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Computer Aided Design in civil/structural Engineering:State-of-art review and future trends

Niraj Jha


The paper reviews the development of Computer Aided Design and its current status in civil/structural engineering. The presentation also deals with the challenges and future trends of Computer Aided Design in civil engineering, specifically in structural engineering.


The drafting can be automated and accelerated through the use of computer aided design system (CAD). It may be applied for wide variety of products in the field of Automotive, Electronics, Aerospace, Naval, Architectural, Civil and other disciplines of engineering. CAD systems were originally used for automated drafting only but now they are also used for three dimensional modelling and computer simulated operations of the models. Sometimes CAD is translated as “computer-assisted- drafting”, “computer aided drafting”, or similar phrase. Related acronyms are CADD which stands for computer-aided design and drafting, CAID for “Computer aided industrial design”, CAAD for “Computer aided architectural design”. All these terms are essentially synonymous but there are some subtle differences in meaning and application.


Although in 1957 Dr. Patrick J, Hanratty developed PRONTO, first numerical control programming tool, the father of CAD is usually considered Ivan Sutherland that in 1963 developed Sketchpad as part of his MIT PhD Thesis. In Sketchpad the user interacted with the software through a light pen on a large CRT monitor (it was very innovative, at that time computers ran only in batch mode using punched cards and magnetic tapes). First generation of CAD systems were internally developed by manufacturer in the mid of 1960s and typically concerned 2D drafting applications. General Motors produced DAC (Design Automated by Computer), McDonnel-Douglas CADD (1966), Ford PDGS (1967) and Lockheed CADAM (1967).

CADD (1966), Ford PDGS (1967) and Lockheed CADAM (1967). Figure 1: Ivan Sutherland and his sketchpad

Figure 1: Ivan Sutherland and his sketchpad [2]

In 1970s started the commercial use of CAD. In 1975 the first Unigraphics System (for 2D modeling and drafting) was sold by United Computing. The same year Avion Marcel Dassault acquired CADAM

from Lockheed and in 1977 started the development of a 3D CAD named CATI. In 1979, General Electric and NIST defined a new 3D data exchange format called IGES.

In 1975 Computers and structure INC. (CSI) was founded which is an structural and earthquake engineering software company. Its products involved SAP2000, ETABS, SAFE, CSIBRIDGE, PERFORM-3D, and CsiCOL.[12]

In 1981 Unigraphics introduced its first solid modeling system called UniSolids and Avion Marcel Dassault creates Dassault Systemes that, in the next year released CATIA V1 (first commercial version of CATI) as CADAM add-on. In the same year was released I-DEAS by SDRC. In 1983, while Unigraphics II was introduced in the market, Autodesk (founded the year before) released AutoCAD, a CAD program for a price of about $1000 running on PC. In 1984 Apple presented the first Macintosh 128 and the next year was published MiniCAD the bestselling CAD for Mac. Anyway middle-1980s PCs and Macs weren’t enough performing if compared to UNIX workstation. In 1985 Dassault Systemes released CATIA V2 as a software independent from CADAM. In 1987 Varimetrix produced the first B-Rep solid modeler. The same year a big revolution have been in CAD industry: Parametric Technology Corporation releases Pro/Engineer, the first parametric and associative solid modeler on the market, for UNIX Workstations. Pro/Engineer first release had also very innovative and intuitive interface based on xWindow. One year later were also available CATIA and Unigraphics for UNIX Workstation. In 1989, pushed by Pro/Engineer innovation Unigraphics retired its UniSolids and released a new program based on Parasolid: UG/Solids. In 1989 was also released ACIS kernel.

