How important are 3D CAD qualifications?

03 May 2011

As competition for jobs mounts up it’s no surprise that it’s skills that catch the eye, but if your 3D CAD qualifications are lacking does it mean the end of the road?

As redundancies have seen talented designers and engineers thrown out from their comfortable lives where 2D was the norm, many are now becoming worried about how they’ll cope in a changing world. 

We tracked down a mixture of designers, CAD training agencies as well as employers to find out what they believe is the best way to get ahead.

The Training Agency

Responsible for training thousands of designers and engineers across the country, Solid Solutions offers around 20 different training courses in SolidWorks that last from a couple of days to over a month’s worth.

Training manager Adam Hartles admits that the longer courses can get very expensive, but explains that the majority of people can get what they need through its Essentials Course.”We’d always recommend our Essentials Course because although we market it as a basic course its a very broad skill set that you end up with: It covers a lot of the SolidWorks products,” explains Hartles.

“It can be quite intense, but they go away with a handbook and contact details for them to get back in touch as well.

“What it teaches is not only how to use the software, but how to use it correctly - so it’s best practice and best principles - if people are aware of the fundamentals of the software then they can generally work their way through the more advanced stuff.”

Training is widely available from most CAD vendors, and as Hartles points out, at courses there’s usually 10 to 15 people around at anytime from different companies where networking at such events has been known to open doors for jobseekers.

The re-educated designer

Darren Fenton is now the head designer at Outsource CAD, specialising in taking on freelance design projects. At 30 years-old he’s not immediately recognisable as the older generation struggling to grasp 3D design, but instead found himself leaving university armed only with 2D methods in a profession rapidly moving forward.

“You were realising that 2D was over and that everyone wants 3D for engineering projects so they can see spatially how things fit, rather than 2D flat images,” says Fenton, like many, obviously aggrieved that a degree had left him a step behind the profession he was moving into.

Since then he has upgraded his skills to encompass product design, engineering and architectural projects, primarily through self-tuition.

“I had a couple of days on a training course, but the vast majority was on the job training; doing tutorials and teaching yourself at night time. The two day training course was enough to give you a helping start, but the vast majority has been training myself through jobs - everybody uses a different 3D package, and every package runs differently.”

It all comes down to one thing: “You can charge more for 3D! Lets face it, there are a lot of people out there that can do 2D design, but there are probably less that can do 3D.”
Although a training course gave him the basics, he turned to books for step-by-step guides in order to develop his knowledge.

The big employer

Last year Dyson set about doubling the size of its design and engineering departments by recruiting 220 people. This year they are aiming to recruit around 150 more [several of the positions have been advertised on].
Ninety of last year’s recruits were graduates kitted out with the latest CAD skills, but a similar number were reliant more on experience than 3D skills.

“The 3D aspect is only a very small part of what we do,” states Steven Morris, Dyson’s HR and resource advisor. “We take on many people in the latter stages of their career who have excellent mechanical knowledge, for example, and maybe need to be brought up to speed from a 3D perspective.

3D CAD is no longer the tool of the future, but of right now - an intricate cog in the product design lifecycle

“We try and see the potential in every individual that we interview, recognise their strengths and weaknesses, and work with them from a performance perspective to make sure they have the skills to draw upon to be effective within Dyson,” concludes Morris

With its own training centre and specialist in-house CAD trainer, Dyson is a massive company expanding rapidly: not a completely realistic picture of what’s happening elsewhere.

The baby boomer

Mamas & Papas is a global brand specialising in prams, highchairs and all things baby-related, and has recently taken a large section of its design and engineering in-house. Despite the company’s growth it, like many others, has 3D modelling experience as key to candidate criteria.

“We would struggle to bring somebody in without a 3D background,” reveals head of design Richard Shaw.

This sits at the head of Mamas & Papas trend of taking on and nurturing graduate talent. “The whole 3D side of design has evolved over the last ten years, and pretty much every graduate has that as part of their core skills.

“Once you’ve got that foundation it’s relatively easy to build that up quickly, but to bring someone on without those skills initially is a big risk for a business.”

Original design and manufacturing product development manager, Ben Hardman, adds: “It’s always more about the person than the package that they’re using - but in this day and age, it’s pretty much a prerequisite for the job. It does affect your ability to fit into a team and a business.”


As many of you are finding out: 3D CAD is no longer the tool of the future, but of right now - an intricate cog in the product design lifecycle. Without it a designer or engineer is going to struggle.

Learning these skills is going to have its costs, both time and financial - its an inevitable step, regardless of how much you invest in it, if you’re searching for new employment.

