A Mobile CAD Reality Check, Part 214 Mar, 2012 By: Robert Green
Phones and tablets won't take the place of your workstation, but they can make field operations more efficient.
In the first article in this two-part series, I began an exploration of how mobile CAD applications for phones, tablets, and notebooks might change the way we view and manage CAD. In this installment, I'll wrap up my discussion of mobile CAD by considering how these applications' strengths and weaknesses could impact our CAD workflows. Here goes.
Small Devices, Big Limitations
The more I expolore mobile CAD applications, the more I believe that they will not even come close to replacing traditional workstation-based CAD. Instead they will be relegated to use in the field by workers who can't easily lug around a full-sized computer. I disagree with those who believe we'll all be doing CAD editing on our phones soon, because of the following factors:
Interface size. Phones and tablets are too small for large-scale CAD work. There's simply no way I can be as productive on a tablet as I can at my workstation, with its 24-inch or larger HD screen. And on a microscopic phone screen? I think not.
Input difficulty. Even the well-designed touch-screen keypads on Apple devices are nowhere near as fast for data input as a full size keyboard with a scrolling-enabled mouse — and trying to format text on a phone-sized device is simply painful.
Lack of OS support. Full-featured CAD applications are primarily Windows-based (with an increasing amount of support for Mac). These applications simply aren't going to be fully ported to Apple iOS–based or Android-based mobile devices. Instead, we'll see smaller applications with limited feature sets — and limited feature sets mean we won't be able to perform high-powered CAD work.
Portable Devices, Annotative Workflow
If you've ever done field work, you've probably recorded comments on ragged 11 x 17 print sets laid out on the hood of a truck or a pair of sawhorses. These marked-up prints, which serve as the as-built records for the project, eventually make their way back to the home office so CAD models and documentation can be updated.
This is a scenario where tablet-based annotation capture can really start to displace paper — and improve the process. Consider the following workflow:
- To the cloud: CAD workers in the office finalize documentation for a field-based job, then publish the files to a cloud-based directory made available to field-based workers with tablets.
- From the cloud: Field personnel use their mobile devices to access the cloud-based directory, where they can open a read-only copy of the latest documentation for the project they are working on.
- Annotation: Field personnel capture their comments, markups, and field orders with their tablets, using applications that support CAD file markup, note embedding in spreadsheets, and even markup capabilities for word-processing documents.
- Extra annotation: Since tablet-style devices also support video and photo capture, it would be possible to create site documentation on the fly without having to carry cameras or juggle memory cards.
- Back to the cloud: Field personnel now upload their annotations to the secure cloud folder where in-house workers can view the files and make record changes to project documentation.
This entire process could actually happen several times during the course of a day, if necessary. There's no need to tote paper documents back to the main office, and no need for Wi-Fi, battery-guzzling laptops, AC power, or printers at the site. For the price of a tablet device, some cloud integration, and a reliable cellular carrier, you're in business.
Cheaper and Faster
Note that the above on-site workflow radically alters the type and amount of gear you have to carry to work on site, making your burden cheaper and lighter. (Traveling workers will appreciate this fact every time they don't have to dump a huge bag full of devices into a plastic security bin at the airport.) Another benefit is that when on-site workers can connect to the office on a nearly real-time basis, processes that used to take days can take just hours instead.
As I've pointed out many times, software applications only catch on when they let you do your job more quickly and cheaply. Mobile CAD will do both for onsite personnel, so mobile CAD will be adopted rapidly.
CAD Management Impact
Since it seems inevitable, how do we plan for mobile CAD's adoption? How can we put processes in place today that'll help us control mobile CAD, rather than trying to play catch-up later? These are very valid questions that CAD managers will do well to ponder.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but the following strategies will serve most CAD managers well:
- Experiment now. Check with your CAD manufacturer for mobile CAD applications, download them, and play with them. There's no other way to know what's available to you. And repeat this exercise frequently, because mobile CAD applications are changing fast.
- Plan for the cloud. Cloud-based storage will be a key part of allowing mobile CAD workers to access their work from tablet-style devices, so you'll need to explore your options. Make sure you can store files to the cloud at your office and read files from the cloud at remote sites.
- Prepare for in-house changes. Before remote workers can access cloud-based files, your in-house design staff will have to place them there. How will that process work? How disruptive will it be? How much technical support will this require? These are all questions that have to be answered via experimentation.
- Benchmark speed. Determine how long it takes to download files to a tablet to see if the speeds will be tolerable for your workers. Of course, 4G speeds will become more widely available in metro areas, but most likely not at remote sites where your remote workers might be, such as paper mills or cold storage warehouses in agricultural applications.
I encourage CAD managers to give some thought to how mobile CAD applications could benefit their mobile workforce, and how preparing to support mobile CAD will affect those in the main office. Make no mistake, mobile CAD is going to change the way we manage CAD. The only question is, will you be ready for the change?
Until next time.