CAD at Your Fingertips

6 Jun, 2012 By: Heather Livingston

Handheld devices and a rapidly expanding selection of apps are usurping laptops for access to data from virtually any location.

In the 1960s, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors incorporated in a chip would approximately double every 24 months. Over time, what's become known as Moore's Law has been revised to double computer chip capacity every 18 months and expanded to apply to technologies such as CAD. This rapid growth of chip capacity is the force behind the increasingly powerful hardware and software we have at our fingertips today.

During the past decade, these technological improvements have spurred tremendous changes in the way design professionals work. No longer is the traditional design–bid–build progression relevant for most AEC projects. Integrated project delivery (IPD) and building information modeling (BIM) have introduced new processes for design teams along with new software. Technologies that were considered optional when they were introduced — such as 3D design, BIM, geospatial information systems and mapping, and wireless printing — are now a critical part of today's integrated design processes. Many clients have come to expect the benefits of these technologies as well, from the cost and time efficiencies gained through BIM and IPD to photorealistic design renderings and even animated presentations.

The latest step in this evolution has been to take these tools on the road, enabling design files to be accessed, modified, and shared from virtually any location using a tablet or smartphone. True to Moore's Law, new mobile apps are arriving on the scene with increasing frequency, each one more powerful than the last. Welcome to the world of mobile CAD.

A contractor views CAD drawings of a project on AutoCAD WS, and is able to make real-time edits and markups to share with team members in other locations. Image courtesy of Autodesk.

What Is Mobile CAD?

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about. In a sense, CAD has been mobile for a long time. After all, laptops are mobile by definition, and file-sharing technologies such as Citrix mean CAD users are no longer bound to their offices. But laptops can be cumbersome, they require a Wi-Fi network to connect with others — and they only offer flexibility in where you work, not how.

All that has changed over the past two years thanks to the explosion in popularity of handheld devices and the growing number of CAD apps that run on them. (For a sampling of available apps, see "iOS and Android Apps for Mobile CAD Users.") These applications are being developed by established software companies including Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Newforma, Dassault Systèmes, and Robert McNeel and Associates, as well as newer, niche companies such as CadFaster, Simulation Lab Software, and Maide that are filling market needs left unmet by the larger providers. What was recently a nascent trend is quickly becoming mainstream. In fact, a report on cloud trends by research firm IDC predicted that 46% of all professionals will be mobile-only by 2014 (according to Steve Blum, Autodesk senior vice-president of worldwide sales and services, in a presentation to the media in late 2011). 

Mobile CAD goes where work needs to be done. This field worker is using Bentley's iPad apps on site. Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.

A Bit about the Cloud

Cloud technology is the enabling force that's allowing CAD users to become mobile-only. Shanna Tellerman, product line manager for Autodesk Cloud Services and Applications, explains, "The cloud streamlines information and allows people to manage large volumes of data."

The complex nature of the design and construction process means many different people are responsible for particular pieces of a given project, and keeping everyone up-to-date is a huge challenge. The ideal solution has yet to emerge, Tellerman says, but that's changing.

"The promise of the cloud is actually providing a single source of data — or a 'single source of truth' — that all of the collaborators are referring back to," Tellerman states. "As new pieces of information are added, it's automatically updated in the model that's living in the cloud. That single source of truth is what everybody is referring to [throughout the design process]." The collaborative nature of the cloud is what makes mobile feasible for multi-user projects. Without the cloud, project versioning and data synchronization problems can undermine success.

Data security, however, is a big concern for design and engineering firms considering cloud-based CAD services. Fears about protecting designs and other intellectual property give pause to professionals in AEC as well as manufacturing, but Tellerman believes that as cloud adoption grows organically, its acceptance as a secure option also will increase. She predicts that users quickly will become more comfortable saving proprietary design data in the cloud, just as we've become accustomed to file-sharing on Box, a popular cloud service, and online banking, which saves the most critical personal data in the cloud.

Huw Roberts, global marketing director for Bentley Systems, believes that the best solution for most building and infrastructure design projects at this point in time is to use a hybrid file storage environment. "There's some information that you definitely want to keep locked tight behind your firewall, so there's no access to it, and there's some information that you want as open and public as possible," Roberts explains. As cloud technology and mobile CAD continue to push into mainstream AEC practices, he believes that firms will want to use a combination of local area networks (LANs), Internet services, and cloud hosting to protect and share data, while retaining the ability to easily move that information around.

Projects that are in the early stages of design still may be very private and internal, Roberts says, but as they come under review, they will move out to larger audiences and, in some cases, public review. "That hybrid envi- ronment of cloud, server, local computer, and mobile device is the foreseeable future for everybody," he believes.

Why an iPad? A Civil Engineer's Perspective

For Kris McDonald, a civil engineering technician with Hall Engineering Company in Centerville, Iowa, the benefit of working on a mobile device is, hands-down, its ease of use. His mobile app of choice is AutoCAD WS from Autodesk, which lets users open and edit DWG files via an iOS or Android device or via a web browser from any computer, manage and edit drawing files, plot to PDF or DWF, and share those drawings with others.

