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When we talk about project cycles in construction, we're talking about an incredibly in-depth process. From creating scalable plans and design concepts through to workflow and project management, the amount of resources that go into any construction project is huge. When it comes to opportunities to streamline those processes, then, businesses are naturally keen to take them.

The widespread introduction of 3D computer-aided design (CAD) to the industry back in the 1990s represented something of a paradigm shift in that respect. It completely overhauled the manual drafting process into a more efficient, accurate and – most importantly – cost-effective digital package.

Developments in CAD technology continue to move forward today, as do the efficiencies of the construction sector with them, and it's now rooted at the heart of the industry. Here's a brief guide on how CAD has transformed the world of construction drawings, building engineering and architectural design.

What does CAD mean in construction?

What is CAD in construction? It's the software used by engineers, building designers, architects and construction managers to create designs and concepts across the full life cycle of any project.

Specialised CAD software for construction, which offers both 2D drawing and 3D modelling, has replaced the traditional manual drafting (hand-drawn) process of old with a completely digital package. Naturally, moving a manual drafting process to a software-driven one has come with many improvements and benefits for the industry, which we'll discuss below.

The history of CAD in the construction industry

The history of CAD driven construction drawing goes way back to the early 1960s and two systems made by computer scientists Patrick Hanratty and Ivan Sutherland.

Hanratty's development of a numerical control programming system in DAC and Sutherland's subsequent introduction of the first graphical interface in Sketchpad – the first software to feature line drawing and movement of figures on a computer screen – paved the way for the development of computer-aided design in not only the construction sector but many other precision-engineering industries like aerospace and automotive.

By the 1970s, Hanratty had developed ADAM – the "first commercially available integrated, interactive graphics design, drafting and manufacturing system" – a program on which as much of 90% of today's CAD software is based.

3D CAD modelling was largely injected into the wider industry in the 90s and it continues to push forward today, with the 4D real-time capabilities of Building Information Modelling (BIM) software evolving the construction design process once again (more on that below).

How are CAD drawings used within construction?

As we talked about at the start of this guide, CAD is now very much the beating heart of the construction industry. It plays a key role in every phase of any construction project and is evolving further thanks to BIM.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) software

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is holistically minded software that focuses specifically on the design and documentation of buildings. While many CAD tools are multi-purpose, BIM looks to take CAD concepts and focus exclusively on the process of creating and managing information for a built asset. In your average construction project today, a CAD system will be used to manage the BIM throughout.

BIM is a now an essential tool for construction managers, building designers and architects alike. Its advanced features, such as real-time visualisation and simulation, allow for a new level of depth in model analysis and creation, further enhancing the efficiencies of the development phases of any construction project.

Planning and design

The use of CAD in construction starts at the very beginning in the planning stage. Depending on the depth of the CAD system, you might be able to access subsystems for elements such as pricing, materials and even contractors and subcontractors.

When it comes to building design, CAD has effectively removed pencil and paper from the drafting process. 2D construction drawings and 3D models of every element of a building can be created with greater detail than ever and can still be translated to paper – and vice versa – using scanning technology.

Evaluation and management

The evaluation phase of the project is largely where the advanced visualisation and simulation capabilities of BIM step up, allowing designers from different areas of the project to collaborate more easily.

CAD software also plays a role in managing the building through the design life cycle and beyond. Even once the building is up, 3D models and elevations of the building allow you carry out maintenance and renovations quickly when required.

What are the benefits of using CAD programs for construction?

It's fair to say that CAD has transformed just about every fundamental of construction design. From speed of process to the capabilities and possibilities in the design concepts themselves, the importance of construction CAD software to the industry cannot be understated.

Complexity and accuracy of design

The growth in capability of CAD software over the years has been almost exponential. Today, construction managers, building designers and architects have a more detailed, accurate and cohesive design scope with which to work than ever before. The designs themselves are more detailed while also being error-free, allowing the industry to create incredibly complex and completely optimised structures.

Faster processes

Everything takes less time with CAD. From the drawing and modelling process to edits and revisions, phases that previously took days to complete now take hours. This means that businesses can massively reduce their projected windows to completion and take on more work.

Easier maintenance

The use of CAD in construction doesn't stop with the physical construction of the building. Construction managers retain the 3D models used in the design phase to quickly and easily address any maintenance requirements within the building. For example, need to find a particular network of pipes or wires to manage an issue? With CAD, you can locate the area of concern almost instantly and get to work on fixing the problem straight away.

Lower costs

The expanded design capabilities, reduced process time and additional post-construction benefits of CAD construction software all mean good things for the bottom-line costs of the businesses using the technology. In an industry where resource management is critical, CAD has been a revolutionary tool.

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