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CAD from Home, Part 1: Workstations

11 Aug, 2021 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager's Column: If your CAD team needs to work from home — whether from COVID-19 restrictions or work/lifestyle changes — they must have the right workstation to get CAD work done.


Just when we thought it was safe to return to the office, the COVID-19 Delta variant has raised its head and now everyone is asking, “Are we going to continue working from home?” This is a question I’m hearing from more CAD managers these days as the fundamental business thinking has evolved to home-based work becoming more permanent than temporary, at least for the near-seeable future.

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll begin a periodic series on the concept of remote-from-home CAD from a CAD manager’s point of view. We’ll get the conversation started with workstations and what type of hardware you need in your home office. Here goes.

 

CAD from Home, Part 1: Workstations

Image source: Pol Solé/stock.adobe.com, screenshots from Siemens NX Mold Designer.

 

Mobile Workstations vs Laptops

One question I’m asked quite a lot is, “What kind of laptops should I get for remote CAD workers?” I usually stop the conversation right there and insist that we no longer talk about laptops but mobile workstations instead.

Why the vocabulary lesson? Because, right from the start, I want to be sure upper management and companies understand that CAD work requires a workstation-level machine, not a cheap laptop. After all, if a BIM specialist must model a large building project, they need real workstation power — whether they’re at home or the office. The same holds true for someone designing mechanical assemblies, rendering, animating CAD geometry, performing analysis, or any other heavy-use scenario.

Conclusion 1: The era of cheap laptops has given way to the mobile workstation.

 

What about Desktop Machines for Home Workers?

Another statement I hear quite often is, “I can’t afford mobile workstations for everyone who works from home!” My reply is always that it is easy to ship a desktop machine to a user’s home office, rather than buying an entirely new mobile workstation. And, for that matter, desktop workstations don’t have to be huge towers either.

In my personal work, I’ve used HP Z Mini workstations to achieve workstation power in a compact format that can be easily shipped, thrown in a travel bag for trips to remote offices, or even mounted to the back of a monitor stand in the most crowded home offices. Other options are all-in-one–style computing devices in the form factor of a monitor such as the Dell OptiPlex. My point is that desktop machines don’t have to take up tons of room or dominate your home office.

Conclusion 2: Just because you work from home doesn’t mean you have to have a mobile workstation, there are numerous compact desktop options.

 

Peripherals Matter

I’ve been using a combination of mobile and desktop workstations at home for years and have travelled extensively with mobile devices. No matter where I am or go, I always take my trusty Logitech mobile keyboard and mouse with me and do everything I can to have a second monitor available.

What does this have to do with working from home? Good question. My point is that CAD users are generally used to full-sized keyboards, a particular style of mouse, perhaps a 3D space controller, and absolutely require a second monitor. At minimum, buy a 24” second monitor for mobile workstation users and dual monitors for desktop users. Most mobile workstations can accommodate these peripherals with on-board connectors but sometimes a docking station that supports more monitors or high-speed backup drives might be required.

While we’re at it, don’t forget to provide home-based workers with a business class headset/mic device for Teams meetings. My go-to devices are my Yeti Blue microphone with high quality headphones for my desktop and a Logitech H800 headset for mobile applications.

Conclusion 3: A productive work from home CAD environment isn’t just about the workstation.

 

Don’t be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish!

There is always temptation to economize and this sometimes results in home-based CAD professionals not having the workstation and/or peripherals they need to perform well. As CAD managers, it is up to us to push our senior management teams to set remote workers up for success, not failure.

After all, why do we pay architects, engineers, scientists, and designers big salaries but force them to use a three-year-old laptop that costs $1,500? That is the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish! Try using this logic the next time you speak to IT or senior management and push for better equipment for your home-based CAD users.

Conclusion 4: Workstations, monitors, and peripherals are cheap compared to people — so don’t scrimp on hardware needs!

 

Workstation Specs

Whether the home office has a desktop machine or a mobile workstation, what should the specifications for that machine be? This is where it’ll become obvious that a cheap laptop is not the answer.

Cores. Currently, an Intel i7 107XX series processor with 6 cores is considered the absolute minimum, but Intel i9 10XXX series processors at 8 cores running at higher base and boost frequencies get my vote for the minimum if at all possible. These processors are faster (for higher productivity right now) and are more capable of handling complex workloads (for updated software later). And, if you’re going to buy a workstation that you expect to last for 3 years or more, doesn’t it make sense to buy something that has the latest technology?

RAM. At a minimum, buy 32GB of the fastest technology RAM your workstation will support. While you may not need the full 32GB today, you will soon enough, as CAD software is always growing and data sets always getting bigger. Higher-end BIM, mechanical analysis, or rendering users should be bumped up to 64GB.

SSD’s. Do not purchase any type of CAD workstation without a high-speed solid-state disk (SSD) installed in the boot disk position. Don’t even think about going cheap and using old style hard drives!

Use a 1TB NVMe-based SSD as the boot disk so all operating system, software, and current project files are loaded from a fast SSD — secondary storage used for less frequent access could use cheaper SATA SSD drives. These peripherals will squeeze every bit of power out of your processor for the entire life of the workstation. They are worth it.

For huge data set users, like mechanical analysts or rendering specialists, consider multiple SSDs in a RAID configuration to spread read/write operations across two drives to speed performance up even more.

 

Graphics Processors (GPUs)

Which GPU (often referred to as a graphics card) to purchase is always a subject of debate. For most CAD/BIM users, a GPU that can handle two monitors at 4K resolution with either HDMI or DisplayPort and on-board memory of 6GB should be considered a practical minimum.

Many mobile workstation class machines may be equipped with what are commonly referred to as “gaming cards,” like the NVIDIA GeForce or AMD Radeon. These are, in fact, good choices for most CAD users based on my recent poll of CAD managers who’ve found them to be much less expensive and often faster than professional series GPU’s.

For specialized applications, you may need to use a GPU that is certified by the software vendor, so always be sure to check their requirements.

 

Summing Up

This whole work-from-home scenario requires proper hardware as a foundation for doing business. There’s simply no reason to put expensive labor in a home office and handicap them with old, obsolete hardware. I always ask the question, “Why is it OK to waste a $90,000 a year engineer’s time to save $2,000 on a workstation?” I’ve found that repeating this question as my mantra has made it much easier to get the hardware required.

As we move forward with the CAD from Home series we’ll examine software configuration tips, WAN bandwidth issues, and classic issues such as managing standards and training. Until next time.

 


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green