Student's view of CAD

How do your teams get students to CAD? A decent amount of the members on my team see CAD as more of a chore than a useful tool. What ends up happening is that only a few of our members CAD the robot, which makes things take longer. How do you guys get kids to be interested in CAD?

Check out how well we (4607) did prior to CAD (2013-'17). Then look at what has transpired the last two seasons (2018-'19).

We will be increasing the time spent on CAD in the future - through duration and members.

This year was the first year our team, 2357 went CAD-first. It definitely took a little longer, but we were able to start work on the drive base while the mechanism CAD was still being done. Our CAD helped us line up to the goals perfectly and avoid a lot of re-work. The best part was having drawings for every piece before we cut it.

Is the problem with the team not seeing the benefits of CAD? Or just a lack of interest in doing CAD itself?

Don’t feel bad that only 6, 7, or even 8 people are using CAD. The best work comes from the people who actually want to use it. And this year we had 4 students (including myself) work on the CAD this year. Quality > Quantity

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CAD has become a part of team’s process / culture. We make sure that the robot is basically fully CADed before cutting metal. All the students on the team participate in the brainstorming sessions that we have to start off the design process and then the CAD team creates the design. All the students participate at some level during the CADing phase even though they may not be working on the CAD model itself. We have reviews of the model throughout the process that all the students participate in so that everyone can see the design of the robot coming together.

Our goal every year is to try to get everyone on the team familiar enough with CAD that they can open the model and interrogate it to determine how to build the robot (i.e. measure chassis rails in the CAD before cutting the parts for the bot). This forms a starting point for team members to get more involved in CADing in the future.

We also participate in CAD-a-thons at least once a year. We may only have 1 or 2 “official” entries in the CAD-a-thon, but we will have several other groups of students also working on their own entries. We have found that these CAD-a-thons are a great way to get students to experience the fun of creating a virtual robot.

Overall, I would say that the students view CAD as the medium where, as a team, they create the robot. Building it is the actualization of the design that they created in CAD.


Changing the workflow can help make CAD necessary. We make our CAD first based on prototypes, then manufacture final parts based on the CAD. After all, what’s the point of Computer Aided Design if you aren’t the one Designing?

For most teams, as you start to go over about 6 or so members of the CAD team, there are diminishing returns. We find a small team of about 5 core designers, with occasional assistance from younger members, to be very efficient and manageable. 2 students should be able to CAD a mechanism and its iterations on schedule in most cases.

If your students feel as though CAD is a chore, that probably means the design doesn’t need to be modeled anyway, and that the CAD is not being used properly. What you need to stress to them is what CAD can allow them to do, and how it can elevate the team to another level. Rapid iteration and the ability to evaluate a design before fabrication is a huge advantage. CAD also improves communication and collaboration. Because members can see exactly what you had in your mind, they can give better criticism and feed back. After this season for us especially, I think all our members see the value in CAD, and know that it is a key part to how our team functions.

And beyond that, if your students want to go into an engineering major, especially mechanical, stress to them the huge opportunity they have to get a leg up on everyone in college.


CAD is the only way a part gets made on the CNC router. Otherwise it gets made on the mill.

Very few of our students enjoy the mill. Almost all of them think the CNC router is cool.

We had 11 students CAD this year and 6 run the router (with supervision).

We had no manually machined parts on the robot during our official season this year.


We use a few approaches to emphasize CAD and recruit students for the team.

Our robot construction team into 4 sub teams - mechanical, CAD, electrical/pneumatic, and programming. Our team understands CAD is a critical part of our robot build process. No CAD. No robot. That doesn’t directly translate to everyone wants to CAD. But recognizing the importance of CAD in your process is a step you can’t skip.

We recruit some of our students from Project Lead The Way classes and can gauge CAD skill and interest in advance. Hopefully all groups are naturally balanced by interest. If not, we may have to assign students to at least have a viable sub team.

