Avoid Software Tool Worship by Focusing on Design9 Oct, 2018 By: Robert Green
CAD Manager Column: No matter how heavily promoted and feature-rich a software tool is, it’s just a means to an end — and it's not necessarily the right answer for your particular challenge.
Imagine you could listen in on a 1963 meeting among the scientists, engineers, and manufacturing professionals who were discussing how to get the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. Which of the following statements do you think would best reflect that conversation:
“We have a lot of challenges to figure out and we’ve got no clue what we’ll need to do the job, so let’s focus on letting our professionals solve design problems, and we’ll figure out which tools we need as we go.”
- “The sales guys over at IBM say they have a new rocket design program; after we buy it, then we can use the tool and see what kind of rocket we can design with it.”
When you think about it, the second statement seems totally ridiculous, doesn’t it? Who would let a computer tool company dictate how to create a moon rocket? That’s clearly the domain of engineers and scientists, right? And the more you think about the first statement, in contrast, the more sense it makes.
So why are we all letting software companies tell us how to design? Are we unwittingly falling victim to “tool worship”? In this column, we’ll start a discussion about why CAD managers should reject tool worship and focus on supporting design processes. Here goes.
The Dangers of Putting the Tool First
What do I mean by tool worship? It’s the belief that you must use certain software tools to solve design problems, rather than letting great design dictate which tools should be used. For example, if you’ve been a CAD manager for any length of time, you’ve probably heard statements like these:
- If you’re going to create buildings, you need building information modeling (BIM).
- If you’re going to build machinery, you must have 3D printing.
- If you’re going to integrate building systems, you have to use a cloud-based clash-detection tool.
- 3D design is mandatory; 2D is dead.
Rather than accepting these statements without question, we should all ask, “Says who?” After all, skyscrapers were created decades before BIM, stealth aircraft and rockets were manufactured well before 3D printing became mainstream, and clash/interference detection methodologies using pin bars and overlay Mylar drafting systems were well understood long before CAD existed. And let’s be honest, there are millions of seats of AutoCAD and competing 2D CAD tools out there that are still cranking out tons of project deliverables.
And while 3D printing of concrete and metals on a large scale may be feasible in the future, you can’t robotically fabricate an entire building yet, and you darn sure can’t print out an airplane. The reality of making things just doesn’t match the technology hype, does it?
To be clear, I am not saying that 3D digital tools aren’t beneficial (or superior) in a variety of cases. I am asking, “Are we really so brainwashed that we’ve stopped thinking for ourselves? Are we asking enough questions and approaching design in the most efficient manner possible?”
A Mechanical Example
Some years ago, I was called in by a client company that manufactured custom restaurant fixtures using a customized AutoCAD environment. This team had been doing so for years and was very efficient, but they’d been convinced that 2D was an old-fashioned approach and they should be using SolidWorks to design everything in 3D.
The reasons they were given for making the switch were:
- They could easily obtain component weights for shipping.
- They could easily create bills of materials (BOMs).
- They could easily create assembly drawings.
In reality, here’s what happened when they switched over:
- They already had utilities that created BOMs and assembly drawings in AutoCAD, and they now had to start over learning how those processes worked in SolidWorks.
- Shop floor tools such as viewing utilities, NC software, drill machine interfaces, etc. didn’t work as expected anymore.
- Users required extensive training on SolidWorks, and they were working more hours to do the same tasks in new ways.
In short, when they abandoned the familiar customized tools that worked well for them to use a new software tool, productivity dropped, users were confused, the shop floor was scrambling, and the entire company workflow was disrupted.
So what can we learn from this unfortunate series of events? I concluded the following:
Tool worship was to blame. The client was so convinced that they should switch to a 3D tool that they never asked the question, “Will 3D help us design any better than 2D does?”
They bought into the marketing. When everything you read urges you to ditch your old processes and adopt another technology in its place (such as BIM, 3D CAD, cloud-based tools, etc.), you start to think that must be the right way to go. But in my experience, marketing doesn’t always tell the whole story.
They didn’t consider the full burden of user training. “It’ll be easy!” and “It’s intuitive!” are common claims that can persuade you to overlook some important realities. No marketing department is going to tell you how hard something is, or urge you to think about how much training will be required.
They didn’t recognize the challenges of interfacing with legacy systems. Even if they could implement SolidWorks flawlessly, how would the program interface with their shop tools and shop floor procedures? After all, designing a product doesn’t do you much good if you can’t build it!
They saw no efficiency gain. It turns out they were so efficient with their well-customized AutoCAD environment that even after months of effort, they were less efficient than when they started.
So it turns out that the CAD manager and power users who had built the customized AutoCAD environment over the years had done far more to support great design than those who decided to simply switch to a new tool. The right questions had not been asked, so the wrong path was chosen.
Tool Worship Reality Check
What does all this have to do with CAD management? As a CAD manager, you’ll be responsible for the support of all CAD tools, but the expectation is that designs will be completed efficiently, and users will be productive. Therefore, if you allow your company to veer off on an ill-considered switch to the incorrect tool, both you and your users will suffer.
So whenever the topic of adopting/changing design tools comes up, always make sure to ask the following questions:
- Will the new tool really save us time and money?
- Will it be simple for users to learn the new tool?
- Will other office processes work well with the new tool?
- Can the reseller prove that everything will really work?
- Will all the effort be worth it when we’re done?
If you answer “No” to any of these questions, be careful — you may find yourself a victim of tool worship!
I hope these examples and diagnostic questions will make you think differently about how you justify the software tools you use. Take some time to think about your current software tools, those you might adopt, and how your design processes can best be supported; you may be surprised by how focusing on design can change your opinion about which tools you should be using.
In a future column, I’ll provide some practical steps you can take to make sure your software, training, and standards are aligned to the goal of supporting great design — and explain how you can banish tool worship for good.
Editor's note: Part 2 of this article is available here, discussing a step-by-step procedure for optimizing design processes and CAD tool use.