Just How 3D Are We? Part 2

8 Mar, 2011 By: Robert Green

Readers weigh in on the question of 3D CAD adoption, revealing a wide spectrum of opinions about 2D and 3D use.

In the previous edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I concluded that 3D CAD use isn't as prevalent as you might think, and that 2D CAD is still very much alive. (If you haven't done so already, you may wish to read through that column now so you'll have the proper context for this one.)

I promised that I'd include some feedback from readers about my 2D/3D conclusions and provide advice for CAD managers navigating the transition. However, I got so much insightful commentary that I've devoted this edition exclusively to more discussion of why 3D adoption rates aren't higher and why 2D hangs on. Here goes.

Justified Investment

In response to my conclusion that firms will use 2D when they can do so profitably, and will only invest in 3D when business purposes justify it, B.M.S. posted this comment on Facebook:

"Not just cost savings, but competitive advantage, even if there is no cost savings. My experience is with the industrial fan & blower market. We went 3D at tremendous costs to be able to produce customer designs on the fly, minimize engineering design time, and to be able to have our 3D models integrate into HVAC software. We were a market leader in this regard."

This point is very valid, because there are two ways to make more money with 3D: generating savings and generating more business via faster and better customer responsiveness. If going 3D enables you to win jobs you wouldn't get otherwise, then the technology is paying for itself.

Sometimes 2D Works Fine

I received a few responses from readers who feel that there is simply no compelling reason for their company to transition to 3D. One such comment came from M.R. in Ohio:

"I missed the opportunity to participate in the survey, but we are 100% 2D. There have been discussions about 3D software that have been going on for the last 12 years. The time and cost involved to switch to 3D just isn't worth the investment for us."

M.R.'s company reminds me of a client I worked with years ago that understood their design processes so well, and had so optimized their AutoCAD implementation, that they really couldn't cut design time by going to a 3D system. Granted, they might have been able to shave a little weight from their products with complex analysis driven via 3D tools, but the savings would not justify the investment in their case either.

Another company making heavy use of 2D was represented by B.H. from Pennsylvania:

"One of the main drivers for us, and vendors dealing with our company, is that information needs to be sent back and forth quickly and easily via e-mail or FTP transfer, and we need to create documentation that can be shared with people who have various levels of CAD knowledge. Because of this, 2D will continue to be a force, and I don't think we are unique in this need."

Sometimes good enough really is good enough, and 2D is all you need.

Some processes, like final print generation, lend themselves more readily to 2D methodologies.


Hybrid Environments

Sometimes it seems that even the CAD manager has trouble understanding where 2D leaves off and 3D begins. Consider this comment from S.R. in Arizona:

"I wonder how you define whether we are 3D or not. We model our systems, but then deliver 2D views generated with AutoCAD MEP. So are we all 3D, or mostly 3D? I wonder if you'd clarify that for us in your next article. How do you categorize 2D and 3D CAD practice?"

SR raises a valid point. I see many companies that perform design, analysis, visualization, and clash detection using 3D optimized software (think Revit, SolidWorks, Inventor, Bentley PowerCivil, etc.), yet still maintain a large AutoCAD or MicroStation 2D drafting capability to create finished prints. I would term this a 2D/3D hybrid company, since both 2D and 3D systems are required to get the job done and the loss of either system would change the workflow of your company.

Look at it this way: If deleting AutoCAD or MicroStation from your company would cause you heartburn, then you still rely on 2D. As to what percentage of work is done on 2D versus 3D, you'll have to track software use to figure that out.

Customer Requirements Drive 3D

Many companies would be further along in their 3D implementation if their customers didn't insist on 2D deliverables. Consider the response from K.P. in Colorado:

"We work primarily in the precast concrete underground utilities field, and most of our work can be done just fine in 2D. However we recently have started designing sanitary sewer products with a bunch of piping required, and found the Inventor 3D approach made much more sense to lay out and design the projects. While this change was done for our internal needs, we still have not found the customer's need for 3D in underground utilities."

