There is an old saying in the Computer Aided Drafting industry that "CAD development has been a year away from completion for the last 20 years." Although there certainly has been some degree of truth in that, relative to many CAD applications, there is no question that many mechanical and sheet metal contractors have, unfortunately, experienced less than satisfactory results from venturing into this area.

In the relatively short history of Computer Aided Drafting and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), both have continually searched for a practical marriage of computer hardware, software, and market. The path from single source high dollar software with main frame computer packages to today's cost-effective combination of quality third-party software and super micro-computers has been long and arduous for both developers and users.

CAD implementation for mechanical and sheet metal contractors has been especially difficult and frustrating, in large part because of undeveloped, non-standardized, and expensive software. This situation has been compounded by the natural resistance of people to accept change, which always narrows the commercial value of new technology, and the narrower the market, the leaner the resources are to cover the high costs of development.

The good news is that since the mid 1990s CAD/CAM products have improved dramatically, and now, in the new millennium, are ready to fulfill the earlier promises of increased productivity and cost savings for contractors.

Evaluate CAD's potential

Ask yourself these questions: How cost effective would your investment in CAD be if your draftsman were 3 to 6 times more productive, drawing errors were fixed instantly, changes done automatically, and your company image could be elevated overnight? Without question the time is here for many contractors to evaluate, or reevaluate the potential impact that the new CAD technology can have on their operation.

CAD/CAM for mechanical and sheet metal contractors should no longer be considered an expensive and exclusive venture accessible only to the elite, as it can in fact be a practical and efficient leading edge tool for contractors of all sizes.

The basic question to be asked by contractors is simply how will the implementation of CAD impact their day-to-day operations?


Either existing staff will need to be retrained on CAD, and replacement people employed to cover their old duties, or new CAD people will have to be hired from technical schools. If existing employees are placed into on-the-job CAD training situations, the return on investment can be prohibitively long. A common Catch 22 is that the day to day pressures of drafting room operations compel new CAD trainees to revert back to manual drafting so often that manual drafting becomes the norm again. This is because a lesser-trained CAD draftsman can often produce a manual drawing quicker than continually dealing with the learning curve associated with mastering CAD. Therefore, the bottom line is that CAD requires well trained personnel in order to be effective, efficient, and practical in a real world environment.


A well-trained CAD draftsperson can usually produce drawings faster than an equivalently well-experienced manual draftsperson. Quite often the determining factor is not the initial drawing itself, but error corrections and last minute changes determined by other trades and variable jobsite conditions. At the end of the day, after a full conversion to CAD from manual drafting, using quality software running on a powerful micro-computer, the overall productivity should be three to six times higher with CAD.


There are certain somewhat intangible spin-off benefits associated with the conversion from manual drafting to CAD usage. First, the company image is immediately enhanced in the eyes and minds of the customers and industry associates. CAD continues to reflect the presence of high tech, leading edge technology, which most customers are impressed with. Secondly, in today's ever challenging search for quality front office personnel from what seems to be a continually shrinking reservoir, the presence of computerized estimating, project management, mechanical design, and computer aided drafting is often a major consideration to new hires in this increasingly competitive age for technical staffing.

The cost of skilled computer trained people is perpetually rising, due primarily to the explosion of the demand for Microsoft Windows-based products in the small business community. There just are not enough Windows programmers, technicians, consultants, and trainers to go around. Skilled Windows-based CAD operators are drawing wages from 20% to 50% higher than equivalent manual draftspersons. Fortunately, however, universities, high schools, trade schools, and apprentice training groups have recognized this critical shortage and are dedicating more and more resources to correct this situation. However, the increased wage cost for trained CAD people can more than be offset by the numerous advantages of computerized drafting.

Today there are very good piping and sheet metal software packages available at reasonable prices. Prices range from $5,000 to $25,000 for each application as compared to $45,000 and higher in the not-too-distant past, and the software is much more user-friendly, standardized, and comprehensive than ever.

Be aware that software in general, designed for any application, must reach or exceed an imaginary threshold of performance to be practical for the end user to justify. As mentioned, the road to CAD was paved with costly trial-and-error experiences of those progressive contractors seeking improved technology. Most of the CAD packages of the 1980s were simply not good enough to reach that threshold of practicality in day-to-day usage. On the other hand, as we proceed into the new century, the level of sophistication and quality of piping and sheet metal CAD software well exceeds that threshold of practicality in several cost-effective packages. The key to successful selection lies not in price, but in the design platform and structure.

Simply put, the design platform should be Windows compatible and the system should be 100% AutoCAD based. This is not to say there are not good CAD systems that are not AutoCAD based, because there certainly are. However, the most successful CAD and CAD/CAM systems being used by mechanical and sheet metal contractors are in fact 100% AutoCAD based. AutoCAD is the established standard in the architectural and mechanical contracting community.