Reports of the Death of 2D CAD Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

When I was first introduced to 3D CAD, I was certain that the age of 2D CAD was over. I figured that in five, or maybe ten years tops, the world would have moved away from 2D CAD. This was in 1997. It’s now 25 years later, and 2D CAD is still going strong.

In fact, the demand for 2D CAD is significant enough that publishers best known for 3D CAD, such as Dassault Systèmes, have introduced their own flavors of 2D CAD. In 2010, Dassault Systèmes released DraftSight, a 2D CAD application with which any ACAD user will feel right at home.

In hindsight, I should have realized that 2D CAD would have some sticking power. After all, at the time I made my prediction of the impending demise of 2D CAD, drafting boards were still in general use.

For trivia buffs, the patent for the first drafting table as we know it was awarded to George Ring on July 18, 1905 (U.S. patent 795,065). How many people do you know that still use a drafting board? There may be one or two diehards for whom mechanical drafting continues as an art form.

The first modern drafting board.

Why does 2D CAD persist? Early on, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s when 3D CAD was still new to people, many viewed it with skepticism, perhaps as a passing phase. By around 2005, most of my students were still 2D CAD users. Many students in the early days (1998 to around 2005) only interacted with a computer to use ACAD or to play a game of Tetris or Solitaire. Windows was a mystery to them, and I often found myself teaching both SOLIDWORKS and Windows.

One student told me over lunch on the first day of 3D CAD training that he would leave design rather than learn a new CAD program. That could have been an indication that 2D CAD would stay around because of the reluctance to change in what might be called mid- to late adopters—except that most of them have aged out of the workforce. The people who are currently using 2D CAD today are younger and computer savvy. They often have experience with other design packages, so hesitancy to change is not a problem.

Cost is one factor in 2D CAD’s lingering popularity. Generally, 2D CAD costs less than 3D CAD, and the hardware required for 2D CAD is generally less expensive. For many companies, such as a small machine shop that just needs to sketch up a prismatic shape every once in a while, an inexpensive 2D CAD program running on an inexpensive PC is sufficient.

That being said, smart companies know that the cost of software and hardware is far less than the costs of the greatest assets—their employees. They know that the intrinsic efficiencies of 3D CAD far outweigh the additional costs. Smart companies also realize that when there is little advantage to 3D CAD, like the small machine shop with simple prismatic parts, the costs of purchasing 3D CAD will be hard to justify—not to mention the costs of retraining employees and the learning curve of mastering 3D design.

Careful evaluation of the return on investment (ROI) in migrating to 3D can also keep 2D CAD around. A hybrid 2D/3D environment may be the best solution. A company that has been around for a while has likely accumulated a large amount of 2D CAD drawings, which will provide reason enough to keep 2D CAD.  

In some cases, 2D drawings of designs are rarely referenced or changed. Since 2D drawings can be of complex assemblies and remodeling in 3D would take a considerable time and effort, it may be deemed more expedient to edit the 2D CAD for the few times that changes are needed.

A legacy 2D CAD drawing.

Many companies have a bounty of physical drawings and may need to get these drawings into a digital format. While it is easy enough to scan a paper drawing to 2D CAD, getting a 3D model is more of a manual process. And if scanning is not an option, then it’s back to the drawing board—figuratively speaking.

Legacy does explain all of the reasons for 2D CAD still being around, but this accounts for only a fraction of the amount of 2D CAD being used. For certain disciplines, 2D is still a better tool.

Take civil engineering, for example. Civil engineers use layouts and elevations in the form of 2D drawings. Creating 3D models of the surrounding landscape, road elevations and gradients may not be worth the effort when 2D drawings can convey the same information.

2D civil engineering layout drawing.

However, 3D CAD is gaining traction in civil engineering, particularly in the design of structures such as buildings, dams and bridges. In additional to their better visualization, 3D models lend themselves to simulation. It’s hard to imagine that many of today’s amazing structures could have been built without the ability to simulate how these structures will react to forces generated by wind, seismic activity, heat, cold and a variety of conditions these structures must endure.

The use of 3D models for evaluating wind effects.

Plants are laid out with floor plans and elevation drawings. Simple shapes, such as rectangles, are sufficient to represent equipment and the area they will occupy. For large plant layouts, detailed 3D CAD models may be counterproductive because of the complexity of the model and the strain they will place on the computers that have to store and display them.

A 2D plant layout drawing.

Schematics are another area where 2D CAD rules. Whether it be electrical, PCB, hydraulic or pneumatic, schematics can easily be most efficiently represented by simple symbols, 2D routes and a series of tables.

PCB schematic.

However, there is 3D CAD software, such as SOLIDWORKS Electrical 3D and SOLIDWORKS Routing, that can help automate the process of generating these systems. A 3D model can be invaluable when routing piping, as shown below.

3D pipe routing.

For those who have evaluated their needs and concluded that 2D CAD is the right solution, there are many products to choose from. Dassault Systèmes’ DraftSight is one.

Dassault Systèmes began to offer two versions of DraftSight around 2010: a fully functional, free 2D CAD version and a pro version that added AutoLISP support and access to technical support.

DraftSight is available in several flavors that provide solutions for the varying needs of individuals and organizations. For those who are familiar with AutoCAD, DraftSight offers a similar look and feel. It has the same command line, and there is a coordinate system that ACAD users are familiar with. Granted, there are some differences, but most ACAD users should be able to grasp these differences quickly.

The variety of bundles is one of the strongest selling points of DraftSight. This diversity allows individuals or organizations to pay for what they need. The bundles include DraftSight Professional, which costs $249 for a 12-month subscription, and DraftSight Premium, which costs $599 per year as of the time of this writing. DraftSight also comes in Enterprise and Enterprise Plus versions. Enterprise versions  are geared towards organizations that have large 2D CAD departments. For these organizations, the Enterprise offerings can be more cost-efficient than purchasing individual Professional or Premium licenses.

DraftSight bundles.

A detailed feature comparison of the different DraftSight offerings is available from this link.

In hindsight, my proclamation of the death of 2D CAD was, in the words of Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Although 3D CAD has replaced traditional 2D CAD in many fields, as seen in this article, 2D CAD remains useful and is healthy and strong. Therefore, I revise my prediction to one that believes 2D CAD will be alive and useful for some time, between the next generation and forever.

About the Author

Joe Medeiros is an Elite Applications Consultant at TRIMECH, a premier SOLIDWORKS reseller servicing customers throughout North America, and offers SOLIDWORKS customers expertise in implementing and using Dassault SOLIDWORKS solutions.

Joe has been involved in many aspects of the Dassault SOLIDWORKS product family since 1996, and as an award-winning blogger, he regularly writes about Dassault SOLIDWORKS solutions.

Recent Articles

Related Stories

Enews Subscribe