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It's fair to say that the last few years have been a bumpy road for the automotive industry. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing semiconductor chip shortage around the world had a massive impact on both manufacturing and sales. Even at ground level, people were using their cars less, with no reason to drive anywhere.
Recently, however, the car industry is seeing a real return to form. Demand is growing every month, prices in the used car market are flying and people are back using their vehicles regularly again. With the pandemic-driven panic over, the industry is looking forward to the next paradigm shift in its timeline: the mass introduction of electric cars as petrol, diesel and even hybrid models are gradually phased out.
Alongside the ever-more impressive technology of electric vehicles (EVs) is the increasing sophistication of computer-aided car design. At the heart of this side of the industry is specialised computer-aided design (CAD) software – but what’s the story of CAD in the automotive industry?
What is CAD in car design?
CAD plays an essential role in automotive development. 3D CAD enables car designers to produce precise geometric information and accurate data on the configuration of the model's modules and systems. CAD can be used for every step of the car designing process, from body concepts through to product assemblies, as well as real-world visualisations and simulations to enhance creator and client understandings of the design.
CAD as we (roughly) know it now has been around in the industry since the 1980s and has naturally become the central design basis via which all car concepts are produced. Today, it's more advanced than ever, allowing car designers to explore more digital design possibilities than ever before.
What's the history of automotive CAD design?
While 'modern' CAD modelling surfaced in the industry in the 80s, the history of CAD in the automotive market dates back to the 1960s and a pioneering French designer called Pierre Bézier.
Bézier began working for French auto giant Renault in 1933. In the late 50s, he started to push Renault to invest in researching numerical controls for car body tooling and modelling – a suggestion which was initially rejected before interest in tech-assisted design started to grow through the 1960s.
During that period, Bézier was designing the first CAD software for cars: UNISURF. UNISURF used a tape-based computer to create ink drawing and tooling concepts for car bodies using infinitely scalable parametric curves coined Bézier curves. The introduction of the Bézier curve allowed engineers to replicate the complex curvature of car bodywork via computer design and, by 1968, Peugeot (which had a R&D agreement with Renault) had utilised UNISURF to design the complete bodywork for its new 204 model.
By the 1980s and the rise of early desktop computers, automotive CAD software had advanced to beginnings of what we know it to be today, offering the ability to create, model, analyse and edit designs.
How do car designers use CAD?
CAD is key to today's automotive sector, in which modelling and designing are two fast-moving and constantly changing disciplines. One of the biggest ways in which CAD is impacting the design element of the process is via 3D printing, which is allowing car designers to create layer-by-layer builds that are more complex and detailed than ever before.
Using 3D printing off the back of automotive CAD software's 3D modelling capabilities has enabled various improvements, such as the rapid production of multi-iteration prototypes to reduce the car's weight and create bespoke designs for custom models.
There are also the increasing real-world capabilities of CAD – i.e. the ability to offer accurate visualisations and simulations within 3D modelling – to consider. Design elements like these are enabling automotive manufacturers to collaborate better throughout the design, allowing for process improvements like quicker revisions and virtual-reality demonstrations for internal collaborators and clients.
What are the benefits of using CAD to design a car?
CAD in the automotive industry has undoubtedly had a massive impact for businesses that have adopted it over the last few decades. As the technology advances, it's continuing to boost key performance metrics for the organisations using it, from speed of production to bottom-line costs.
Faster, more efficient designs made simple
One of the most obvious benefits of automotive CAD is the streamlining of the design process. High-quality designs are easier than ever to build and, likewise, the process required to make them is only getting quicker. That means that concepts can be brought to market quicker and windows of production can be minimised.
Car designers are naturally accurate professionals with excellent attention to detail. Despite this, however, human error can never be removed entirely from the manual design process. Automotive CAD software allows users to create highly accurate models of parts before anything is even thrust into a 3D model, meaning that any safety or quality-control concerns can be addressed earlier in the process, design faults are eliminated and standards of production are higher across the board.
Car design is a hugely complex, multi-stage process that requires numerous designers with different skillsets to work together to deliver the final product. With CAD, designers can work together more easily, logging updates, quickly addressing revisions (which are minimised in the first place via the software's improved accuracy) and communicating with fellow team members – and all from anywhere in the world.
Customisation and design scope
CAD allows for great flexibility and optionality in design, giving car designers more scope to customise designs, further push the envelope and seek out new USPs for their car models.
The bottom line for every business, the faster, easier, more collaborative and error-free process that CAD offers naturally leads to cost benefits for any business. Removing the need for physical 3D models without any loss of detail, automotive CAD software also offers environmental benefits that tie into the cost-saving.
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