Jun 24 2020

How Computer-Aided Design Is Used in Government

CAD technology helps agencies more efficiently design products and tools.

Federal agencies design a wide range of tools, equipment, vehicles and even rockets. Computer-aided design (CAD) technology allows agencies and users to create digital designs more efficiently. 

CAD is used for a lot more than designing buildings, but is a basic building block of a more advanced tool known as Building Information Modeling, or BIM. CAD can be used to render 2D digital models of products, equipment and buildings. BIM takes those efforts to the next level and serves as a 3D design tool to “create and simulate how a building would operate,” says Andrew Friendly, associate vice president of government affairs at Autodesk, a leading CAD and BIM firm.

“CAD is what has allowed for a true revolution in design,” Friendly says. “CAD was a giant step and revolutionized the industry. Going from CAD to BIM similarly was a revolutionary step.”

What Is CAD (Computer-Aided Design)?

CAD, Autodesk notes, “is technology for design and technical documentation, which replaces manual drafting with an automated process.”

The company says its AutoCAD software “can help you draft construction documentation, explore design ideas, visualize concepts through photorealistic renderings, and simulate how a design performs in the real world.”

CAD is an engineering technique, and not just a drawing tool or a suite of software, says Jason Schuler, a robotics engineer in the exploration research and technology programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Instead, CAD can be seen as a design philosophy or technique that lets users go from a whiteboard concept to a digital model, in which the fit and function of something can be manipulated, all the way to a final product.

“I don’t think I know of anything we’re designing these days that doesn’t use CAD,” Schuler says. CAD is taught in middle schools and high schools and has become a very accessible technology, he notes, akin to Microsoft Office. All NASA interns need to have knowledge of at least one CAD software package before they are accepted into the program, Schuler says. 

Similarly, Notlim Burgos, a mechanical engineer at Kennedy Space Center, says CAD is essential for her work at NASA. “For me, CAD is a technology that allows us to visually create designs” for everything from space vehicles to rockets, rovers and mechanical parts, before they have ever been manufactured or used. 

The kind of computing hardware that is needed to support CAD software depends on the complexity of the design, Schuler says. “At NASA, some of our models get very complex, and there’s a lot of moving parts going on,” he says. “Having more computing horsepower certainly helps.” 

CAD software can run on pretty basic computers, and if users are trying to design something very complex, the design can be shared with others via the cloud. 

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The Benefits of Computer-Aided Design

CAD offers numerous benefits for agencies. One is that it allows users to capture the design intent of a project, Schuler notes. Designs evolve over the lifecycle of a project, and CAD allows users to easily adapt designs as the project requirements change. 

“We try to build out CAD designs and models with the intent of what we want the design to be,” he says, not just with fixed dimensions. CAD lets users explain to peers why a feature is in a specific place on a design or why a dimension is a particular number.

NASA Computer-Aided Design

The Collaborative Engineering and Design Analysis Room (CEDAR) at the Marshall Space Flight Center allows engineers to input, integrate and evaluate computer-aided hardware designs in real time, performing rapid preliminary design and mission concept definition studies for potential future NASA missions. Source: NASA

CAD also helps with the verification and validation of the systems users are working on, Burgos says. For example, she says, she has used CAD models to provide for replacement components for components aboard the International Space Station.

CAD models are used to simulate those components. Then, CAD is used to create replacement parts. “Sometimes it is hard to capture that in a drawing,” Burgos says. 

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How Is Computer-Aided Design Used in Government?

CAD can be used for anything that requires a digital design.

At NASA, one recent use case involves an excavator robot called RASSOR, short for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, which is designed to dig up rocks and dirt on the moon and eventually on Mars.

This spring, NASA teamed with GrabCAD, a website where people can join and post 3D models of practically anything and launch a CAD challenge. NASA wanted to get designs for a better shape for RASSOR’s bucket drum and baffling, which is the sheet metal inside of it, so that it can capture and hold more regolith, or lunar soil.

NASA received more than 350 submissions from around the world. “CAD enabled that,” Schuler says. “Without CAD, it would have bene very hard for people to convey their ideas.”

Burgos says CAD allows NASA to work with those designing materials that will be carried into space on rockets to determine if or how such materials will fit into nose cones or other parts of the launch vehicle, based upon the CAD-based designs they create. “It really helps us to give a quick answer,” she says. 

NASA Computer-Aided Design

This 2016 image comes from computer-aided-design work on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. Source: NASA

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a major proponent of CAD in government. The USACE uses the term “advanced modeling” to refer to the use of CAD, BIM, civil information modeling and geographic information systems for the development of design and construction deliverables.

“Military programs projects executed by USACE in all locations that include more than 5,000 gross square feet of project scope and a programmed amount that exceeds $3 million must adhere to USACE Advanced Modeling requirements,” says Charles Paray, BIM project manager for the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Civil works projects executed by USACE in all locations with a programmed amount that exceeds $3 million must adhere to USACE Advanced Modeling requirements.”

The CAD/BIM Technology Center at the Army Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center Information Technology Laboratory “provides opportunities for architects, engineers, and building owners to explore new CAD and BIM technologies when planning for or managing facilities, infrastructure” and environment within the Defense Department, according to USACE.

The CAD/BIM Technology Center “coordinates CAD and BIM activities for facilities, infrastructure, and environment for the Department of Defense (DoD), other participating governmental agencies, and the private sector,” according to the USACE. 

NASA’s Schuler says that CAD is absolutely essential for the space agency. “It’s used every day,” he says. “It is enabling us to take these designs and grow them into a point where we can head back to the moon for the first time in decades. It’s a technology that is driving exploration. CAD is fundamental in everything that we do, and it will be a key part in our return to the moon and on to Mars.”

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