CAD Manager-CAD Management in 2006

31 Dec, 2005 By: Robert Green

What does this year have in store for you?

As has been my custom for the last six years, I'll take a stab at forecasting the CAD manager's job for the New Year. I'll base my conclusions on CAD Manager Survey data I've collected over the past five years as well as the many conversations I've had with CAD managers. I find that survey data and taking the pulse of CAD managers are more accurate barometers of change than reading a bunch of marketing press releases.

To help you, the working CAD manager, chart your course, I offer the following observations and recommendations, in no particular order.

More Pressure, Less Time

The last four years of survey data I've amassed points toward CAD managers being pressured into doing their job in a part-time mode. Job pressures haven't lessened—they've increased—while the time available to do the job has decreased. This adds up to an operational pressure-cooker of a job environment. Based on reports from CAD managers I've spoken with on the road, the pressure is palpable and frustration is mounting.

Given the choice of hiring more people or getting more done with the same number of people, a business opts for the latter choice every time. General IT (information technology) staffs are under the same pressure we are, with more users, more applications and more business systems to support given the same manpower.

More Software

As has been the case for the last several years, CAD managers manage a wider variety of software than ever. In fact, the majority of CAD managers now have responsibility for a primary 2D tool (AutoCAD or MicroStation) along with at least one higher-end design tool, such as SolidWorks or one of Autodesk's Desktop products. In recent years, more CAD managers have had to support other external tools that leverage CAD designs, such as rendering utilities, analytical packages for stress and thermal computations, and time- and light-study software for applications like solar design or landscape architecture.

The point is that as more software tools become available, the CAD manager is the one who must manage and troubleshoot the new tools. The good news for CAD managers is that more software and design expertise makes you more valuable in the overall job market. The bad news is that more software means more things to worry about.

Processes Change

CAD managers aren't really managing software as much as we're managing projects that use software to get the job done. Think about that statement for a moment and let it sink in. Software is simply the tool that lets us get work done, and hardware is the vehicle that runs the software. Not very sexy, but true! As such, we need to view ourselves as CAD process managers instead of CAD technology managers. Sure, we'll always have to understand the technology our users need and we'll always have to be able to install, configure and troubleshoot software, but that's only part of the CAD management task. We must be able to adapt and morph the engineering software we buy into operational platforms that allow our users to thrive in our unique environment.

While CAD was once confined to engineering and architectural departments, it's now a connectivity tool that spans many departments. If you went back ten years and asked how many companies used CAD systems to output bills of materials, interface with the manufacturing floor or drive custom design and manufacturing of configurable products, you'd have found few companies who even believed in the concept. If you ask the same question now, it's accepted that CAD can be the hub of engineering or architectural information exchange.

We're now witnessing more and more integration of CAD design files, be they 2D or 3D, with other processes within our companies. It simply isn't enough to design a product, save the file and let everyone else fend for themselves. The company that finds the way to best automate the entire design process from concept to manufacture and shipping will be the company with the highest profits. CAD can be the centerpiece of this new architecture, and the CAD manager can be a prime instigator of the process change required.

Business Savvy

The CAD managers who succeed in the new CAD management process pressure cooker will be those who can communicate with upper management teams using business metrics and logic. To get what you need to do your job, you must cultivate a relationship with your management team that embraces the following key components:

  • 1. Strong budgeting logic
  • 2. Business analysis using ROI (return on investment) methodologies
  • 3. Staffing guidance in interviewing
  • 4. Justification of training programs
  • 5. Business justification for standards

Though CAD managers have traditionally performed several of these tasks, communication with management has been either nonexistent or couched in technical terms. The challenge now is to make management teams understand how we can contribute to the bottom line of the company by showing them the dollars and processes we hope to accomplish. Make it your New Year's resolution to become more focused on business, and I guarantee you'll have an easier time talking to your management teams and getting the tools you need to get your job done.

