Industry Article

Overcoming the Challenges of Traditional MCAD and ECAD

August 27, 2020 by Sam Sattel, Autodesk

MCAD and ECAD have inserted themselves into most design engineers' day-to-day work. Although familiar, both programs have come a long way and are continuing to evolve. In this article, learn the past and future of these design tools.

Mechanic Computer-Aided Design (MCAD) and Electronic Computer-Aided Design (ECAD) are increasingly common in today’s modern design world. Both design CAD disciplines date back to 1957, with the dawn of Dr. Patrick Hanratty’s PRONTO system. The popularly-dubbed ‘Father of CAD’ laid the foundation for today’s applications. Ivan Sutherland carried the torch merely three years later with Sketchpad — officially kicking off the graphical user interface (GUI) era. Programmers rapidly developed richer functionality once this visual groundwork was laid. 


MCAD and ECAD programs can help streamline design workflows and speed up the design process.

Figure 1. MCAD and ECAD programs can help streamline design workflows and speed up the design process.


MCAD and ECAD have since evolved in lockstep with their computerized conduits. Applications grew more complex and were eventually updated to work with 16 and 32-bit computers. The earliest CAD programs were commercial products and carried massive price tags to match. They were also tailor-made for mainframe computers. Applications came to PC as they found traction, soon arrived on the Mac, and later gained steam on the mainstream market. SynthaVision, ADAM, and AutoCAD reworked the MCAD/ECAD industry, ushering in the modern CAD age that has become so familiar. So, how have MCAD and ECAD evolved since their inception?


Why Do Engineers Need MCAD and ECAD Programs?

The modernization of design and manufacturing processes made one thing clear: longstanding design methods weren’t going to be sufficient as product pipelines became more ambitious. Engineers began harnessing innovative materials (and compounds) that were previously unknown or relatively unexplored. They could thus conceptualize an expanded breadth of outputs, including improved electronics or mechanized systems.


MCAD and ECAD have drastically changed since they were first introduced. Computerized programs are a part of the modern MCAD/ECAD world.

Figure 2. MCAD and ECAD have drastically changed since they were first introduced. Computerized programs are a part of the modern MCAD/ECAD world. 


The rise of MCAD and ECAD occurred in lockstep with materials science advancements. Though semiconductors were discovered a decade before Hanratty’s contributions, the technology had been steadily evolving. They were becoming more powerful, transistor-dense, and compact to boot. The 1960s onward brought new materials to the forefront. Ceramics, polymers, superconductors, magnetic materials, and metal alloys were instrumental in design — and still continue to be. 


From Paper to PC

If engineers wanted to brainstorm effectively, manual schematics needed to yield to computerized applications. Hand-drawn designs were especially tedious to create and replicate multiple times. PCB designers lived for tape and mylar, which quickly became antiquated as circuitry technology leaped forward. Documents can also be finicky — they are easily misplaced, damaged, and virtually impossible to share amongst distributed workers.

Additionally, the design process grew more experimental and iterative across the board, and an increased number of stakeholders thrust their hands into the development cookie jar. Organizations gradually abandoned their siloed approaches to work as more changes were needed to satisfy a myriad of requirements. Teams needed a system that brought adaptability to the table. 

Intricate designs also require plenty of refinement before final production — achieving immediate design optimization is exceedingly rare, even by today’s standards. Prototypes are created, flaws are uncovered, and enhancements are made. Applying such changes to physical diagrams can be quite challenging. One must either amend an existing design — erasing the integrity of a prior version — or craft an entirely new document. CAD’s enhancements to efficiency and process documentation were enticing (if not essential) very early on. 

Once MCAD and ECAD emerged, their potential became immediately apparent. However, even these contemporary approaches had to evolve.


The Evolution of MCAD and ECAD

The story of CAD is one of democratization, where developments in the field rendered applications more affordable, user friendly, and accessible to owners of different machines. Although MCAD and ECAD solved many problems, their development created some stand-ins. 


A screenshot portraying Autodesk’s Fusion 360 MCAD and ECAD program.

