Managing 2D and 3D in the Same Office (CAD Manager Column)

31 Aug, 2007 By: Robert Green

Improve productivity and keep your sanity in 2D/3D hybrid CAD workplaces.

Years ago, I noticed a growing trend of mixed 2D/3D CAD use taking hold in all types of companies, and I wrote about it as part of a two-part "CAD Manager" column ( and What I found interesting then was that 3D wasn't replacing 2D; instead, it was augmenting and living alongside to form what I call the 2D/3D hybrid CAD environment. After some substantial industry changes, I'm revisiting the topic of hybrid offices to pass along some helpful hints for improving productivity while retaining your sanity in these sometimes-confusing CAD workplaces.


Why It Happened, Why It Continues


When I first examined the phenomenon four years ago, I concluded that hybrid CAD came to fruition because 3D CAD was harder and more expensive to implement than we were led to believe. It turned out that teaching people to abandon their familiar AutoCAD or MicroStation soft-ware to learn something totally new required hard work on users' parts and a lot of adaptation by CAD managers. Add to these issues the cost of higher-end hardware, challenges with training and implementation, schedule effects caused by learning-curve time, and plain old human desire to avoid change, and it's easy to see why the rosy assessments of overnight transition to 3D software gave way to slower, evolutionary adoption.

Four years later, 3D has made more inroads, and more companies are using 3D design tools. But the 2D CAD tools have not gone away. In fact, the reasons companies cite for having hybrid CAD environments today are exactly the same as they were four years ago. Although some factors (such as hardware cost) have become less vexing, the main culprits that keep 3D from widespread adoption are long learning curves, training costs, and a lack of skilled staffers available in the labor market. Bottom line: it's still expensive to implement 3D technology, so 2D is still with us, albeit a little less so.


Root Problems


So if a hybrid 2D/3D environment is something you're likely to deal with, what are the CAD management problems you'll face and how might you tackle those problems? I can't identify everything that could go wrong, but I would like to share some common scenarios I see all the time:

  • 1. separating 2D and 3D processes
  • 2. defining the 2D-to-3D and 3D-to-2D interface points
  • 3. finding the best practices for use of your 3D software
  • 4. file management for complex 3D systems
  • 5. training and staffing decisions


These vexing problems need to be tackled in a certain order if you want to gain control of the hybrid workplace. I'll offer suggestions for each and the optimum order of attack.


Get Smart and Plan More


Before you can manage any of the problems I've listed, you need to understand your CAD software completely. More importantly, you need to plan for how those systems will work together. For example, if you worked in a Revit/AutoCAD hybrid environment and understood everything about the two systems but never thought about how project information would flow in the various information formats, you'd preside over a train wreck in short order. Everything you do must be geared toward blending multiple pieces of software into a single, functional CAD environment.

Those who manage hybrid environments capably are always trying to learn everything they can, but they never lose sight of the fact that planning how everything will work together is more important than all the bits, bytes, and feature-speak they read about.


Training and Staffing Decisions


One thing that I've noticed without fail since I've been tracking the hybrid CAD office is that nothing determines your eventual success as much as your staff. Simply put, you can buy all the hardware, software, and network tools you'd like, but you'll have nothing but problems without good people that are correctly deployed. Here are some pointers I've found to be very helpful in developing 3D expertise over the years:

Understand how different 2D and 3D are. Not everyone will assimilate to 3D. Some users won't want to assimilate to 3D, and some of your best 2D users may turn out to be your worst 3D users! The only thing you can count on when moving from 2D to 3D is that the change will be harder than you thought from a staffing point of view.

Computer skills predict 3D success. I've found that the handier someone is with computers, the better he or she will do in 3D. Many times, some of the best designers, engineers, and architects in your company will struggle not because of their design skills but because they're uncomfortable with the computer design paradigm.

Not everyone wants 3D. You may encounter die-hard 2D advocates who either can't or won't learn the new 3D tools your company is using. Will you be able to keep these 2D-centric users busy with 2D tools, or will their lack of 3D enthusiasm cause problems?

Not everyone needs 3D. You may encounter CAD users who want to learn 3D even though it isn't required by their job. Shop floor users who really only need view and print functionality are one example. Will you be able to retain these staffers even though the hybrid office you manage won't reward them with advanced system knowledge?

Put the right people in 3D positions. Most of the staffing problems I see in hybrid 2D/3D offices involve selecting the wrong personnel for the 3D modeling jobs. By choosing users who demonstrate the ability to learn quickly while keeping a positive and self-motivated attitude, you'll have fewer staffing problems and higher productivity. I've also noticed that rewarding those who exhibit positive learning techniques tends to win approval from senior management more readily than the approach to train everybody on 3D.


Separating 2D and 3D Processes


For your company to operate efficiently, you'll need to define which design and documentation processes will use 2D and which will use 3D. If you don't standardize the use of 2D and 3D tools, you'll end up with users picking whichever tool they like personally, and all manner of file versions and formats will ensue. Therefore, your CAD standards should include such statements as "all project architects shall use Revit 2008 for building design" or "all machine design engineers shall use SolidWorks" or "all project drafters shall use AutoCAD 2007." By achieving this level of standardization, you'll be able to know who's producing 2D or 3D and which software version they'll use.

Congratulations! You at least know who's using what, which makes it a lot easier to train users and manage projects. Now you have a fighting chance to succeed in the hybrid workplace.


Defining the Interfaces


If some users are 2D and others are 3D, it stands to reason that these users will have to share information with one another sooner or later. Common scenarios include 3D users providing 2D projections to AutoCAD users or creating 2D record drawings for export to clients or subcontractors. No matter what forces the issue of 2D-to-3D interfaces, CAD managers must understand the technical uncertainties and manage the processes to minimize those uncertainties. At minimum, you must verify that you can move data between your 2D and 3D applications bidirectionally.

Always remember that you don't know that anything will work until you actually test it. Don't take vendors' assurances, don't assume anything, and remember that 2D-to-3D interfacing can change with each version upgrade of each piece of software. Attack the problems as you would any other process in your office and adjust your standards accordingly. Don't underestimate the importance of this task.


Data Management for 3D Systems


In addition to managing the 2D and 3D software and their respective users, you also must manage the data they create. Data-management problems have a way of snowballing out of control unless you mitigate them early with good procedures, controls, and standards. And make no mistake: By the time users are creating 3D data, it's too late to gain control. It's imperative that you have a plan for your data-management needs in place before your 3D system gains critical mass. If you don't manage your 3D system, it will soon manage you!


An Integrated Plan


Perhaps more than any other set of problems you'll face, the hybrid CAD office presents a multifaceted challenge that demands an understanding of complex systems, effective management of users and training, and interfacing of systems and data management. No wonder hybrid CAD management seems tough — it is!

I've covered a lot in this month's column. I hope that you'll examine your company's current state of 2D and 3D integration and think about how to manage that hybrid environment using these tips. Every hour that you spend thinking and planning will be richly rewarded with a smoother, more productive workplace.

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

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