It is best to have interested students in CAD then support them with a sub team mentor or student lead dedicated to the task. This year we had a team alumni run CAD. It was much more effective than the previous year when I balancing work load as a CAD mentor and a few other team duties.


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We take a very different approach to CAD and design in general. Instead of having a dedicated “CAD team” “Manufacturing Team” “electrical team”, etc, we have one older student lead a team that conceptualizes, prototypes, designs and improves a subsystem. Aside from giving more broad experiences to students, this results in less “cad fatigue”, as often many of the more junior students take on basic CAD, as it is very associated with being a senior student, and also plain useful. We need almost everything CADed, as we 3d print many components and having CAD is a good way to get a printed part to the machine. You don’t need everything exactly in CAD, wheels can be cylinders, frames can be rectangles, but it’s so much more convenient to have a approximate vision of what your robot is going to look like.

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This was the first time in about a decade that 1293 did meaningful CAD work, and the results showed. Some thoughts:

  • Don’t start with a robot. We designed our new pit cart first, which is largely just 2x4s and angle aluminum in the right arrangement.
  • If you have Nice Things (whether a router in-house or a sponsor that is down to plasma all the things), it’s easier to sell students on CAD. I think having a plasma-cutting sponsor made all the difference this year, because that’s how we could take advantage of the resource. If you don’t have Nice Things, work on finding Nice Things.
  • Remove barriers to access. When I was on 5402, Onshape wasn’t really a known thing yet and the kids were all issued MacBook Airs. That meant CAD wasn’t really happening for them. On 1293, we went Onshape because Chromebooks are the new standard-issue thing. As a bonus, anyone can look around in the model with a smartphone or tablet.
  • Like others, we had about four or five kids that did any CAD at all (and most of it was two or three people). I think it was Jeff Bezos that declared any team you couldn’t feed on two pizzas is too big, and that applies here too.
  • Make it a priority among the mentors. I didn’t know how Onshape really worked, but I made it a priority to help steer and guide and Google for the kids. I also would do things like stripping out parts from models that weren’t important so things would load faster.
  • Sometimes, the best way to emphasize CAD is to have a season where nothing works well. 1293 had one of those in 2018, when we threw out the first frame for being out of square and sucked it up when the second one still wasn’t right.

CAD forces our kids to actually “do the math” to at least get a basic understanding of how things fit, how high/low we need to mount our feeders, etc… We used to just try and prototype stuff then kind-of CAD things together at the end but it never worked well for us. More importantly, design (CAD is just a design tool used in engineering among other things) is part of the engineering process and that overall process is what we want our kids to take away.

Since we really focused on the engineering process and started forcing our kids to design out robots in 2017 we’ve become significantly more competitive in 2 of the last 3 years. The cool thing that has happened is that we don’t have a clear stopping point between prototyping, design, and manufacturing anymore. It’s a constant iterative process and I feel like we’ve slowed down the build season on design in order to speed up our final assembly and robot quality.

We’re now at the point where if the 2D drawings aren’t clear or missing dimensions we won’t make the part in the shop. It’s turned into a cultural change about caring about quality and thinking things through before acting. This has now spilled into our awards where we really focus on quality essays, quality presentations, etc…

The hardest part of the change is that things seem to go way slower for longer during the build season. It can be a little demoralizing to walk in everyday and not see the actual parts getting built but after 2-3 years I learned to not freak out as much. It just works out that once designs get finalized we build 4-5x faster because everything is clear and tends to fit together pretty easily without a lot of “oh craps” during assembly.

I was in the same boat as your students my freshman year. I absolutely hated doing CAD and I swore I would never touch a computer if I could help it. The problem was that I really didn’t know how to use Inventor beyond the basic operations one can pick up from experimentation. I hated it so much because I felt like I was wasting time and didn’t ever know what to do next. Over the past two summers I started to see all kinds of crazy stuff that teams were designing in CAD. I wanted to be able to do that too. So I spent the better part of my summer learning how to actually use CAD efficiently and effectively. I taught myself how to use Onshape and then Fusion 360 and now I love doing all kinds of things with CAD including robots. So my best advice is to help the students on your team see why CAD is so useful and then teach them how to use it effectively. If they don’t know what they’re doing, their work won’t be good.

