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CAD, CAE, and CAM Software: Manufacturing's A-Team

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The manufacturing industry throws around a plethora of abbreviations, three of which are CAD, CAE, and CAM. So what are they and what is the difference? They are similar yet quite different. To start, the “CA” stands for Computer-Aided in each of them. The last letter is where things can get tricky.

CAD, or Computer-Aided Design, is software for bringing sketches and drawings to life through 3D modeling and producing photo realistic renderings. CAD assists in the creation, modification, and optimization of design. Architects are heavily influenced by modern CAD programs as they rarely produce drawings by hand anymore. CAD models can contain far more data and offer superior accuracy to handmade drawings. CAD is not just for architects, it is used by anybody who can benefit from creating a virtual mockup of something one intends to produce. CAD is a part of digital product development and can be used with other tools like CAE and/or CAM.

CAE helps with the analysis of a CAD-created model. CAE is Computer-Aided Engineering and covers a broad spectrum of engineering analysis and simulation software. CAE includes: Finite Element Analysis (FEA), Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), and MultiBody Dynamics (MBD) to name a few. These are virtual simulations to test a model’s reaction to applied forces, component interactions, pressure, and temperature. Aerodynamicists are some of the major users of CAE and with limited time allowed for wind tunnel testing, Formula 1 racing teams are always demanding better CAE software.

Once a design is completed and its analysis/simulation yields sufficient results, it’s time to make it! That’s where CAM, or Computer-Aided Manufacturing, comes in. CAM is software geared for fabricators and machinists. CAM accounts for the complexity, tolerance, and material of a part, as well as the machine tool that will be used to make it. The software then takes these variables and calculates whether the part can be produced with the available equipment but with the most efficient means of doing so. When a CNC machine is working away on a part, CAM is calling the shots.

CAD, CAE, and CAM all work together. CAD helps bring an idea to life by design and modeling. CAE needs a CAD file to simulate, test, and analyze to make sure a design can work as intended. CAM is the final gauntlet a virtual model passes before it becomes reality. If CAE finds that the design will fail and/or CAM determines that the part can’t be produced, it is back to square one. But, when it works, the plan really comes together.


The world of custom automation and the latest software is on display in the Controls & CAD-CAM Pavilion, everything you need to extract the maximum efficiency from your machine tool — optimizing your plant operations and cost efficiency.

At IMTS, controls, CAD/CAM and other digitally-enabled tools help define Smart Manufacturing, the Industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and other advancements in the digital enterprise. Visitors will learn how to be part of the trend to further connect islands of digital data into a fully integrated solution from design to performance to recycle and reuse.


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