Mike Freeman

During the 1990s, the rise of technology in the industrial design workplace saw the drawing board and drafting pen replaced with a computer screen and mouse. Computer software applications enabled designers to draw lines on a screen just as they had done before with a pen and ruler. This type of drafting became known as computer-aided design (CAD). Over the next few years, CAD programs largely replaced physical drawing boards and drafting pens in the workplace. 

The most popular CAD software to emerge from the switch to computer software was AutoCAD, first released by Autodesk in 1982. Early versions of AutoCAD required large, expensive mainframe computers, but with the introduction of smaller desktop systems, AutoCAD became more popular.

AutoCAD: Still the most widely used for 2D drawing

AutoCAD has continued to develop and remains the most commonly used CAD software today. While it has 3D capabilities, to many, it remains primarily a 2D drawing tool. AutoCAD users today follow the same technical drawing rules they used before. Designers create lines to represent real-world objects and text to describe those objects. Different views, sections, and projections are drawn separately. In fact, the only difference between drawing in AutoCAD and drawing by hand is that AutoCAD is done on a computer.

AutoCAD Complete Course

Last Updated May 2023

  • 78 lectures
  • All Levels
4.6 (5,395)

The only course you need to earn to use AutoCAD quickly & professionally. | By Mike Freeman

Explore Course

SOLIDWORKS: Designed for 3D modeling

SOLIDWORKS was first released in 1995 by MIT graduate Jon Hirschtick using money gained from being part of the famous MIT Blackjack Team. The idea was to create a 3D CAD Package that was both affordable and easy to use. SOLIDWORKS was acquired by aviation manufacturer Dassault in 1997 and has since gone on to become one of the leading 3D CAD packages in the mechanical engineering industry. Hirschtick himself remained involved in the company for another 14 years before leaving to found Belmont Technology which later became Onshape, another 3D CAD package that is currently growing in popularity.

technical drawing

Designers use SOLIDWORKS for more than just publishing design information. They can also use SOLIDWORKS to check product clearances and tolerances between different component designs. SOLIDWORKS also contains tools to simulate object movement and ensure that the final product will work and move exactly as intended. All of this means that designers can virtually test the entire product design before starting real-world production. The designer can also identify and resolve problems early in the design process, decreasing costs and time delays. 

In a large, complex project, it’s normal for many designers and organizations to be involved in the design process. By using 3D modeling packages such as SOLIDWORKS, each designer can work on their part of the design separately. A single CAD manager then checks each designer’s component and sends feedback about product compliance and tolerances as needed.

SOLIDWORKS can output each design with realistic materials and lighting, which allows the user to create presentations using the electronic model. The user can then export the presentations as image or movie files and send them to the client for approval.

SOLIDWORKS also uses the parametric modeling system approach to 3D CAD. Parametric modeling records design features or constraints and then applies them to other parts of the model. This enables designers to make quick changes to the model. Designers can even use formulas to specify dimensions and angles relative to other features. This intelligent design is becoming an industry standard in the 3D CAD world and is an essential feature in any modern, high-end 3D CAD system such as SOLIDWORKS.

SOLIDWORKS can also quickly create AutoCAD-style 2D drawing layouts. Because SOLIDWORKS users are working with a 3D model, it’s easy to choose which views or cross-sections should be projected onto a 2D layout. As other designers add their parts of the model, the layout and design views update automatically. Any future changes to the model also update each view and layout automatically.

Finally, SOLIDWORKS can export design files that a manufacturing facility can use directly. While a machinist would need to interpret or convert an AutoCAD design file, SOLIDWORKS models are instantly readable by computer numerical control (CNC) machines and 3D printers. This greatly speeds up the whole process and allows more in-house operations, especially for small businesses that would normally need to pay another company to create the design files. SOLIDWORKS and other 3D CAD programs are becoming especially popular among 3D printing companies.

Top courses in AutoCAD


While SOLIDWORKS has many advantages, there are some good reasons why many people still choose to work with AutoCAD.

Blueprint, Technical, Drawing, Engineering, Technology

First, SOLIDWORKS requires a lot of information to create a good 3D model. In some cases, and especially early in the design process, there isn’t enough information to create a useful 3D model in SOLIDWORKS. On the other hand, AutoCAD allows for more freedom in creating and editing early-stage designs and models.

In addition, the amount of information required to create a 3D model means that design changes can be more time-consuming than with a 2D model. This may be worth the extra time only in larger projects where SOLIDWORKS’s automatic updates save more time in the long term.

Although AutoCAD has its own 3D capabilities, drafters tend to use them to refine the early design process rather than the final design, as with SOLIDWORKS. However, AutoCAD does include some advanced 3D tools such as realistic materials and lighting. AutoCAD also comes in different versions such as AutoCAD Architecture, AutoCAD Electrical, and AutoCAD Mechanical. These versions contain enhanced, industry-specific tools that allow the design to be more streamlined.

Finally, AutoCAD and SOLIDWORKS use different file formats. AutoCAD uses the .dwg file format, which many other CAD software packages can read. SOLIDWORKS uses its own set of file formats such as .sldprt for part files and .sldasm for assemblies. Both software packages can read and export to different file formats. This makes it easy for SOLIDWORKS to read an AutoCAD file and vice versa.

Both AutoCAD and SOLIDWORKS have their pros and cons, and each program is the better choice at different parts of the design process. Many users find that the best way to work is to use AutoCAD during the early stages of the product design process. Designers can use AutoCAD to create a preliminary design and separate it into the various required sub-assemblies. After this, the designer can then assign sub-assemblies to other members of the project team. These designers can then model the components in SOLIDWORKS based on the design parameters.

AutoCAD as a common starting point for all designers

While SOLIDWORKS is well suited for mechanical designs, other industries have their own version of 3D software, such as Revit for architects. The design process for these industries works along similar principles; users develop the early design using AutoCAD before moving the design to the 3D software for detailed modeling. While each sector prefers its own specialty 3D software, almost everyone uses AutoCAD at some point in the design process. This is why AutoCAD still has such a large user base and remains the most dominant design package used throughout the world today.

Because of the differences between AutoCAD & SOLIDWORKS, they both use a different file format. AutoCAD works on the .dwg format, whereas SOLIDWORKS uses its own set of extensions such as .sldprt for part files and .sldasm for assemblies. As with most CAD packages, both software can import from and export to a variety of file types to enable ease of file sharing.

Summary: Room for both

As you can see, when comparing AutoCAD with SOLIDWORKS, it is not a simple case of identifying which is better. Both design software packages have their strengths: SOLIDWORKS is more powerful for mechanical design, while AutoCAD is more versatile for early-stage design. This is why you’ll find that the same design companies–and even the same people–use both AutoCAD and SOLIDWORKS. You can expect that both software packages will be around for years to come.

Page Last Updated: March 2021