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The use of CAD in civil engineering

Ever looked at a bridge and wondered how it manages to hold all that weight safely? Or cruised down hundreds of miles of motorway pondering how on Earth it was all put together?

When we look at the essential infrastructure of our society, be it roads, tunnels, buildings, reservoirs or any other man-made structure, we're looking at the work of civil engineers. Somewhat unsung heroes of our society, there are nearly 93,000 civil engineers in the UK that work every day to impact virtually every corner of modern life.

As with the rest of the engineering and construction sector, the world of civil engineering is moving forward quickly. Today's society demands ongoing innovation as well as sustainable solutions for the future. Likewise, ever-increasing safety standards and tighter regulations need to be met on every project.

To meet these challenges head-on, civil engineering design relies heavily on the use of computer-aided design (CAD). In this guide, we'll discuss just how important CAD is to the civil engineering industry. You can also download our free CAD software for civil engineering, DesignSpark Mechanical, today.

What is CAD in civil engineering?

CAD enables civil design engineers to create design concepts for civil engineering projects using highly accurate and detailed, digitally produced 2D drawings and 3D models. The scope of the civil engineering industry is one of the broadest out there but CAD is used in virtually every facet of the design process, no matter the project at hand.

There are probably hundreds of things that you do each day that have a civil engineer – and CAD – behind them. When you pour yourself a glass of water from the tap, turn on a plug to charge your phone or take the train into town for the day, somewhere down the line there's a civil engineer and computer-aided design to thank.

The history of computer-aided civil engineering design

You only need to go back a few decades to find a time when CAD software was considered an expensive luxury for the civil engineering sector. Now, of course, it's an essential to any project but the origins of the technology actually date back to the early 1960s and advances in the automotive and architectural sectors.

There were two major systematic developments from the 60s. 1963 saw the introduction of Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad – the first graphical interface software that featured line drawing and movement of figures on a computer screen – while the first true CAD system, UNISURF, was put into use by French automotive designer Pierre Bézier in 1968.

Following Peugeot's use of UNISURF to create a complete bodywork for its new 204 model in '68, CAD technology started to attract broader interest from a range of precision-engineering sectors. The 1970s saw the birth of Patrick Hanratty's ADAM program – a tool on which much of today's CAD tech is based – while moving into the '80s and '90s brought substantial developments and widespread incorporation of 3D modelling software into many industries, including civil engineering.

Of course, civil engineering CAD standards haven't stalled out with 3D modelling. Today, the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), particularly in areas of construction and building design, is bringing a fourth dimension to many projects, offering real-world visualisations and simulations to add further layers of detail to engineering processes.

What are the applications of CAD in civil engineering?

In an industry as broad as civil engineering, CAD is used across a massive spectrum of projects. In terms of the uses of the program in the sector, CAD plays an integral role in the development of key infrastructure including:

  • Roads and motorways
  • Bridges
  • Pipelines
  • Airports
  • Docks
  • Dams

It's also used in smaller but still-essential projects such as:

  • Residential buildings
  • Commercial buildings
  • Schools and universities
  • Parks and recreational facilities

As for the functions CAD with which assists in any one of the projects above, it's probably best considered a complete-life-cycle tool, supporting every phase of the process from planning through to post-construction maintenance.

Planning and design

The planning and design phases of a project are where CAD really began. Modern CAD systems offer exceptional detail in the planning stages, allowing users to access subsystems to understand requirements for key elements like pricing, materials and even contractors and sub-contractors.

Likewise, when it comes to design, civil engineering CAD software has completely overhauled the once-drawn-out and arduous manual drafting process and made it completely digital. Production times for 2D drawings and 3D models are substantially quicker, as are any windows for edits and revisions required. Even if civil engineer designers still wish to use traditional drafting methods and start drawing by hand, CAD can incorporate paper designs via detailed scanning tech.

Evaluation and maintenance

The rise of BIM software has added extra layers of detail to the evaluation phase. Once designs are completed, BIM allows for real-time visualisation and simulation on a proposed concept, enabling engineers to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their design, as well as present it to stakeholders and clients.

The use of CAD doesn't stop once the structure in question has been physically installed, either. Once a road network, bridge or building has been constructed, civil engineers can use retained 3D models to assist in the easy location of sections or parts when maintenance is required.

The importance of CAD in civil engineering

The importance of the technology in the sector cannot be overstated. The advantages of CAD in civil engineering span a range of key efficiency metrics, from minimising required resources through to significant cost savings.

Expanded planning, design and management capabilities

CAD has blown away the limits of the traditional drafting process and installed an in-depth system of tools tailored to the civil engineering industry that designers can utilise to create more complex and detailed structures than ever before. Across the planning, design and management phases of any project, civil engineers can get a more detailed picture on a more efficient design – and all done in quicker times.

Increased accuracy of design for faster processes and reduced costs

Civil engineers are incredibly skilful, accurate and considered professionals but there's always an element of human error to consider with a manual drafting process. With CAD, human error is virtually eliminated – or, indeed, highlighted and eliminated early in the drafting stages. This means that windows of production can be minimised without worry of a drop-off in accuracy or detail (the opposite, in fact) – and that means substantial cost benefits for businesses.

Easier collaboration from all corners of the world

Civil engineering design is an incredibly in-depth process made up of large teams of designers who all need to communicate with each other. With CAD and cloud storage for any produced drawings, models and plans, collaboration between teams is massively streamlined. Edits and revisions that may have previously taken days now take hours, while models are easily accessible for any team member at any stage of the project.

Try our free CAD software for civil engineering today

You can get started with our CAD software for civil engineering right now for free! Download DesignSpark Mechanical Explorer to see what our basic CAD package looks like, then upgrade to Creator or Engineer to get a host of advanced features.

If you want to know more about what our CAD software has to offer, you can learn the basics of DesignSpark Mechanical here or take a look at our support FAQs and Mechanical forum to get all of the answers that you need.

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