Which CAD Tool Is Right for You? Part 4

22 May, 2007 By: Cadalyst Staff

Follow these simple guidelines, and you will make the right choice when selecting new CAD software for your company.

In the last three issues of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I've discussed evaluating CAD tools based on company needs and looked at examples to drive home the concept. (In fact, the case study discussions that dealt with the concept of technology avoidance even stirred up some great reader email!) So if you haven't had a chance to read the last three issues, I recommend that you read them now to get caught up on the tone of the discussion so that this installment will make sense to you.

In this final installment of the series, I'll give you some techniques you can use to help select the right CAD tools and learn how to blend those tools into your company's design culture. Here goes.

It's All About Need
Many companies start the discussion about selecting CAD tools with a "What CAD system should we buy?" mindset. In fact, they really should begin the selection process by addressing the question, "What do we do around here, and what tool would best help us do that?" By understanding what you actually do now and what your company is striving to do in the next few years, you can avoid a lot of errors.

Here are a couple of hypothetical examples:

Company A is a medium-sized civil engineering firm that is striving to increase its productivity in designing residential subdivisions. The firm's designers have been using AutoCAD since the beginning and believe they have reached their maximum productivity with their current customized AutoCAD installation.

Quick analysis. This case demonstrates that the current CAD system won't allow the company to achieve the higher productivity levels it desires. This company needs to look at some software applications designed for civil engineering, which can assist not only with drawing but with design concepts as well.

Company B is a large manufacturer of simple linear slides. It has been building slides long before CAD was ever on the scene and is using a customized AutoCAD environment very effectively. The slides are manufactured overseas and the process is optimized and very cost-effective.

Quick analysis. This company can spend a fortune on new CAD tools, but it probably won't see any benefit. Since the company's CAD and manufacturing supports a well understood product that is already optimized for cost, a new CAD system probably won't provide many benefits.

Conclusions Drawn
These two example cases show that sometimes new CAD tools make sense when the old tools are limiting productivity. On the other hand, sometimes "good enough" really is good enough, and new tools may not pay for themselves.

The only way you can know whether new tools are in order for your company and, if so, how to select the right tools is to understand and analyze your current products, methods and needs. Looking at new software packages should not be undertaken until these up-front analytical steps are completed and thoroughly understood.

If, having done your homework, you decide to embark on a search for new CAD tools, then you need to actually see what the software tools you're looking at can do. By benchmarking all software against a known set of design tasks, you'll be able to comparison shop and make a smart choice. Here are a few do's and don'ts for benchmarking new software.

The Do's

  • Do select a sample project that is representative of your real work.
  • Do think about what results you want from the benchmark (prints, data files, ability to import from your field data, etc.).
  • Do work with a reseller to run a thorough benchmarking test that works through your sample project.
  • Do take notes.
  • Do learn everything you can about the software during the test.
  • Do offer to pay for some reseller time since they'll be training you as they go through the project.

The Don'ts

  • Don't take anybody's word that things will work -- you must see it work.
  • Don't trust sales literature.
  • Don't work with a reseller who doesn't have competent staff.
  • Don't back off on your requirements; if the software can't do what you need it to do, then at least you'll know it.
  • Don't expect the reseller to spend a week of technical time with you without getting some financial compensation.

Do and Don't Redux
If you follow my do and don't guidelines, you'll be able to verify the following very important points for each software package you evaluate.

Software function. You'll know whether the software can meet your needs because you will have evaluated the software in real-world usage.

Reseller competency. If the reseller you work with has an applications engineer who's good enough to make your project work, then you know the reseller will be able to support you.

Reseller service. By working with a reseller who provides competent applications engineering staff, you can learn more about their pricing and service offerings. And believe me when I say that these factors will be crucially important for your long-term success.

Initial CAD manager training. By the time you've been through a good benchmarking test with a competent reseller, you should have learned a good bit. In fact, what you learn may save your company a bunch of money in the early stages of new software implementation.

As you can see, a good benchmarking process is essentially a pilot project that verifies all aspects of a software product (function, support and training) in one shot. Benchmarking does take some time, but the amount of time and money you could waste by not benchmarking properly makes the time you do spend seem inconsequential by comparison.

Make It Happen!
If you do your homework and benchmarking and ultimately determine that a new CAD tool is in order, then what? Below is a list of steps you can take, presented in the order in which they should be taken, to get your new CAD tools in place as painlessly as possible.

Get the money approved. Until you have an adequate budget, what's the point of going any further? Make sure your senior management sees the benchmarking results you've obtained and knows how thoroughly you've evaluated the software so that budget approval will be forthcoming.

Evangelize. If the budget will be there, start selling everyone around you on the new CAD tool's ability to provide great functionality and make the company more productive. Some people will be skeptical, but that just means you'll need to evangelize a little more. The bottom line is that you're the CAD manager and it's your job to make sure everyone around you is enthusiastic.

Plan. Start planning for your first project with the new software and think about which team members would be best for the task. Share the benchmarking results from your test project with those who will work on the first project, and get them as prepared as possible.

Execute. Now you'll need to train your first users and get them going on the first project.

Document. When the first test project is in process, take careful notes about how standards need to be modified, what went well, what went poorly and what you'd change on the next project. Now you can amend your training and standards accordingly.

I know this is only a summary and that it makes the process sound simple, right? I've found that the process actually is fairly simple, but the work it requires is the hard part. That's why I've sequenced the tasks so that each step you take lays the foundation for the next step. Also notice that the way my process works tends to bring willing power users on board early to give you the greatest chance to make your new CAD tools work.

Summing Up
I hope you've found this series thought provoking and valuable. I believe that if you use the concepts I've set forth in this issue, you'll have a much greater chance for success in selecting and implementing the right new CAD tools for the betterment of your company. As you work your way through the process, you'll find that the more you educate, evangelize and document, the better the process will go.

In the following few issues of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I will explore the topic of CAD standards and answer some of the most common standards-related questions I receive from CAD managers. Until next time.

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

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