CAD Manager-Managing Multiple CAD Systems

31 Mar, 2005 By: Robert Green

Training, data management top the list of challenges

In the past, cad management involved controlling a 2D CAD environment and making sure that our users followed standards. No more. Increasingly, CAD management means dealing with multiple software applications and all the user training and data management problems that come with them.

Though I haven't found a formulaic approach for managing multiple systems, I have identified several key areas that managers must control in order to be successful. This month, I'll deal with the most common headaches encountered in multisystem environments and pass along hints for how to gain control and stay out of trouble.

System Scenarios

The most common multisystem scenario I see combines a high-end 3D modeling tool (for example, Inventor, SolidWorks, Revit, Autodesk Building Systems, MicroStation Architectural [formerly TriForma] or Land Desktop) with a traditional 2D CAD system like AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT or MicroStation. In almost all cases the company has evolved from a 2D-only design environment to one in which 3D modeling is becoming more prominent. Many times these companies expected that everything would go 3D and the 2D CAD environment would simply disappear. But once the cost to get everyone up to speed on high-end CAD tools became evident, the company scaled back to the 2D/3D hybrid environment scenario. The 2D-to-3D ratios I usually encounter are even at best, with 2D frequently outnumbering the 3D systems by a wide margin.

The next most common scenario is seen in companies that are contractually compelled to use multiple systems to meet customer requirements. These sorts of scenarios permeate the aerospace and automotive industries where high-end 3D design must integrate with the client's manufacturing-floor requirements. These scenarios don't scare me nearly as much as the first case does because the need for multiple systems is driven by business requirements and not open to debate.

Because the greatest chance for problems resides in the hybrid 2D/3D environment I outlined above, most of my recommendations will concentrate on that area.

Get Smart

Before you can manage multiple systems or deal with staffing, you need a thorough technical understanding of your software. I realize that understanding everything about each CAD system is impossible, but you must know enough about all the systems you manage to develop a master plan. If you need some high-level training or consulting time to get up to speed on the software you work with, make sure your management knows it. Make the case that you can't manage what you don't understand.

Management support for getting you up to speed on a complex CAD system doesn't mean you'll get a blank check for endless training sessions, however. Your job is to convince management that as you train you'll be developing a better managerial strategy to put your company in a more competitive position.

As you train, keep a journal of all your thoughts on how you plan to standardize and implement the software. Get to know your instructor and the students in your training class and ask about management strategies during lunch or break times. Take full advantage of the collaborative aspects of your training to gain new technical and managerial ammunition. I'd even suggest writing up your results on your laptop while you're at training and e-mailing your supervisor daily to show what you're learning!

Data Management

A painful side effect of multiple CAD systems is that a wide range of file and data types must be managed and maintained. Particularly in cases where information is translated between CAD platforms or transmitted to customers and vendors, it's essential that you manage the data instead of letting it manage you.

As a general rule, data management follows a squared complexity relationship. That is, as the number of CAD systems you use doubles, the level of complexity quadruples. Data management problems have a way of snowballing out of control unless you use procedures and controls to mitigate the risk. You need to have a plan in place for your data management needs, especially in environments where 3D systems exist alongside 2D systems.

Simply put, your data management strategy can't just apply to part of your CAD installation—it must be robust enough to manage all the systems you use. And make no mistake: managing complex 3D design data makes 2D file management seem easy by comparison.

Lost in Translation

As I alluded to above, data translation between multiple CAD systems can be a headache. Whether you're swapping 2D information from AutoCAD to MicroStation or producing AutoCAD assembly drawings from a Pro/ENGINEER model, you'll need to watch out for such things as:

  • 1. Unidirectional transfers for data submittals
  • 2. Bidirectional translation when actively working with multiple systems
  • 3. Translational quality degradation (2D and 3D)
  • 4. Version changes over time

Unidirectional translation. The simplest case. Your job here is to make sure that the data you export from system A can be opened in system B, is dimensionally accurate and meets customer standards for data formatting (layers, fonts, etc.). As long as you have both software packages at your disposal, unidirectional translation is simply a matter of doing your homework.

