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The history of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM)

Duncan Geddes

by Duncan Geddes

Today’s CAD/CAM capabilities are part of a long history of innovation and development. As this design and manufacturing method has evolved, so too have its uses expanded. This article explains the history of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, including its milestone developments and current uses.

What is CAD/CAM?

CAD stands for ‘computer-aided design’ and CAM stands for ‘computer-aided manufacturing’. CAM preceded CAD by some years.

CAM is based on Computer Numerical Control (CNC) where pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery. The most widely used CNC programming language in CAM is G-code.

CAD is the software used to create electronic files for print, machining and other manufacturing operations. CAD arrival increased the productivity of designers and improved the quality of design amongst other benefits. The software CAD is used to support both engineers and designers across a range of industries, including architecture, automotive and aviation.

While the two terms describe distinct things, CAM has increasingly used CAD and the two terms are often used together as CAD/CAM.

But what is the history of these two different processes?  How did they begin, evolve and combine? And what has their pairing allowed designers and manufacturers to do?

The history of CAD

Initially used by Douglas T. Ross, the term ‘computer-aided design’ was introduced in the early 1950s. Ross, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was working with military radar technology and computer display systems. Ross worked on projects that pioneered early CAD technology – such as Automatically Programmed Tools (APT), which led to the creation of AED (Automated Engineering Design). Ross would host conferences at MIT to discuss the expanding technologies with other early practitioners in the industry.

One of the first uses of what might be called CAD was deployed by Patrick Hanratty at the General Motors Research Laboratories. Hanratty developed Design Automated by Computer (DAC), which is thought to be the first CAD system that involved interactive graphics. This was the first commercial CAD/CAM software system, and involved a numerical control programming tool named PRONTO, which he developed in 1957. As such, Hanratty is often referred to as ‘the father of CAD/CAM’.

The first true CAD software was called Sketchpad, developed by Ivan Sutherland in the early 1960s as part of his PhD thesis at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Sketchpad was especially innovative CAD software because the designer interacted with the computer graphically by using a light pen to draw on the computer’s monitor.

The history of CAM

Computer-aided manufacturing was also developed in the 1950s, when computers were used to create G-code which was in turn translated into punched cards that could control machines. Punch tapes were produced through computer control, which could then increase the speed of both instruction creation and manufacturing.

The tools and machines directed by these codes vary, from plasma cutters to water jets. The earliest commercial applications of CAM lie in the automotive and aerospace industries.

CAD meets CAM

CAD and CAM came together when CAM utilised CAD drawings to create its instructions, or toolpaths, to control automated machine tools. These tools could subsequently create physical items directly from design files.

Pierre Bézier created the pioneering surface 3D CAD/CAM system, UNISURF, between 1966-1968, while working for the French car manufacturer, Renault. His invention was designed to aid the design and tooling of cars by integrating drawing machines, computer control, interactive free-form curves, surface design and 3D milling for manufacturing clay models and masters.

CAD/CAM in the 1970s

In 1970, Hanratty launched his own company ICS, with its own CAD/CAM drafting system. The business was unsuccessful as the system worked on a computer not widely used nor available to the mass market. However, in the following year, he founded Manufacturing and Consulting Services (MCS) which created Automated Drafting and Machinery (ADAM). Around 90% of modern-day commercial drafting is said to be able to trace its roots back to this product.

CAD/CAM hits mainstream manufacturers

CATIA (a multi-platform suite for CAD, CAM and computer-aided engineering) was first introduced in 1977, while, in 1981, IBM introduced its first affordable desktop computer. Increasing access to technology had a huge impact on the potential, spread and development of CAD/CAM systems and processes as more and more companies adopted the processes.

In 1982, John Walker founded Autodesk, which launched its CAD software (AutoCAD) for the PC in the same year. Three years later, the software expanded to offering 3D modelling, and in 1992, AutoCAD was made available for Windows. By 2007, Autodesk had sold eight million copies, making it a leader in the industry.

Another major turning point for both CAD and CAM was the move from UNIX to PC in the 1990s, which made the process accessible to millions of engineers as well as general consumers who would have previously been unable to afford the software.

Who uses CAD/CAM?

As CAD/CAM has developed, the method has become adopted by many industries. Examples include aerospace manufacturing, in which CAD/CAM is used to prepare and detail every aspect of production to avoid errors in an industry where microns matter. Digital designs created using CAD software are routinely used in interior design and architecture, helping bring concepts to life.

Within dentistry, CAD/CAM is often used to create both simple and complex oral prosthetics, as well as other medical equipment. The technology is regularly used within the fashion industry to optimise fabric use and reduce waste.

CAD/CAM is also used to solve crimes, as forensics teams use the process in age estimation, injury analysis and postmortem identification.


CAD/CAM has significantly progressed from its separate origins. With the proliferation of technology continuing at such as rapid pace, CAD/CAM has had the opportunity to be implemented and integrated within a stream of advanced technologies. From the cloud to Industry of Things (IoT), CAD/CAM continues to be innovated within the manufacturing industry, which in turn, enables it to be used to create other innovations.

Technical Foam Services utilises CAD/CAM within its product design process. Find out more here.

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