CAD Manager's Newsletter #124

9 Mar, 2005 By: Robert Green

In the last issue of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I shared with you a list of topics that have been generating a good bit of e-mail lately. I've termed these items "CAD manager uncertainties" because of the sense of insecurity they indicate in the CAD management community. To refresh your memory, here's the list of topics:
  • economic uncertainty

  • increasing productivity

  • CAD operator/drafter obsolescence

  • outsourcing

In the last issue, I explored the first two topics. If you didn't have a chance to read that issue, I recommend you do so now (click here for archives) so you'll have proper context for this issue.

Reader Feedback
On my call for increasing productivity, I received several replies. The response that stated the situation most clearly was from TH in Louisiana:

"In the past we have worked upwards of 60 hours a week and no one was ever burned out. Granted, all of us are on an hourly wage. My whole company loved working this way. We were in at 6 a.m. and not leaving until
7 p.m. The days were long, but at the end of the week it was all worth it. Then we were bought out by my current employer and dropped to 40 hours a week with the expectation of producing even more. This broke all morale and made most of the best workers seek new jobs where they were able to make 50+ hours a week."

I replied to TH that I've seen similar scenarios in which hourly employees are converted to a fixed salary, then pressed to work more hours. What I would like to point out is that working more hours for the same pay isn't increasing productivity for the company, but rather lowering the average hourly labor cost. Only by getting more work done per hour — that is, working smarter, not harder — does production actually go up.

The employee flight TH observes is typical in those cases where employees perceive a disincentive to working harder. In these cases, the company suffers reduced output as morale drops. To those stuck in this situation, I recommend that you continue to look for ways to do things better and more efficiently to make your work environment more hospitable. Also remember that anything you learn on your current job, even if you find the job miserable, will come in handy in the future.

Final Word on Productivity
Improving productivity is a double-edged sword that has many workers in the higher-cost economies of North America and Western Europe on edge. Although increasing output per hour is one way to achieve higher productivity, many companies are also cutting costs. The latter trend has, in my mind, largely run its course as most of the waste and inefficiency has been wrung out of business during the global downturn of 2002-2003.

What we're now dealing with is a fundamentally different way of doing business that demands constant assessment of what we're doing, how we're doing it, and where all our business partners are. The process of change is rarely fun, and transitioning to new ways of doing business can be psychologically and economically painful at times. The best we can all do is be aware of the changes and be ready to embrace the technologies that are coming at us.

CAD Operator Obsolescence
Questions like, "Do you think CAD operators will still be around, and for how long?" and "How long do I have before my job goes to someone living in another country halfway around the world?" are most prevalent in the e-mails I receive. I'll attempt to tackle these topics by using business scenarios I've found typical in North American industries. Try to think globally as you consider my analysis and concentrate on how each imaginary CAD user adds value in his or her job. I leave it for you to envision how these scenarios might play out in your own company and then plan accordingly. Here goes.

In Scenario One, a CAD operator sits at a workstation, rarely interacting with others, and works from marked-up print sets to make basic changes to text and dimensional entities, then creates new plots. In Scenario Two, a super CAD operator serves as a go-between among various departments, collecting information from many engineers, vendors, and designers and then facilitating the completion of project drawings by applying experience to get the job done.

Scenario One. I've observed this in many companies over the last 20 years, and I can draw the following conclusions:

  • CAD operators in Scenario One are increasingly rare globally and probably will be completely obsolete in the next five years in countries with higher labor costs. These are the types of CAD jobs that used to be in Chicago, Boston, Toronto, Stuttgart, and London, but are now in Prague, New Delhi, Moscow, and Beijing. Businesses are increasingly outsourcing labor-intensive yet repetitive CAD work like as-builts to countries that offer lower labor costs. Like it or not, the trend is there, and I don't foresee the trend reversing.
  • Engineers and technical managers are increasingly able to pull up CAD drawings and make their own basic edits. This is, in my opinion, why we're seeing such high sales of AutoCAD LT even though its function is limited. If an engineer can make 30 minutes' worth of basic fixes to his own drawings rather than spending 30 minutes marking up the print and routing it to a CAD operator, why wouldn't he?

I frequently say that two things drive trends in business: faster production of work and cheaper production of work. We see that in the first scenario of very basic CAD work that outsourcing can produce a cheaper outcome, whereas an engineer doing his or her own basic CAD work can produce a faster outcome. No matter how you view the problem, I don't think the CAD operator in our imaginary Scenario One will survive in countries where labor costs are high.

Scenario Two. I've also seen the go-between super CAD operator in many companies, and the conclusions I draw for those companies are radically different:

  • CAD operators in Scenario Two are applying expertise they learn on the job to provide an outstanding service to the entire design team. By providing a high-value service and intimate knowledge of the company they work in, they make themselves invaluable. The only way to outsource the CAD operator in Scenario Two is to outsource the entire design team! (We'll talk more about that scenario in the next issue.)
  • Engineers and architects who do learn enough CAD to do their own basic CAD work may never achieve the CAD productivity levels of the super CAD operator in Scenario Two. In this case, the CAD operator can deliver faster and cheaper CAD work than the engineer can in most cases while also allowing the engineer/architect to spend more time designing.

The super CAD operator faces little threat of becoming obsolete because this person provides a smart resource and increased CAD productivity to the CAD design team. And in today's hypercompetitive design environment, being smart and productive isn't going out of style any time soon.

Wrapping Up
I'm aware that tackling topics such as productivity and job obsolescence taps into a wide range of emotions and insecurities, but I honestly feel we're better off exploring these topics now so we'll all be better prepared to deal with them when they do affect us.

Please e-mail me with your thoughts on these issues at I know of no better way to take the pulse of the CAD manager community than to exchange ideas with all of you.

In the next issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll complete this series by addressing the issue of outsourcing and how it affects CAD managers. Until next time.