Arena PLM

Pioneers In CAD And Engineering Manufacture Software

The Pantheon and the Colosseum are two important historical structures in Rome, Italy. They are not products of modern day engineering, but they quite easily marvel modern day engineers. These fascinating structures were built more than two millennia ago with tools that are far too primitive, when compared with today’s construction equipment or design tools.

Without seeing them physically or in pictures, you will agree that any structure described as such is breath-taking, to say the least. This does not mean that the design tools and engineering methods used were anything trivial. Careful planning and drawing was used; how each stone and support column was placed was a highly thoughtful consideration. There just were no CAD courses or tools to assist in the process.

Modern engineering design and drafting are results of descriptive geometry in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Drafting techniques leaped by huge bounds with the introduction of drafting machines, but the methods used in engineering drawings only changed radically after the second world war (WWII).

Real-time computing was a major development goal during the war. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was at the forefront of these efforts. By the middle of the century, dozens of people were deeply involved in the automation of engineering design. Two of those people are in particular, responsible for laying the groundwork for what is widely known as computer-aided design (CAD).

Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing

Computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) were originally two separate technologies. These initially-divergent technologies began to rear their heads out of the laboratory around the same time soon after the middle of the century (1960s). In the case of computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), the technology was simply numerical control machining. This later morphed into what we now call computer-aided manufacturing.

The convergence of CAD and CAM is an intertwining that probably no one saw coming. Yet, they have emerged as likely the most powerful forces in the industrial stratosphere. This is in spite of many people in industry believing that neither technology should be of significant economic impact.

The Pioneers of CAD

Patrick J. Hanratty, John T. Parsons, and Ivan Sutherland are three of the major individual innovators of computer-aided design. There were several people and institutions working on the idea of computer graphics for design. These names must be mentioned in any foundational discussions of CAD. Their groundbreaking contributions include much more than can be included in any one article of this length.

Around twenty five years ago, the concept of a linked CAD and CAM was far from being conceived. Many even found the idea provocative. Today however, production of mechanical parts begin from a designer’s graphic terminal.
Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (or engineering manufacturing) represent one of the greatest technological and economic forces ever known and economic forces industry has ever known. But, it is sad that the majority of the general public do not comprehend do not comprehend this. Beyond the manufacturing and design engineering communities, few people understand how instrumental computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing are in defining our standard of living at unprecedented levels.

The combined technologies should recognize those responsible for them. If there was a CAD-CAM Hall of Fame, Mr John Parsons, Dr Ivan Sutherland, and Dr Patrick Hanratty would be without question, the premier inductees.

Ivan E. Sutherland

Dr Ivan Sutherland is generally regarded as the first person to do any meaningful work around computer-aided design. His seminal work on the Sketchpad system at MIT continues to make required study in the field of computer-aided design. Parallel work was also being done at the General Motors Research Laboratories.

Ivan Sutherland broke new ground in 3D computer modeling and visual simulation. This is the basis for computer graphics and CAD/CAM.

Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communications System was the title of his PhD thesis at MIT in 1963. It allowed designers use a light pen to create engineering drawings directly on a CRT. The drawings could also be duplicated, stored, and manipulated. Sketchpad launched graphic computing and featured storage of drawn objects on computer memory. Other features were zoom capability on a display, rubber-banding for non-complex line construction, and techniques for creating perfect joints, lines, and corners.
Sketchpad was the GUI before the term was conceived. Sutherland contributed to the first algorithms to subtract hidden lines in 3D drawings, central in generating realistic renderings for computer-aided design models.

As Harvard associate professor in 1967, Sutherland and student Bob Sproull altered an existing system in which a helicopter pilot positioned a camera with simple head movement. The Head-mounted Display invention allows users see and navigate around a computer-generated 3D environment. It was some of the original work done in virtual reality technology and would have extensive implications.

Sutherland and David Evans formed Evans & Sutherland in 1968, and the company is remains one of today’s premier developers and manufacturers of computer imaging systems. It is also the leading supplier of visual simulation equipment for aircraft pilot training. The firm upped the ante in computer modeling and visualization. These are the cornerstones of CAD and CAM.

Sutherland led the Computer Science department at Caltech from 1976 to 1980. It was here that he introduced integrated circuit (IC) design to academia. Prior to this, IC design was confined to a few industrial firms. If IC design is a proper discipline of study today, the credit is to Sutherland and Mead. Their approach has accelerated chip technology and laid the groundwork for chip technology.

Sutherland currently leads research into Asynchronous Systems at Sun Microsystems Laboratories. This project attempts to break the mold of traditional thought on computer design.

John Parsons

While he maintains reservations about producing munitions, he came to limelight during WWII when his company produced weapons.

