Mobile CAD Computing

From the time when the PC (Personal Computer) was introduced in the late 1970’s to early 1980s, the computing world has witnessed progressive miniaturization of the PC into laptops, tablets, smartphones, and recently into computerized watches. Because of availability of the internet and cloud computing, the trend is to reduce computing power on individual computing devices. Instead of packing a lot of computing power into one computing device, the trend is to access computing power which is provided by servers in a distributed computing environment.

A consumer desktop or laptop is not suitable for running 3D CAD software, because CAD operations involve complex computational procedures which require high performance or dedicated processors. Therefore, CAD workstations are purposely designed to provide high performance computational power and snappy information exchange over networks and in a cloud-based computing environment.

A typical CAD engineer often needs to carry his/her workstation to meetings, design reviews, and on business trips. This need for mobility requires that a Mobile CAD Computing device should:

  • Provide performance which is compares favorably with that of a CAD workstation,
  • Provide adequate graphics display size and resolution,
  • Be portable after its power adapter and necessary attachments are packed into a bag and transported even over reasonably long walking distances.

Hereon, the mobile CAD computing device will be referred to as a mobile CAD workstation. This article tries to answer the following questions:

  • What are the capabilities of a typical mobile CAD workstation?
  • Can a mobile CAD workstation perform as well as a traditional workstation?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages in using mobile CAD workstations?

What Are the Capabilities of a Typical Mobile CAD Workstation?

Many versions of mobile CAD workstations are available from CAD vendors. A high performance mobile CAD workstation should have these attributes:

  • It should be a light-weight, portable workstation which uses low voltage CPU, and has long battery life.
  • It should have a high performance GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), and a high resolution graphics display.
  • It should have a high capacity drive, USB ports, and a DVD drive.

Because it is impractical to list all popular mobile CAD workstations, the features of one high-performance mobile CAD workstation are provided. The Lenovo ThinkPad 541 is a mobile CAD workstation which provides these features:

  • It weighs about 5.57 pounds, it is about 1-inch thick, and it has 6+ hours battery life.
  • It uses 4th generation i7 Extreme CPU and optional NVidia Quadra K2100M GPU, and it has 32 MB RAM.
  • It provides 15.6-inch, 2880 x 120 high-resolution displays.
  • It has 500 GB hard drive storage or SSD for improved performance.
  • It has many USB ports and an SD card reader.
  • It may be expanded to provide HDMI video output.

Can a Mobile CAD Workstation Perform As Well As A Traditional Workstation?

The consensus among CAD analysts is that the total CAD workstation market (which comprises desktop and mobile workstations) continues to grow. Mobile CAD workstations grow along with the overall market, and mobile workstation sales remain steady at about 25% of the total workstation market. A survey conducted by an industry research firm found that interest is growing in mobile CAD workstations, while interest is declining for desk-side PCs, workstations, and consumer-class notebooks. Another finding is that many mobile CAD workstations are not used primarily for creating and editing CAD drawings, but rather for accessing CAD drawings and data. Nevertheless, the demand for mobile CAD workstations is expected to show strong growth in the next few years.

Before PCs became popular in the 1980s, most CAD workstations were RISC-based systems such as DEC Alpha, MIPS, PowerPC, and SPARC. Afterwards, CAD workstations used operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux distributions, Apple Mac OS X, and Oracle Solaris.

The features of a top end high-performance CAD workstation include the following:

  • High performance processors from 4 to 18 cores, with base clock speeds up to 3.5 MHz, 2.5 MB core of last level cache, and DDR4 registered DIMM support for up to 32 GB of RAM.
  • Graphics GPU with up to 12 GB of memory as in the NVidia Quadro K6000 graphics card. A high performance GPU is necessary for 3D animations and rendering. For ordinary CAD design work, it is more productive to invest in a high performance processor.
  • Up to 24-inch LED display with minimum high-level resolution of 1280 x 720. Typically, a top performance workstation supports multiple displays.
  • SSDs (Solid State Drives) instead of hard drives, or combination of SSDs and hard drives.

It should be pointed out that virtualized CAD workstations may be more productive in a CAD development environment which relies on cloud computing and hardware virtualization. Using virtualized workstations is also more cost effective in terms of hardware maintenance and hardware upgrade cycles. Although a mobile CAD workstation cannot compete with a top-end CAD workstation in terms of performance, it makes good economic sense to use a mobile workstation in a cloud-based or distributed computing environment, or in an environment of virtualized workstations.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages in Using Mobile CAD workstations?

A mobile CAD workstation cannot match the performance of a top-end high-performance desktop CAD workstation. However, interest is growing in mobile CAD workstations, while interest is declining for desk-side PCs, workstations, and consumer-class notebooks. This could mean that mobile CAD workstations provide benefits that are unmatched by traditional CAD workstations. It may be worthwhile to list some of these benefits.

  • A mobile workstation provides complementary performance to a desktop CAD workstation while providing mobility.
  • A mobile CAD workstation is useful for project managers and executives who are primarily interested in accessing, viewing and reviewing CAD drawings and data, rather than in creating them.

A mobile CAD workstation is very useful in field operations when the CAD engineer needs to access and view CAD drawings and data.