Learning Computer Aided Design (CAD) can open doors to a fascinating and challenging career. And, it’s a path with prospects too – demand for CAD designers is expected to grow at about 7% per year in the USA, and companies will be fighting over people with 3D design chops in particular.
So, with that outlook, it’s as good a time as any to learn CAD. What’s more, there has never been as many ways of learning CAD as there are today. Until about a decade there was basically only one recognized way of learning to use a CAD application: attending courses at a physical training center (you could also learn from books). But, in the last few years there’s been a big growth in your options for learning to use the technology, including a variety of online options and certifications.
So, what are your options for learning CAD, and how should you choose between them?
5 options for learning CAD on- and off-line
If you want to learn CAD, then you now have five main options. Let’s look at each of these options and weigh up the pros and cons of each.
1. Classroom learning with a software vendor or value-added reseller (VAR)
This is the classic way of learning CAD and, until about a decade ago, the only major way of learning any CAD application. It’s also the most expensive approach.
If you go down this route, you’ll typically spend 4-5 days at a training center where the CAD software vendor themselves, or a VAR, will train you how to use the technology, give you some tasks and you’ll normally take some kind of examination at the end. On completion, you’ll get a certificate showing you’re competent in the technology.
- Costs: This is by far the most expensive option. Attending a course will set you back by around $2,000, not to mention the costs of travel and accommodation (assuming the training center isn’t in your city).
- Benefits: You’ll be getting the training ‘form the horse’s mouth’ so to speak. You’ll likely be using the latest technology (both hardware and software), and you can expect the training team to be real experts. The certificate you receive on completion will be widely recognized too.
- Drawbacks: Cost is clearly the biggest drawback here. Assuming it’s your company that’s paying for your training, they’ll also lose a week of productivity when you’d otherwise be in the office
Is it for you? Well, if your employer wants to pay for it, why not? Otherwise, consider other options first.
**Tip: As an alternative, in many countries there are lower-cost classroom training options for CAD, be that evening classes, community college and even government-backed retraining programs targeted at people who’ve become unemployed. We've also seen one Architecture firm offer free, 3-week Revit boot-camps for aspiring new employees.
2. Learn from a book
There are plenty of well-written, easy to follow CAD learning books out there. If you can get your hands on the software (or even a free trial), learning by book can be a great option – these guides are normally reasonably priced, and you might even be able to find a copy in your local library. Books will usually include a range of ‘tests’ you can carry out yourself. An excellent example of a book to learn Revit is "Design Integration Using Revit 2020". Author Daniel Stine - who also teaches graduate architecture students – says the book is “unique in that is covers all building design disciplines in a single book; Architecture, Interior Design, Structural, Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP).” His book comes with nearly 100 videos and end-of-chapter questions and “sets the student up well to sit for the official Autodesk certification."
- Costs: Free if your library happens to hold a copy of the CAD book you’re interested in, otherwise anywhere between $20-$100 plus the costs of a free trial/renting the software.
- Benefits: Usually a cheap option, learning from the book will offer you all the essentials and provides plenty of detail too. A good book comes with exercise files and doubles as a reference document for more advanced topics.
- Drawbacks: Unless you’re highly motivated, this approach can be tough. Learning alone from a book, with no one to encourage you or answer questions is difficult. You’ll also have no physical evidence (such as a certificate) that you’ve learnt the tool. Last but not least, if you have any questions, there’s no one to answer them.
Is it for you? If you’re a highly motivated ‘self-starter’, this might be a good way to kick start your CAD learning, but otherwise it’s probably better to keep looking.
3. Learn free on YouTube and similar platforms
There are tons of free, comprehensive, and often high-quality CAD training programs available on websites like YouTube. Do a bit of research and you will have access to good quality content which can show you how to learn many of the essentials of the technology.
Check out this Lars Christensen’s Youtube course on Autodesk Fusion, for example. With over 200 videos, ranging from a couple of minutes up to 20, you get to learn CAD with bitesize, real-world lessons. Another YouTube course is "Solidworks Tutorials", which has been viewed over 180,000 times. Ryan, its author, says his “tutorials target the typical issues that most SolidWorks beginners face and no teacher talks about".
- Cost: Generally free, this approach can save you a lot of money – all you need is an internet connection!
- Benefits: Besides being free, many of these courses are genuinely excellent in quality, providing a thorough overview of the technology.