As regards numerical control or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), Mr John Parsons clearly carries the day. His firm produced several defining products, but his original work was done in collaboration with manufacturing rotor blades for helicopters in NC. The development of numerical control went on to become an effort mostly sponsored by the United States Air Force with work done by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Parsons built programs that employed IBM punch-card accounting machines to compute complex problems in aerodynamic blade and structural design. He had a method where operators of milling machines, using a chart of table and cutter settings prepared on IBM punch-card machines, turned out airfoil templates. This was 1947, and by 1949, he had started work on a punch-card system that would totally control a milling machine. This was the first numerically controlled machine. It would make wing panels for a new Lockheed bomber.

In 1969, he engaged numerical control to make foundry patterns of polystyrene for cast-metal machine tool bases. Automakers around the world soon started using this process for casting body dies quickly and less expensively.

While alive, he also developed safe and efficient manufacturing and management techniques. An example is the modular tooling approach he conceived in 1950. With sockets in the floor, he installed a two-point fixture suspension. It preserved floor space and saved costs on fixtures, while promoting safety of workers. He also designed and directed the installation of four traveling-column straightening presses (likely the world’s first) in the same year.

Parsons also contributed significantly to aviation, especially composites. He was the first to hold metal aircraft components using adhesive bonding, using it on 22-feet long rotor blades. His company, in 1958, produced helicopter rotor (and wind tunnel) composite blades, including 55 foot-wide geodesic domes.

He commenced work on an all-composite airplane, airborne in 1966 on variable-camber wings fitted with boundary layer control. Note that Parsons also helped the US get to the moon, conceiving and designing large fuel lines (20 inches in diameter and 40 feet long) for Saturn V booster rockets.

Patrick J. Hanratty

The General Motors Computer-Aided Design (CAD) project had a number of the day’s heavyweights involved. One notable person was Dr Patrick Hanratty, who eventually departed General Motors to form his own company. This company developed the first mechanical drafting software that was commercially distributed. Dr Hanratty’s software was used as the foundation for more than one dozen start-ups selling turnkey CAD programs. More than ninety percent of commercial drafting software today have their roots firmly in Dr Hanratty’s original program, Adam.

While at General Electric in 1957, Hanratty had built software for Pronto, the first commercial NC programming language. He soon devised for bank check use, a collection of standardized characters that machines can read. The standard was adopted by the American Banking Association and remains in use. This was the same time he started to explore the then unexplored field of computer-generated graphics.

He helped develop the DAC (Design Automated by Computer) when he moved to General Motors Research Laboratories in 1961. The DAC was the premier CAD/CAM system to use interactive graphics. Hanratty focused on the NC and graphics aspects of the entire system. DAC was highly useful and unrivaled in the automotive industry for complex mold design. Yet, in an unfortunate twist, the company threw out the system when it upgraded its hardware and abandoned the software written for its prior computers.

Hanratty began his own company, ICS, in 1970 to market a CAD/CAM drafting package. Sadly, it was written in TPL (his own programming language) and targeted the software to run on an unpopular machine. This adversely impacted adoption. The company tanked and Hanratty learned a valid lesson – as much as possible, avoid creating products tightly coupled too tightly to a specific architecture. Endeavor to keep things open enough to communicate seamlessly with even competitors’ systems.

ICS shut its doors and in 1971, Hanratty formed Manufacturing and Consulting Services (MCS). That birthed Adam for integrated, interactive graphics design, drafting, and manufacturing. Enough lessons learned, he wrote it in Fortran and designed it to run on almost all systems.

Adam was a massive success. It eventually ran on 16-bit machines, and then 32-bit computers. Adding more machining and surfacing capabilities, he rechristened it AD-2000. Many of today’s CAD/CAM firms have their roots firmly in code Hanratty wrote for Adam, AD-2000 and its successor, Anvil-4000. Computervision Corp. licensed Adam for Cadds, McDonnell Douglas for Unigraphics, and Gerber Scientific Inc. for IDS 3.

MCS pioneered other innovations including Autosnap 3D and Auto-Grapl, alongside Anvil-5000, a PC-effective workstation and CAD/CAM system that is also a full-feature mainframe. Intelligent Modeler was a relational/parametric solid modeler with full integration with a complete CAM system, also with its roots in MCS.

Autosnap 3D allows users create 3D solid models from 2D drawings automatically. Auto-Grapl enables engineers to design components, have a view of the geometry, and request the system to write a program in Grapl to make the part using NC machining. Hanratty wanted a suite of programs that would allow the computer write its own program. He concedes that Auto-Grapl is the most significant advance to date in the CAD/CAM industry or even any area of computer science (a program that writes the program for you).


Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) owe many of today’s significant advances to the work of John Sutherland, John T. Parsons, and Patrick J. Hanratty. Rounding up a small portion of their achievements in this article is the least we can do to honor their timeless contributions to the efficient manufacturing design systems existing today.