Matt Wells heads up DEVELOP3D Jobs, our very own home for the best UK-based design and engineering vacancies. Check out the latest available positions here

Comments on this article:

Matt, Can you or any of the fellows you spoke with, for your article, define what constitutes "3D qualifications." Many of us know how varied and fractured our industry has become; making it very difficult for an individual to know all there is out there in the way of software. So, what would be considered good base knowledge; AutoCAD's very capable but clunky 3D, Alibre cause its free, a history modeler or direct modelling etc? 3D CAD for institutions is a nightmare and means selecting a particular product when they should be teaching "general" principals. Companies MUST step up to the plate and accept it is them who must shoulder the cost of training 3D users of all types as, it is those same companies who have allowed the CAD industry to develop into the mess it is! At least Dyson seems to have an understanding of this problem and shouldering what many others are not prepared to do.

Posted by R. Paul Waddington on Thursday 05 2011 at 05:11 AM

As a (very) small employer I need new starts to be able to have a good level of skills in at least the core apps used in the UK today - SolidWorks, Photoshop, Illustrator, maybe Rhino, and ideally a 2D drafting system as well. As someone who went through the very painful process of taking on someone last year the general standard of basic skills shown was dire. We were specifically looking for a new graduate from a product design or product design engineering course. So while I accept the general principles rule Paul in practise that is pointless if you need staff to hit the ground running. Most employers in the design sector are micro companies - maybe up to 5 staff. Not only do we need to pay the staff, but it probably costs us in excess of £10k to set them up just to do the job - machine, software etc. To be quite frank, most training courses are crap - a complete waste of time and money. Training is very expensive and to be honest poor value for money - and I can speak from experience both as a purchaser of £600 a day bespoke training and as a trainer! As a trainer probably 80% of trainees treat the day as a jolly and I know damn well anything they were taught will be forgotten by the time they get into the office the next day. So I do feel it is time the education establishment (in the UK at least) got their acts together and started producing graduates who could do slightly more than extrude, fillet and render. Harsh words perhaps but sadly, on the whole, true. I also believe that students need to get their acts together as well. Student software can be had for free or very little cost. There is no excuse - that is none at all - to be leaving a 3 or 4 years product design course with minimal 3D CAD skills. When I look at a portfolio I should be looking at the renders and models and thinking WOW! How did they create that? Instead I am looking at 5 mins of modelling and 1 minute of Keyshot rendering and listening to design theory lectures. Time to get real. I am looking for a placemnet stident this year - in the UK that is usually post 2nd year on a degree course. So far all the stuff I have seen is poor. My reaction is you have spent 2 years doing what exactly? The blame there is squarely with the educational establishment. These students are not being taught anything useful. Thinking is great, but these are tough times (as it was when I graduated in 1989). We need people who can do.

Posted by Kevin Quigley on Friday 06 2011 at 12:40 AM

Kevin, I, like it would appear you, see this from several perspectives. I am self employed and training is a large component of my business. I do not disagree entirely with you but as I train commercially and, part time, in our TAFE system, what comes across very strongly to me is companies’ laziness in respect to training. The laziness I refer too mostly revolves around the wish to spend an absolute minimum on training. Not necessarily a bad thing if it sharpens the focus but appalling if it reduces training to a token task. The commercial training I do is always based on the customers’ requirements. Focuses on the customers particular problems and is mostly done on site with the customers’ equipment. With me training is never “a jolly”. As it is expected I return $’s almost immediately I would never be paid or invited back if the training was ineffective or a waste of time. Equally, students who attend my college classes don’t have an easy road either. I ask, of them, quite a lot. Believing it is important, on completion of a “basic” course, application of their skills should be at a level the student and an employer can benefit from and, importantly, build on. I don’t know how your system works but here and “industry body” determines what subjects are taught, the content and how much time is allocated. Industry is selecting what the colleges teach not educators. On the surface this approach would appear correct but its got, for several reasons, problems. One being– in the case of CAD - getting industry to agree on what should be taught, and with what; the basis of my original question. You mentioned Solidworks (and others) but what if a college uses Inventor (for what ever reason) and or Alibre cause it’s readily accessible to students. Would students of these two tools likely to be of “real” or “full” value to you Kevin? Out here some so no! What is a qualification in CAD is complex. Does it require industries to decide – firstly - what they want out of new employees and or students when they hit the deck? If so, as they are choosing from a variety of products for a similar task, does it not logically follow the employer must shoulder the cost of specific CAD training based on h/er/is tools of choice? Alternatively do industries have to choose what is a base requirement for a CAD system (not training) and lean on software developers to ensure they meet those requirements in a consistent manner – arguing CAD software not meeting those basic requirements will not be purchased or used? Having consistent “base” CAD software capability would make it “possible” to determine what a CAD qualification should be and would also (possibly) assist in achieving that elusive ability to share data more seamlessly wink An interesting topic this one.