There's an old saying that applies in this situation: The customer is always right. Until your customers prefer getting 3D data from you rather than electronic drawings, you'll have to maintain 2D capability. In my experience, trying to force customers to accept 3D data before they're ready is as futile as pushing a rope!

3D Implementation Dragging Out

Sometimes the biggest barriers to going fully 3D are the users in your own company. Consider this excellent response from T.S. in Ohio:

"Our current policy is to create all new designs in 3D. This is done realizing that as we reuse parts from old designs they will be converted to 3D for the new design. Initially, there was no pressure to push users to 3D; I installed it on everyone's workstation and then provided the necessary training. Some jumped right into the programs, others did not. I had to train some of those who lagged behind the initial surge a couple of times, but slowly nearly everyone has accepted the migration. The policy to create in 3D was passed down by the General Manager of Engineering, who asked me in a meeting why everything was not in 3D. My response was that if he mandated it, I could enforce it easier."

T.S. has the classic problem of user avoidance enabled by a lack of management enforcement. In this case, T.S. has done exactly the right thing by helping users as much as possible, while asking management to be "the bad guy" that enforces the transition to 3D from a position of authority.

It seems that some users will continue to resist 3D until CAD managers get the authority to enforce, same as it ever was.

User resistance must be controlled via education and management-approved enforcement.

Need More Details, Please!

Several readers felt that I failed to break the survey results down along the lines of discipline, usage, etc. One concern that I thought was very succinctly worded came from D.R. in Oregon:

"To start with, your survey is asking the wrong questions. This in turn is causing some odd conclusions. The appropriate questions should have been: What percentage of your design work is 2D/3D? What percentage of your documentation is 2D/3D?"

Another interesting response came from C.N. in the UK:

"Obviously different engineering disciplines use different tools. In mechanical engineering, where I work, we always create CNC (computer numerical control) programs to manufacture our products. To do this we have to create 3D models of all our parts and assemblies. What I am trying to convey is that you would probably get different results from different disciplines of engineering."

Both readers make very valid points that my initial survey questions weren't detailed enough to define what's really going on with 3D adoption in various industry segments. To remedy this shortcoming, I will be initiating a much more detailed 3D CAD usage survey in the coming weeks, which I'll invite all readers to participate in. And once the results are tallied, I promise to perform a more detailed analysis of the 3D CAD market.

So to those of you who took me to task for not providing detailed results, please know that I appreciate your feedback, I'm listening, and you'll have your answers soon.

Summing Up

As you can see from the wide variety of reader responses, there is no right or wrong way, or time, to move from 2D to 3D. CAD managers have to deal with customer requirements, in-house learning curves, design challenges, and financial restrictions that are different in every company. So if you're finding the transition to 3D difficult, at least you know you're in good company.

In the next issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I promise I'll pass along some advice for navigating the 2D to 3D transition in a way that'll keep you sane — and keep your users on track. I invite you to e-mail me your ideas at so I can include them in the next issue. Until next time. 

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: Just How 3D Are We? Part 2
by: DThompson
March 9, 2011 - 6:08pm
adding to the discussion of 2D/3D implementation... I work for a local government municipality with various departments and utilities. My first 14 years I worked for the Public Works department managing water, sewer, streets and drainage. The last 10 years I've been working for the Electric Department which is now also getting into the Natural Gas utility as well. We really have not seen much need for 3D for mapping utility infrastructure or, producing construction plans for contractors or field crews. In fact, our trend is moving into the GIS field of "smart" mapping (ESRI's ArcMAP). Whereas, we have large amounts of database data attached to features on our maps. Our IT staff invision us getting rid of AutoCAD all together. With this technology, we will be pushing all of our maps and data out electronically to mobile units for field crews to red-line digitally. We may soon have no need for paper. Part of me will miss AutoCAD drafting, heck, I miss the nostalgia of the old manual drafting boards. :) Just a comment from another discipline. Jacksonville Beach, Florida.