Canadian Consulting Engineer

Scaling Babel

June 1, 2005
By Viktor von Buchstab

Decades ago, forward looking firms with hungry mainframes fed them in eight-hour shifts. The machines performed computer-aided drafting that was simple, 2D stuff -- glorified paper blueprints. Adventu...

Decades ago, forward looking firms with hungry mainframes fed them in eight-hour shifts. The machines performed computer-aided drafting that was simple, 2D stuff — glorified paper blueprints. Adventurous firms dabbled in nouveau-respectable Intel/IBM 386/486 “personal” computers that were scorned by more “professional” CAD programmers with Computer Vision, Calma, Autotrol, and other long-forgotten proprietary branded systems. Each closed-standard group was effectively barred from sharing files or interacting with other brands of CAD machinery, even supposedly “open” Unix-based minis and mainframes. In any case, since each engineering department held itself in splendid isolation, file sharing was not an issue.

Today we have multi-CAD solid modeling, awesome power in laptops and handheld computers, and a universal access/distribution paradigm, with everyone sharing data with everyone else.

In some parts, that is …

Currently engineering companies face a dilemma. On one hand, everyone is expected to share documents with various construction partners — clients, architects, contractors, subcontractors, construction supervisors, etc. On the other hand, the extended enterprise of computer technology has grown to global dimensions and we find awesome Babel of CAD languages from hundreds of brands, each written in different code formats and different file formats.

That stumbling block breaks down into two issues. Some of the extended team partners actually have to work with a particular CAD program. These are typically fellow engineers, collaborating consultants and construction supervisory people who have rights and mandates to work with the primary CAD files, making design changes, adjusting parameters, reissuing specs, changes and concepts, etc. Their issues are demanding and complex.

But there is a much larger universe of loose partners — the ones who need to view the CAD files, perhaps print them, approve them, make annotations, questions or recommendations for changes. These people have to be kept in the picture and need accurate, up-to-date CAD files; but they don’t require the intense, intimate interaction with the primary CAD files of the original designing partners.

The “loose partner” group is receiving lots of attention from CAD software vendors. They are seeing the benefits of various “light” file formats that facilitate file sharing. While AutoCAD (and other Autodesk software) has long ruled the architectural/engineering/construction (A/E/C) industries — with some competition from Bentley Systems’ MicroStation — other marques have entered the fray, notably mid-sized CAD programs like SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Solid Design, and the generic “solid-everything” brands. Consultants, familiar with Autodesk’s original DWG (full-blown) files, found that the firm’s newer, lighter DWF format smaller (5-10% of the original size) had the added convenience of security controls surrounding detail-viewing, commenting and other annotating privileges.

But, sooner or later, we all have to work with CAD files from a “foreign” brand; and that’s when we look for a format that not only bridges the barriers of incompatible code, but also has a more compact file size to make it easier and faster to send around the various team locales.

CAD consultants Cyon Research of Bethesda, Maryland have a warning in a white paper entitled, “The Adobe solution for AEC.” They say: “The AEC industry requires digital data for better communication, for project control, and for major reductions in time and cost. Yet the proliferation of electronic document formats has itself become an obstacle to the realization of these benefits for improved workflow…. The unintended result is an unmanageable diversity of software installations, file formats, electronic document types and competing standards.”

CAD software “multiculturalism,” then, is a job for the various “light” files: SolidWorks’ eDrawings (also adopted by PTC), UGS’/Solid Edge’s JT Open, Autodesk’s DWF file format, Bentley MicroStation’s DNG, and the new entry from left-field, Adobe Acrobat 7.0. The latter was historically not interactive, but a “universal” file format for transferring graphics among incompatible platforms. It was view-only or print-only, and did not cater to mark-up or annotation requirements. That failure began to change with Version 5.0, and now Version 7.0’s PDF format wants a slice of the CAD file-sharing market; 7.0 has functional cloud and text mark-up functions, annotation and associated revision controls that extend to minor graphic, and geometric touch-ups.

Viktor von Buchstab is a freelance writer based in Toronto who specializes in high-technology and information technology issues.


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