New Year Predictions for CAD Managers, Part 1

13 Jan, 2009 By: Robert Green

Well, it's a new year and that means it's time for my annual attempt at predicting the future for CAD managers. As I've done in the past, I've distilled my list of predictions from CAD Manager Survey data, observations from the field, conversations with many groups of CAD managers, and gut feel.  Along with the predictions I'll offer some concrete advice on how to react to each trend as well. So here's the first installment of my 2009 predictions and recommendations in no particular order.

Economic Turmoil
It doesn't take much predictive ability to see that the economic environment most of us operate in will create uncertainty this year. The best we can do is to help our companies be as competitive and profitable as possible as we all push through the bad times.

For specific recommendations on how you can reprioritize your CAD management tasks, I invite you to read my January/February CAD Manager's column, which will be live online after February 5. Right now, I'll focus more on technical trends than economic ones.

Sluggish Software Change
More than ever, 2009 will be the year that we struggle to implement the subscription software we receive. Given the pressures of production and trying to deal with project problems it will be hard to find the time to implement new technologies. Additionally, I don't see much radical software change on the horizon for 2009 as much as a continued, slow evolution of new features. I believe we'll continue the struggle to switch our companies away from older 2D methods focused on AutoCAD and MicroStation to the 3D/database tools that are available to us.
From my discussions with hundreds of CAD managers, I've settled on a few conclusions that can help you predict what new technology is worth implementing and help you move from 2D to 3D methodology more smoothly:

Fix and patch existing systems. If you can't get bold new technology implemented, then up your game by making old systems do more. Examine how you can use existing systems more productively, and react accordingly.

Constantly evaluate newer tools. Just because you don't have the luxury of putting your whole company on the latest 3D technology due to time or budget constraints, you still need to be well informed. So install the latest software on your machine, learn all you can about it, then start talking it up with other influential users around the company. This methodology gets the new software out in the open, builds advocacy within your user base, and allows you to see where the warts are prior to implementation.

Look for easy pilot/test studies. When you do get the chance to break the backlog and install new software, you need to do so in a controlled, small test environment to limit the chance of error. The time to find these easy pilot/test studies is before you're pressed into duty. Constantly keep an eye out for a test project that would allow you to get new software up to speed with minimal risk; then when you get the OK to proceed you'll be set.

Hardware and OS Upgrades
Hardware and operating systems are raising the performance bar as software manufacturers are making more software compliant with 64-bit versions of Vista. In the past we've had access to 64-bit operating systems, but the hardware was lacking. No more. And then when the hardware became available to actually use the operating systems, the CAD software we used wasn't always available. No more!

This year will give us stable 64-bit operating systems running on cheap hardware with a plethora of CAD choices that will run on them. Here are some strategies you can use to take advantage of the new power without spending too much as you do it.

Multicore processor machines are cheap. Low-cost, multicore machines are now widely available, and the 6-8 GB of RAM they crave is cheap as well. Throw in a high-quality graphics card, 24-inch flat panel HD screen, and a fast hard drive, and you'll have a killer CAD machine for less than $2000. Any new machine you buy must meet these criteria -- no exceptions.

New software should be 64-bit. Migrating to a new AutoCAD version this year? No problem, just go to the 64-bit version on all new machines. Upgrading your mechanical, BIM, or civil systems? Make sure to use the newer 64-bit versions there as well. Taking the plunge now makes the transition easier for your users (they won't really notice the difference other than the speed) and will allow you to get a head start on moving all your systems to 64-bit. Of course this move is dependent on hardware, but to the extent that you can bring in new hardware, let the hardware move you to 64-bit and get it over with.

Special advice. Even if you don't get substantial new hardware this year, get a few new machines and do benchmark testing on your 64-bit CAD platforms so you'll know what to expect later when you make the switch for your whole company.

The Vista Issue
The majority of the CAD users I see in the field are still using Windows XP, but new machines, especially the hot-rod systems, are shipping with 64-bit versions of Vista. I personally went through XP withdrawal early last year and have taken the 32- and 64-bit plunge into Vista with surprisingly little effort. In fact, I've been more perplexed by learning the new versions of Word and Excel than anything else in Vista!

2009 will be the year that Vista can no longer be ignored. Here are a few testing strategies that I've personally used to make the transition:

The Vista laptop. Chances are that whenever someone in the company gets a new laptop it will have Vista on it. Why not take the opportunity to load up your common CAD tools and see how they behave for a couple of days? Sure the laptop will be slower than a desktop machine, but you'll get used to Vista's differences and see if you have any major problems to overcome with your software.

XP deprivation. Now take your laptop with Vista on it and set up the traditional office applications like email and Word and force yourself to use only that laptop for a couple of work days. You'll be slow at first, and you'll have questions as you get used to it, but you'll know your way around when you're done.

The Vista desktop 64-bit machine. As discussed above in the hardware and OS section, you'll probably purchase a new desktop machine at some point this year that will have 64-bit Vista on it. Take some time to test-drive the machine and install 64-bit versions of the CAD tools you use.

Take notes as you go. As you go through the deprivation therapy I outlined above, keep track of what confused you so you'll know what sort of Vista tips and tricks you can deliver to your users when they migrate to Vista.

The Part Time/Billable CAD Manager
Economic trends in 2009 likely will push CAD managers to be more project billable and thus more part time than in any time I can recall. And having to do your CAD management "in the spare time" between projects tends to make for a hectic CAD management environment.

So how can you make this pressure-packed work environment a positive for you? Here are some ideas that have worked for me in the past:

Communicate the problem. Tell your management about the pressure you're under. They may genuinely not be aware of the problem.

Work on cost-saving ideas. Show your management your ideas for generating savings so they can see the benefits of CAD management. If they understand that the standards and development work you do could save them a ton of money, they'd be more likely to let you do the work.

Turn overhead into billable time. Doing a project kickoff meeting? Get the project manager to pay for your time while doing so. Creating a custom program for the electrical department? Ask to apply your time toward a project that benefits from the programming. Don't just accept overhead; fight back and make your time billable.

Summing Up
Take some time to think about these trends and how you'll manage their effects over the coming year. As you do so, factor in the economic realities you'll need to deal with as you perform your CAD management duties. This year will be tough, but you'll always do better if you plan.

In the next CAD Manager's Newsletter I'll finish laying out my predictions by talking about some cost-saving strategies you can use to get more for your dollar so your senior management staffs will give you the time you need to be the CAD manager. Until then.

Related content: CAD Management

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green