CAD Manager: CAD Management 2005

31 Dec, 2004 By: Robert Green

Productivity is this year's top priority for CAD managers

Another new year is here. As is customary, I'd like to start the year out with my CAD management forecast for 2005. This year I base my conclusions on CAD manager survey data, interviews with industry veterans, discussions with CAD managers like you and plain old-fashioned gut instinct. I value input from CAD managers and business owners more than that from CAD company PR firms, so thanks to all of you who've e-mailed or spoken with me in the past year.

This month, I'll lay out the trends I see in the CAD industry, paying equal attention to technology, management and economic factors.

Software Targeting

In the past, I've predicted that software development will become a progressive evolution towards less costly, more usable applications rather than big new feature sets at high price points. The last few years have borne out my forecast. For example, Autodesk's BIM-based (building information modeling) Revit software hasn't sold nearly as well as the AutoCAD DWG-based Architectural Desktop and Building Systems products. And Autodesk's Inventor software hasn't added big kinematic or thermal feature sets, but instead has concentrated on nuts-and-bolts issues such as standard parts, weldments and cable routing. Even SolidWorks and Bentley pay more attention to DWG compliance than they used to, in clear acknowledgement that the user community needs DWG portability to meet work requirements.

In the coming year, I believe we'll see more software upgrades that embrace ease of use, higher user productivity and easier installation and deployment. Autodesk will continue to acquire promising technology from outside companies (like it did to create Vault and AutoCAD Electrical) and will continue to target new product releases based on customer-prioritized wish lists.

Look for Dassault and Bentley to make similar customer-requested evolutionary progress in their product offerings as well. After all, solving customer problems is the best way to guarantee business, and evolving existing technology is the easiest way to make it happen.

2D CAD as Mature Tool

As 3D mechanical and BIM tools evolve toward a data-driven expert design environment, the fact is that plain old 2D AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT are the most commonly used CAD tools. My CAD manager surveys show that roughly three-fourths of all CAD managers preside over a totally or primarily 2D design environment. And while CAD managers are always on the lookout for productivity-enhancing tools, it's becoming increasingly obvious that 2D CAD is a mature tool with fewer possibilities for real innovation in future releases.

Consequently, CAD managers are seeing their jobs either transition from management of 2D design tools to higher-end software or shrink to part-time positions. Just as word-processing departments became extinct with the advent of PC-based word processors, the 2D CAD department is becoming less common as engineers and design professionals perform more of their own CAD work. Simply put, most technical professionals are now CAD literate and simply don't need the support and training services they used to.

I would also point out that mature software tools are less likely to be upgraded on a regular basis (how old is the version of Microsoft Word on your corporate computer?), and thus we've seen less AutoCAD upgrading and more purchasing of AutoCAD LT in recent years. I believe 2005 will accelerate the trend of decentralized CAD use and less CAD management in 2D environments.

Dual Systems Conflict

For those CAD managers who shift into supporting high-end 3D CAD tools alongside existing 2D systems, the issue of what work is done in 2D vs. 3D will become a vexing problem. Cost parameters for purchase, implementation and training on 3D systems will continue to make full conversion to 3D impossible for most firms, so a game plan for managing what data lives where will be increasingly important. There's also no denying that 3D design tools, be they mechanical or AEC oriented, have more complex data and filing structures and are thus more difficult to control from a filing perspective.

The successful CAD manager will have to make hard decisions about who learns these new tools, how to manage the complex data produced and how to keep project timelines working as the workforce absorbs the technology. Most companies prefer a more gradual transition into complex 3D software because the growing pains and costs associated with the transition are minimized. I see no reason for the metrics of 3D conversion to change in 2005. These decisions will not be easy, so be prepared to think everything through carefully and be sure to enlist management's support as you do so.

Same Staff, Better Economy

The economy we work in has a lot to do with how our jobs change. Throughout the past year I've seen all economic indicators in the North American and European economies looking up. I validated my hunch by polling CAD managers at Autodesk University, and at least 80% reported that business was improving and continuing to look good for the coming year. Instead of the relative gloom of the 2002-2003 downturn, most CAD managers now don't fear the loss of their job, but rather feel apprehension about how to get everything done.