Before the introduction of AutoCAD WS, McDonald relied on his HP50 calculator and a data collector for doing field calculations. "I was looking for an opportunity to speed up the process of doing math in the field," he explains. Instead of "having to save points and come back into the office, open up CAD, and do a bunch of linework," McDonald now can gather data in the field and use his iPad on location to directly upload that data to the original file.

"Surveying requires quite a bit of walking [and] sometimes finding concrete monuments or different section corners throughout a mile or two of land," he says. "Using my iPad, I can pull up that information right in the field and it gives me benchmarks on where existing stuff is, and I can measure how far to go to look for other section corners and other convenient opportunities like that."

Kris McDonald of Hall Engineering Company creates architectural drawings such as this using only AutoCAD WS for iPad. He drafts live and on site, using an EDM surveying transit to shoot points at various locations within the building, then importing them into the WS drawing. From there, he adds all linework within the app. Image courtesy of Autodesk.

In the past, McDonald tried using a laptop in the field. It worked "fine," he says, but it wasn’t ideal. In the end, using the laptop required that he return first to his truck to record the bulk of the calculations, then to his office to upload and reconcile the data to the file — duplicating effort and creating opportunities for mistakes. Now, before he heads out to a job site, McDonald downloads the most recent survey information into AutoCAD WS. Once on site, he can access and update the information quickly and easily, and because he's recording the calculations in real time, there are fewer opportunities for data to become corrupted.

"Just carrying my iPad — whipping that out and doing some linework — is far more practical than trying to lug a laptop someplace," he says. McDonald also appreciates that because he can access his project files via the iPad, he is spared the hassle of carrying D-size plan sets to the site.

In addition to AutoCAD WS, McDonald relies on mobile applications such as iGIS, which lets users create and export spatial data and embed it in a Google Maps background; Box or Dropbox for file sharing; GoodReader for PDF viewing; and remote-access apps such as LogMeIn.

One of the biggest surprises for McDonald in transitioning to mobile CAD was how simple it was to begin using the applications. Creating an account, uploading drawings to the app, and accessing them on a mobile device is extremely simple, he says. "It doesn't take a bunch of complex finagling to get it to work. It's been a very simple implementation."

"The real advantage to AutoCAD WS right now for civil projects is when you're done with the project [preliminaries], you can upload a whole plan set to your iPad. ... You can make all of your as-built corrections or field notes right within the drawing and it's automatically saved to the cloud," states McDonald. "You can go back to the office and print out the final set when the project's complete. Right now, where the framework of AutoCAD WS is, that's the most advantageous part."

Architects Weigh In

For architect William Campo and BIM Manager David Light, both based in HOK's London office, the benefits of using mobile devices for CAD work are threefold: great accessibility, coordination, and presentation capabilities.

Campo, a project coordinator, uses Autodesk's Design Review Mobile for viewing and redlining 2D and 3D DWF files. He can zoom, pan, and rotate drawings — which clients appreciate — plus insert text and comments in the design. He also is interested in exploring Bentley's Navigator app for 3D viewing and editing, and ProjectWise for content management and collaboration.

With Bentley's Navigator for iPad app, designers can review design models on the job site. Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.

Light is a fan of the CadFaster software solution and companion iPad app, which work with Revit, MicroStation, and SolidWorks models to enable live file viewing and markup between multiple iPad users, supporting every stage of the design process.

Accessibility. Both Campo and Light consider themselves to be completely mobile. Although Campo still relies on his laptop for most CAD design work, he estimates that he spends 30% of his time working on his iPad and Android phone. However, he expects the percentage of time spent on his iPad to increase quickly. Campo summed up the purpose behind his transition to mobile CAD in this way: "Having access to your blueprint or having access to your model in your phone — that's a massive benefit."

Light is using his mobile devices for 40% of his work. He is fully set up to work remotely and divides his time between home and various HOK locations.

"I'm fully mobile," he says. "What that basically means is that I can get access to anything, anytime, anywhere. ... We have deployed Citrix within our business [for accessing server-based files from any device and location] and see that moving forward to be very, very important."

Tag This!
RFID plus mobile devices help users locate utilities.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communications (NFC) are two of the fastest-growing trends in mobile technology. For the past few years, RFID tags have been used with great success to manage the materials supply chain on design and construction projects. A new use that's having a big impact in the AEC profession is RFID utility tags.

Intelligent Trench is one underground mapping solution based on RFID technology. Users bury RFID tag balls with existing or new underground utilities, then later can use a mobile reader to locate a tag ball and a GPS PDA to access records that indicate which utilities are present. The technology can track which work is done where and by whom as well as reduce the need for exploratory digs.

One of the first major projects to use RFID tag technology was the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport. In 2006, the project deployed more than 1,000 RFID tag balls around a new runway. The devices allow the FAA, Hartsfield employees, and utility workers to use mobile readers to locate utilities and determine infrastructure type.

Though there are not yet many smartphone apps supporting this trend, there are a few, including ReadRFID from Timerot. However, with the demand for RFID technology growing, the number of apps available is sure to increase quickly.