We’ve been doing a bad job of that as well, I’m currently the only person on the team who does full time CAD. We have some of our fab people who know CAD as well, but they usually spend more time fabricating instead of CADding. I’m currently trying to use our 3D printers to show new students what you can do with CAD, trying to see if that encourages them, but that didn’t really start happening this year until Build Season ended. Go figure.
Some ideas that have been floating around:

  • Force everyone to learn CAD.
  • Bribe people to learn CAD
  • Get everyone to make something that they can keep (We’ve got a laser cutter to cut keychains with, but that didn’t really work too well this year)

Why do you see benefit in CADing? I do, many people on this thread do, there’s no need to beat around the bush.

There most definitely should not be any forcing of CAD training or bribery involved. Do you think CAD will make your team better? Good. Build a culture that agrees. The only bribe or incentive to CADding then is being better. The only incentive students should need to do something is the drive for a blue banner (or to accomplish your team’s goals, whatever they may be).

CAD is not right for every team. Some teams are better off not CADding a full robot, maybe not any of the robot. That said, CAD is usually a huge spark to shifting a team from consistently mediocre to solid, good, great, or powerhouse.

Build a culture that agrees.

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I know this is not what you were talking about when you mentioned bribes or incentives, but it reminded me of a CAD class that one of our senior students taught for the junior students a few summers ago. He went through the normal training materials for the first day or two, then covered 3D printing for a day. The final project for the class was called the “CADwood Derby”. Each student was given a set of short Lego axle shafts and wheels and had to CAD the rest of the car which was then printed overnight on the 3D printers and they held a race on a typical pinewood derby track on the final day of the class. They even had a 3D printed “CADwood Derby Cup” as an award.

These simple incentives helped to make the class fun, exciting and turned it into a mild competition. I’m not sure how much this incentive helped to motivate the students, but if FIRST is any model to follow, then competition can be very inspiring.

As lead CAD of Team 2539, I enjoy CAD. We use Solidworks. In the offseason, training is very important. Unfortunately, students typically see CAD that way. That is why you add a twist. In the offseason, when teaching new students, we gave them basic SW tutorials, and then gave them fake parts to CAD. But once experienced, we allowed them to CAD a chess set! This gave them something fun to do. Something they could touch and feel later on. Once they completed this, they slowly gained more interest, and we taught them a lot more of design. Explain and use examples of how CAD shows external force effects, overall presentation, and how it can create new parts. At the end of the offseason, they would CAD basic parts, and perfect past year’s models. Hope this helps. To sum up, start short and simple, then give them something fun, then teach them and allow them to build experience.

It may help to find some mentors who do mechanical design in their day jobs and have them show examples of what they and their coleagues have done. The purpose of this is to show that CAD tools can be used to design cool stuff. The mentors can then help guide the students through learning how to use the CAD tools and, more importantly, learning how to design.

This was my teams first year using cad, as i introduced cadding a whole robot this year. The result was moving from a team that was rarely picked, to being an alliance captain for the first time in our history at our first event, and being on the first alliance at our second (and we probably would have gone to dcmp if it wasn’t for the g20 fiasco). The point is it drastically improved the quality of our robots was very much tied to cadding the robot, and with all the lessons learned about proper design this year, I think it will help us do really well next year

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My team made the switch from Creo to Inventor this season. We only had one student doing major CAD work, but in the preseason I did practice sessions where I had people try to replicate a West Coast Drivetrain I had done already. I used that as a means for walking through the different functions Inventor has available instead of starting abstractly. We ended up using a very similar drivetrain this year with reasonable success.