CAD Is the Least of Our Problems, Part 1

22 Apr, 2014 By: Robert Green

CAD software isn't changing dramatically — but mobile technologies, collaboration tools, and workflows are.

On the surface, it sounds like a good riddle:

Question: When is a CAD manager not like a CAD manager?
Answer: When he or she is busy managing everything but CAD applications.

This riddle is no joke, however. Thanks to dramatic changes in workflows, collaboration solutions, and hardware technology, being a CAD manager now requires mastery of a wide variety of skills that have no connection to CAD — that is, until you think about the problem more deeply.

What types of new skills am I talking about? I'll get into that. But first, in this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll explain the changes underlying these new CAD management challenges. Here goes.

What's Not Really Changing

I contend that of all the parts we must manage to have successful CAD projects, software is the piece that is likely to change the least. Sure we have new software updates, but are they really revolutionary? Is there anything in the latest releases of AutoCAD, SolidWorks, Revit, or MicroStation that is earth-shatteringly different from recent versions? Not really. Software is changing, but it is doing so in subtle ways that don't require users or CAD managers to fundamentally rethink software strategy.

While there are some new functions within CAD tools that require investigation and training — such as point clouds and reality capture — the basic concept of modeling and documenting designs isn't all that different than it has been for several years, especially now that most companies are using 3D modeling or building information modeling (BIM) already.

Is It Time to Relax?

So if our CAD tools are largely familiar, our typical struggles with training and new feature implementation should be short-lived, right? We should now be able to focus on optimizing our processes and streamlining our software so design becomes easier, faster, and more fun for all. After all, if users know their software, what could go wrong?

Just about everything, it turns out. In particular, in the equation of user plus software equals design, the user portion of the equation is changing — and this change impacts CAD managers in ways we've not seen for years, or that we've never seen.

Think about the following trends in technology for a moment:

  • Team members are working on different networks and in multiple countries.
  • Cloud data storage is becoming more prevalent, as are the accompanying security issues.
  • Employees are using their own mobile devices, both inside the office and on the road.
  • Project communication takes place outside company infrastructure more frequently.
  • Projects encompass divergent file standards running on a variety of operating systems.

All these trends point toward a perfect storm of technical issues that can wreak havoc on our CAD project workflows. Do you think I'm an alarmist? Let's think through some scenarios where CAD is the least of our problems.

The Work Team/Data Management Problem

You've been informed by your senior management that the new building design for a remotely located chemical processing facility in the Philippines will be conducted using Revit 2014 software, but you'll have one workgroup in Singapore, another in Toronto, and your office in Atlanta contributing various aspects of the building design and engineering.

Do you see potential problems here? My immediate thoughts are: Where will the data reside? and How will we overcome the bandwidth problems we'll encounter with three offices trying to access large data sets at the same time? Plus, I haven't even begun to fathom how we'll manage the job site.

Does your senior management or IT department understand what's required to cope with this arrangement? Or do they think you'll just set up a Dropbox account or FTP site to deal with "simple file sharing" on your project?

Whose job is it to explain how complex this will be? Unless you work with an experienced IT staff that has been through this scenario before, I assure you that the CAD manager will become responsible for the project workflow planning.

The Cloud Misconception

Once you've convinced all parties involved how complex this multi-office, multinational project will be from a data-sharing point of view, you'll likely get what I like to call "the cloud pep talk" from somebody in IT or project management. The cloud will be referenced as a mystical place where unicorns run free and CAD files sync up in seconds, with no latency or permission problems. Ah, if it were only that easy.

Working with large data sets across wide distances with unknown bandwidth constraints tends to be a real pain. I don't care if vendor ads say that everything's easy with "the cloud"; the reality is that Internet connectivity is slow, CAD models are large, and users hate waiting on slow connections. Again, CAD is the least of our problems.

The Smartphone Conundrum

When a U.S. worker is on a job site in a remote coastal area far outside Quezon City with a mechanical contractor trying to make a decision on a building problem, most likely there will be no broadband, no 4G/LTE data support, and very sparse cell service. In these types of environments, you can forget about cloud-based collaborative tools; communication often happens via text messaging on users' personal communication devices. These offline conversations will not be captured on corporate Exchange servers and, for all practical purposes, won't be traceable.

Now here's the question: How will you document decisions that were made via untraceable communications on cellular-based devices that can't be backed up or archived? What will these types of communications do to U.S.-based companies that must comply with Sarbanes-Oxley regulation protocols for e-mail and digital communications?

In the past, these types of project controls were documented with as-built drawings and records of conversation that existed on paper. Should we go back to paper? Should we start using SMS texting applications that integrate with remote server–based file management tools, such as Autodesk 360? These are important questions, and the answers will cause huge changes in how CAD managers collect, store, and archive information during project workflows.

The Operating System Corollary

To make the issue even worse, we're now supposed to support Android phones and Apple iOS phones/tablets, as well as Windows-based computers running Windows 7 and 8 and Macintosh computers running Windows emulators.

Do you see potential problems here? I have to confess, I get a headache just thinking about the possibilities. At no time in my engineering career can I remember such a wide variety of computing devices, operating systems, data formats, and interfaces being used by a single project team.

Summing Up

Whether we like it or not, the job of CAD manager is about to get far more complicated, and it will require forethought to stay ahead of the changes coming our way. In the next edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll offer some suggestions for dealing with the problems I've outlined so you can get a jump on forming strategies that will work for your users and projects.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything I've missed. I await your feedback at Until next time.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

Add comment


Re: CAD Is the Least of Our Problems, Part 1
by: caddcop
April 23, 2014 - 12:55pm
This speaks to the newer technologies. What about the office suites? I find I am also supporting a number of tools based upon spreadsheets and database applications that are all part of the regular office workflow. I'm even customizing these tools as much as I customize CAD - sometimes more. However, you mention that CAD releases don't add that much to the core product. What about when you vault over intermediate releases? We have jumped from 2009 to 2013 on the AutoCAD side and from V8 2004 Edition (V8.5) to V8i, SELECTseries 2 & 3. There were a number of features in those lower versions that we were not using that have to be lumped into the bucket of "What's New" when looking at workflows.
Re: CAD Is the Least of Our Problems, Part 1
by: jmaeding
April 23, 2014 - 1:22pm
Good topics Robert. The wide area stuff seems to be handled by sending sets of files if there is no high bandwidth type connection available. Also, construction still uses paper RFI's, so you are right that real industry is not jumping on the cloud, or a cloud, or whatever some vendor wants to call a remote server system. I would argue, that CAD, or lets say, the verticals on the civil side (Civil3D), are sorely unsuited to multiple teams, much less remote teams. The whole data shortcut system of C3D, as well as forcing a data ref object for sharing data, is stab one from Autodesk. It needs to be rethought and rewritten to serialize the data and store in an external database. LDT had something like this, and it worked great in that you could access data when needed, but always see the full list of data available. The implementation of C3D is so half baked, and they know it. I think they are short on money to revamp it, as well as confidence in how to do it (more) right. They will buy a decent civil prog before they write it, if one becomes available for sale. Ours is not, and does solve the issues mentioned. There are answers but they will not take action for whatever reasons.
Re: CAD Is the Least of Our Problems, Part 1
by: TarpAsAShack
May 1, 2014 - 8:38am
I agree with all comments. My problem is with trying to convince management of what is coming and in many cases already here. Heads are stuck in the sand.
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