19 Jan How to Develop an Automation Plan for CAD Systems
I have been automating CAD systems for 20 years, and I’m here to tell you: you’re probably doing your CAD automation process wrong.
The process I’ve seen most often goes something like this: A CAD technician goes to the CAD manager and complains about a task that takes a long time to complete. A decision is made to automate this task to increase efficiency. Sometimes the CAD manager can write a script or create a plugin that aids in the completion of the task. Sometimes the CAD manager will have to hire a developer to produce the plugin. This leads to a system that has a handful of helpful but compartmentalized plugins – all of which need to be maintained and may or may not improve your CAD system. In businesses large and small, I see this scenario time and time again.
Two years ago, I made the jump from CAD manager to full-stack developer. Picking up knowledge of business processes showed me many places are making the same mistake and have been looking at AutoCAD automation through the lenses of a CAD technician for way too long. Approaching it from a business process point of view has taught me the real value is in automating the whole process – not just automating away problem areas.
Before you decide on automating your CAD system, I suggest using this small list of tasks to help better align your end result. The better job you do with these tasks, the better your automation plan will be.
- Define CAD standards: If your company has not developed CAD standards, they need to be created and put into action before any effective automation can take place. The most critical areas to standardize are file storage directory structure, file naming convention, symbol library, templates, and layers.
- Define your complete process: Typically, I use Visio to draw up flow diagrams to aid in this process. The process should start with file creation and document each step it takes to complete the drawing and output to the end result file. (Note: only include the high-level drafting tasks.)
THE ANNOTATION PLAN
Now that you have CAD standards and a documented working process, you can begin looking for areas you can automate. I separate my plan into three parts: file system, drafting/design acceleration, and finally, file output.
Part I: File System
- The file system is the foundation of your CAD system but is so often overlooked. This is an area you simply cannot get away from. No matter the size of the project, your files must be created, stored, and organized for retrieval. I have seen so many easily avoidable issues drag a team down had they just used a solid file system. Files have been lost, old design files have been delivered to clients, and people have lost untold amounts of time looking for the file they know exists but just cannot find. A good file system should abstract away as much of the complexity as possible. It should handle file creation, naming, renaming, merging, and deletion. Ideally, the application controlling the file system should be available inside and outside of your CAD applications.
Part II: Drafting Acceleration
- This is typically the area where most CAD system automation is focused. The biggest issue I’ve found is everyone wants to automate only the hard parts. While automating the difficult drafting or design tasks is important, this isn’t the first thing you should automate. Remember: if it’s difficult to manually do this task, it is going to be just as difficult (and potentially expensive) to automate it. Remember those process flows you created as a prerequisite? Here’s where those components come into play. Layout your plans vertically so you can see all of them at once. Now line up each step that is the same for each drafting process. Now go through each step in your process and make a guess at how long you spend on each task. Start with tasks required on 100% of your files. Can any of these tasks be automated completely? Automating these easier tasks should be simpler and much more affordable than automating the more complex tasks. This approach also builds confidence in your automation plan, and should help when it is time to get funding for your more complex automations.
Part III: Output
- Eventually your CAD files will need to be output into a format that anyone can read. This could be plotted on paper or published to PDF for digital transmittal. A common issue I run into is ensuring the latest version of the CAD file is published and stored in the proper location. This location should be setup and managed as part of the file system, but automating the publishing task must be handled by the CAD system. The tricky part is determining when an AutoCAD file should be published. This process will vary based on your environment but automating this process is necessary.
The best automation plans have components that build on each other. It abstracts mundane tasks from the user so they can work on more important tasks. Most importantly, this type of plan starts every project off on a solid foundation.
Jason Leinberger – Jason was a CAD Technician, CAD Manager, and IT Specialist for 17 years before making the switch to being a full-time full stack developer. His current role is lead developer for one of Access Sciences’ consulting teams, creating web applications, Autodesk Plugins for AutoCAD, Revit, Civil 3D, Navis Works, and desktop applications.