Figure 3. A screenshot portraying Autodesk’s Fusion 360 MCAD and ECAD program.



Early programs were prohibitively expensive, like Itek’s Digigraphics, which sold for $500,000 per system. Developers weren’t exactly concerned with lowering barriers to entry; instead, many sought to entice a somewhat captive audience of early adopters. As time elapsed and the CAD market expanded, competition regulated prices. The engineering masses hopped onto the bandwagon, and growing user bases were instrumental to CAD’s success. 


UI and UX

In their beginning stages, MCAD and ECAD programs were designed almost exclusively for technical users. Outside teams couldn’t get a secure handle on the software, and specialized training was required to design successfully. Actions were often buried within a vast sea of hidden configurations, operations were involved, and controls didn’t feel intuitive. These bothersome deficiencies contributed to Sketchpad’s immediate popularity; it offered the interactive, visual experience that its predecessors lacked. 

CAD programs were exclusively 2D until 1987, with the release of Pro/ENGINEER. Previous contributors like Autodesk introduced AutoCAD, which drew a decade’s worth of acclaim following its 1982 launch — but the writing was on the wall for this first iteration. Designs were increasingly elegant, and new materials gave rise to additive manufacturing (AKA 3D printing) in the 80s, among other processes. Though older products were linear and featured rigid lines, newer products had curves and unique cutouts were abundant. The fitment between components had evolved. 

Engineers needed 3D capabilities to better visualize these products during the design phase. Manipulation is crucial to the inspection process and integral to reducing waste. Digital design allows engineers to draft virtual prototypes. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to catch design inconsistencies in-program, as opposed to spitting out physical models with undiscovered blemishes. Three-dimensional tools help products come alive on screen — an effect mostly unattainable with 2D modeling. This realization pushed companies like Autodesk to revamp their software in 1994, and other vendors soon followed suit. 


Integration and Flexibility

Though not especially unique to MCAD and ECAD, early applications were generally walled off. Integrated software ecosystems weren’t commonplace. This meant that designs created in a CAD program had to be manually translated into other apps — there was no API bridge or digital link to complimentary applications. This was especially troublesome for collaboration because fragmentation can harm productivity and disrupt harmony across entire organizations.

Unfortunately, companies restricted CAD programs to on-site usage until recently. Before this year, employees typically had to be present within the office to be productive. Workplaces have now begun to modernize and shift from a cultural standpoint, allowing people to work remotely. This new normal demanded a browser-based solution. Manufacturing has always been known as a traditional industry, one in which physical resources rule the roost. Modern ECAD and MCAD products have helped flip that narrative on its head. 


Utilizing the Cloud with Fusion 360

Today’s software needs to be accessible from anywhere, and connected teams tend to be the most productive. Taking MCAD and ECAD to the cloud was the logical next step.


Figure 4. A screenshot of Autodesk’s Fusion 360 MCAD and ECAD program. 


As part of this effort, MCAD and ECAD became unified within Fusion 360. This program made the following possible: 

  • Design annotating and commenting in a centralized location, accessible to all teams
  • Centralized file management and standardization of file formats
  • Collaboration with external stakeholders
  • Manipulation and iteration of all product-design aspects, including simulation and testing
  • Electronics design and manufacturing design
  • Easy documentation

This approach has set the stage for MCAD and ECAD as a whole. Following user-centric programming, ethos is another necessity. These programs are becoming more contextually sound, functional, and simple to use. Applications like Fusion 360 also integrate with Autodesk’s other software products, which means less jumping between windows. 


Modern ECAD and MCAD are Transformative

Engineers will likely be happy to know that MCAD and ECAD are becoming more convergent. These two design disciplines have become interdependent, as new products have blended electronic controls with mechanical functions.


Cloud collaboration can help increase productivity as more engineers continue to design and work from home.

Figure 5. Cloud collaboration can help increase productivity as more engineers continue to design and work from home. 


Modern applications allow professionals to collaborate effectively, minus the headaches of old programs. The CAD world is much more inclusive than it once was, and expanded functionality has opened the door for new advanced products in the future.

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