Software Remains Static

Now that CAD software has shifted to an annual subscription-based upgrade cycle, we're left to determine whether the next release of software we get is worth the time and money to upgrade to. I'd argue that 2006 will be a year of evolutionary upgrades, with no earth-shattering new technologies. I base my assessment of the market on several trends that haven't changed much in the last couple of years.

AutoCAD dominance. Plenty of companies still use AutoCAD, and the DWG file format still has a stranglehold on 2D CAD data exchange. No matter what any company's PR department might say or how they try to spin it, most CAD design still gets done in 2D. When that much of the market is still working on 2D in AutoCAD, it's evident that a sea change is not underway.

2D and DWG bundling. Product bundles consist of a 2D tool combined with a higher-end 3D tool so that customers can migrate from a 2D tool to the 3D tool without totally abandoning their 2D investment. These bundles show that 2D data continues to drive the market. Autodesk has been bundling AutoCAD with its higher-end design tools for several release cycles, and now other companies like SolidWorks are bundling DWG-based applications with their products as well. When everyone has to provide a DWG tool with their 3D products, you can see that some things aren't really changing.

Autodesk = strong products. Autodesk's Desktop products (Mechanical, Architectural and Land) still exist. These programs are advanced, but it's worth noting that they use the DWG file format rather than an entirely new format, like Inventor, Revit and SolidWorks do. Though we may be willing to change programs, it seems we're collectively hesitant to change our data formats.

Slow to 3D. New 3D technologies are being absorbed slowly and holistically as users come up to speed. In those companies where Revit, SolidWorks, Inventor, Civil 3D, and so on are accepted, we're not seeing big, jolting reorganizations of engineering departments, but rather integration of the technology along a gradual timeline. Simply put, nobody is willing to compromise today's production for tomorrow's software technology, but we are willing to do pilot studies and move slowly toward future technology.

No matter what kind of cool software advances come our way, it will be old-fashioned business parameters such as maintaining production, ensuring data stability and keeping training costs down that drive new software adoption. Be ready for change and plan for it, but don't expect the change to occur as fast as industry pundits may predict.

Hardware Changes

In stark contrast to the evolutionary software picture I've outlined, we're in for big changes in hardware and operating systems in 2006. The driving factor behind this change will be Windows Vista and Microsoft's move to enable 64-bit computing on new server platforms. Windows Vista uses an entirely new graphics subsystem to enable the use of multiple monitors and graphics devices that CAD users will devour. Ever wanted to have a virtual 42" wide screen on your desktop? Now you can!

Another major emphasis for Vista is the support of external devices like PDAs, phones and data collection instruments via Bluetooth interfaces. Because most of us, in particular civil engineers, now work with these types of devices, the move toward a more integrated environment where your computer and other information appliances collaborate will gain momentum quickly.

Windows Vista is going to gobble memory and force the retirement of many older machines, but I believe the change in graphics systems and the ability to synchronize a variety of other devices to the desktop computing environment will be compelling for CAD and engineering applications. If you haven't taken the time to investigate Windows Vista, it's time to do so and start planning your budget accordingly.

Balancing Act

In the glory years of CAD (1988 to 1996), new software upgrades were gobbled up and installed as fast as the software companies could produce them, whether it made sense or not. In the last few recession years (post-2000 and 9/11), it seemed that no matter what software companies came up with, people weren't buying—even if the upgrades were worth it. Now most of us are operating in corporate environments where technology is evaluated based on its ability to help us produce more work and make money. I expect the big changes in hardware in 2006 to usher in 2007 as the year of big changes in CAD software. We'll see if I'm right soon enough!

In the meantime, the CAD manager's job continues to become one of balancing the ever-increasing complexity of technology management with the business savvy of an efficiency expert while remaining billable and somehow keeping it all running. Being a CAD manager is a challenge, and this year will be no different. Just keep your eye on the business aspect of your job and concentrate on making your company more productive and competitive, and you'll do fine in 2006.

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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