergraph Corp.
Huntsville, Ala.
Smart Sketch Tech Kit 32-bit Windows 2-D CAD for engineers Design and drafting tools, sketch designs, drive dimensions from spreadsheet, animate, built-in browser and easy Web publishing $495
Mathsoft Inc.
Cambridge, Mass.
Mathcad 2000 Professional 32-bit Windows Advanced math and visualization Solve and analyze technical problems, perform calculations; integrate text, math and graphics into a single worksheet; create accurate technical documents; includes SmartSketch LE and Axum LE graphing $474
Mathcad 2000 Standard 32-bit Windows Advanced math and visualization Similar to Mathcad 2000 Pro; lacks some advanced mathematical abilities $91
Menzies Engineering Design Ltd.
Dornoch, Scotland
Technical Illustration Classic Drafting Pack Win9x, NT Engineering components in isometric projection For AutoCAD 2000/r14/r13 and LT98/97/95; bearings, gears, springs, plates, washers, pins, screws, bolts, nuts, circlips, keys and keyways in six isometric projections $150
Micrografx Inc.
Allen, Texas
Flow charter 32-bit Windows Drawing, diagramming and charting Diagrams, target charts, family trees, project timelines, organization charts, statistical control charts, executable flow diagrams and free-form drawings; uses wizards and templates $47
Midnight Software Inc.
DeltaCad Professional Win9x, NT, Win 2000 General CAD Accurately scaled architectural, mechanical and freehand drawings; custom macros; create symbols; calculate length and area; sample drawings and symbol libraries $40
Novato, Calif.
Total 3-D Landscape Deluxe Windows Landscape design Plan, visualize and budget 3-D landscape; edit terrain; preview landscape; walk-through design; database of more than 4,500 plants, objects and accents $40
Parallax69 Software International
Brno, Czech Republic
Eroiica Profi Win9x, NT CAD scanning, document cleanup Viewing, annotating, redlining, editing, scanning and converting CAD documents $500
Richtersvoil, Switzerland
QCad Linux, Unix 2-D CAD Mechanical and technical drawing; many manipulation functions Free download
Software Forge Inc.
Schaumburg, Ill.
LinuxCAD Linux 2-D and 3-D CAD Produces flowcharts, land surveys, mechanical drawings, architectural drafting, entity relationships, object models; DXF import $99
Pryor, Okla.
Design CAD Office 2000 32-bit Windows, Linux General CAD Cost estimation, more than 1,100 professional symbols, raster-to-vector conversion, developer's toolkit with more than 300 commands, multimedia training $415
Vibrant Graphics Inc.
Austin, Texas
Soft Engine Win9x, NT Accelerator for AutoCAD Improves AutoCAD R14's 2-D and 3-D performance $149
Visio Corp.
Visio IntelliCAD 98 32-bit Windows General CAD AutoCAD compatible, native .dwg file format, supports AutoCAD commands, runs over third-party AutoCAD applications $399


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