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Managing Today’s Hybrid CAD Office

CAD Manager's Column: Being an expert in one CAD environment isn’t enough anymore, you must understand the other options as well.

I vividly remember sitting in a Parametric Technologies office in 1995 where we were told that there simply wouldn’t be any more 2D CAD by the year 2000 — yet I still see 2D CAD everywhere. In 2005 I remember being at Autodesk University and hearing that by 2010 everything in the AEC industry would be in BIM — yet today most industry analysts say that BIM market penetration is about 40%. And, again sitting at Autodesk University, in 2015 we were all told that everything would be on the cloud by 2020 and that desktop CAD applications would be a thing of the past. And, like 2D and BIM before it, that hasn’t happened either.

We now find ourselves presiding over a hybrid CAD environment of 2D and 3D applications scattered over desktop machines and web-based cloud applications. What a mess! In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll share some of the better strategies I’ve used and how to deal with this messy situation. Here goes.

Managing Today’s Hybrid CAD Office
Image source: SergeyNivens/stock.adobe.com

How Did We Get Here?

Why did the hybrid CAD environment happen in the first place? From my industry experience, it started because 3D was harder and more expensive to implement than the software companies led us to believe. Turns out that teaching people to abandon their familiar AutoCAD or MicroStation software to learn something totally new required hard work on user’s parts and a lot of training, implementation, and support from CAD managers — not to mention the hardware costs and schedule impacts. It just wasn’t that simple.

How about BIM? Much the same argument as generic 3D before it, BIM required not just new hardware and software but a huge change in mindset and workflow management. BIM isn’t that simple either.

And, the Cloud? Cloud tools can have lots of IT implementation issues and the costs associated with many named user cloud-based tools are now becoming much more expensive than we were led to believe.

Old tools still work. In many cases, companies became so good with their old 2D tools that a move to 3D wasn’t justifiable. Small architectural firms have found the same to be true for BIM.

Long story short — change is hard, new software is expensive to implement, and traditional tools such as 2D and 3D desktop applications still get the work done just fine in many cases. The reality is that software change happens far more slowly than the industry pundits and software companies would have us believe.


What Does It All Mean?

Here’s where we have to draw some educated conclusions on what the current hybrid CAD office environment means for CAD managers. This is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it does represent the main rules of business that have given us the hybrid CAD office in the first place:

Work dictates tools. If you need to do 2D production drawings, you’ll most likely use an inexpensive 2D application rather than an expensive BIM application because it is the cheapest, best tool for the job.

Workforce also dictates tools. If your company has 90 AutoCAD users and 15 Revit users, you’re not going to be 100% BIM any time soon because your ability to train staff will be the limiting factor.

IT, increasingly, dictates cloud tools. Cloud-based tools eat up bandwidth on networks and require extensive security configurations to setup. In some cases, cloud tools and storage are even expressly forbidden by security sensitive clients. Even if you wanted to go 100% cloud, you’re limited by the realities of IT.

Return on Investment (ROI) dictates change. If going to BIM gets your projects done twice as fast at half the cost, then you’ll go BIM right away because the financial returns are there. Conversely, if your company has been designing single family homes for 20 years using a highly optimized 2D CAD environment, there’s little financial return to change to BIM.

Project completion and schedules overrule everything. You may want to be fully 3D, BIM, or cloud-based, but if doing so delays projects or generates errors, you can bet you’ll be right back to using your old tools.

Your challenge as a CAD manager is to understand these rules and manage the tools at your disposal to get the best project flows and lowest costs. Let’s see how.


Tackle the Real Issues

If a hybrid CAD environment is something you’ll be dealing with for the foreseeable future, what’s the best way to tackle the problems it presents? In my experience it all begins with how you answer these basic questions:

What’s 2D, 3D, or BIM? Using the work dictates the tool rule from above, evaluate which work products should be done with each type of tool. Make these decisions based strictly on how quickly and cheaply work can be done and you’ll choose correctly.

What’s cloud? Use the work dictates the tool and the IT dictates cloud tools rules from above to ask which job functions can really benefit from cloud-based connectivity. Benchmark cloud tools against cheaper desktop applications to understand whether the cloud tools save enough collaboration time and errors to justify the additional costs associated with them.

Where are the interface points? Will 2D DWG files and BIM projects use a cloud tool to exchange information or will you implement those workflows using reference file methods on your WAN? Who controls which file and who is the coordination point that will manage the interchange?

What will change cost? New software tools require hardware, software, and training — none of which are free. Any change in work methods must take these costs into account and the tools must pay for themselves in reduced labor costs.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll have a much more pragmatic view about how work gets done and what it will all cost. What I’ve outlined above is the kind of thing management wants you to explore — not so much the bits and bytes of the software.


Get Smart

Before you can tackle any of the issues above, you must understand the software you’re proposing well enough to not make the wrong recommendations. You don’t need to know every single tip, trick, or shortcut for every piece of software, but you do need to know it well enough to plan for every aspect of implementation.

As an example, if you work in a Revit/AutoCAD hybrid environment and understand only one of the tools, it is impossible to make sound judgements about where the two systems should interface on projects. But, if you understand both tools well, you’re more likely to make a good recommendation. Understanding the tools is a critical part of matching tools to work processes to best define interface points — there are simply no shortcuts.

The above logic also applies to cloud-based CAD tools. Just because a software vendor is pushing a cloud-based program doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for the job. You’ll only know that if you’ve taken the time to understand the tool.

The ugly truth is that hybrid CAD environments demand a lot of CAD managers. Those who don’t understand all the tools they manage will soon preside over project train wrecks. You can’t just be a 2D CAD manager, or a BIM manager, or a cloud CAD manager to manage a hybrid CAD environment — you must be all three.


Summing Up

More than any other problems you’ll deal with, managing today’s hybrid CAD office presents a multifaceted challenge to the CAD manager. It’s my hope that you’re now thinking about that challenge from a practical point of view and analyzing the situation using business-based rules.

In the next installment of The CAD Manager’s Newsletter, we’ll look at some specific staffing, training, budgeting, and transition planning strategies you can use to map out a multi-year CAD management plan. Until next time.




Robert Green

Robert Green performs CAD programming, standardization, and consulting services globally. He is the author of Expert CAD Management: The Complete Guide. Reach him via his website (greenconsulting.com/).

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