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What is the Difference Between CAD and CAM?

Solomon Branch
Solomon Branch

Computer aided design (CAD) is the process of creating a design, known as drafting, using computer technology. Computer aided manufacturing (CAM) is the use of computers and computer software to guide machines to manufacture something, usually a part that is mass-produced. The relation between CAD and CAM is one of form to function and they are often used together. CAD creates the design and CAM builds it.

The use of CAD, sometimes also referred to as computer aided design and drafting (CADD), is used across several environments, some that overlap with CAM. CAD is used a lot when simple drafting would be too complex, such as in the design for automobiles, airplanes, ships, and many other industrial design fields, and these are all fields where CAM is also frequently used. In recent years with the proliferation of computerized movie effects, CAD is utilized with many forms of computer animation and design.

CAM guides machines in the creation of products.
CAM guides machines in the creation of products.

Although CAD has many functions that don’t necessarily coincide with the use of CAM, the opposite is generally not true, and CAM is usually dependent on CAD. The use of CAD created designs offers an easy way of inputting information into a CAM software system. Designs done by a CAD device are often put through another program that will utilize computer-aided analysis (CAA) and then through to a computer that handles the software for CAM. CAM and CAD are both referred to as part of an overall process known collectively as computer aided engineering (CAE).

CAM uses computers to mass-produce products.
CAM uses computers to mass-produce products.

Both CAD and CAM offer similar benefits. They can render things in either two dimensions (2D) or three dimensions (3D), and they both offer expedited processing and manufacture of a design. Many CAM machines have CAD software built-in, although not all designs require the use of a CAD created design.

One of the key differences between CAD and CAM is who implements the technology. Although both utilize computers to aid efficiency, they still require a human to do the processing or input. A CAD user will typically be an engineer with training in CAD software, whereas a CAM user will usually be a specially trained machinist. These types of machinists are highly skilled and are comparable to a computer programmer or mechanical engineer.

CAD involves the use of computers to create designs.
CAD involves the use of computers to create designs.

The technology used in both processes has gotten very advanced. Where there was once a difference between the training for the operators of their respective technologies, the type of training today is mainly done on computers. This makes the level of skills necessary to operate CAD and CAM roughly the same.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - We aren't far off that point. When you look at what people can do with their 3D printers (which use CAD and CAM software to function) you realize that in the next few decades we are going to be able to make anything at home that we want, with price and materials being the only real hold-up.

People are going to just use CAD software to design, say, a lamp and then CAM software to print it out in plastic or metal or whatever. It's pretty amazing.


@Mor - It is amazing to watch those documentaries and realize that they are really animating each separate hair on an animated animal, or each tiny figure in a crowd is doing something different.

It'll be interesting once they get to the point where they can truly animate actors without it looking fake.

When you can create a virtual actor with all the attributes of a real one but at much less cost, why use the real ones? I know there's plenty of reasons, but the studios won't see it that way. So, it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Of course, in that case CAM would get kind of creepy, because I can totally see people creating their own life sized figures of famous people.


I've watched a few documentaries on the use of CAD in computer animation for movies and it is really fascinating. Especially Weta, the special effects company from New Zealand. Whether or not you thought Peter Jackson's King Kong was a good movie, you do have to admit that the special effects were incredible.

I think with a lot of those companies, they then use the images created with CAD to create CAM figurines for people to buy and maybe Weta does that sometimes, but it seems like most of the time they get an artist who worked on the movie to sculpt the designs rather than relying on machines to do it. They then make all the models from that master item.

But they also create a lot of the backdrops for their movies from scratch rather than putting it up virtually, so it doesn't surprise me.

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    • CAM guides machines in the creation of products.
      By: xy
      CAM guides machines in the creation of products.
    • CAM uses computers to mass-produce products.
      By: Rainer Plendl
      CAM uses computers to mass-produce products.
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      CAD involves the use of computers to create designs.
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