CAD: Just Another Tool in Your Toolbox

30 Jul, 2012 By: Robert Green

Think of your job as managing the design process — not the design tools — and you’ll be poised for success.

When I speak to CAD managers, they often ask why I focus so much on the management part of the job rather than on the CAD software tools we use. The answer I give surprises many: The tools are the easiest part of the job to master, and it doesn't really matter which ones you use as long as you can use them well. I know this will sound like heresy to many, but when I consider all the work I do planning, budgeting, optimizing, supporting, and training, it seems that integrating CAD tools is the easy part. If there's a big challenge related to CAD tools, it is getting them to work across the spectrum of design professionals that make up the typical office.

In this edition of "CAD Manager," I will urge CAD managers to view CAD tools as being a part of the job — not the whole job. And I want to make sure that those tools are being evaluated critically, based on whether they help our companies design better. I know I'll upset some CAD managers with this viewpoint, but try to read it with an open mind. Here goes.

Tools ≠ Results

When it comes to making the transition to the latest and greatest software, I've heard it from so many management staffs: "Once we start doing our designs on [fill in software title here], all our problems will go away."

Where do I begin? Just because your company has the latest software tools doesn't mean that you are using them well, or can apply them effectively from Day 1. Some projects — such as a Shanghai apartment building that fell over during construction — end in failure even though they use modern design tools. Other projects endure despite being created with primitive tools; the Great Sphinx of Giza is one example.

Modern tools, modern methods -- classic failure. Image by Marc van der Chijs
Modern tools, modern methods — classic failure. Image courtesy Marc van der Chijs.

Of course, my examples don't state certain truisms such as, "We could build the Sphinx a lot faster now than they could then." Or, "We could build the Sphinx with far fewer people now." However, the Sphinx is so well designed and built that it has experienced no significant foundation shifting, and despite 4,500 years of sandblasting and erosion, it has withstood the test of time. Conversely, the collapsed building had the benefit of modern tools and methods, but good old-fashioned design error caused a failure.

My point? Using the latest software technology doesn't guarantee design project success. It's only when you combine great CAD tools and management with great design that you can ensure a winning project.

Technology Accelerators

Now, don't get me wrong — I appreciate modern CAD tools and would prefer to use them over pencil and paper any day of the week. But CAD doesn't make me a better engineer, it simply helps me do my work faster. In the parlance of Jim Collins in his excellent book Good to Great, I view CAD tools as technology accelerators that allow me to do my design work faster. On the other hand, I've seen many companies switch from tools that already work to new ones that don't work for them. Those new tools function as a technology anchor that slows the design process.

How should we evaluate CAD tools to determine whether they accelerate design or just waste our time? The following metrics can help you identify new solutions that will accelerate your workflow:

  • Tools that save time; for example, by reducing manual tasks, automating redundant tasks, or providing insight that supports better and faster decision-making.
  • Tools that standardize the design process. Consistency will reduce errors over the long term, and fewer errors equals acceleration.
  • Tools that ease quoting and demonstrations. It stands to reason that 3D tools that speed design can also be used to make compelling renderings to support sales presentations and better estimate materials for more accurate quotations. Put another way, if you can accelerate your design process with better tools, you can use that capability to help win more work from prospective clients.
  • Tools that don't crack under production pressure. You may need to work through beta versions of tools to get them ready for large-scale use, but only deploy tools when they really work.

No software technology was used on this project. Solid design work means it's still standing after 4,500 years. Image by © Betin
No software technology was used on this project. Solid design work means it's still standing after 4,500 years.
© Betin
When considering new CAD tools, you must always apply these accelerator metrics. Never adopt a tool because it's cool or because you're under pressure; do so only if it accelerates your design process. And always do your own research, rather than blindly trusting the marketing spin. The Design Mission I like to think of the design process as a mission. Our assignment might be to design a building, car, airplane, consumer device, bridge, or utility system, but at the end of our mission, we'll always be judged on how well we adhered to the mission criteria of function, schedule, and budget. Our clients, customers, and senior management won't care which version of a CAD product we used. They will only care if we met the mission criteria.

When you start to think of CAD management as a resource that supports the design mission, you'll begin to understand the true nature of the job. Sure, as a CAD manager you're managing CAD tools, but you're doing so to complete the design mission in the best way possible, not because your ego is tied up in the tools themselves. Think in terms of the design process — with CAD as simply a tool that supports that process — and you'll be surprised how your outlook on CAD management will change.

The Mission Defines the Tools

Another reason not to get too attached to any particular type of CAD tool is that your mission parameters may dictate which tools you have to use, leaving you without any say in the matter. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Client-defined deliverables. When the client specifies the information format and version for project deliverables, you must comply.
  • Long-term projects. When a project spans multiple years, we often wind up using old versions of CAD tools simply to make collaboration and file control easier over the project's duration. Long-term projects are challenging enough without a software migration on top of everything else!
  • User knowledge base and/or costs. You may want to design that brand-new skyscraper project using BIM (building information modeling), but if everybody in the company only knows AutoCAD LT, chances are you won't be able to afford the big BIM software upgrade costs for all your users for just one job. Even if you could afford to make the switch, it is doubtful you could meet the project schedule, given the massive training and implementation requirements.
  • Time constraints. Speaking of training requirements, have you ever been involved with a project wherein implementing new software tools caused the schedule to fall behind? I can tell you from experience that when this occurs, management's first response will be, "Go back to the old system," while blaming the CAD manager for the failure.

Don't allow yourself to fail because you were so busy thinking about tools that you forgot the design mission.


To summarize, let me draw a few conclusions that you can use to build your own dispassionate strategy regarding CAD tools.

  • Look for speed. This is the overriding parameter because speed is good. Speed saves money. Senior management teams like saving money.
  • Create a mission plan. Think of your next big project as a mission, and think far in advance about which tools you'll need. The more you think and plan, the more likely you are to find the CAD tools that can accelerate your project and make it successful.
  • Don't be afraid to customize. You may be able to accelerate your design processes more by deploying custom programs, design templates, predefined content, plotting automation, or other specific fixes than by buying a commercial program. Many of the best design accelerators I see are custom integrated solutions!
  • Be realistic. Realize that no matter what a tool can do, you have to be able to make it work within existing project timeframes and budgets. You also have to be honest about what your user base can learn and how long it will take them to adjust to new tools.

I believe that the next few years are going to bring us an onslaught of new CAD tools. We'll have mobile CAD, cloud-based CAD, increasingly inexpensive 2D CAD, more intricate BIM solutions, analysis packages — the list goes on. Rather than getting bogged down in all the marketing speak and techno-babble, remember to view all this software as a palette of options available for you to choose from. If you can find the tools that speed and support your unique design processes, you'll not only be a great CAD manager, but a very valuable asset to your company.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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