Peer Software Facilitates CAD Collaboration10 Sep, 2009 By: Jimmy Tam
A medical-device design firm coordinates multiple-office AutoCAD use via collaboration software.
By definition, standard business collaboration is anything but standard — it is tricky and often fraught with unforeseen problems. Exchanging Word documents, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint files is seldom a serial, linear process. Any number of small factors — for example, two people at different locations working on the same document simultaneously — can interrupt workflow and throw a project off course and behind schedule.
As if that weren't bad enough, CAD collaboration is an order of magnitude more difficult, complex, and error-prone. First, CAD files typically are far more complex than even the most dizzying legal document; in most scenarios, project team members must follow standardized procedures for part naming in the creation and development of a CAD file, a process which by itself can derail the project. Second, CAD projects are by their very nature iterative, because engineers must make sure their designs work, are manufacturable, and meet customer requirements. Implementing a collaborative framework for design and engineering firms comes with a unique set of challenges.
Synergy with AutoCAD
Several months ago, Synergy Surgical Technologies, designers of orthopedic implants and instruments, was seeking to redesign and expand its network to support and connect its main office in Redlands, California, and its satellite office in Austin, Texas. The main challenge was to implement a collaborative framework to support 10 engineers, evenly distributed between both offices.
Synergy reached out to TeamAccent, a reseller also based in Southern California; TeamAccent was selected based on its previous work with a 150-person engineering firm that also had offices in Southern California and Texas. TeamAccent's Nedal Hamad, a senior network engineer, was assigned to head up the project — a logical choice because Hamad had worked on the previous project and was experienced with the challenges unique to CAD collaboration.
"Synergy needed a solution to facilitate efficient AutoCAD collaboration between these two locations, which can be a real bear if not handled right. Most design firms have very rigorous procedures in place — from naming conventions to directory structures. Going in, you need to understand that and build a solution that takes it into account," said Hamad.
Previously, Synergy's project teams shared files via e-mail, which is the case with an alarmingly large number of organizations. The problem with this approach is twofold: the files are very large, which puts a strain on network bandwidth and slows transfer times, and e-mail does not lend itself to the kind of fluid collaboration that is necessary for large-scale, interactive design projects.
"We run into this time and again, and described to Synergy the solution we implemented at that other firm, allowing it to collaborate on even the largest AutoCAD files without hiccups, interruptions, or problems," said Hamad.
IT administrators typically choose one of two distinct paths when implementing a collaborative framework for CAD work: distributing copies to each team member, or requiring team members to work off a centrally located version that is pulled off a server. Each path has significant drawbacks. The former is vulnerable to version conflict, and the latter (as is the case with the popular SharePoint application) introduces network bottlenecks.
Hamad installed Peer Software’s Peer CAD Collaboration Package, which included a range of file-management features to simplify the backup and synchronization of even the largest CAD files, making collaboration seamless and transparent. The software offered server-to-server file mirroring between a company's office sites, with integrated file locking to prevent version conflicts. It also included a number of features beneficial to large CAD projects: the ability to transfer just the changed data in a file when synchronizing (instead of the entire file); multithreading, which allows for parallel processing of multiple file transfer events between the source machine(s) and the target machine(s); and, most important to Hamad, locking technology that ensures that when a user is modifying a file, no other user will be allowed to make changes to that file on any machine that the user has chosen to lock.
Synergy has four file servers — three at the company's central location and one at the satellite office — that are connected via a point-to-point VPN (virtual private network). "Synergy especially liked the file-locking mechanism," Hamad noted, "which completely avoids version conflict."
Peer Software's file-locking technology prevents users from unwittingly altering the same file simultaneously.
According to Hamad, Synergy was looking for a tool that easily scaled, as it anticipated expanding its operation in the coming years, including other satellite offices in other cities.
Synergy "embraced it right away," said Hamad. "It was a nightmare how [the company] was sharing files using e-mails, which would be only compounded as they grew. Now [Synergy] can truly collaborate on large AutoCAD files, without hogging network bandwidth. Additionally, [the software provided] built-in disaster recovery, as you now have the same files on both ends. It's just a great solution for firms whose business runs on CAD files — or any files, for that matter."
Bear in mind that Synergy's challenge was synchronizing project teams in two cities; often organizations find themselves with project teams at multiple locations, spanning multiple time zones. In implementing a CAD collaboration framework, it's important that the chosen solution has the flexibility, performance, and controls to accommodate all stakeholders — whether it's an internal project between two locations or an outside collaboration with business partners or manufacturers at multiple locations. The measure of a CAD collaboration tool is pretty straightforward: Does it allow you to work in an orderly, efficient fashion — irrespective of the barriers between and among project teams — and give you the ability to bring projects to satisfactory completion without the confusion, setbacks, and missed deadlines that can crop up and throw you off course? As the Synergy experience bears out, you can have unfettered, conflict-free CAD collaboration without compromising performance.