CAD Management Trends Analysis from Autodesk University 2017

12 Dec, 2017 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: A gathering of so many CAD managers in one place provides rare insights into what’s happening in the world of CAD management — now and in the future.

I recently returned from Autodesk University (AU) 2017, where I had a chance to interact with about 600 CAD managers over the course of three days of meetings and classes. This year I participated in panel discussions, and also taught a variety of classes on topics ranging from managing without supervisory authority to using programming to automate software configurations. Between my class duties, offline conversations with CAD managers, show floor attendance, and talking to exhibiting vendors, I tried to form a broad opinion about the current and future status of CAD management.

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll try to share with you what I learned in hopes it will help you lay out your agenda for the coming year. Here goes.

Why AU Represents the Industry at Large

Before I dive in, I should clarify an important point. I do realize that not all CAD managers support Autodesk products. So why should a non–Autodesk user care about AU? Well, here are a few reasons:

It’s where the CAD managers are. There’s no larger gathering of CAD managers that I’m aware of — anywhere. Tapping into the knowledge of such a large group allows for a glimpse into broad market trends.

As goes Autodesk, so goes the industry (usually). Like it or not, Autodesk is a big company that strongly influences standard industry practices. Things like product evolution, cloud implementation strategies, licensing, and IT management structures from Autodesk tend to show up in other software platforms over time, so studying them at AU makes sense.

Management of CAD tools is surprisingly product-agnostic. When you think about use of standards, programming, and management strategies in detail, it will become apparent that managing Autodesk tools isn’t much different than managing SOLIDWORKS, Bentley Systems products, or anything else. Therefore, CAD management courses at AU really are representative of CAD management at large.

AU Demographics and News

AU continued its growth this year, with 10,600 attendees. With more than 40 unique CAD management–focused classes, there was a wide variety of topics to be covered. And, as usual at AU, attendees included a mixture of architects, engineers, designers, detailers, IT professionals, and visualization specialists from a broad spectrum of industries. What makes the CAD management courses at AU so unusual is that there is huge diversity in the audience as compared to typical Revit or Inventor classes, which cater to a much narrower slice of users.

Every year there are a handful of surprise announcements at AU that merit mention; this year, the following caught my eye.

Autodesk gets deeper into learning. Acknowledging how disruptive new artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled software could be in technical workforces, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost touted new programs run in tandem with LinkedIn’s business unit to ease the way to acquiring new job skills. Anagnost said, "In an increasingly automated world, technology companies, including Autodesk, have a responsibility to help workers gain the new skills that allow them to take advantage of, and participate in, the future of making things."

Resources are forecast to include free software, events and facilities, online curricula, and an expanding selection of free software for students and educators.

Joining forces with Esri. Longtime geospatial industry player Esri is now partnering with Autodesk to link its geographic information system (GIS) software with Autodesk’s stable of building information modeling (BIM) products. Anagnost said, “Partnering with Esri is intended to combine the power of BIM and GIS mapping, which will enable our shared customers to build anything, anywhere.” How the two companies’ software will work together remains to be seen, but the fact that the market-leading GIS software provider is collaborating closely with Autodesk is newsworthy.

Dropbox collaboration. Dropbox — one of the few cloud software utilities I see widely adopted — received big attention as Autodesk announced close collaboration with the file storage provider. By supporting direct Save To and file preview imaging from inside AutoCAD, Dropbox is clearly trying to embrace Autodesk users’ needs more fully. And though the announcement only pertained to DWG-based tools, the clear implication from employees in the Dropbox booth was that more would be coming in the future. Finally, since many other CAD tools also write out DWG files, it is safe to assume that Dropbox may become a more frequently used utility in many CAD departments.

Current Impressions, Informed by Informal Survey

Beyond the press releases and scripted announcements, what else can we learn from this year’s AU? Well, during my class sessions I always do some informal, “show of hands”–type polling, followed by individual conversations to take the pulse of the CAD manager community. I try to survey a broad variety of topics, then note particularly passionate responses so I can draw conclusions about problems and trends facing CAD managers.

This year I also posted some poll questions to my CAD Managers Unite! Facebook group to collect more feedback on current trends I wanted to measure. After putting it all together, I drew the following conclusions:

CAD managers still lack authority. When I asked, “How many of you have the authority you need to enforce standards?” and “How many of you have the budget authority to get the hardware you need?” only a few hands went up. The problem for CAD managers continues to be how to do the job when management doesn’t give you the authority or money you need to do it.