Bidirectional translations. Much tougher. Just because a 3D system can import 2D doesn't mean it will output 2D reliably. Just because a 3D system can export and import DWG files to and from AutoCAD doesn't mean it can export or import complex solids data to or from another 3D package. These two examples summarize the problem nicely and lead me to the following recommendation: If you have to translate data back and forth between CAD applications, test the translations thoroughly and in both directions. Prove that the translations work by using your own files to test the results. See the MCAD Modeling Methods columns from September 2004 ( and December 2003 ( for more advice on such translations.

Degradation of quality. As data is translated, especially from 3D to 2D, a substantial loss of information may occur. Because 3D systems frequently track assembly logic or parametric relationships that can't be described in 2D CAD software, this sort of high-end data is simply lost in the translation. On a simpler level, parameters such as layering, colors, linetypes and dimensional annotation styles may be scrambled as files are transferred between systems. If your internal processes involve data translation, find out if information degradation will affect the process.

Version changes. Projects of longer duration may entail upgrades to 3D and 2D software tools, which can cause data translation parameters to change. Before updating any software, you'll need to rerun your translation testing in both directions to verify that everything still works. Don't be pushed into a software upgrade now only to find that data translation incompatibility presents major problems later.

Management Realities

When a company moves away from a single CAD package to embrace a hybrid environment that uses multiple systems, there is often some user envy. Comments like "Why did they get that software instead of me?" or "I should be involved with the 3D software!" are to be expected. You may even find that some power users believe that they should become the CAD manager for the newer, more complex software, thus usurping your position. My point is that dealing with varying user expectations is part of your job.

Here are some conclusions that help me deal with managing how multisystem environments affect CAD users:

  • 1. High-end CAD tools such as solid modelers, land design and BIM (building information modeling) require thorough understanding of the subject matter at hand. You can't simply take people who are "really good AutoCAD users" and expect them to design functional machinery in a 3D design and analysis package unless they understand machine design, as an example.
  • 2. Some of your best architects or design engineers may not take to a high-end CAD system easily, or at all for that matter. I've seen way too many gifted design engineers who want no part of modeling their designs. They would much rather have a designer or CAD expert work with them to perform the modeling.
  • 3. The work product is what your management team really cares about. If your company builds steel doors, the only thing it really cares about is the smooth design, manufacture and shipment of steel doors, not the particulars of how it all happened. CAD managers can easily spend too much time teaching new tools to users who may not use them effectively. Concentrate on getting the high-end tools into the hands of the users who can make them work most efficiently, even if you have to change things up a bit to accomplish the goal.
  • 4. Multiple CAD systems can change your design culture. To amplify my previous point, you may find that moving to a high-end modeling system wreaks havoc with the way you used to work. You may determine that user expertise and training curves require rethinking of old procedures and sequential processes that have never been challenged before. As these sorts of wrenching problems come up, consider yourself the advocate of intelligent change. Keep your focus on making the design process flow more smoothly so your company can work better and faster.

The common thread that CAD managers should note is the inherent danger of having the wrong person using the wrong CAD system. Staff/CAD mismatches yield lower productivity at best, and at worst are a train wreck waiting to happen. Even if staffing isn't a key part of your CAD management activities, it's your responsibility to track how users are distributed among the multiple CAD systems and to keep your management informed.

Stay On Track

My experience shows that managing multiple systems requires a much more proactive and forward-looking vision of management than a single system does. I also find that it is much easier to manage multiple systems when you thoroughly understand your company's needs and work processes so that you can concentrate the right resources in the right places. Combining these strategies with a knowledge of common problems to avoid will keep you on track and out of trouble.

If you already manage multiple systems, take some time to make sure you've covered the topics I've outlined and make any required corrections to your strategy. If you'll be managing multiple systems in the future, keep these topics in mind as you plan that evolution.

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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