- Drawbacks: Once again, you’re not going to get a certificate showing off your skills, and telling prospective employers you learn CAD on YouTube might not go down so well. You also won’t get any ‘classroom support’, so just like with books, this is all about being independent and motivating yourself to learn (if in a slightly more engaging way than with books). And of course, you don’t have any guarantee that the training is good quality, and it may also be out of date.
Is it for you? If you’re looking to learn the basics, this option is perfectly sufficient. You will definitely need to be motivated and happy to go it alone, however.
4. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) like Lynda and Udemy
In the past few years, the emergence of a number of paid-for online learning environments has opened up a world of low-cost education to anyone with an internet connection. Most MOOCs offer a range of CAD training programs which are delivered by vetted educators who are experts in their field. Unlike YouTube, you can be pretty confident that you will be learning up to date information from quality tutors. Two examples of online courses on Lynda.com we like are Paul Aubin’s course on Revit and Gabriel Corbett’s "Solidworks Essentials" Course. Gabriel argues that: “Video Learning is the future. You can find exactly what you need to learn when you need to learn it. And, it’s all in bite-size 3-5 minute movies.
Cost: Prices vary but expect to pay $20 or more per month for your subscription to these platforms.
Benefits: MOOCs are recognized by many employers as a ‘respectable’ way of learning new skills and many of the tutors offer top quality content.
Drawbacks: Just like YouTube or book-learning, you’ll have to be motivated to complete these courses; the only person keeping accountable for your continued learning is you. You also may not get training files with some of these courses too.
Is it for you? Once again, if you’re a motivated individual, this approach can be good. And for many employers, these MOOCs are seen as good quality sources of learning and training.
**Tip: Lynda.com offers a free month trial, so you can check out and test-drive any of these courses for yourself. With Udemy, you pay per course. They run regular sales promotions though, when many courses are deeply discounted to $10.
5. Dedicated online CAD training providers
Your next option is to learn online with dedicated online CAD training platforms such as SolidProfessor (mechanical CAD), Global e-Training (BIM) and BIM-Tutorial.nl (in Dutch). Daan Heijting, who runs BIM-Tutorial.nl, says their “goal is to make everyone a BIM’mer by providing high quality e-learning and BIM content by several professionals in the building industry”.
Unlike Lynda or Coursera, for instance, these platforms are focused exclusively on learning MCAD or BIM, and nothing else. You’re pretty much guaranteed to learn the latest information and skills, and will be learning through a company that stakes its reputation on good quality CAD training. Many of the courses come with tests, and you may also be able to learn in ‘live’ virtual environments, or at least email someone who can answer your questions.
- Costs: Expect to pay a subscription in the range of $40-$60 per month, (still representing a savings of over 90% over in-class training)
- Benefits: With this approach you’ll get certification, tests which will be verified by a ‘human’ instructor and plenty of practice. You can also ask for help when you need it. Unlike the MOOCs, you’ll usually get training files when working on these courses.Finally, the specialist offer also more advanced and in-depth topics.
- Drawbacks: These courses start to get a little more expensive for the beginner, so you’d want to feel confident you’re going to use the subscription ‘enough’ to make it worth it.
**Tip: It’s also worth noting that some of the main CAD companies have started to edge into this market, so in the next couple of years they may become a good option for virtual training too.
More options than ever for learning CAD
The rapid growth in alternative options for learning CAD over the last decade is great news for everyone:
- For people who are new to CAD, there are more options than ever for starting in this field, and the free and low-cost options allow you to learn a new skill without spending a lot of money.
- For existing CAD designers, there’s a wealth of options to quickly learn new tools and techniques to make you a better, more employable, designer.
- And companies can also now invest in and upskill their employees without the traditional costs of training courses, travel and accommodation.
In the past, the barriers to entry to the world of CAD were incredibly high. You needed access to an expensive computer and to attend a high-cost training program. But, with the rise of MOOCs, YouTube and specialist training websites, the barriers to entry are so much lower than ever before.
At designairspace, we think this move to lowering the barriers to entry is a great thing – and will mean more designers can enter the profession who would, in the past, have been turned off by the high entry costs. And, we see our cloud-based CAD machines as part of this evolution, making it quick, easy, an inexpensive for anyone to start learning CAD.
To learn more about the silent revolution to make 3D CAD more available, read our blog on the need for cloud-based CAD software.