For most of its existence, computer-aided design or ‘CAD’ has been the realm of highly-trained professionals only, but as computer technology has advanced and new players have entered into the CAD software game with more user-friendly and better-priced offerings, this powerful tool has become a viable option for the masses.
But is learning and utilising CAD to create parts and equipment for vehicles really something that’s within reach of the average home enthusiast? The short answer is yes, absolutely. For a longer and more interesting answer, we cornered High Performance Academy’s 3D Modelling and CAD tutor, Connor Anderson.
Connor, first off, what’s your deal and what does a typical day look like for you as HPA’s 3D modelling and CAD tutor?
Like everyone at High Performance Academy, I have a strong interest in cars and motorsport, though it was more of a weekend thing as I finished my mechanical engineering degree and started a career working in product development where I built up my CAD skills. I have a Datsun 240Z project that I’ve been slowly improving over the last few years — as soon as I find the time I’ll be fitting up my custom ITBs to the L24 and converting to EFI with a standalone ECU and coil on plug.
In early 2022, I decided that I wanted to combine my passion and my career. I’d actually already been learning through HPA and had taken quite a few of their courses, and after a conversation with the founders Andre and Ben, we discussed the possibility of a specific 3D Modelling and CAD for Motorsport course — I offered my services and here I am!
My days are spent writing and producing new courses and assisting students with any CAD questions they might have, as well as helping the team with bits and pieces on the various HPA project cars in the workshop. Dream Job!
Let’s talk automotive CAD. There are thousands of performance suppliers offering countless parts for all types of vehicles — why does anyone need to use CAD to design their own?
There are, yes, but unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t that well-designed or made, and if you’ve got a more obscure vehicle — or one that’s heavily modified with other OEM and aftermarket parts — finding something off the shelf just isn’t an option.
There’s often a disconnect between what the products are meant to achieve and the actual result. Of course, there are plenty of great products out there, but often not for our particular application.
One of my favorite aspects of the performance car world is the custom nature and individual expression, and that shouldn’t be limited by “bolt-on” parts. Sometimes the only way to get what you need is to make it yourself, and that often results in a better fitting and performing part for a lower price tag.
Let’s talk money — how much does it cost to buy CAD software and do you need an expensive supercomputer to run it?
It can be a little overwhelming when it comes to software since there are hundreds, if not thousands, of options, with the higher end of the spectrum being over $10,000 USD a year.
And while you might have been stuck paying big bucks for decent software a few years ago, there are now extremely capable free and or really affordable options out there that have all the functionality you’d ever need. We decided to use Fusion 360 in our new 3D Modelling and CAD for Motorsport course, for example, because it’s free to use and is very capable, meaning that anyone taking the course can use the exact same program as they follow along.
The choice comes down to open-source versus proprietary and cloud-based versus local — whatever works best for you. At the end of the day, they all work very similarly, so once you know the basics it’s not too much of a problem to change over and adjust to a different software package.
In terms of your computer, heaps of power is always nice, but most modern computers are more than up to the task of basic modelling — just keep in mind you’ll need a decent internet connection for cloud-based software like Fusion 360.
What do you think the easiest and hardest things to master are when it comes to CAD for automotive and motorsport use?
The easiest thing is finding parts to design for our cars. We all have a list of parts we want but can’t have because we either can’t afford them or they don’t exist exactly how we want them — or maybe we just want to design our own. The nice thing is once we’re set up with CAD we can design anything we want for free, it just takes time.
The hardest thing is designing a part that will actually make an improvement while also maintaining safety. That’s because performance applications are full of compromise and usually, an improvement in performance comes with a compromise in something else — it’s also really common for designs to just simply not give the desired results. The key here, as with any good design, is having a deep understanding of the problem you are trying to solve.
What are the most common mistakes you see people who are new to CAD make, and how should they avoid it?
In terms of actually modelling, it’s not fully defining sketches, which is basically leaving features undimensioned. Without “locking down” your design, it can change unintentionally and without being noticed, so it’s best to keep the model nice and tidy so it’s flexible to modifications.
In terms of design, a common oversight is not designing for manufacture — we need to keep the manufacturing process in mind when creating a part to ensure that it can actually be produced with the tools we, or the shop we’re using, has available.
Do you think people need to be ‘artistic’ or ‘creative’, for better lack of a word, in order to be good at CAD?
Not at all. There’s usually a range of geometric constraints for fitment and packaging that we need to model around, so it helps to start with these. The most important thing is designing a functional part that fits these constraints — once we have that, it’s easy to add some finishing touches or our own style to achieve the aesthetic we’re after.
What makes a good part design, good?
The best measure is whether or not the design actually functions and achieves what it’s intended to. Also, for any automotive part, safety is obviously a crucial factor.
There are a lot of other considerations on top of this like weight, aesthetics, efficiency, and cost, but functionality and safety are paramount.
What kind of parts and equipment should people expect to be able to create after they’ve completed the HPA 3D Modelling and CAD for Motorsport course?
Any parts that can be fabricated by the usual methods. So that’s cutting, drilling, and welding, as well anything on a lathe or mill, 3D printable or injection-moulded plastic parts, and also sheet metal parts that can be cut with 2D cutting machines like laser, plasma, and waterjet cutters, then bent, folded, and formed.
Realistically though, you’ll be able to model whatever you can think up, and those parts can then be made, as long as the right manufacturing methods are available to you.
What if someone is proficient enough in CAD to design their own parts, but has no fabrication skills or equipment to actually physically make it? What options do they have?
In the course, we walk through all the post processes required to get your parts made for you, accurately and efficiently. This includes producing technical drawings and all the different output files that you can send to a shop for manufacture. We also touch on CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) so you can leverage the power of CNC machines to make your designs for you.
The ultimate solution, though, is to check out the HPA fabrication courses. It’s a good place to pick up some new skills, save money by not having to pay someone else to do the work, and have full control over the quality of the finished product. I took all these courses before I became a tutor at HPA, and they’re the reason I’m able to take my designs and turn them into physical real-world parts.
Lastly, if you could give people who are embarking on their own motorsport design journey one solid piece of advice, what would it be?
Just get started! Find something you can model or a problem you can solve and get designing. The most important part of CAD is experience — the more you do it, the better you’ll get and as a bonus, you’ll get some cool parts for your car while you're at it.