The great myth of our times is that technology is communication. – Libby Larsen (Composer)

Did you know that Leonardo Da Vinci invented an alarm clock that woke him up by rubbing his feet? As far back as we can remember, man has made contraptions to make his life better and more productive. The same goes for CAD (Computer Aided Design) when people imagined computers could be useful for drawing.

Remember the drawing board with tee square and other tools? There was an art to the practice in those days. Still is, but different now. Many old drawings took several hard and painful steps, but the end result could be beautiful. Other cases, not so beautiful as well!

Just a decade ago I used eradicator to remove ink from a set of vellum drawings, then carefully penned new ink to complete changes. CAD was in full bloom by then, so using the pen was an interesting event. Looking back, it was kind of fun!

Technology has advanced in recent years, but it still seems as though getting ideas on paper or in a use-able form still has a long way to go.


Early CAD

CAD software popped into existence in the early 1960’s. The first being “Sketchpad” by Ivan Sutherland as part of his PhD thesis according to Apparently, the user was able to draw on the computer screen using a light pen.

See part I in a historical demo here:

This quickly led to other systems such as DAC by General Motors, CADD by McDonnel-Douglas, CADAM by Lockheed and many others. The way I understand it is that this early software was first introduced to automate repetitive drafting actions and evolved from that point.

As time progressed, so did CAD. Today there are many options to choose. My experience is with AutoCAD. I’ve mostly used it for 2D drawings, but have also produced 3D for FEA (Finite Element Analysis) studies. Drawing in AutoCAD was much easier than the drawing tools provided by the FEA software at the time.

The website mentioned above has several free CAD software references for testing if funds are not available for purchase. Draftsight by SolidWorks is another free software that mimics AutoCAD.

While others may mainly deal with a single part for manufacture, I mostly deal with pipe systems that integrate with other disciplines such as electrical, controls, structural, etc. So these larger integrated systems are the focus of this writing.

While CAD is not an all-in-one design solution, it offers a powerful slate for complex design communications.


CAD Systems Are Tools

We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. – Douglas Adams (Author)

The Idea. Alright, the main idea here is to get the idea from the engineer or designer’s mind and communicate it in such a way that a team of folks can build it. Not only that, but it has to work within budgeted time and cash! This process goes on every day. Sometimes with good endings and others, well, not so good.

I have been told that in an ideal world, the design is completely finished before the construction begins. I’ve never seen that happen! And if it does, then the technology used in the base design is likely outdated and not available for the final assembly. I’m speaking about large projects here such as sea going vessels or state of the art buildings that require leading edge equipment.

How many times have you received a piece of equipment only to find out that it does not match the foundation waiting there for its installation? Since the design process usually takes a few turns before production, scenarios like this can creep up often. The process needs some flags along the way to prevent it from happening, but invariably, it always seems to happen. So how do you get your foundation fixed quickly so you can keep trucking with efficient installation? Depending on the type of contract and installation complexity, the field folks could whip something up on the spot based on experience or they may have to proceed through a series of checks, balances, signatures, approvals, etc. When some combination of the latter is necessary, a drawing will likely be the basis of communication for needed changes.

CAD is one tool in the belt of the engineer or designer tasked to communicate these changes. Though it cannot replace the human element in project management, it would be nice to be able to get a quick snapshot of reality to speed up the changes to be made. You will often have issues with equipment not matching foundations and similar cases. An example is where a design is built around a piece of equipment that will provide all of the necessary function, but by the time purchasing is complete with all the project management hoopla, an “equivalent” piece of machinery is actually purchased (at a lower price of course).  Then the engineer has to re-evaluate every interface and modify surrounding structure, pipe, or electrical to suit this new widget (and it has to be done yesterday!). This can be a frustrating event by itself, but it often surfaces when there are other issues floating around at the same time. Sometimes the engineer doesn’t even know about the new purchase until the installation supervisor knocks on his door with a raised fist! …Fred Sanford moment, “You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you honey.”

So, I think there will always be issues to overcome quickly, but the current tools of the trade can sometimes seem more cumbersome than the old school ways. Visit the USS Drum in Mobile AL and notice the craftsmanship necessary to cram all that machinery into a small submarine… That took teamwork and ingenuity; None of those folks in the early 40’s could comprehend the tools to come, but they diligently got the job done! Depending on the circumstances, a sketch on a napkin may be all it takes to get the job done. But there are other times when a better way is needed.


A New Possibility

The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art. – John Lasseter (Director)

Remember the scene from Iron Man when he interacts with a hologram to manipulate a design?

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a virtual representation of an existing structure that you could manipulate with your added design features? For example, if a ships machinery space were scanned with today’s technology and imported into a virtual design space. Envision menu’s that are initiated by the hands, where standard parts are selected and popped into existence, maybe zoom features with the rubbing of fingers. Think of selecting a specific pipe with the ability to grab it, lengthen/shorten, and snap it where needed… same for structure, electrical and controls. Interference’s could be highlighted automatically. Valves, pumps, heat exchangers and similar could be selected in the same way or created with easy sizable basic shapes. Basic shapes could then be joined or merged to complete a fair representation. Add additional shapes/layers in the same manner to cover working clearances, door swings and similar.

Existing databases for much of this can be available in programs such as SSI’s ShipConstructor for integration. It would just take the right team of experts to create the interface and experience.

For the engineer, if the database already exists in the model drawing, then pipe stress software could be an integration point. In addition to pipe stress, flow modeling for pressure drop analysis would naturally follow. So from a model, pipe sizes could be evaluated with the correct pump selection. Proper pipe supports could also be placed in the most optimal position based on thermal reactions.

With all of this capability, the builder could also see this and navigate with a tablet or another virtual interface (in addition to his prints). Wouldn’t it be a funny sight to see all of the project design team in a room wearing virtual goggles while discussing tweaks to the design? Maybe you could even have a virtual boxing match as well to break the ice on touchy issues!

With today’s shared screen communication abilities, folks could collaborate around the world at any time.

It seems to me that if the interface were simple enough and made life easier for the team, then time savings should follow. If time were saved, then money could be saved. If money could be saved and resonated with stakeholders, then maybe a healthy demand could be present. That’s just me thinking out loud.

So what is the main point of all this? To spark some collaboration. If we put our heads together, maybe development is not that difficult. Share your thoughts and comments below and please share with others as well. I believe it is just a matter of time before something like this is available.

Update: Here are a few recent articles that I came across. One from Purdue  and another that references it from Machine Design… Enjoy!

Best Regards,



  1. Lee Alston says:

    Interesting David

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