Equip Your Workforce for Success on the Road

9 Nov, 2010 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager: Managing a mobile CAD staff means more than buying laptops. Arm yourself with this checklist of essentials.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Cadalyst.

Let's face it: Not everybody works in an office all the time. Home-based workers, site-based project team members, road-warrior project managers, and even those who collaborate with remote customers bring a host of mobile computing challenges. In this installment of CAD Manager, I'll focus on the demands of mobile computing from a CAD manager's perspective.

The Basics

When it comes to managing mobile computing systems, most people think only about the process of selecting mobile workstations or laptops for their traveling staff. In reality, selecting computers for mobile workers is only part of the equation — and actually the easiest part to solve.

Simply put, mobile CAD workstations purchased today should have an i5 or i7 Intel processor platform with 4 GB of RAM at a minimum, a fast hard disk (7,200 rpm), and graphics that offer sufficient resolution for whatever CAD application suits the user. Obviously, more demanding 3D modeling, analysis, and rendering applications will benefit from more RAM and better graphics systems, but 2D CAD applications can run on modestly equipped, non–vendor-certified laptops. Workstations also guard against hardware obsolescence because their configurations are more likely to provide a useful three-year lifespan.

Keep in mind that many applications that once required a mobile computer can now be managed using a smartphone or other handheld device. This reality might spare the expense of extra laptop purchases, but it also brings with it some challenges that have nothing to do with a computer.

Wrangling Remote Users

Once you have users roving the globe equipped with great mobile computers and handheld devices, you can just sit back and watch everything run like clockwork, right? Wrong! Once mobile workers are unleashed, your problems have just begun. Consider the following pesky issues that will require active management on your part:

Data synchronization. When work team members are out of the office, chances are they'll create new CAD data or modify existing data. Do other team members need to be informed about the updates? If so, how? And how will smartphone users be able to find the latest files produced by other traveling team members? How will you, as a CAD manager, keep track of everything that happens when multiple team members are traveling? Synchronization problems can get out of hand quickly.

Software configuration. When mobile team members work from laptops, how do you know they have the latest software patches, customizations, and tools that you're running on your office network? How do you propose to manage the process of keeping these machines current? Experience has shown me that mobile users will not take the time to keep their machines current unless the process is highly automated.

Standards and training coordination. It's difficult to train people when they aren't in your office. How will you keep your widespread workforce up-to-date on new standards and procedures as they travel the world?

Computing Infrastructure

Coordinating files, software, and standards is crucial to CAD management, regardless of where your workforce is located. You'll need a computing infrastructure that is easy for mobile workers to access and easy for you to administer. Here are a few of the many options you might consider, depending on the size of your company and your IT infrastructure.

VPNs. If your company has a high level of IT expertise and support, chances are you already have a virtual private network (VPN) or other method for remote workers to log into your corporate network. If so, you've got the fundamental tool required to keep remote workers up-to-date, because they can log into the network just as if they were in the office. When remote workers log into a VPN, their login script (administered by the IT department) can synchronize folders or copy files to the remote laptop to keep file sets current. This solution is ideal for CAD managers, but not all companies have the IT infrastructure to support a VPN.

FTP synchronization. If your company doesn't have a VPN, perhaps you can use file-transfer protocol (FTP) folders to host your job standards, software configuration files, and even project drawings. FTP folders can be located on your corporate server, or you can place them on a commercially hosted server so you don't have to worry about Internet security or traffic demands on your corporate network. FTP folders combined with a synchronization utility such as Beyond Compare (see "Resources for Managing Mobile Computing") offer a simple, low-cost way to keep remote workers' laptops current.

Remote-login software. What about mobile workers who do rendering or analysis but don't have the high-end mobile workstations required to perform the task? In these cases, enabling remote workers to log into powerful desktop machines from their low-end laptops might be the answer. With increasingly capable and affordable (or even free) software such as LogMeIn (see "Resources for Managing Mobile Computing"), users can travel with a lightweight laptop and still access high-end power back at the office.

Whichever computer infrastructure option you use to support your mobile workforce, be sure your strategy also includes good, old-fashioned reminders to your users about the importance of staying synchronized. Emphasize the benefits of working with the latest information so users will make the effort to log in and sync to the office network!

Resources for Managing Mobile Computing
Overviews of VPN Technology
To learn more about VPNs, read these two rich Wikipedia articles — VPN, mobile VPN — that will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about VPN and mobile VPN technology.

Beyond Compare FTP Synchronization Software
Bulk licensing rates as low as $9 per seat with no subscription fees make Beyond Compare a great tool for synchronizing laptops with central server–based files.

LogMeIn Remote-Access Software
LogMeIn is an Internet-based tool for accessing a home computer remotely. The remote control–only version is free, and the full-featured Pro version costs as little as $44 per seat per year. The functionality and price of this utility software are the best I've found.

Standards and Training

Good news: Using VPNs, FTP folders, and remote-login technology, you can extend your in-house training and standards program to remote workers in digital formats (including video and audio) for very little additional effort or expense. (I offered specific guidance about this in the last installment of CAD Manager; see "Maximum Training for Minimum Money.") The key is to realize that training isn't just for those in the building — it's for everyone.

Summing Up

Whether you have many mobile computing users in your company or just a few, you'll need to closely manage the situation. View mobile computing as a change in how you work rather than as a hardware problem, and you'll be better able to control the flow of information in your office — rather than having it control you.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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