Posted by R. Paul Waddington. on Friday 06 2011 at 04:45 AM

I don't think we are maybe as far apart as you imagine Paul. The situation in the UK is different. As far as I am aware there is no overriding industry body that governs the 3D CAD syllabus. Product design courses (and there are many - but that is another issue) vary from course to course. In many universities they run a product design course and a product design engineering course. The product design people learn Alias, the engineering people learn SolidWorks or something like Pro/E. On many courses they discourage the use of CAD until midway through the second year, and then the training is basic. I actually had a few applicants last year who graduated in 2010 with no 3D CAD experience at all. All they learned was Photoshop and Illustrator. The assumption with the HE sector seems to be that they can churn our graduates with little regard to actual sellable skills. I am not saying all courses are like this or that some students on other courses do not go the extra mile and learn themselves - far from it - but there is a large chunk of the market that are quite content to take the student fee revenue and not do that much in return. We have an intern here right now. He has had to pay his University £600 to do a placement. He has had no input at all from the university, but apparently someone is coming to visit me this month to review the placement. He applied for the placement directly to me - it had nothing to do with the University. When I asked for references from the University I had no response from the course tutors to my calls or emails. To this day, I have still had no dialogue. From what I can gather speaking to others in the industry this state of affairs is not unusual. Sorry I am digressing from the argument! In terms of training, I too used to do commercial training for several years. I started as part of an EU funded scheme to upskill AEC industry professionals in CAD and 3D. It was run by a local university via resellers for the various software. Basically, the resellers contacted their customer base and said they could have free training for up to 12 people at a time, in any software they wanted. Unsurprisingly it was very popular! Over the course of 3 years I trained , maybe, upwards to 500 to 600 architects and technicians in various systems. After the scheme ended the reseller wanted me to continue to do commercial training, which I did until a couple of years ago when I decided it was too much hassle for too little return. The reason it was hassle was that all the training I did was bespoke for the companies - more consultancy training than a canned course. For every day I did I probably spent another 1 to 2 days prepping. As you know, good quality training requires good preparation and understanding of the trainee's needs. So when I attend a canned course after buying software, and typically this is a 8+ in a classroom affair it always irritates me like hell that I have paid £400+ a day to be "trained" by a trainer who clearly has done no preparation, doesn't actually know the software that well, and runs along at snails pace. This is one of the biggest reasons why I rarely purchase commercial training anymore. The market has changed. There are far more good quality online training resources available. If I want to I can arrange a two hour one to one web conference with a true expert - for less than I would pay for a day's classroom training - you just have to know where to find the experts. Training has a place. It is essential in learning the general interface to an app, the key shortcuts for navigation and the basic principles of usage - but this can be covered in a few videos. I recently purchased Luxology Modo. I looked at the training provision available in the UK and it is mainly based in London. But Luxology have some fantastic video training resources available for peanuts money - $20 to $35. These are done by true experts who are designers as well as modellers. For more general stuff you have resources like online video training. In these times companies simply cannot afford both the high cost of the software and the high cost of the training and the downtime in having staff attend 3 or 5 day courses - most of which they forget. In my experience you get better value via web conference training, or videos that you can dip into. So, after all that, why do so many graduates leave with so few higher level 3D CAD skills in the major systems?

Posted by Kevin Quigley on Friday 06 2011 at 09:35 AM

Some interesting comments there Kevin and some food for thought. Not in a position to answer your last question though. Whilst I have seen similar issues; working with uni' guys, in their place of employment, what they are or not learning impacts little on me or what I am expected to achieve. The TAFE students are normally trade and or diploma guys&gals;. Very often part timers and the motivation to learn (nights after work) is driven by wanting to learn. As a result more productive in many cases and, more enjoyable for me as well. Returning to the original question though: It is those who really want to learn that drives me to put effort into to understanding what "real" skills are important for them to take away in the short period of time they spend with me. What I have found most effective is to make sure what ever is learned (covered) can be and is done repeatedly well to ensure it has sunk in. Sometimes, particularly at the start, learning less and doing it properly is of higher value (in the long terms) than covering lots only to loose much.

Posted by R. Paul Waddington on Friday 06 2011 at 01:20 PM

Leave a comment

Enter the word you see below: