Is 2D CAD Dead? Converting a 3D model to 2D shop drawings

In AutoCAD, Autodesk, Customization, Drawing, Inventor, Plugin, Revit by Mark

It’s all 3D these days! Isn’t it?

This piece is NOT about whether 3D is a better design platform than 2D. It’s about extremism.

Extreme opinion X: “Now that we have 3D, 2D is no longer of any value. 2D is one ‘D’ dumber than 3D.”

Extreme opinion Y: “3D is just ‘flash’ to sell software. Everything gets built using 2D drawings created by the REAL brains.”

What is the point? Like any point, this point is defined by BOTH X and Y. *

The role of 3D

3D design software is amazing. Products like Inventor and Revit # are sophisticated design tools that allow users to model reality. Even AutoCAD has had excellent 3D tools in recent years. (yes AutoCAD is a 3D design tool) These products even acknowledge the need for 2D drawings by including features that give them the ability to create them. Having said that, I get the feeling that the 2D capabilities are considered a necessary evil. And I get that. These products are sophisticated 3D design and modeling platforms, NOT drawing programs. But 2D drawings have their place in the design, building and manufacturing world. My prediction is that they will NOT become obsolete. 2D drawings and the software that produces them are here to stay.

Where is my flying car?

Stay with me on this. I promise it’s relevant. It’s interesting to look at trends, projections and reality. For example, once digital media (books, magazines etc.), became established the print industry thought they were doomed. People were adopting “readers” that gave them the ability to have tons of books on one little device. The future promised to be “all digital”. It didn’t take long, though, and people missed the printed page and book stores started popping up again and thriving. For example, Newsweek magazine went all-digital in 2012. Then in December of 2013 started offering a printed version again. People like the look and feel of printed media. And it turns out that when you are lounging at the pool or beach, reading a book on a device, it isn’t advisable to just leave it at your chair when you go off to take a swim.

The take-away from this little excursion is that the promise of an all-digital document world sounded good, but reality drives what actually happens. The promise of new technology tends to be self-leveling. An all-3D design world sounded good too but what is the reality?


Digital and print media are both great. They each have their place. The same can be said for 3D and 2D CAD. 3D is great for the design process and information management. 2D CAD drawings are great for lots of other things. Here are a few:

  1. Simple views of what is relevant to you. A 2D drawing can be concise, “dumbed-down” if you wish. This can communicate things more clearly. 3D has a tendency toward information overload.
  2. 2D printed on paper is awesome. You can easily mark it up however you want, make notes to yourself and sketch however you want. Not so with a 3D model, especially one shared with an entire team. (Sharing a 3D model is one of the strengths of 3D)
  3. 2D on paper has another advantage. On a construction site I visited I noticed cabinet installers using printouts of elevations of cabinetry. They would tape a drawing of cabinets for an elevation on the wall where the cabinets went. The installers got a simple, concise, easy to use picture of the work. Jobsites are a hostile environment for electronic viewing devices.
  4. Many construction disciplines are required to provide shop drawings. These drawings are reviewed by a customer who marks them up and sends them back to the provider. It is true that more and more reviewers are marking up electronic documents. But my point is that the documents they are marking up are 2D representations.

There are lots of other reasons why 2D CAD has great value.

Peaceful Coexistence

Don’t fight it. Accept the fact that both 3D and 2D are always going to be part of your design process. They are not mutually exclusive. Your challenge is to leverage that rich data in your 3D model to drive your 2D drawings. You might think that AutoCAD and Revit or Inventor talk to each other but sadly they do not. Sure you can get them to talk, after all they are in the same family. (Autodesk) But like a dysfunctional family they “kinda” talk but don’t really like each other. Revit and Inventor kind of look down on the old man AutoCAD. Because of this dysfunction you might be tempted to introduce a process where someone creates a 2D drawing in AutoCAD based on your 3D model in Revit/Inventor. You might think it’s better to keep them separated. DO NOT DO THIS. You are asking for trouble if you do. It is bad practice to have the same information in multiple disconnected places. You want to integrate your 2D drawings as tightly as possible to your model. Use AutoCAD as a 2D drafting engine to crank out drawings based on data from your model. This might require some custom software but the benefits are huge.

The idea of custom software has other up-sides. Your business is unique. You have your own way of doing things. Off-the-shelf software, by it’s nature, has a couple of typical problems:

  1. It wants you to do things it’s way
    1. You don’t want to change your way of doing business just because a piece of software tells you to.
  2. It tries to be all-things to all-customers.
    1. It is VERY complex and difficult to set-up and configure. And you still end up making compromises.

Custom software is perceived to be expensive. Is it really? Some simple Return On Investment (ROI) calculations might reveal that custom software is actually inexpensive. I may allow you to grow you company without growing your staff. What is that worth?

2D CAD, like 3D CAD, is here to stay. I doesn’t have to be a liability. Embrace it! Make 2D CAD work for you, and make it work with 3D CAD.


*I can just see CAD people (like me) rolling their eyes and muttering to themselves something about a “Z” value. You caught me. A point also has a Z value. Don’t take yourself so serious.

# I reference Autodesk products because I am most familiar with them. There are many other excellent design software options.