In first 1990s CAD software ran on UNIX workstation and no more on mainframe and minicomputer. The CAD market was dominated by few companies: IBM-Dassault Systemes, EDS- Unigraphics, Parametric Technology and SDRC. In 1994 Microsoft released its first 32-bit operating system and Intel its first Pentium Pro. ACIS and Parasolid were quickly available for Windows NT. In 1995 with the first SolidWorks release 3D CAD was available for desktop pc. The advent of new economic Windows based 3D CAD system heavily modifies the market: mid-price 3D CAD category was born. In 1996 Intergraph released SolidEdge, an ACIS based CAD very similar to SolidWorks, and Autodesk, whose AutoCAD was losing market share, released Mechanical Desktop that quickly become the 1stselling CAD in the world. In 1997 Dassault Systemes (CATIA’s developer) acquired SolidWorks for $320M and EDS-Unigraphics acquired SolidEdge. In 1998 was released CATIA V5 fully supported on Windows. In 1999 Autodesk released Inventor a 3D CAD based on the ACIS kernel and not on AutoCAD (as the previous Mechanical Desktop). In late 1990s CAD developers concentrated on improving PDM capabilities and becoming internet enabled and no revolutionary technologies appeared. [1]

In 2000 Dassault Systemes acquired ACIS modeling kernel. In 2001 Unigraphics Solution became UGS and acquired SDRC. In 2000s CAD developers main efforts were in simplify and making more intuitive modeling and in integrating CAD in wider PLM suites. [3], [4]

In 2007 SpaceClaim, an innovative history-free direct-modeling 3D CAD, was released. In late 2000s, reacting to the SpaceClaim innovation, feature-based CAD developers start integrating direct modeling function in their product. In 2008 NX and SolidEdge integrate a new tool called Synchronous Technology and SolidWorks proposes Instant 3D. Also CATIA V6, released in 2008, allows direct editing. In 2009 Autodesk launched its Inventor Fusion Technology. It is the age of hybrid CAD


Today’s Computer Aided Design in Civil/Structural Engineering:

The need to communicate in a true, complete and unambiguous way the features of a real or imaginary object drive the research of more and more powerful representation methods. Because of this in the years five generation of CAD systems have succeeded.

In the First generation of CAD, the object is represented by the projection of its edges on a 2D plane. In the Second generation of CAD, the object is represented by its edges in a 3D space (Wireframe

representation). It is possible to generate 2D views from any point of view. In the Third generation of CAD, the object is represented by its boundary surfaces (Boundary Representation or B-Rep). Surface elements are assembled to form an “airtight” boundary that encloses the three dimensional space occupied by the modeled object. In the Fourth generation of CAD, the object is represented by the occupied 3D space (Constructive Solid Geometry, CSG). An unambiguous mathematical representation allows to determine if any point in the space is inner, boundary or external to the solid model. In the fifth generation of CAD, the object is represented through its features (Feature based systems).

The CAD systems of the fifth generation are called also history-based CAD system is able to capture an original user's design intent because the software remembers and enforces relationships between objects build by the designer. [1]

It has changed technical education and to a significant extent, the practice of numerous professions. Design engineers do analysis today that a few years ago was only done by highly specialized professionals. On the other side of the equations, drafting is rapidly going away as a profession as the new generation of design programs produce drawings as a byproduct of the design process and in many cases new designs are placed into production with few, if any, drawings.

Now if we see inside structural engineering, today, a very large fraction of structural analysis is performed on a few general-purpose finite element systems, such as NASTRAN and STRUDL mentioned previously, ANSYS [6] and MARC [7]. Each of these systems is supported by a staff responsible for education and user training, “hot-line” trouble-shooting and continuous enhancement, either directly through lease or license, or indirectly through computer utilities. Notable in this enhancement is the “downloading” of the systems to minicomputers such as the PRIME, NOVA, or VAX. Thus many civil engineering organizations can now solve small problems completely on their in-house minicomputer, while for large problems the interactive preprocessing is done in-house, the debugged model is shipped for processing at a computer utility, and the returned results interactively post processed locally. The important point is that all problems can be described in the same “language,” without concern as to where the processing will be done.