Hardware is a sore point. With all the advances in processors, solid state drives (SSDs), and graphics processors in the past few years, CAD managers are still struggling to get their IT/senior management staffs to fund these purchases. Particularly annoying are the lack of dual monitors and SSDs on many CAD workstations.

CAD on the cloud isn’t popular. Despite all the hype, the simple fact is that the large majority of CAD managers do not see cloud-based CAD software as something they want, and as a result, most of them haven’t implemented cloud-based tools at their companies. My conversations at AU bore out my Facebook polling question shown below.

When asked if CAD software should “all go to the cloud,” group members entered 97 No votes and 7 Yes votes. The most common “No” drivers were concerns about network speed, software control, and data security. (Note: These are all topics I’ll cover in an upcoming CAD Manager’s Newsletter.)

IT is in the driver’s seat. When I asked, “Does your IT department handle the hardware purchasing and cloud implementation responsibilities?” roughly 75% of hands went up. It is clear that to run CAD, you need to work with IT.

Ultimately, I view the CAD management work environment as largely unchanged in recent years, other than the potential for cloud-based software to disrupt current software usage (even though most CAD managers aren’t that keen on the possibility). From a standpoint of lacking authority, fighting to get the right hardware, and dealing with IT, CAD management is the same as it ever was.

Crafting a Few Predictions

Of course, surveying only provides information on part of the overall CAD management picture. I place high value in talking with experienced CAD managers one on one throughout the AU conference to see where things are headed. Based on these conversations and the show of hands survey answers received, I’ve been able to draw some conclusions I think are worth sharing:

Budgeting will become more problematic. With changes in licensing models — a move toward no longer buying software, but renting it — the costs of licensing software are changing. While some may consider short-term rental a benefit, many long-time Autodesk customers will see their maintenance fees go up for existing licenses unless they’ve already locked in a multiyear maintenance contract.

Since buying software will no longer be an option, you’ll be compelled to rent or pay higher maintenance fees. In short, your software budget will almost certainly change a lot in the coming years. And if your costs go up, breaking that news to your boss won’t be easy.

Uncertainty is for certain. Will our future tools be on a desktop or running on a remotely hosted workstation? Will our data be local or hosted in a cloud account? Will licenses be named user, shared pool, or somewhere in between? Will software be purchased, rented, or billed on a per-use model? The fact of the matter is, we don’t know the answers to these questions yet, so be prepared to roll with the changes until the market decides where it is going.

Prepare for a software deluge. CAD tools, coordination tools, rendering tools, plug-ins, cloud-based tools, you name it — you’re going to have to support it, no matter what platform it runs on. And while it would be great to only worry about a few known software products, the reality seems to be that more software is coming your way.

IT skills are increasingly required. When CAD tools start moving to the cloud, or files are stored on mobile devices, security and file control become big concerns. Guess who needs to understand how these tools will be controlled? You! And who will you need to explain all this to IT to get everything running right? You! Simply put, you’ll need to know more about IT than ever.

We’ll have to fight for training programs. The idea that software is now so easy to use and learn that very little training is required keeps getting repeated by software companies. In reality, even simple-to-use software still must be used in accordance with company standards, and that requires training. Who will have to advocate for, create, and run these training programs? You will.

Getting it all done with less remains king. One thing that never changes is you’ll be expected to get everything done with no more than you have now, and — as always — failure will not be an option. CAD managers are always expected to find ways to squeeze more productivity out of the same (or lower) staffing levels. Even with business improving, it appears that companies want to keep head counts low and get more work done with fewer architects and engineers — and only smart software usage can close the productivity gap.

As the people responsible for making CAD/BIM software tools work, we CAD managers will continue to be in a great position to demonstrate our value as we make our users more productive — that’s the good news. That we must increase our skill sets and do ever more with the same basic resources is the challenge.

All things considered, the CAD management position appears to be moving to a more technical, IT-based position where we’ll be responsible for supporting an even wider palette of tools than in years past. Combine these challenges with the need to prioritize training and standards in a software environment that’s changing more rapidly than before, and the CAD manager’s position looks like it’ll be tougher as a result.

Wrapping Up

This year’s trip to Autodesk University has convinced me that 2018 will be a year of big software changes combined with training challenges, and the never-ending pressure to keep things on track. It is my hope that these observations and conclusions will help you chart a course for your own success in 2018 by being more prepared and less surprised.

And on a personal note, I’d like to say thank you to those of you who attended my classes at AU or took the time to speak with me. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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