E-CAD/CAE: a New Edge

The complexity of the design projects done with these systems increased at the same pace as the performance of the systems being improved.

By Dirk Schaefer

For companies that design electromechanical products, staying competitive in today’s global market means using systems that unify the design process, and allow the smooth flow of design data across the electromechanical divide.

The domain of electrical computer-aided design and engineering (E-CAD/CAE) systems has been subject to major and rapid change over the past couple of years. Now, a new generation of E-CAD/CAE software packages is available to help industrial machine builders gain a clear, competitive edge.

The main purpose of the E-CAD systems developed in the 1980s simply was to replace the traditional drawing board. Key advantages were an improved overall quality of drawings, more efficient ways to modify them, the opportunity to reuse existing designs for new projects by means of copy and paste, and space-saving, digital archival storage of designs. However, early E-CAD systems didn’t support any processes performed after generation of the drawings. Consequently, the envisaged increase in productivity never was realized.

The development of second-generation E-CAD systems commenced around 1985. By then, a major technological innovation enabled semiautomatic generation of various project documents, such as terminal plans, wiring diagrams, and part lists, on the basis of a drawn ladder diagram. This was a major breakthrough and henceforth E-CAD systems with this functionality were referred to as computer-aided engineering (CAE) systems.

From the mid-1990s forward, system integration became a key issue in CAE system development. To make the overall process from design to manufacture more efficient, CAE systems had to be linked to other engineering systems such as finite-element-method packages, engineering-data-management, and product-data-management systems, as well as product-lifecycle-management and enterprise-resource-planning systems. In light of this, new data interfaces and associated data exchange methodologies had to be developed and implemented.

Also from the mid-1990s, second-generation CAE systems were improved continually by enhancing their functionalities and implementing more-sophisticated design and product modeling features. However, project lead times and productivity appeared to remain nearly unchanged—the complexity of engineering design projects to be carried out with these systems continuously increased at the same pace as the performance of the systems being improved.

Eventually, it became apparent that a new generation of sophisticated and innovative CAE systems was needed to face future requirements. In the past few years, system vendors started to develop an entirely new generation of CAE software applications addressing, among others, the following key requirements:

  • Adaptive, more intelligent user interfaces.
  • Intelligent, interactive design support.
  • Improved online tools for analyzing design information and data.
  • Modular electrical engineering design
  • Concurrent engineering
  • Efficient mechanisms for reusing designs and generation of design variants and product platforms
  • Automated cabinet layout and cable routing
  • Support of subsequent processes such as design-to-manufacture integration
  • New ways to automatically generate complete project documentations for manufacture and assembly purposes
  • Improved mechanisms for standardized international product data exchange.

Next month, we’ll carry on this discussion with an overview of what actually is the current state of the art in CAE, and how that can benefit users.

Dr. Dirk Schaefer, assistant professor at the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Savannah, Ga., explores the boundaries between engineering and information technology principles, addressing product modeling, variant design, CAD systems realization, and ECAD-to-MCAD integration.  Learn more at