A couple weeks ago, I attended Solidworks World over in San Antonio. While I was there, I got updates on several products and got to have some very frank conversations with users. Overall, it was a very good event. But the most poignant moment for me, thanks to the goodness of social media, didn’t happen in real-time or even face-to-face. It’s when I saw a picture of the back of a t-shirt someone wore at the show. It was tweeted and retweeted again and again on twitter. Here’s the link to the picture posted on Jeff’s Tool Shed blog, but to make it short, it said:

2D is for Sissies

Many folks had a good laugh. Some used the opportunity to stick out their chest in pride as a 3D CAD specialist. I have a different take on this, but before I get to that, I think we could probably all agree that just about any discussion about 2D is decidedly negative. Why is that? How did we get here?

How did we get so ashamed of 2D?

Turn the clock back 20 years and everyone used 2D. What’s more, look over in the electronics industry and PCB schematics, layouts and diagrams are still in 2D. In the mechanical world, there’s actually a lot of 2D work still being done. But it’s hidden away, like some dirty little secret. How did we get here?

From my perspective, it started 15 years ago when the first parametric feature based CAD applications entered the market. The messages behind those products were founded on the advantages of quick parametric changes and model-drawing associativity over 2D drafting. That value proposition continues to be the core behind those products today. My point in all this is that over the past decade, software providers have constantly and consistently beat the drum around a message that 2D is a tool for laggards and poor performers.

But there’s also another side of the story to tell. These 3D CAD applications, especially those using a Feature-History based paradigm, can be terribly complex. In many companies, a new dedicated role with high skill and knowledge prerequisites emerged to use these applications. From there, the split began between engineers and designers. And of course, it was in the best interests of designers to also cast 2D in a negative light, continuing to prove their worth within their company.

What Tools Can Engineers Truly Afford to Use?

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying hard to engage engineers to understand their day-to-day life. And I’m not talking about what I call designers, who spend more than half of every day in front of CAD software. I’m talking about engineers who have the responsibility to resolve issues across product lifecycles. One day, they’re in the test lab, troubleshooting why a prototype failed. The next day, they’re submitting a purchase request for a specific supplier, perhaps even engaging in technical negotiations. The day after that, they’re on the shop floor figuring out why the quality rejection rate is so high. One conclusion I’ve come to about these engineers is that they will never be an expert at any software application. They spend more time in meetings and tracking down people than they do in front of a computer, much less a single software application, be that CAD, word processor or a spreadsheet application. As a result, I truly don’t see how they could ever use 3D CAD based on the Feature-History paradigm.

Now, I do think they can use software applications where the skill and knowledge overhead isn’t quite so high. And I think that’s where 2D, and to some extent 3D based on Direct Modeling, can come into play. There’s no complicated network or interdependent features. There aren’t as many constraints such as original feature definitions around how you can manipulate geometry.

All 2D Is Not the Same…

But before we dive into a discussion, I do think there’s a subtlety to tease apart. 2D design is different from 2D drafting. That is, designing with 2D sketches is one thing. Creating an engineering drawing with 2D drafting is another thing. I believe that engineers can and should design in 2D. But creating engineering drawings, or any deliverable that is derived from a design definitions, in a manual fashion that is not associatively tied to that design definition is a bad idea. There’s just no need to manually propagate change and take the chance at introducing human error.

Conclusions and Questions

OK, so what’s my point in all this? I think that 2D has been stigmatized in the industry for too long. It certainly doesn’t make sense to use it to create engineering drawings. But in the hands of engineers, who will never be experts of any software application, 2D is a legitimate design (not drafting) tool.

So now it’s your turn to weigh in. Here are my questions, but feel free to comment as you like:

  • Is 2D truly for sissies? That is, does 2D really have any legitimate application in engineering? Should every role in engineering use 3D?
  • Can engineers, as in those with lifecycle responsibilities, become experts of more complicated software applications like 3D CAD?
  • Has 2D for drafting gone the way of the dodo? That is, has time truly passed it by.
  • Sound off and let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.