5 Steps to Get Started with CAD

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Want to see some cool cars?

Check out this Ferrari Enzo.


Or this Audi Q7.


Or even this Kia GTX.


Ever wonder how manufacturers model these gorgeous cars?

Or lay out beautiful houses?

Or design enviable landscapes?


The secret is computer-aided design, otherwise known as CAD. The acronym is self-explanatory; CAD is simply the use of computers to create, edit, analyze, or optimize a design. These programs aren’t like Paint or Illustrator; those are solely pixel and vector based systems to aid 2D design. Instead, CAD focuses on real-world measurements and is meant to be used to create models for objects that exist in real space.

There’s a lot that goes into CAD and it can get confusing quickly, so I’ve pared down this guide to get started with CAD into five sections: a detailed analysis of what CAD is (and isn’t), what it’s used for, what software is popular amongst CAD users, how to get training, and what you can do with CAD know-how.

1. What is Computer-Aided Design?


Computer-aided design (CAD), sometimes called computer-aided design and drafting (CADD), is, again, designed to create the basis for things that either exist in the real world or are meant to represent real-world objects. Instead of simply focusing on shapes, designers use drafting techniques which include labeling dimensions and materials. CAD files can either represent items in two dimensions (drawings) or three (models).

While CAD systems and processes existed as early as 1949, the most modern version that is similar to what you would use now became popular in 1963, when MIT PhD candidate Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad. It was such a heavy piece of software that only MIT Lincoln Labs’ TX-2 computer—one of the world’s largest computers at the time with 306 kilobytes of core memory—could run.

What was unique about this particular software was that users could draw directly on the screen and the system could create master drawings with constraints. Some constraints included simple functions like perpendicular and equal sizing, along with more complex functions such as creating correctly measured trusses and structures that adhere to topography.

But Sketchpad wasn’t available to the public. In fact, according to Design World, “Sketchpad was a proof-of-concept program for human-machine interaction… Sketchpad was designed to run on the TX-2, a non-commercial research computer,” and thus would be difficult to port to more commercially available machines. However, it did provide the basis for future CAD software and processes.

Through the seventies, computers steadily popularized. Major businesses, including GM, IBM, and Lockheed Martin, started to apply CAD concepts to the aeronautical and automotive industries. From there, with cheaper computers, commercially-available software, and the boom 3D modeling, CAD started to filter into construction, fashion, and entertainment. Today, CAD is often used for mechanical engineering, video game graphics, and even for 3D printing.

2. Which industries use CAD?


CAD is present in a number of industries, including:

  • Acoustic engineering
  • Aerospace
  • Automotive
  • Building products
  • Civil engineering
  • Commercial and residential layout designs
  • Consumer products
  • Electrical workflows
  • Film and television
  • Fire protection engineering
  • Landscape architecture
  • Quality surveying
  • Ship building
  • Structural engineering
  • Surveying
  • Video games

3. What tools do you need to get started with CAD?


AutoCAD is, by far, the most popular engineering CAD software. However, a number of professionals prefer to opt for cheaper AutoCAD alternatives, including LibreCAD, ProgeCAD, TurboCAD, and VectorWorks.

Choosing the right CAD software can be tough—I recommend heading over to Capterra’s CAD software directory where you can use filters and user reviews to find the best software for you and your business.

4. What online training options are available for learning CAD?


There are a number of online courses that are both free and paid that cover how to use CAD software. A few notable courses and certifications include include:

In addition to these websites, many prospective CAD engineers opt to attend in-person classes. Some reputable training programs include CADD Microsystems and Imaginit.

5. What careers are available for CAD experts?


Given the breadth of what CAD covers, there are opportunities in almost every industry for CAD engineers and designers.

According to Glassdoor, CAD workers earn $90,418 a year on average in the United States. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that the median pay is $52,720, or $25.35 per hour. Most CAD engineers have an associate’s degree.

The number of available CAD positions is expected to decline over the next eight years. The BLS explains:

Employment of drafters is projected to decline 3 percent from 2014 to 2024. Although drafters will continue to work on technical drawings and documents related to the design of buildings, machines, and tools, new software programs are making drafters and related professionals more efficient, thus requiring fewer workers. Competition for jobs is expected to be strong.

In spite of this analysis, CAD engineering continues to be a niche skill, and computers cannot reliably calculate creative ideas. Today’s CAD software has yet to replace the CAD engineer.


This brief guide should give you a general CAD overview, but it’s certainly far from complete. What would you add? Are you a CAD engineer? Let me know in the comments below!

Looking for Construction Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Construction Management software solutions.

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About the Author


Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a former Capterra analyst who covered project management.



Yep, CAD software has been around that long. And it’s a pretty mature technology at this point, so there’s no need to worry about getting involved in something untested—although you’ll certainly need to do your research when it comes to finding the right CAD software option for you.


CAD is present good idea with the CAD engineer. Thanks for sharing this great article!


Agree, CAD can be pretty confusing for a beginner, but it’s a great software to know since it has so many applications in many industries.


It looks that this article is more oriented to the building construction. In automotive industry it is often driven by your customer, if you are a supplier. The most common CAD is CATIA, Creo (engine, aggregate) or NX.

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