A Mobile CAD Reality Check

21 Feb, 2012 By: Robert Green

There's a lot of buzz around the technology right now, but does it hold any value for your users?

It seems that every week there's a new press release about how you can open CAD files on your iPad or send viewable files to your phone. If this keeps up, I'll have building information modeling on my wristwatch soon.

But how widespread is the move to mobile CAD usage? Are users truly taking advantage of the new capabilities, or is CAD mobility simply more technology hype that doesn't reflect real patterns of usage? And, most importantly for us CAD managers, how might this development change the way we manage our CAD departments?

In this installment of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we'll start investigating mobile CAD from a CAD manager's point of view.

Defining Mobile CAD

Before we proceed, let's rough out a working definition so we'll have a basis for our discussion.

Mobile CAD is:

  • An application run on a portable device (such as a phone or tablet) or a totally web-based platform.
  • Usually based on non-Windows systems such as Android, iOS, or OS-agnostic browsers.
  • Low-cost or free to download and use.
  • Usually based on cellular or Wi-Fi network connectivity.

Mobile CAD is not:

  • Your normal CAD program running on a laptop.
  • Fully functional (instead, it offers a small subset of CAD functions).

Who Can Benefit?

Like so many developments in technology news, mobile CAD seems to be mainly about the "Wow" factor at this point. I haven't seen much use of mobile CAD among my clients so far, but I have noticed more and more questions about the concept, so it is obvious that the hype is working.

So how can we determine whether mobile CAD is something we can take advantage of? By focusing on the fundamentals and asking some diagnostic questions about our company's CAD usage, that's how. Let's get started by answering these questions:

  • Are you in an industry (such as construction, technical services, or facilities management) that often places your users in the field?
  • Do your users need to view CAD information without editing the CAD file?
  • Are electronic markup or commenting functions what your users really need?
  • Do you need to equip workers with basic CAD viewing capabilities, without paying a fortune to do so?

The more times you answered "Yes," the more likely it is that mobile CAD of some sort will have a place in your future.

Limited Functionality, Limited Uses

You may have noticed that the list of diagnostic questions I proposed describes mobile CAD functions that are more viewer-centric, annotative, and less computationally demanding than their stationary counterparts. Why? Because that's what field workers need. If you're sitting at your desk with all your normal CAD tools, there's no reason to perform CAD operations on a cell phone or an iPad!

In fact, the only cases where I've seen mobile CAD properly implemented involve workers who are trying to create notes and markups on a job site without toting a heavy laptop or reams of paper. In these situations, a tablet-sized viewing and markup application is much easier to carry and use. That's where mobile CAD's sweet spot is — at least for now.

Moving forward, there will probably be more fully functional mobile CAD applications created by CAD software manufacturers (who will then have all the control over costs and file version support). Time will tell.

With AutoCAD WS, an Autodesk-centric application suite, you can explore phone/tablet and web-based mobile CAD for free. These screenshots of
AutoCAD WS running on an iPhone show the drawing tools on a building plan (left), a 3D solid view of a motor (center), and the view selection tool (right).

Security, Publishing, and Synchronizing

Another thing you may have noticed about the cases where mobile CAD seems effective is that users aren't editing a CAD file, but are viewing or marking up a web-based copy instead. In both cases the master copy of the CAD file is still back at the main office, controlled under normal network security structures. So how are these copies created, and what happens to the markups?

The way mobile CAD applications tend to work is via a published copy of a drawing or model that in-house CAD staffers release for field use. In this publishing paradigm, mobile CAD users are only able to work on files that have been controlled and published at the main office (but that's probably as it should be). Any markups made on the published copy are then synchronized back to the in-house CAD users for viewing and decision making. The whole thing works like a glorified viewing and markup tool of the past, just a mobile-enabled one.

It stands to reason that if your in-house CAD users have to control and publish files for mobile users, you'll need to understand those processes and manage them. This is where mobile CAD will force CAD managers to rethink how CAD files are tracked and released to field personnel, and how to deal with the markups that are generated. Simply imagine the management nightmare that would ensue if you had 20 field-based employees modifying your master CAD files on their tablets, and you’ll begin to understand why a publish/synchronize architecture makes sense.

Summing Up

I hope this initial discussion of mobile CAD has helped you visualize how you might use mobile CAD applications in your company. The key is to think carefully about your users' workflows, locations, and travel habits so you'll know which types of tools to investigate and what new processes to expect. Even if you don't think mobile CAD will affect you, it is still worthwhile to explore the possibilities now, just in case!

In "A Mobile CAD Reality Check, Part 2," I'll give you some applications to explore and ponder how the future of mobile CAD might change CAD management even more. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

Add comment


Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: mwrcadalyst
February 22, 2012 - 2:38pm
At first I thought mobile CADD was going to be another here we go again. I remember viewers created for PDAs in years past. Still haven't really found a need for it on the phone yet but I have been using it heavily on my Xoom for both getting ideas across to clients and also doing markups.
Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: mmermel
February 22, 2012 - 4:41pm
How about continuing with information about the publish/synch process. We're looking at posting information in the "Cloud" for our site visits. No one has yet inquired about the process for putting the information out there. I'm afraid they will use the "Upload What You Need" process, which will be totally uncontrolled.
Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: danstitt
February 23, 2012 - 2:40am
I'd like to see an article(s) about using mobile devices to be a better CAD Manager. I bought myself an iPad for work and so far I use it to take notes in meetings. Are there other apps out there that can help with CAD Management duties outside of the mobile CAD app?
Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: rltomkinson
April 17, 2012 - 1:45pm
At this point, our CAD users aren't the ones using CAD viewers on iPads, it's our field guys. Our foremen, testing and commissioning guys and others who need to have access to the drawings but aren't necessarily CAD users. That being said, they have found them useful. They can "mark up" the drawings for as-built conditions and let the cad guys back in the office make the changes.
Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: mobileCAD
March 11, 2013 - 5:43pm
Mobile CAD is not CAD on a smaller screen. In our experience, it is custom applications that take advantage of the technologies found in mobile devices such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS, cameras, etc. The simplest solutions, such as field markup described in this article, are 3D visualizations. More complex solutions, like in our vueCAD application, maintain the data structures necessary to make accurate calculations on the CAD geometry. One example use is control of laser scanning and laser projection systems in Aerospace assembly. Another use is in a visual verification system in Shipping and Receiving at a major automotive manufacturer. The applications are bound not by CAD or the size of the screen, but only by the imagination of our customers.
Re: A Mobile CAD Reality Check
by: mobileCAD
March 11, 2013 - 6:20pm
We created a Group on LinkedIn for discussion of mobile CAD topics. Please visit:
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