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9. CAD/CAM - Nifty 50


Research by NSF-funded scientists on solid modeling led to widespread use of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), which has revolutionized much of the manufacturing processes in the U.S.A.

CAD systems allow mechanical designers to create geometric models of the parts they want to produce using computer graphics. Digital descriptions are essential for computerized manufacturing, since they can be interpreted to produce the instructions that computerized, numerically controlled machine tools use to make hardware.

CAD beginnings

From small beginnings at Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions in the early 1970s, NSF-funded research evolved into an average total of several million dollars annually at dozens of universities. NSF was willing to support and eventually encourage proposals to address problems with design that neither private firms nor federal mission agencies were interested in solving.

This process was seemingly instrumental to the successes realized through CAD/CAM. For example, research at the University of Rochester developed the first practical software for three-dimensional modeling. This advance raised quality, reduced cost and helped the United States regain the productivity it lost in the 1980s.

Virtual modeling

A significant development has been the CAD modeling of objects as three-dimensional volumes, which allows the virtual assembly of products, such as the Boeing 777 aircraft. With NSF and industry funding, a system to produce software was refined to the point where it would be used by industry in 1982. More than 1,000 licenses have since been issued, resulting in widespread industry use.

CAD is also used for the design of silicon chips. For a number of years, NSF sponsored jointly with the Department of Defense's (DOD's) Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the NSF Summer Workshop on Logic Synthesis, involving faculty from a number of universities, including the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Colorado, as well as representatives from industry.

This workshop played a central role in the development of state-of-the-art logic synthesis algorithms and prototype software systems that formed the basis of most successful synthesis programs used in the electronics industry today.

Without this very sophisticated CAD software, it would not be possible to design, build and verify the complex integrated circuits that power the information technology age in which we are living.

Original publication date: April 2000

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