It's CAD, but not as we know it

Paul Woodward
13th October 2017 at 16:41

I was there at the beginning, folks. Not the big bang (I'm not that old yet), but at the time when home computing was born. I have watched developments in technology ever since; it's probably the reason (along with a love of anything creative) why I chose to teach design and technology. There have been more developments than I could cover in a book, never mind a blog, but one area that I took interest in was the use of computer graphics. At first, it was in the movies of the 1980s where they were first used for special effects but, as I got my hands on a Silicon Graphics workstation and played around with early virtual reality, I got the 3D modelling bug big time.

But enough of this trip down memory lane. My point is that, much like staring at today's HD widescreen televisions after growing up watching black and white TVs, modern CAD is quite impressive indeed. It really gives a sense of how far the technology has progressed; a sense that a student couldn't possibly intuit by merely looking at images from each era. However, I would like to address not the technology itself but instead potential uses for CAD that might not always be obvious based on a student's classroom experience of a particular piece of software.

At first, CAD involved tediously plotting points to make rudimentary 3D wireframe models, but with the advance of GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces), things became more intuitive and, as processing power improved, models could be rendered faster and at better visual quality. Fast forward to today, and computers are capable of rendering (almost) photorealistic images in real time, which means that concepts from decades ago such as AR and VR, once held back by technology, are now very much possible.

CAD is so much more than a tool for realising design ideas in a 3D or mechanical form and the software available today can do much more than that. Often, there are physics, particle and cloth simulations built in as well as complex renders capable of fur, hair, fire, smoke and much more. Most programs are capable of organic rendering too using surface modelling, sculpting and a range of other features designed to aid the user realise their imaginations.

Even seemingly basic software such as SketchUp can be used for animations and basic packaging design by mapping premade texture panels to the objects designed. There are also numerous rendering engines for the software that allow you to render out photorealistic images rather than sketch like drawings.

I personally use CAD to not only render photorealistic visualisations but to make cartoon like illustrations for children's books. Furthermore, I have used the software to make virtual environments where users can explore shared spaces and even collaborate on 3D models in real time via their computers, no matter where they are in the world. I would like to consider myself an avid explorer of new computer software but have to admit that, even after 25 years using CAD, I have hardly scratched the surface.

Despite once costing as much as a small house in London, the software needed to open up these new worlds of creative possibilities is often free for students to learn. This means that, once they hit the big wide world (and have to buy commercial versions) they already know how to use the software creatively and productively. For those using CAD software simply to satisfy the needs of a syllabus, to generate a working drawing, cutting list or to output to CNC or 3D printer, why not see what other creative uses you can find for the software. Indeed, why not take a look at the ever-expanding range of careers other than design and engineering that make creative use of CAD.

I once used a piece of software so intensively for over 20 years that I actually ran out of aspects of the software to explore and yearned for new features to be included in the next release. Today's software has so much to offer that such a scenario is unlikely to happen during a student's exposure to it during their school life, but that's not to say that it's not worthwhile seeing just how much creativity you can squeeze out of it while you have the chance. After all, who knows what creative potential you might tap into from your students. Perhaps D&T is not really their thing but you might just have a potential animator, illustrator, urban designer, architect, CAD visualiser, special effects technician or games designer in your midst and never realise it.

Paul is an experienced teacher, examiner, moderator and consultant in design and technology who has also worked in industry as a designer, artist and musician. He is currently head of creative arts in a successful Yorkshire boarding school.