Making Trouble — Mad for 3D CAD

I love the third dimension. I’m glad I’m not flat. I love figuring out how to pack the most luggage into the smallest trunk, and I love optimizing the stacking of the dishwasher to fit the most plates and glasses. It should come as no surprise to you that I love — nay, I’m addicted to — 3D CAD programs.

My current large-scale project is to design and build the things I need to make my lifestyle as low in energy use as possible, while improving or retaining my quality of life.

Yes, I’m doing it for environmental reasons: we are heading toward disastrous climate change, and we need to make huge changes to the way we live. More than half the problem is figuring out how to live well with less energy. There are innumerable things to do in this domain — efficient devices and retrofits to invent — and if all makers out there take up a similar call, the world has a shot at survival.

How does this relate to my love of CAD? Well,right now I’m building a hybrid human-electric, tilt-steering, front-loading tricycle, code-named Flying Nun.

Design projects of this kind hugely benefit from 3D CAD programs: doing a lot of the prototyping work in virtual space prevents wasting material resources and energy in the development stage.

I love the parametric design engines that let me push the assemblies of components around to make sure the dynamics of the bike and the quality of the ride are solved for, before I ever cut metal.

I also find 3D CAD to be the ultimate video game. For me, it’s like the best possible combination of Tetris, jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, and Grand Theft Auto. The meditation of spinning the objects in 3D until you have the pieces just right is one of the most pleasurable activities I can think of. It takes me straight to that place of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about.

I’ve used pretty much every CAD package, from SolidWorks, to Autodesk, to Pro/E, to Rhino, to SketchUp, to Alibre. They’re all powerful and useful for different purposes. Occasionally I’ve resorted to writing my own CAD programs when the existing set couldn’t do the job.

One great thing about 3D CAD today is that there are more and more CAD models in online libraries, so you can get many of the pieces you need without having to draw them yourself. All of the nuts and bolts in my trike came straight from McMaster Carr’s 3D model drawings at I was also able to build upon other peoples’ models of various bike components that they had posted online.

Another great thing is how well 3D CAD plays with the CAM (computer-aided machining) technologies that have grown up and evolved with CAD. Now that I’ve finished the design of my trike, it’s only a matter of days to have all the components made and ready for assembly into the final product. After I farm out the CAM to various skilled fabricators, every gleaming piece of machined aluminum and welded steel that returns is a thrill.

It takes a village to build a prototype. I could do it all myself, but I’ve learned that for every fabrication process out there, there’s someone who does it far better than I do. I may know how to make a strong weld, but I venerate those people who can make a perfect bead every time. I know how to use a Bridgeport mill, but love working with people who mesh years of hands-on machining experience with the new digital, hands-off CNC. There’s still art there; it’s just different now.

Throughout this project, though, I’ve been lamenting one thing. I’ve become lazy with these amazing new 3D design tools. I can’t even remember what a title block or correctly dimensioned drawing looks like. My high school taught a lot of engineering trade skills, and as a 16-year-old I could do fully specified technical drawings by hand, appropriate for any machinist to build. We laboriously drew sheet metal patterns from first principles. Everything was done in 2D. Now I just make ten drawings with lots of redundancy instead, and liberally use the “auto-dimension” function.

I remember the smudged pencil erasings, the T squares and isometric circle templates. I don’t miss them, but I lament the passing of their arcane beauty. I’m constantly reminded that having constraints is good for design, so I wonder whether I don’t have enough constraints with 3D design tools. Not that it stops me from yearning for every new release of the latest video game. Ahem, CAD program.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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