Break the Bottleneck

9 Jul, 2014 By: Robert Green

Diagnose where the bottlenecks are in your company’s CAD workflow so your users can work more efficiently.

Over the years I've come to believe that CAD managers are in charge of an ecosystem of components that, when properly combined, produce completed CAD work. And, since CAD managers always want things to work better and faster, with less effort, they strive to constantly make the CAD ecosystem more productive for their users.

So the question becomes, "How can I make my CAD ecosystem work better for everyone involved?" The answer, in my opinion, is by chasing down and eliminating the productivity-sapping bottlenecks in your system. In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll explain what I mean by bottleneck and demonstrate how you can quantify them so you're always making your CAD ecosystem a better place to get work done. Here goes.

The Ecosystem Defined

I like to think of the CAD ecosystem as comprising all the components necessary to complete CAD projects, which usually move from one component to the next in this sequence:

  1. The users. They think about solutions to the design problem at hand, then attempt to input their ideas into the CAD software.
  2. The input devices. Mice, trackballs, keyboards, laser scanners, and digital cameras all capture information for use with CAD software.
  3. The workstation and network. None of the user input means anything without a workstation, and in most cases a network as well, that run the software reliably.
  4. The standards and training system. The more thoroughly the users are trained and the standard procedures are implemented, the better the software will serve us.
  5. The software. The software processes the user input into a final work product.
  6. The output devices. Plotters, 2D and 3D printers, PDF capture software, and other devices create tangible work products that can be delivered to clients.
  7. The iteration/revision process. As design reviews, checking, and evolving design parameters necessitate changes, the entire process now reverts back to the user and everything starts again.

Of course, you may need to add in some additional components to describe your particular CAD ecosystem, but the checklist above gives you a good starting point.

Bottlenecks and Process Flow

Now that you've mapped out your CAD ecosystem, you can start to graphically visualize how CAD tasks are executed in your office. For me, the workflow that emerges looks something like this (using numbers from the above section):

CAD Task Workflow

Once you've diagrammed your CAD ecosystem in this manner, you can draw a few conclusions almost immediately:

  • The workflow that travels through your ecosystem is only as good as the weakest component, which may create a bottleneck — a choke point that slows the progress of the entire workflow.
  • The more frequently you revise a design, the longer the entire process takes.

I've found it fascinating over the years to draw this type of diagram for clients and ask them where their bottlenecks are, only to be met with blank stares — they often have no clue as to where the true problems lie. Once you establish this for your company, you'll have a great advantage in tackling workflow problems.


Irrefutable Truths

Stepping through the components of the CAD ecosystem, I'll offer some certainties about them that I've learned from years of experience. I'll relate each of these to their bottleneck potential for many companies.

  1. The users. If your users don't know what they are doing, nothing else matters. The bottleneck potential here is huge, especially if a user is thrown into a new CAD program without training.
  2. The input devices. Great input devices allow users to get information into their CAD software and visualize complex 3D systems with the least amount of wasted time — but they're not all great. The bottleneck potential here is larger than you might think, especially when trying to collect huge 3D point clouds with a too small/slow laser scanner.
  3. The workstation and network. Workstations and networks that run software briskly with no noticeable delays, glitches, or crashes keep your users happy and productive. The seriousness of bottlenecks from hardware and networks that are old, unreliable, and constantly crashing can't be overstated.
  4. The standards and training system. This component can't be separated from the first component — the user. After all, users who are well trained and work in a standardized environment will always be more efficient than those who aren't. A bottleneck here can undermine everything that you do right.
  5. The software. The right software makes work progress efficiently; the wrong software turns work processes into drudgery. Surprisingly, the bottleneck potential here is very low, as most companies really do use the right software for the right tasks.
  6. The output devices. This is how your clients judge you — by your final product. The bottleneck potential here typically arises from using slow or low-volume output devices in high-throughput environments.
  7. The iteration/revision process. The more you have to iterate and revise, the more time your users spend on each project, and the more any bottlenecks you do have are magnified.

So, simply stated, the CAD manager can manage the CAD software tools perfectly, but is still doomed to fail if he or she must deal with incompetent users, outdated hardware, or non-functional networks.

Find Bottlenecks and Attack Them

Now, here's the fun part. You need to be brutally honest in your assessment of which component in your CAD ecosystem is slowing you down the most. Is it slow hardware, lack of training, or some combination of other factors I've not identified? Nobody but you, the CAD manager, can make these judgments, so you must analyze your company's workflows and determine where the bottlenecks are.

Once you've located them, it is time to start fixing them. Your job is to focus on the worst bottlenecks and wipe them out first. You may find that a combination of some or all of these techniques is required:

  • Explain your findings to your boss
  • Convince your users of your findings
  • Get permission and budget approval to fix the bottlenecks
  • Explain ecosystem changes to users
  • Labor to put fixes into place.

The great thing about going on the attack in this organized manner is that you'll address the worst problems in your ecosystem with laser-like focus, and fix problems with a sense of purpose and productivity. I actually enjoy fixing bottlenecks, as it gives me a sense of accomplishment and purpose and keeps the job interesting every single day. Your users will appreciate the new training, hardware, or output device that makes their work easier, and your boss will like the productivity you bring to the workplace! Eliminating bottlenecks is a win–win proposition.

In my experience, figuring out where the bottleneck is isn't the worst part of the process; rather, it's convincing those around you of the severity of the bottlenecks you've identified. The good news is that once everyone agrees on the critical nature of the problem, you'll typically get budget approval to fix it quickly. So don't despair, just work through the process one bottleneck at a time.

Summing Up

Of course, for every bottleneck you fix, there will be another waiting for you to discover it. This is always going to be the case in CAD management, as the CAD ecosystem is not static; something is always evolving or changing to meet project demands.

I hope my bottleneck analogy proves useful for you in better understanding your CAD ecosystem, and that the process of understanding and diagramming your work processes gives you greater insight into your CAD management tasks. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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