Given the similarity in names, each having “computer-aided”, it’s easy to confuse the three. CAD, computer-aided design, is the use of computers to design 2D and 3D models. CAE, computer-aided engineering, are mostly software tools that provide the engineering analysis (ie. thermal, stress, physics, etc.) of a design. CAM, computer-aided manufacturing, uses software to control machinery involved in the manufacturing process. This blog post explores the differences between the three applications and how they are used.


Computer-aided design is the practice of using computer systems to help create, modify, analyze, or modify a 2D or 3D graphical representation of a design. Its application is wide and varied, from product design through entertainment use. CAD has been heavily used in computer animation and special effects in cinematic films. It is also involved in product development across many industries. Its capabilities are such that it can be used to for form optimization through strength analysis.

CAD’s popularity can be largely attributed to its benefits, which are:

  • Providing a preview of the final product through digital visualization of the final product and its components
  • Improve the quality of the design through adding greater accuracy and therefore reducing errors
  • Improve communication by streamlining and centralizing documentation and thus allowing easy re-used of whole or parts of earlier designs and practices
  • Provide seamless transfer of knowledge by creating a database for manufacturing


Computer-aided engineering is the use of software applications to help in the engineering analysis of designs. Typical analysis in CAE are finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and multibody dynamics (MBD), and mathematical optimization. CAE steps usually entail:

  • Geometric modeling of the system or its components and their physical properties
  • Approximation of the environmental forces on the system in terms of loads and constraints
  • Mathematical calculation of the model and its constraints

Proper design of a product requires simulation of the various environmental stresses it will experience. The benefit of CAE is that it provides the engineer the opportunity to virtually test the various scenarios the product will experience out in the field. Doing so allows for:

  • Decision making empowered by simulation data of product performance
  • Provides engineers the opportunity to refine and optimize their development
  • Like CAD, mitigate risk by showing different outcomes based on design paths and thereby allowing for earlier problem resolution


Computer-aided manufacturing is generally the use of software applications to create a manufacturing plan for tooling design, CAD model preparation, machine control programming for manufacturing, and machine tooling. CAM distinguishes itself from CAE and CAD tools in that it is mostly used by manufacturers and less by design engineers. It’s seen as a step that follows CAD and CAE during product development since its overlying purpose is to create efficiency in the production process. One method by which CAM aids in efficiency is by assisting in creating precision during fabrication and in material consistency. Once a manual process, CAM is provided an intelligent way to create code through simpler methods such as GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces).

Working together

At the backbone of product design, is its geometric model. CAD helps in the creation of this model. In order for CAM or CAE to be used, they require a model for which to perform analysis (CAE) and to create instructions for fabrication (CAM). As a standalone system, CAD can be used. It is, however, much more powerful when used in conjunction with CAE and CAM tools.

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