CAD Manager-When Should You Upgrade to 3D?

1 Aug, 2006 By: Robert Green

Some tips to help you determine if your company is ready for 3D.

If you've been a CAD manager for any length of time, you've seen all the ads and heard the debate about moving to 3D CAD. It seems the market is rife with marketing claims and seemingly contradictory information about how easy or hard it is to implement 3D (see box below). Consequently I'm frequently asked, "How do I know when my company should move to 3D processes?"

In this month's column, I'll answer this persistent question by giving you some concrete guidelines about how to know if you're ready for 3D and, if you're not, what to concentrate on to get there.

 Online Resources
Online Resources

When You Understand Your Interface Points

Interface points represent who you share files with, how often and in what format. The more you need to share information, the more often electronic data changes hands. Also, the more you need to transfer geometry into 2D data formats to satisfy other parties, the more difficult the 3D transition becomes. If you control your own design and manufacturing with little transfer of digital information, the process becomes much easier. At a minimum, consider the following factors.

Will you have to provide DWG? If subcontractors or clients require 2D output from you or send you DWG data, how will that affect your 3D design processes?

Can your vendors provide you with 3D data? If they can provide 3D data, you'll have a clear advantage in using the same system they do.

Can you change enough to accommodate the above? Realistically, working with 2D-to-3D data translations or inheriting someone else's 3D data is going to force you to reexamine how you work. Will you be able to handle the changes?

When You Know What You Need

I've seen numerous cases where companies bought into 3D software because they thought it was the right thing to do, but they never ran a needs analysis. The fact is that 3D software should meet your design needs and find an optimal fit in your design processes or you're simply wasting money. The following factors form the basis of a good needs analysis.

Why will you save money with 3D? If you can't offset the cost with some savings, what's the point?

What key features are you looking for? Do you want interference detection in mechanical environments or automated floor and ceiling plan updates in BIM modeling? Only by educating yourself about the software features and the products on the market will you realize what parts of 3D will be the key drivers in your company. Don't move toward changing to 3D until you understand this part of the equation!

When You Know What to Buy

After you know what you need from 3D software, you can shop for software that meets your needs. Sounds simple, you say? It's a simple concept—so simple, in fact, that I wonder why more companies don't follow it in the first place. Here's a set of guidelines you can use when shopping.

Can the software model my parts, architecture or project? Make this determination by working with software dealers or vendors' application/demo engineers and a representative cross-sample of your actual project data. Even if you need to pay to undertake this task, the money is well spent because you'll know whether the software will work for you.

Don't trust marketing; trust proven results. If you follow my prior piece of advice, you'll have proof that things work rather than just trusting the sales literature. But even if the software can model your work accurately, you'll still need to test for other parameters such as 2D translations, data exchange and so forth. Verify results for each step of the process and you'll never be caught in a bad decision.

Go for a test-period license and let your power users try it out. Your power users may find problems you don't, and you want your power users to feel confident that the software you're specifying will work for them. There's no substitute for getting the thumbs up from your power users when considering new software.

When the Hardware Is There

Think you can run a high-end BIM or mechanical modeling tool on a $399 budget-model computer? Of course you don't think so, but what about your management? The reality is that hardware that can run 3D CAD well is going to cost somewhere in the range of $4,000 per seat if you include a nice-sized flat-screen monitor. We're talking lots of RAM, dual-core processing, big and fast disks, enhanced graphics, and so on. These machines aren't cheap, but they're absolutely necessary to run the kind of modeling software you're looking at.

If your management won't follow your lead on buying high-end hardware, make it a point to ask everyone who demos 3D software to you to provide a hardware specification. Then you'll have a variety of documentation supporting the need for high-end hardware.

After Analyzing Training Needs

When you've identified software that'll meet your needs and you've got your power users convinced, it's time to consider how everyone else will handle the new software. In fact, I've come to believe that getting your staff prepared for the challenge of 3D implementation is the toughest part of the process. The key things that I've done to make the process easier in mechanical, architectural and civil environments alike are as follows.

Plan for professional training and solicit input. Start by working with a professional training provider to establish a standard training course outline for your new software. Then consider the actual features you'll need to train on and which features you won't be using, and adjust the training course syllabus accordingly. You may find that the scope of the training course can be shrunk substantially by training only on the features you actually need.

Pilot the training. Pick a power user and a nonpower user and have them actually attend your professional training course. When the pilot training course is completed, you should immediately debrief the attendees and get their impressions. Revise your training syllabus based on their feedback, and you'll have a training course that is 99% ready for all general users.

Determine Lost Productivity Time

Here comes the tough part: You have to determine how long it will take an average user to come up to normal speed on the new software based on your needs, new software and benchmarked training plans. I admit that it's hard to make this determination and your estimate will never be perfect, but you must estimate the amount of time lost due to the learning curve to really understand what implementing 3D is going to cost your business. The following are some guidelines.

Users in training are 0% productive. If somebody is gone for a week of training, you lose a week of work.

Productivity builds gradually. Users are usually 50% productive during the first four weeks and then break even in about eight weeks, if they're motivated. This timeline sounds brutal, but experience has convinced me that these numbers are accurate. You can't take somebody off a 2D CAD tool they've been using for years, put them on a totally new piece of software and expect them to be lightning fast on Day One.

You'll lose about six weeks of productive performance per user. Again, experience has shown me that this number generally correlates pretty well for all users averaged together.

When the Budget Is There

The moment of truth has arrived. You take the results of your investigations to your management team and tell the members the costs of the software, hardware, training and lost productivity time. Be prepared for some glazed stares as you make your case. And always remember that there's no point buying software if you don't have the hardware to run it and your people aren't educated enough to be productive once it's installed.

The only real problem I've ever had with implementing 3D systems is trying to do the job on the cheap when management had an artificially low concept of the cost. By educating your management on why each component of the equation is required, you can make the case for getting the budget you need. The following justifications are the ones I've found to be particularly effective when making the case to senior management.

The software is the lowest cost: Make the case that hardware can cost as much as software and that training probably will cost just as much.

Lost productivity is the true cost: Software and hardware are important costs to be sure, but the amount of time a user flounders while trying to learn new software is where real money gets lost. Therefore, everything you do to provide a software and hardware 3D environment is pointless without the upfront training time to get users up to speed quickly.

Putting the Ball into Play

I hope this column will serve as a conversation starter for CAD managers, CAD users and engineering and architectural managers everywhere. If you spend some time to analyze the items I've laid out, you'll come to a much better understanding of what 3D can do for you and why. And even if you don't go to 3D processes in the short term, the knowledge you'll gain by going through the analysis will help you understand your company that much better.

Taking a company from 2D design processes to 3D won't just happen on its own. It's up to you to do the homework and analysis required to make sure that you're spending your company's money wisely and at the right time. And that answers the question of when the time is right for 3D.

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him at

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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