General Software

Vault 3 Locks Up Drawing Management

31 Dec, 2004 By: Bill Fane

Free tool provides basic file controls.

Writing a review of Autotdesk Vault 3 is an interesting challenge. This is not your usual software, because Autodesk gives it away "free" with every copy of Autodesk Inventor (those who use AutoCAD for mechanical design also get a copy, if they're on the subscription plan). Why would Autodesk do this? I'll come back to that later.

Let's begin with a quick tour of the Vault, and then look at some of its new features.

CAD systems have come a long way since I started using AutoCAD at version 2.17g in 1986, way back in the last millennium. In those days the big excitement was, "Gee whiz, look at all the cool things the sales rep is showing us it can do." It took a bit of struggle, but we managed to become fairly proficient at producing working drawings.

Before long, CAD reached the commodity phase. Employers now expect designers and drafters to be CAD-proficient as a matter of course, and thankfully most no longer advertise for CAD operators.

Whether they realize it or not, most companies have reached the stage where control and management of their files is of paramount importance. I find it interesting that in the good old days of paper and pencil, most successful companies developed good document control procedures. A document control manager kept the original vellums locked up and released them for revision only with the proper authorizations. Similarly, new or revised drawings could not be released to production, nor could they go back into storage, without being checked, approved and properly released using the correct engineering change orders or similar documents.

Surprisingly, many offices that converted to CAD did not immediately implement the same degree of control over their computer files. I worked as a doorknob designer for many years at Weiser Lock, where in the early days of AutoCAD we still looked on the plotted vellum as the original drawing, with AutoCAD being a mere tool like a pencil and eraser that was used to produce it.

The big difference, and big danger, is that there is only one original pencil-and-paper vellum, but it's all too easy to copy and to copy over computer files. Even with the best of intentions, things can rapidly get out of hand.

Fortunately we realized the implications before we had a real disaster and quickly implemented a file control procedure that involved network folder rights. It was crude by today's standards, but it worked. Recently, software developers have come to the same conclusion and are developing features to assist with document management. The new Sheet Manager in AutoCAD 2005 is an example of this.

Many EDM (electronic document management) and PLM (product life management) tools are available on the market. The problem is that they tend to be aimed at large corporate clients and may be overkill (and overly expensive) for an engineering department.

Autodesk's solution is the Vault (figure 1). This is Reader's Digest condensed document management, intended mainly for the mechanical design office. Earlier versions supported Inventor only, but that has expanded with the current version.

 Figure 1. Autodesk Vault helps manage file interactions.
Figure 1. Autodesk Vault helps manage file interactions.

A Vault installation has two basic components. First, a server must be set up to hold the Vault (I named mine Pole). This contains users' files and the management tools.

Next, each user is set up as a Vault client. Different users can have their access limited to the vaults that are specific to their assignments.

The basic function of the Vault is enforcing sign-out and sign-in rights. No one else can edit a file or group of files while it's signed out to a user.

The Vault carries out a number of other useful functions. For example, version history archives are maintained. When a revised file is signed back into the Vault, the earlier version is also saved. You can go back later to see or access the earlier versions of a part (figure 2) as well as the assembly version that contains the part (figure 3).

Figure 2. Users can access the current version of a part (left) or an earlier version (above).
Figure 2. Users can access the current version of a part (left) or an earlier version (above).

Another powerful capability of the Vault is that it can generate where-used data for a part. It's easy to delve into an assembly to see what parts it contains, but this function goes the other way. You may know that a certain part is used in an assembly, and you may know that you need to modify the part to make it work better in the assembly. It would be nice to know that your modification to the part won't mess up other assemblies that use it.

Vault v3 adds more useful functionality. For example, you can select one existing part or subassembly and move it to the Vault. All related files, both upstream and down, will be moved to the Vault as well. This includes component parts, subassemblies, and their components. Going the other way, Vault picks up higher-level assemblies and all the related 2D drawings of assemblies and components.

Figure 3. Likewise, Vault users can access the current version of an assembly (left) or an earlier one (right).
Figure 3. Likewise, Vault users can access the current version of an assembly (left) or an earlier one (right).

Vault also contains a facility that will search Inventor iProperties for specific values. Yes, Windows Explorer can do that too, but Explorer won't search for specific block attributes in an AutoCAD drawing file.

Vault now includes more support for other Autodesk products. It manages AutoCAD, AutoCAD Mechanical and Mechanical Desktop files from within those applications. AutoCAD Electrical files can be managed through the Vault Explorer. DWF files can be set up to update automatically and can live outside the vault so those who don't use CAD can access them.

There are three kinds of Vault users in the world. Version 3 now allows Administrators with full control over the server; Editors, who can access their particular vault folders to sign out and sign in files; and now Guests, who can look but not touch.

Vault 3
Vault 3

Vault control now extends beyond Autodesk files. For example, a user can sign out an Inventor assembly and its associated files along with relevant Word and Excel files. While the files are signed out, no one else can edit them.

So why is Autodesk giving away Vault? Simple. It wants you to buy Productstream.

The basic Vault is a very useful tool, but there are a few things it won't do. Autodesk has developed its Productstream application to supply these advanced features, but for it to work, users need to be comfortable with creating and using the basic Vault database. Vault uses standard SQL database technology, so it will be easy for Autodesk to develop advanced products that access the Vault data.

For example, Vault administers versioned archives. As Robert Green pointed out in the October 2004 issue of Cadalyst, there is a difference between "version" and "revision." You may go through several versions of a product design or change before you are ready to release the next revision.

Once users have the Vault database established, Productstream will be able to handle things like bills of material, revision releases, routing, and workflow support.

The bit of time and effort it takes to set up and learn Vault is well worth it, even if you don't move on to Productstream. Autodesk, of course, hopes that eventually you will.

People Unclear On The Concept. I recently came across a pirate Web page that offered to sell me a copy of Autodesk Vault 3 for only US$28. Hey, people, it comes free with Autodesk's mechanical products! And only works with them!

Bill Fane is a Cadalyst contributing editor and a professor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

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