Document Management: Is It Still Valid? (CAD Manager Column)

30 Nov, 2007 By: Robert Green

File and document management can provide very positive results for the CAD workplace.

The year was 1989, and I was a CAD manager with 30 AutoCAD and MicroStation users and we'd just passed the 5,000 drawing mark on our network server. That's when the realization hit us: "We've got to start managing this data or we're going to start losing work!" A search ensued, and we wound up with a document-management system that vastly improved our abilities to manage the onslaught of project information that we were producing. We then moved past 10,000 and 20,000 file milestones without a hiccup because we had a system that worked.

Now, 18 years later, most companies I work with have less control over their data than I did back then. These companies have never had that "we've got to manage our data" moment that I experienced so long ago. Apparently, it's time to revisit document management and demonstrate why this problem is still so vexing and why managing your files is a valid concern.

Classic and New Problems

Let's consider the file-management problems we face in CAD environments and think about the tools we use to manage those problems and see what sort of picture emerges.

Revision control. The ability to trace the development of a document throughout its lifetime. What did a drawing look like at revision 1, revision 2, etc.? If you're not actively managing revisions at the filing level, you're probably relying on notes on the face of the drawings or hard copies to keep up.

3D Assembly control. Like the revision-control problem on steroids! Mechanical 3D CAD tools have parts that create assemblies that ultimately create drawings. Change a part, and the assembly and drawings change. Can you keep track of all those part and assembly revisions?

3D Building information modeling and civil control. Much like mechanical CAD, other 3D design tools for building and site-modeling systems must contend with similar management problems. Change a building's dimension, and the columns will move to reflect changed ceiling plans. Change a site contour design, and the dirt calculations change, which in turn affects project schedules. Can you manage those scenarios?

Parallel revisioning. Actually a work-management problem, parallel revision refers to the possibility that two people may be editing the same file at the same time — usually in different branch offices. This "whoever saves last wins" work-management methodology creates uncertainty, rework, and slippage in deadlines as project teams struggle to figure out which information was actually correct and when.

WAN topologies. Wide-area networks (WANs) allow work teams all over the country (or even the world) to share files and work responsibilities, which only amplifies the types of problems already outlined above.

Operating system limits. As the problems relating to managing our CAD data have expanded, the operating/network systems we use to manage that data have not. We have a system of folders that contain files with only name and date information, so we must hope that everyone follows the rules!

And you wonder why you're having problems managing your CAD data? Actually it's a wonder that we don't have more problems than we do. The reason things work as well as they do usually is because the CAD managers run themselves ragged trying to prevent disaster. Sound familiar?

What DM Systems Do

A good document-management (DM) system should be able to accomplish these minimum objectives in an essentially automated manner:

Organize files. DM systems can name files, automate numbering schemes, keep track of directory paths, and, in 3D systems, control file-to-file relationships without breaks in path linkages.

Secure files. DM systems can create an additional layer of security to enable project team members anything from full access to read-only access of files. This security is typically project based rather than globally managed by directory permissions. As such, they are more flexible. The added bonus is that CAD managers can control the file permissions without having to depend on the IT department to do it for them.

Build a searchable history. As files are tracked in a DM over time, a database record is built to show what files were revised, when, and by whom. Database search/query tools then allow searching of the database later to find the particular parts, models, or drawings needed based on user names, date ranges, or project variables.

Supporting WAN users. DM systems can extend basic document security outside local sites by supporting WANs or remote workers connected via the Internet. They can even allow read-only access to field service personnel.

With these basic functions in place, CAD managers can start focusing on increasing productivity because they don't have to worry about common issues: misplaced files, security lapses, or loss of revision control. And because most DM tools (see "Popular DM Systems" sidebar for a quick summary) perform these functions well, you should be able to focus on the specific DM functions you really need.

Popular DM Systems
Popular DM Systems

What Do You Need?

Before shopping for any sort of DM system, you first must know exactly what you need from it. I've seen companies pick a system and then struggle to make their needs fit the software way too many times; it is exactly the wrong way to go about the task. The way to shop for a DM system is to first make a list of the must-have features for the system and then use the list to guide your shopping. When shopping, stick to the list to keep you focused, and you'll eventually buy the right tool.

Here are some things to consider while building a DM list:

Will it support your CAD software? Evaluate the software carefully and test it to make sure it works like you think it will. A vendor saying they have "tight integration" with a CAD package may not live up to your expectations. And when you're managing CAD files, there's no more important feature to evaluate than how the DM system works with your CAD software.

Will it work on your WAN? Does the software work well over your WAN? Is it fast enough to be acceptable to your users? Will it work with your IT department's requirements for network-wide applications? Consider these questions carefully, because a negative on any of them may doom the DM system from working in your environment.

Will it meet your Internet needs? What type of Internet support, if any, will you need today and in the future? Can the DM system work in your current environment and deliver documents efficiently? What is the user experience when locating documents via the Internet?

Is it usable and friendly? Trust your gut when evaluating software and remember that ease of use is what users want. If software seems complicated to you, it certainly will to everyone else! Get user opinions, bring users to software demos, have your boss try the system, and ask around. And always remember that if software isn't easy to use, people won't use it.

The Waiting Game

After you've carefully compiled your needs and started shopping for DM software, you should find something that fits your needs and budget. But what if you don't? Should you scale your expectations back and buy less of a system or should you argue for more budget dollars to purchase a high-end system? These questions require some mental preparation on your part.

My experience tells me that if people think they're going to be unhappy with a DM system, they will be. I personally believe that even the most well-crafted DM software can fail in almost any environment if the criteria of performance, cost, and expectation haven't been addressed. Sometimes it makes more sense to wait while continuing to hone your system requirements and build managerial support for funding a system. Trust me when I say that waiting to install the right DM system is more tolerable than installing the wrong system today.

Summing Up

I hope that this month's "CAD Manager" column has put document and file management back on your CAD management radar screen where it belongs. Although analyzing and shopping for DM solutions takes some CAD management time, very few other things can have a more positive impact on your CAD work environment.

Go back to square one and consider your document-management problems, analyze my checklists, and check out some of the company Web sites listed in the sidebar. I think you'll find the experience will refocus you on the basics of controlling your CAD environment. And that, my fellow CAD managers, is a very valid pursuit.

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

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!