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If you are — or are studying to be an engineer, you’re familiar with sketching and designing ideas on the back of an envelope.

But to turn that idea into a makeable design, you’re going to need one or more software packages beyond the office and Internet productivity tools that even today’s K-12 students are using.

Here’s a look at some of the most popular engineering software out there, including 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) programs, and software extensions to help you create, model — and test — your designs.

2D/3D CAD Tools

Design using computers starts, of course, with CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, and there’s no shortage of general-purpose and domain-specific programs, add-ons, and extensions for this, such as:

  • For infrastructure, Bentley Systems’ MicroStation provides 2D and 3D modeling, viewing and visualization, along with BIM (Building Information Modeling) applications like OpenRoads, Open Buildings, and support for geospatial data.
  • For electrical engineering tasks, IGE+XAO offers CAD tools like its SEE Electrical for wiring diagrams and its SEE System Design for basic and detailed wiring/cabling diagrams.
  • For printed-circuit board (PCB) and electronic design, documentation, simulation, assembly drawing, and schematics, Altium offers a range of tools including Designer and Circuit Studio.
  • For electrical, pneumatic and hydraulic projects, Radica Software’s Electra E8 offers electric CAD.
  • Designing a building’s electrical installation? Try TiSoft ElectricalDesign Features include generating floor plans, schematics and reports, and doing the calculations to ensure code compliance.
  • For civil engineers working on transportation, industrial, public works, sports, and other facilities projects, CSI’s SAP2000 Structural Software for Analysis and Design helps you check your designs for wind, wave, bridge, and seismic loads, among other tests and checks.

Number-Crunching & Analytics Tools

To get to viable prototype design, modelling ideas can call for a lot of number crunching and analysis. For example, will your proposed bridge design safely handle the expected traffic load — and handle high winds?

To determine that, you need lots of materials data and the math to crunch out answers.

Fortunately, there’s software galore before you reach for your graphing calculator, slide rule, and abacus, to help crunch computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and finite element analysis (FEA) and other analytic tasks.

Some CAD products and suites incorporate these functions, including:

  • Wolfram Mathematica by Wolfram Technical packs in nearly 5,000 built-in functions for visualization, geometry, machine learning, data mining, image processing and other technical computing tasks. Other Wolfram tools include Wolfram System Modeler .
  • For mechanical engineers doing complex numerical analysis, such as calculations with matrices and vectors, check out Mathworks’ MATLAB.
  • Got coupled non-linear algebraic and differential equations? F-Chart Software’s EES (Engineering Equation Solver) (pronounced ‘ease’) is “a general equation-solving program that can numerically solve thousands of ’em.
  • PTC Mathcad, provides tool for mechanical, electrical, civil and structural engineers who want to do the math within a document, along with adding plots and other images.
  • If you need to do structural engineering and finite analysis problems for Engineering-Construction (AEC), CAE/CAD, utilities, offshore, industrial, nuclear and civil works, GT STRUDL offers a fully-integrated general purpose tool.

Design Validation, Product Data Management & More

Creating a design or model is only the beginning. The design/model has to be validated. Solving this requires data and the answers have to be communicated to other people and programs.

Here’s some to consider:

  • 3D printing software like GrabCAD Print, to take your CAD files and drive your 3D printer.
  • Dassault Systems’ SOLIDWORKS Premium (the upgrade step above Professional) includes design validation, product data management, design communication, and CAD productivity tools.
  • PTC’s Creo Simulation Live performs structural, thermal, and modal analysis on 3D CAD designs and shows how a model responds, in real time, to various physical forces and loads.
  • AutoDESK Inventor CAD software “provides professional-grade 3D mechanical design, documentation, and product simulation tools.”
  • DP Technology ESPRIT supports CAM including CNC programming, simulation, optimization, and more, for industrial application ranging from job shop work to large-scale heavy equipment manufacturing.

Which Engineering Software is Right for You

The first step to getting familiar with engineering software, is determining which packages your company, colleagues, business partners, and clients use.

For students (and startups), while you want to become familiar with whatever’s popular in your target industry, it can’t hurt to explore the free and low-cost offerings. Particularly if you’re a student, that’s the time to legitimately play with those academia/student editions.

Lastly, don’t overlook the free/trial versions from vendors — and also there are lots of Open-Source Software packages for 2D/3D design and related tasks.

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