CAD Manager's Newsletter #129

25 May, 2005 By: Robert Green

AutoCAD 2006 for CAD Managers, Part 1: New features that will affect the way you work

I'm well aware that many CAD managers support products and platforms other than AutoCAD, and I try my best to make sure that the CAD Manager's Newsletter addresses the needs of all of you. Having said this, I must acknowledge that AutoCAD is still the 800-pound gorilla of the CAD world, and that a new AutoCAD release does merit attention for the majority of CAD managers out there.

By now AutoCAD 2006 has hit most subscription customers, and I'm starting to get some questions about its relative merits. I plan to craft a series of newsletters that address the new features and changes in AutoCAD 2006 that truly relate to CAD management. The next several issues will review those items. In this first part, I'll also address some questions I received following my recent report on COFES, the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software. (Click here for archives.) I hope you like the content. Here goes.

Feature Overview
If you'd like an overview of all the new features in AutoCAD 2006 (too numerous for me to mention here), check out the following resource links:

Autodesk (Description of AutoCAD 2006)

Cadalyst Labs Review: AutoCAD 2006, by Bill Fane

I'll skip the basics and concentrate on the CAD-management-rich features.

Customized User Interface (CUI Files)
New command: CUI. Customizing AutoCAD-based products has long been a staple of the working CAD manager. In fact, you can make the argument that AutoCAD is as popular as it is precisely because it's flexible and adaptable — but that's another debate for another day.

As AutoCAD has evolved, we've seen the interface include custom menu screens, tear-away toolbars, tool palettes, dockable windows, user profiles and ever more powerful AutoLISP routines. However, with flexibility comes the burden of keeping things working and, worse still, standardized. Keeping on top of the MNU, MNS, MNC, MNR, LSP, XTP and ARG files that comprise AutoCAD's interface components has become a real chore over the years. It seems that Autodesk's AutoCAD team has finally heard CAD managers' cries.

AutoCAD 2006-based products sport a new Customized User Interface, or CUI for short. The CUI's job is to unify all the different file types into a single user environment that can be moved, copied or called from a single network location, as required by the CAD manager. A quick look at the CUI dialog box (figure 1) shows the graphical interface and navigation boxes required to address all the variables within the CUI file.

Figure 1. The CUI dialog box in AutoCAD 2006 displays the navigation boxes required to address all the variables that control the Customized User Interface.

All the information contained within the CUI dialog box is condensed into a new file type with a CUI extension that can be moved from machine to machine. In fact, the Options command lets you set which CUI file should be used both locally (known as the MAIN customization file) and for a network-delivered global file (known as the ENTERPRISE customization file), as shown (figure 2). The MAIN customization file resides on the user's machine and is therefore customizable, while the ENTERPRISE customization file is treated as a read-only file that is read from a network location to achieve standardization.

Figure 2. The Options dialog box in AutoCAD 2006.

The only areas of the new CUI schema that aren't intuitive are as follows:
  • When defining AutoLISP files to load, the CUI retains only a pointer to the LSP file being loaded. The CUI file does not buffer the AutoLISP code in any way. Just think of it this way: CUI treats AutoLISP routines like the Appload command does in prior AutoCAD releases.

  • When you define Tool Palettes, the same logic as for LSP files applies. Also note that tool palettes are located through the tool palette path parameter you enter in AutoCAD's profile setups.

I'm not trying to make a stink about the CUI's handling of AutoLISP and tool palette files. I'm just trying to point out the inherent limitations you'll want to keep in mind.

New command: Wscurrent. Within the CUI file, you'll find a subset of settings that comprise another new function, called the Workspace. Workspaces control which menus you have loaded, where they're located, how toolbars look and where dockable window components such as Sheet Set Manager and tool palettes reside.

Workspaces can be selected via a new toolbar called Workspaces (figure 3). This toolbar allows you to save new Workspaces and recall those already saved. The command functions very much like the old View command or Dimstyles in that it is your responsibility to set up Workspaces to your specifications, and then the interface makes it easy to recall them.

Figure 3. The new Workspaces toolbar.
The object lesson I've derived from customizing AutoCAD for years and years is that users want their desktops to be the way they want them, not the way I want to program them. Workspaces allow users to set up their desktop environment just so and recall the settings easily — so there's really no reason not to use this feature. Workspace toggling also makes it practical to create multiple desktop setups that can be discipline-specific or job-specific just as easily as user-specific.

Figure 4. Interface components contained in Workspaces.

Workspaces hold an endless list of interface components (figure 4). Note that workspaces are contained within the current CUI — the custom user interface file from the previous section — and are not globally portable to other CUI files.

Is It Worth It?
Inevitably, the question comes up: "Is upgrading to AutoCAD 2006 worth it?" Based solely on my examination of the new CUI and Workspace features, I feel there is enough user productivity and enough CAD manager control to be gained to make AutoCAD 2006 worth a close look. I always recommend that the CAD manager examine costs and benefits to make an informed decision, but I'm impressed enough with the new release to give it strong consideration in almost any circumstance.

Your COFES Feedback
My last two newsletters delved into my experience at COFES and the things I saw and heard that might affect the CAD manager. Several of you wrote with follow-up questions that merit some attention.

Question: Why no mention of 64-bit computing or AMD chip sets rather than Intel chip sets?

Answer: The topic of 64-bit computing was barely on the radar screen. There was so much concern about the global business environment that software companies seemed to be happy to let AMD and Intel duke it out on their own.

Question: You said 3D CAD vendors weren't doing a good job of luring 2D users away from AutoCAD, yet Bentley and UGS clearly have efforts under way to migrate AutoCAD users. Why didn't you mention these companies?

Answer: While Bentley and UGS do have marketing campaigns designed to entice AutoCAD users, they weren't talking about them much at COFES. The Autodesk contingent talked at length about migrating to 3D, while the other companies were mainly mum. My article focused on what I actually saw and heard at COFES.

Question: Was there any discussion about the future of the CAD manager's position and how to prepare for it?

Answer: Not per se, no. What I did observe was almost universal agreement that the CAD manager will be with us in the future, but that the position may be much more involved than in the past, with remote work management and IT (information technology) management functions. Outsourcing — an industry trend I've discussed at length — would clearly move the CAD manager position in these directions, so I tend to agree with this. If you want to prepare for the future, I recommend you learn everything you can about IT functions and, if you are in the manufacturing industry, PLM (product lifecycle management).

Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

Wrapping Up
In the next issue of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll continue my coverage of AutoCAD 2006 customization with a more detailed look at how the Customized User Interface (CUI) functions and how you can make it work to your advantage. Until next time.