What has changed is that as business grows, CAD managers are expected to support the upturn with the same staffing levels they had during the slow years. No matter what the stated reason is for keeping staffing constant, the bottom line is that any organization must become more efficient to get more work done with the same number of people.

There is a clear expectation from management that all the CAD technology they've invested in will allow more work to get done faster with fewer people. And we all know who management expects to drive these changes, right?

There are essentially three ways to get more done with the same staff:

  • 1. Have the CAD manager do more billable work.
  • 2. Use more software automation to increase productivity.
  • 3. Outsource certain aspects of the CAD operation to outside firms.

I admit that I believed an economic upturn would lead to more hiring of permanent staff, but it looks as if companies will do whatever they can to keep staffing at current levels. I believe most CAD managers will have to deal with at least two of the three possible ways to increase staff output this year.

Management Multitask

The push towards more productivity puts the CAD manager in the difficult position of supporting ever-higher levels of software applications while performing the work coordination required to get more done with constant staffing. The goal of providing a more automated software environment (which is technically challenging) combined with the need to manage projects and outsourced resources (which is managerially challenging) will continue to compel CAD managers to be both technically and managerially savvy.

Believe me when I say that it's a rare person who can support the technical challenges of a CAD department while having the wit to manage productivity, training and personnel factors. If you possess the mix of skills required to function in this multitasking environment, you will be noticed and your career will have nowhere to go but up. The problem will continue to be how you can keep up with the technical aspect of your career while simultaneously enhancing your management skills. To these ends I have a few recommendations:

  • 1. Accept the fact that you'll need to spend more personal time to keep up with technological change. CAD managers must stay abreast of all the latest changes in 3D and data management industry trends so they can make solid recommendations to corporate management. In summary, your company expects you to be knowledgeable, and their expectation is that you'll find a way to stay on top of the changes in your field.
  • 2. Understand that you can't be a full-time technical manager and a full-time production manager at the same time. You'll have to decide how much time to allocate to each aspect of your job to achieve the optimum balance for your particular company's needs. This balancing act isn't easy and can change as company circumstances dictate, so make it a habit to re-evaluate your technology-to-management ratio periodically.
  • 3. Be ready to put technical management aside when heavy project deadlines dictate that you do so. As technologists, we CAD managers like the technical challenge of software, but there are times when the software must be viewed simply as a tool that facilitates project completion. Knowing when to focus on production is the sign of a mature manager, and your corporate management will notice that maturity.

Driving Productivity

The central theme that I see emerging for 2005 is that of ever-higher productivity ratios. This never-ending push for more productivity leads me to a few conclusions for the New Year that all CAD managers should consider:
  • 1. As managers, we'll be judged by the productivity of our users more than by our technical skills. Everything we do must facilitate higher user productivity.
  • 2. Those CAD managers who can use their technology skills to automate redundant tasks or eliminate wasteful procedures will be viewed as invaluable. Please note that technical knowledge alone is not the Holy Grail—it's the application of technology to make people more productive that counts.
  • 3. Updating software will be driven more by what new features can actually do for the company rather than a desire to be on the latest version. Software developers know that automatic updates are no longer assured and have altered their business plans to make software easier to install, implement and use. The CAD manager must know new releases inside and out to determine whether upgrading is in the company's best interests.

In the Year 2005

The CAD manager's job in 2005 will continue to be a balancing act of technology perception tempered with production enhancement. I believe 2005 will mark the first time that expanding economies force CAD managers to become efficiency experts as well as technology experts. Though being a CAD manager won't be any easier this year, the job will ultimately be more satisfying for those who take the initiative to truly manage technology in a way that increases user productivity.

Throughout 2005, I'll endeavor to provide you with topical coverage of both technical and managerial subjects with a constant eye toward increasing your value to your company. I look forward to a year of shared challenges and collaboration with all of you. Happy New Year!

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him at

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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