All commercial packages provide essentially the same set of basic facilities, e.g., linear analysis, using a standard library of one- , two- , or three-dimensional finite elements. Beyond these capabilities, the packages tend to concentrate on specific behavior areas (e.g. Aero elasticity versus coupled nonlinear structural thermal problems), specific elements (e.g., shells of revolution versus thick-walled pipes), or specific application classes, such as reactor vessels or offshore structures. Users frequently select particular packages on the basis of familiarity with input preparation and general access convenience, rather than specific program capabilities or relative efficiencies. A notable development in allowing users to move away from constraints of specific packages is the emergence of general pre- and postprocessors such as UNISTRUC [8] or FASTDRAW [9]. With these systems, the user can interactively build or modify a model independent of the analysis package to be used. Whenever an analysis is need, the user issues a single command, such as “NASTRAN” or “ANSYS,” and the preprocessor generates the model description in the input format of the desired package. Similarly, the results of any analysis package supported by the postprocessor can be returned and interactively manipulated and displayed. [5]

Future trends and challenges:

Although today’s CAD tools automate many aspects of drafting, modelling and structure analysing they do not let us record the reasons for the decisions we make the rules and relationships that govern the design. A drawing is inherently static; a design is dynamic. Drafting and rendering, while essential to architectural design, represent only the “external” aspects of designing. A complex “internal” process of reasoning and judgment lies behind every design decision. Even such a simple change as moving a window can cause far-reaching effects in a design. A drawing cannot convey these design dependencies; therefore we keep them in our head. It would be a significant advance if computer-based design tools would enable us to record the design relationships we intend, along with the specific decisions that accomplish these intentions.

Here are three examples that illustrate the limitation of today’s computer-based drafting tools: It is easy to draw two circles and make a line segment tangent to both. But once the drawing is made we cannot move or resize one of the circles and expect the line segment to adjust to maintain the tangency. Rather, we must repeat the “make tangent” operation after moving or resizing one of the circles. Likewise, in most CAD programs it is easy to select two elements and align them, for example, along their top edges. But the alignment will not be preserved if one of the elements is subsequently moved or resized.

A final example is grid-gravity in which elements snap to center (or align) on grid lines. We might use this feature to locate columns at crossings in a structural grid. In today’s drafting programs when we change the grid dimensions, grid lines move while elements remain as originally positioned. If elements “knew” to move with the grid then columns would remain located at grid crossings as intended.

These examples make clear the distinction between a drafting operation and a design relation. Of course, sometimes we only want to perform a one-time operation. But often we would like to declare the tangency, the alignment, or the grid-gravity as a relation, to be remembered and maintained dynamically by the computer as we edit the design: moving, resizing, and rotating elements. [10]

There are other limitations of cad which are summarized below.

1. Robustness: By far the most challenging issue in CAD is robustness. While one can cheat the eye in computer graphics and animation, the milling machine is not as forgiving. It has not completely satisfied the users as per its weak proper tolerances and numerical instability.

2. geometric uncertainties: cases of touch, overlapping, containment, etc.;cases of parallelism, perpendicularity, coincidence; cases of symmetrical data, data clustering, dense or sparse data, etc.; cases of degeneracy, discontinuity, inconsistencies, etc.; and problems with cracks, excess material, lack of detail

3. data exploration, error detection and error prevention

4. CAD engines: Special purpose hardware, The CAD chip, The CAD work station, Hardware bugs

5. 3D:

i) Direct input in 3D: Traditional CAD design involves the input of 2D entities, e.g. interpolation points, a shape design in 2D, e.g. a profile curve, and a 2D to 3D design tool such as an extrusion or a revolution. But the majority of the subjects have been found to have difficulty in seeing and visualizing in 3D.Hence it would make more easier to the drafters and designers if the CAD would involve the 3D input.

ii) Direct design in 3D : most of the structures are in three dimensional in nature, and sometimes even if the analyser is conscious the details of the each and every element of the structure could not be implemented at field as the design is done in 2D models.

iii) 3D displays : One of the many things that makes 3D design difficult is the fact that current displays are all 2D. That is, all images are projections onto a flat panel. [11]

6. Lack of memory in temporary storage(RAM) during processing which affects the analysis time.


By all measures, CAD applications have become an indispensable and irreplaceable ingredient of all aspects of civil engineering practice. With CAD tools, civil engineers can be more responsive to their clients’ needs by exploring more alternatives, by using more comprehensive analytical models, and by reducing the time and cost of detailed calculations. Being engineers worthy of that title, civil engineers have adapted and even optimized a revolutionary new tool to the specific circumstances and mode of

operation of their profession. Applications of CAD will undoubtedly continue to expand in both depth and breadth, but they will continue to be conditioned by the organizational structure, diversity and dispersion of the profession.


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