Coordination. In today's design environment, project stakeholders are commonly spread across cities, states, and countries. For a large, international firm such as HOK, coordination among its offices and project team members is essential. Mobile CAD is a becoming an inexpensive and easy way to meet that requirement.

Asynchronous sharing — the ability for multiple users to simultaneously share and alter a file on multiple devices — is mobile CAD's payoff for HOK, which benefits from tremendously enhanced coordination capabilities. Now, multiple players can view and manipulate design data at the same time by way of different devices, regardless of geography geography, and because all of the data is saved to the cloud instantaneously, version control becomes a non-issue. Campo echoes Autodesk's Tellerman in saying that having that cloud-based single source of up-to-date data for all project members to reference is a tremendous benefit of mobile CAD.

Presentation. Finally, using an iPad for client presentations is a powerful tool for HOK, says Campo. The dynamic viewing opportunities of tablets give the firm a slick, fun way to present their body of work. Plus, the device lets clients hold and manipulate the design in a way that was never before possible. "We've done presentations to clients, bringing in an iPad and pulling out a model the client can touch and spin around," Campo says. The touch-screen technology, coupled with BIM's embedded properties in the model, provides HOK a very clear way to help the client understand what BIM is about, Campo believes. "It's very easy to show a client — even easier than having a laptop — and that is the main difference."

Sometimes, says Campo, HOK wants to offer clients a model they can "slice and dice" and review from every angle. In most cases, the client doesn't have the skill set necessary to operate software platforms such as NavisWorks, Revit, and MicroStation, but mobile CAD gives them the ability to digitally manipulate design drawings with the touch of a finger, Campo explains. Such interactivity certainly delivers the "Wow" factor to the client, but more importantly, it also helps them understand how a 2D plan translates to their 3D building.

A Few Drawbacks.
Both Campo and Light believe that, right now, the greatest challenge of working on CAD via mobile devices is that they don't have enough battery power. Ultimately, the battery drain imposed by generating 2D and 3D drawings on tablets is probably what will keep them from surpassing laptops in the mobile workflow for a few more years.

In the meantime, Campo resolves the power problem by keeping spare batteries fully charged so he can swap them out at a moment's notice. Light's approach is to swap devices. Neither solution is optimal, of course.

Other issues with ditching the desktop or laptop in favor of a tablet include the difficulty of dragging and dropping without a mouse or trackpad, and learning to use an on-screen keyboard. Wireless keyboards are available for use with tablets, but those, too, have limitations and inconveniences.

Multi-generational Appeal

With mobile apps available for 2D and 3D work, even those firms that never intend to transition to 3D can — and are — embracing the efficiencies made possible by CAD applications in smart phones and tablets. Light notes that he has witnessed leaders of some AEC firms who have not become fully comfortable using the Windows operating system, but when given an iPad, they "were off and running in seconds." Because of the intuitive nature of the touch-screen technology, even those professionals who still prefer pen and paper are able to enjoy using a tablet PC or smartphone and will discover conveniences of the technology.

McDonald, the civil engineer, adds, "It's important to stress the simplicity of AutoCAD WS. A lot of people that I know in the engineering business shy away from technology," he explains. "They use what works — and what has worked for years and years — without necessarily caring about the efficiencies created by new technology." He believes that it's important for all design professionals to understand that using mobile CAD is simple. He's encouraged by AutoCAD WS, and he hopes that more people begin using it in their daily workflow because it will further develop the software and make it a better product for everyone.

Using AutoCAD WS, users can share drawings and update details via mobile devices. Image courtesy of Autodesk.

Both Autodesk and Bentley indicated that although their current mobile strategies and offerings result from the combination of present and anticipated demand, they are working to rapidly increase the variety and functionality of apps they offer for iOS and Android devices.

All parties interviewed believe that for now, doing 100% of CAD work via mobile device is probably unrealistic, but as McDonald says, "each version is getting better and better." Bentley's Roberts adds, "Once the light bulb goes off and the user figures out the value, [use] snowballs really quickly. ... If people are already using ProjectWise or Structural ISM, adding the ProjectWise app or the Structural View app is an obvious and natural extension of what they do." Ultimately, it’s just one more tool in the toolbox.

"It's not so much the mobile device," Roberts continues. "The hardware is not the point. The point is the information you can get to. Can you get the information you need to make the decision you want to make right now? And can you trust it and be confident that it’s the right information and that you didn’t leave something out that Fred has over in England? That's where the real potential is, and what it's all for. It's about getting you the information so you can do your job better, faster, and right now."

Add comment


Re: CAD at Your Fingertips
by: Brad Bishop
November 16, 2015 - 10:57am
Great article, even 3 years later, it is still relevant. And now, with the advent of software tools like DrawingSearcher ( that support iPhone, iPad, and other Mobile Devices / Tablets, users can now SEARCH and FIND any/all technical documents (CAD, PDF's, Office, etc.) wherever they are ... in the office, on a job site, or at home! (This of course assumes that the user has proper VPN access to all their documents secured by their I.T. department behind various levels of firewalls)
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