Shaping the World with a Computer: Your Career as a Computer-Aided Design Consultant

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Computerized drafting and planning have changed the face of aeronautics, industry and the personal consumer goods market. Now is your chance to build the future!

Computer-aided design consultants use computer programs to draft and design many kinds of construction projects, from buildings and structures to complex machinery. Computer-aided Design (also known as CAD) has been an important part of many industries since the mid 1980's, and computer-aided design consultants have revolutionized the process of drafting and constructing complex structures, machines, processes, or products. Sometimes they are even able to skip the factory step entirely, using automated prototyping machines to translate computer-generated plans into actual physical products. The role of the computer-aided design consultant is constantly expanding, as more and more aspects of the technical world rely on rapid, digital creation of plans, blueprints, models, and prototypes to get new products to market.

What Is Computer-Aided Design?

In the past, they were known as draftsmen or blueprint designers. But in today's wired world, the traditional pen, T-square and triangle of the old draftsman has given way to a new tool—the computer-aided design suite. Computer-aided design (or CAD) has applications in many kinds of industries. You can find CAD designers in structural and landscape architecture, aerospace and automotive engineering, product design, and electrical engineering. The centerpiece of each of these areas, however, is the use of computers and computerized drafting programs to construct detailed drawings of plans, specifications and three-dimensional models of real world objects. The digital format of these drawings allows clients of computer-aided design consultants to not only construct their projects using machine tools or construction crews, but in some cases, to even use these drafting templates to power computer driven auto casting and milling machines.

As digital construction methods become more common in industry, the role of computer-aided design consultants is also expanding. Frequently, companies who may not have the resources to hire their own product design teams will call upon the services of computer-aided design consultants to draft working plans or models for specific projects. A skilled CAD designer will often provide support for groups of related clients along a production chain, streamlining the process and making sure that all the elements of a design remain constant

Types of computer-Aided Design Consultants
There are many specialization areas in the CAD field. This is because each type of computer-aided design has its own types of specialist knowledge; architectural computer-aided design consultants need to know about relevant building codes for example, while CAD designers who implement tools or machinery need to know the tensile strengths of materials and the capacities of factory machine tools. And obviously, aerospace and automotive CAD designers need to have solid grounding in aeronautical or automotive principles before they can draft workable designs for cars or airliners! Even within areas, there are sub specializations; for example, many architectural CAD consultants specialize in just hospitals, factories or other commercial or residential applications. Here are just a few common types of computer-aided design consultants:
  • Aeronautical computer-aided designers construct specifications and draft plans for aircraft, missiles, and specialized aeronautical parts.

  • Architectural computer-aided design consultants are responsible for drafting plans for buildings and other structures. They need to know all about building codes and the features of building construction. Often this area calls for CAD specialists, who are experts at designing around specific materials or types of structures.

  • Civil computer-aided designers create both relief and topographic maps that can direct civil engineers who are constructing roads, highways, water control systems, pipelines, bridges, and other large engineering projects.

  • Electrical CAD designers handle the design of wiring diagrams and other specifications for construction workers in industrial, commercial, and residential building applications.

  • Electronics CAD designers draft plans for computers, circuit board assemblies, electrical schematics and other electronic components. They may also handle consumer product design for personal electronic devices.

  • Mechanical CAD workers detail plans for machinery and mechanical tools, specifying materials, assembly and manufacturing requirements. These blueprints can be used to build everything from factory machines to individual mechanical parts.

  • Product computer-aided designers specialize in designing consumer products, appliances, toys, furniture, tools, and house wares.

  • An AutoCAD proficient "mechanical" designer may not migrate well into architecture. There are even industries within industries. For architecture, there are educational, commercial, residential, industrial, and health care specialties.
What Is the Job Like?
As self-employed freelancers, computer-aided design consultants work in as many different environments as the designers themselves. Some work part time, while others have so many clients that they are constantly busy, or are engaged for long-term contracts to specific clients. The nature of the field means that workspaces be open, clean, well-lit and have lots of power and space for the many scanners, computers, and digital workspaces the job requires. The position may require travel to visit with clients or to oversee aspects of a complex project onsite.

To succeed in a career as a computer-aided design consultant requires previous experience working in one of the fields of CAD design described above. Most CAD designers have put in several years with a particular firm and have built up a reputation that will attract clients. It is assumed that a consultant will be well versed in the tools of his trade; CAD software packages such as AutoCAD, MicroStation, Pro/E, ArchiCAD, or Mastercam are the industry standards. Through applicable knowledge of your CAD specialty is also expected—architectural CAD designers need to know all required building and structural codes, for example.

While salary ranges for self-employed computer-aided designers are widely variable based on experience, location, and client base, typical Low-end salaries for entry CAD designer positions are roughly $34,979, with experienced CAD designers averaging around $43,878. The median is $38,591

Employment Outlook
As of the 2006 US Dept of Labor survey, about 253,000 people held CAD design jobs, with about 49% of these working on a contract basis for architectural, engineering, and other similar firms. Another 25% were employed in fabrication, computer, and electronics manufacturing, aerospace or other fields. Approximately 5% of the overall industry was self-employed.

Although demand is increasing, the computer-aided design field is still expected to grow at a rate slower than the general job market due to the lengthy process of gaining experience in the field. Outsourcing to other countries and an increasing pool of other technicians capable of using CAD programs will also dampen job expansion.
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