AutoCAD for 3D? (MCAD Modeling Column)

31 May, 2007 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth

Readers weigh in on using AutoCAD for 3D applications.

A few months back I made a comment in an article, and a reader took me to task for it. I said that it was possible to do 3D modeling in AutoCAD—but when was the last time you heard of someone actually doing it? The reader informed me that there were tens of thousands of people out there who were in fact doing just that. I faced a dilemma. I had used AutoCAD in years past and had since spoken to a lot of people who still used it, and in my experience people were not overly impressed with the 3D capabilities offered by AutoCAD. The vast majority of users I spoke with used something else. Sure, when it came to 2D documentation, AutoCAD ruled, but for 3D they looked elsewhere. I suppose my comment was understandable given that experience. However, since then I have received a lot of reader feedback about 3D in AutoCAD.

Here are some representative quotes:

"Our company has been using 3D in AutoCAD since 1997. We started with a third-party add-on package by Context CAD but switched to using AutoSolids around 2000 and have been using that ever since." —Tom Gonsiorowski, vice-president of technology, Adaptive Optics Associates

"I use AutoCAD and AutoSolids to produce 3D layout drawings for my clients." —Mac Powell

"I work in the defense industry and create complex AutoCAD models using Mechanical Desktop. I use AutoCAD every day and dream about using it many nights." —Randy Van Nostrand

"I used AutoCAD for a while until I discovered Inventor. Now I only use AutoCAD if I want to use the Layer Properties Manager." —William Grunwald

". . . my work in 3D in AutoCAD was so long ago—I've since moved on to much more capable systems . . . Being motivated to be 'set free' from the hassles of changing every 2D view manually for every little design change was the driving force." —Kelly Lasse

"The last project I worked on . . . the contractor requested the drawings in 3D, which caused a lot of laughs in the office. No one knows 3D in AutoCAD, much less how to take a 2D drawing in AutoCAD and make it 3D. They requested it so that it could fit with the [client's] engineering drawings . . . How should I look to learning 3D in the future, knowing that today almost all the work is done in 2D?" —C. "VanDee" Van Deusen, landscape architect

"I still use Mechanical Desktop. I feel it far exceeds Inventor, Pro/E and SolidWorks." —Ed Galicki, Design Drafting Services, a division of Galicki Mechanical Design

"I absolutely love doing 3D design in vanilla AutoCAD, and why people say it is hard I do not understand!" —Jack Foster, 3D Design Services

"I use Inventor now, but in some ways I like AutoCAD better." —Brian Schumacher, project engineer, PTC

"No, I use LDT [Autodesk Land Desktop] for all my 3D work." —Michael T. Royall

"I have used AutoCAD 2000 and 2002 to produce 3D CAD drawings since April 2001." —Ted Kruysman

"I use Mechanical Desktop exclusively." —Lou DelCore

It's very obvious that readers are very loyal to their software. Everyone I heard from answered that AutoCAD was and is a great program for doing 3D work. If Autodesk representatives could read their comments, they'd pop a few shirt buttons with pride.

People really like AutoCAD, but after reading all of the responses, I noticed something interesting. There seemed to be a bit of confusion about what is meant by "using AutoCAD for 3D." What I was referring to was generic, vanilla, straight-out-of-the-box AutoCAD. What people were telling me was that they used MDT (Mechanical Desktop), ADT (Architectural Desktop), AutoSolids and Inventor for modeling and then AutoCAD for 2D documentation. Only two in 40 specified that they used plain old AutoCAD. This result led me to believe that when most of them said they used AutoCAD for 3D modeling, they were in fact referring to Autodesk, the parent company, and its products. Needless to say, I was quite surprised.

Autodesk's Options

Autodesk has filled AutoCAD with 3D capability and improved the program over the years. I would imagine there are functions available in it today that very few of my respondents have even played with (such as lofting). Most of my respondents used older versions of AutoCAD. Auto-desk has worked to add a lot of functionality into its later versions, which the majority of my respondents aren't using.

Autodesk itself has suggestions for dealing with 3D modeling. The company offers users programs such as MDT, ADT and Inventor and more or less downplays AutoCAD. Mechanical Desktop and Architectural Desktop basically are add-on modules that extend the functionality of Auto-CAD for their individual markets. As such, they include AutoCAD as their base application. Inventor is a completely different product. If those products can't handle what you need to do, Autodesk also offers Alias (which the company recently purchased), Revit, 3D Studio Max and VIZ and many more applications. So from Autodesk's angle, AutoCAD isn't what it recommends for 3D modeling. AutoCAD can do the work, but Autodesk itself doesn't seem to feel it's the best tool for the job.

 Figure 1. This is the elegant Carol Creek Bridge modeled by Rob Peterson.
Figure 1. This is the elegant Carol Creek Bridge modeled by Rob Peterson.

Users also make their opinions known through what they buy. Inventor sales are doing very nicely indeed. I think the greatest example of user preference is that sales of AutoCAD LT are greater than those of AutoCAD itself—that says a lot. The main difference between AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT is that AutoCAD LT has no 3D modeling capability. It can import and display 3D models, but it's primarily a 2D product. It's there pretty much for drafting only. So if AutoCAD users are buying Autodesk's 2D product in greater numbers than its 3D version, that says something pretty clearly. Most AutoCAD users don't want to use the program for 3D.

Figure 2. This is a drawing of a trade show element created by Steven Germain. He combined simple elements into a very stylish model.
Figure 2. This is a drawing of a trade show element created by Steven Germain. He combined simple elements into a very stylish model.

I also observed that almost none of my respondents used AutoCAD for rendering—beyond preliminary stages. All respondents who identified what application they were using specified that they took their 3D models, regardless of what software they used to create them, into some other program for final rendering. Obviously, none felt that AutoCAD was ideally suited for the kind of rendering they wanted for presentations.

Figure 3. This is an oil field test separator modeled by "3D Jack" Foster, a strong advocate of 3D design.
Figure 3. This is an oil field test separator modeled by "3D Jack" Foster, a strong advocate of 3D design.

Pictures Worth 1,000 Words

Many architects and structural engineers sent comments. Many even included images and more than a few files. They sent me links to their Web sites where I could see what they've done. I was most impressed with what I saw. I could see that each of the respondents was very talented and hard working. I would never express anything but praise for their efforts. But I do have to admit to a certain bias. I am a product designer. I have to use complicated 3D models with compound and freeform surfaces. I saw many very complicated examples of quality design from the respondents, and none of them used those kinds of features. (I am not downplaying them in any way; I want that thoroughly understood.) All of the examples used fairly simple elements to build up wonderfully complex arrangements for bridges (figure 1), display kiosks (figure 2), piping systems (figure 3) and the like. I am used to models more like tools and consumer electronics (figure 4). Needless to say, the requirements are different. I wonder if many toy companies use AutoCAD for design.

Figure 4. This is a toaster modeled in SolidWorks. Even the bagels were modeled (with textures applied with PhotoWorks).
Figure 4. This is a toaster modeled in SolidWorks. Even the bagels were modeled (with textures applied with PhotoWorks).

To Each His or Her Own

Many users of AutoCAD products in different industries are building 3D solid models—more so than I gave credit for. For this mistaken assumption, I stand corrected. They are using the tools with which they are familiar and obviously getting the results they need. That's good. I guess the long and short of the story is that AutoCAD satisfies the 3D needs of those who use it. But for someone who designs the kinds of products I do, that isn't the case, and there's nothing wrong with that. For more information about the many products developed by Autodesk, visit

Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.

About the Author: IDSA

About the Author: Mike Hudspeth