Become a CAD Ecosystem Expert20 Dec, 2013 By: Robert Green
Once you understand that CAD is not a stand-alone tool, but a complex network of components, you’ll be better prepared to keep it running smoothly.
What should CAD managers actually manage? Senior management teams and CAD managers alike ask me this question, and it's one I've struggled to answer intuitively. One day, it dawned on me that I could explain CAD management by presenting CAD as a multidisciplinary ecosystem that must be managed in its entirety in order to work properly, not just as a tool or a standalone piece of software.
In this edition of "CAD Manager," I'll offer you practical advice on how to best to manage this interconnected web of hardware, software, and human elements — lest it manage you. Here goes.
The CAD Ecosystem
Over the years, I've come to understand that all CAD-related work is accomplished by navigating a complex process that uses a distributed ecosystem of components as follows:
Design intent. A user (engineer, architect, designer, etc.) thinks about the design and develops parameters/constraints to input into a CAD tool.
Hardware interaction. A user then employs a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and computer to input those parameters into a CAD application.
CAD interaction. A user navigates the menus, ribbons, and toolbars of the CAD application to transform the design into a workable model.
Network interaction. The CAD files are then managed via a network or cloud infrastructure.
Output. The CAD design is ultimately output to plots, PDF files, or other means via a peripheral or software driver, which may reside on the user's machine or on a network.
Iteration. Design reviews, client feedback, and internal processes will result in multiple iterations of the above process until a final design is documented. As the design evolves, all the above steps repeat.
It is this multistep process — and all the hardware, software, driver, and peripheral components that facilitate it — that I call the CAD ecosystem.
Every Part Matters
Once I started viewing CAD work as a result of an interdependent ecosystem of actions and components, I realized the following:
The user drives everything. If your CAD users don't understand what they're designing, they won't succeed in their task. If they understand the design but don't understand CAD, they'll be very inefficient.
CAD is just one piece of the system. CAD tools are great, but without functional hardware, networks, and output peripherals — plus great design content — CAD won't do much for you. Anybody can go to the hardware store and buy tools, but that doesn't mean that anybody can build a house!
IT is crucial. So where will you get that great hardware and fast, reliable network you need to run your CAD tools? Your IT department. Thus, if your IT department can't do its job, you won't be able to do yours.
Output problems abound. As I've progressed from using early versions of AutoCAD to 3D mechanical design tools, I've frequently been struck by how often we still have trouble creating plots and proper documentation for design reviews and final deliverables.
So, simply stated, CAD managers who can manage CAD software have only conquered one aspect of the CAD ecosystem. They may still fail if they are faced with incompetent users, outdated hardware, or nonfunctional networks.
What Can You Control?
Let's break the ecosystem down again, but this time let's consider what the CAD manager can do to manage each piece of it.
Design intent. If your company hires good engineers, architects, and designers, then you won't have to worry much about this. On the other hand, if your company habitually hires people with insufficient CAD skills, it may be time for you to get involved with the candidate screening and interviewing process.
Hardware interaction. If your IT department delivers the necessary hardware and properly configured software, you won't have to worry. But if anything about the hardware environment is problematic, then you need to provide input. For example: If hardware is underspecified for CAD applications, fight to get involved with specifications on next year's budget. Don't be a victim of inadequate hardware!
CAD interaction. This is where your application of standards and training are really put to the test. Of course, if your company hires competent workers (as outlined above), your job will be easier. The majority of CAD managers feel most comfortable managing this part of the CAD ecosystem, and thus tend to fixate on it even when other problems are more urgent.
Network interaction. If the network functions properly, then you won't have issues here. However, if your network is problematic, then it is time for you to get involved with IT. General users often don't experience network errors because their needs are limited (for example, because their file sizes are small), but when you start moving around 20-MB Civil 3D projects, building information models, or SolidWorks assemblies, network deficiencies become obvious. As with hardware, get involved and do not suffer network issues without making some noise.
Output. As long as output software and peripherals work, you can spend your time training and standardizing so users can produce quality output without hassle. On the other hand, if software, peripheral, or network issues make plotting and documentation a problem, you must address the issues right away.
Iteration. Design reviews, client feedback, and internal processes will always be a part of the design process. CAD managers can best manage the iterative process by having strong relationships with project managers and key personnel so deadlines are chosen wisely and are well understood.
For each of the above steps, the approach is the same: Diagnose the problem and do whatever it takes to solve it. Otherwise, productivity will suffer dramatically, because each of these elements is essential to the operation of the CAD ecosystem.
Find the Bottlenecks
When we think about the CAD ecosystem, it becomes apparent that it is only as good as its weakest component. Or, put into a traffic analogy, you can only move as many cars as your narrowest road will allow. It is futile to have huge roadways if they get bottlenecked down to a single lane. CAD ecosystems exhibit the same characteristics as a road network — overall throughput is governed by the least robust part of the system. So how do you go about finding your bottlenecks and targeting them? Here's my approach:
Write it all down. Go through the "What Can You Control?" section above and write down your impressions for each part of your CAD ecosystem. No problem is too small; get it all out on the table so you can fully comprehend the problems.
Which problems impede production? You may not care for a particular PDF creation utility your company uses, but does it work? On the other hand, a plotting room that users cannot easily navigate may be causing real delays. Determine which problems hinder productivity, and give them priority over those that are mere annoyances.
Create a prioritized task list. Now that you have thought through the CAD ecosystem, diagnosed the problems, and decided what you need to fix, the question becomes, What should you work on first? The answer: Whichever problem is causing you the greatest productivity losses.
Work through the list in order. No matter what else you might want to work on, you must tackle the highest-priority tasks first. The goal is to make your CAD ecosystem faster and more efficient, and there's no better way to do that than by attacking the problems in order of importance.
I had a boss once, named Kurt, who used to tell me, "Work on the stuff that needs to be worked on!" As I've gained more management experience, I've come to realize how great that advice is.
Fix the Ecosystem
Armed with your new understanding of your CAD ecosystem and its shortcomings, you can now build a CAD management action plan that targets your biggest problems first. Share this plan with your senior management, IT department, and users to solicit their input and advice. You may find that nobody else sees the ecosystem the way you do, because they've never taken the time to analyze it like you have.
Use the attention you get to adjust the interviewing process for new hires, alter IT plans, specify better hardware, improve training programs, and simplify the output of CAD work. As you do so, never lose sight of the fact that CAD isn't an island; it is a multidisciplinary ecosystem that requires detailed analysis and attention. It may take a while to get your point across, but keep educating your coworkers about the concept and you'll see them catch on.
I believe that as software becomes more complex, hardware devices become more diverse, and networks become more cloudy, the CAD ecosystem will become bigger and more difficult to manage. As this happens, the CAD manager has a stark choice to make: Understand the ecosystem and manage it, or let the ecosystem spin out of control and manage you! I can only hope that this edition of "CAD Manager" has armed you with a strategy to proactively manage your CAD ecosystem — and the motivation to do so. Until next time.
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