Canadian Consulting Engineer

Speaking Out: Laptopblues

October 1, 2002
By Geoff McDonell P.Eng.

Having watched the growth and widespread use of personal computer-based CAD software over the last decade, I thought it was time to take a deep breath and look at the results. As a consultant in the b...

Having watched the growth and widespread use of personal computer-based CAD software over the last decade, I thought it was time to take a deep breath and look at the results. As a consultant in the building industry, I attended my first computer aided drafting and computer aided manufacturing course in 1981, when CAD/CAM programs were still run on large mainframes and early forms of digitizing tablets. I subsequently attended an Introduction to AutoCAD Version 2.0 in 1987, and after many attempts loaded the program onto a blazing fast MS-DOS-based 286 personal computer that had half of its 20 Meg hard drive dedicated to the CAD software. After that point I made sure I had “people” to do the CAD drafting for me!

So where are we today? We see more “professional-looking” (key word being “looking”) drawings; the ability to make changes is easier; the ease of exchanging drawing information via e-mail is almost magic; most CAD programs from different sources can communicate with one another and we can use drawings produced on Apple computers, Sun Microsystems and many other PC based software programs. Sounds nice, but what’s the catch?

The professional “looking” drawings may appear nice and consistent, but what about the quality of the information? It is my opinion that this has gone downhill in many ways, since the drawing is now produced on a 15 inch screen and it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the “big picture” of a full sized drawing laid out in front of you. Not to mention that the drawing now consists of a bunch of coloured lines which are input by CAD operators who may have a good understanding of the software, but don’t realize they are drawing three dimensional “stuff” in two dimensions. Add to the mix the fact that sometimes layers are frozen to minimize the clutter, and it’s not a surprise that room names and equipment tags often overlap, resulting in an unreadable doodle.

Back when drafting was “simple,” the drafter usually had a greater depth of knowledge about what he was drawing and was able to coordinate three-dimensional objects as he drew them. This “knowledge space” in the brain is now taken up with software management tasks, and “CAD language” skills. I firmly believe that a mandatory prerequisite to taking a CAD course should be to spend one year “on the boards” doing manual drafting in order to understand how and why drawings are created and used.

CAD changes are so much easier to make — well, yes, but that’s a double-edged sword. As a sub-consultant, this means our clients have a much greater opportunity to make changes to drawings right up to the last minute before we tender the job. That wasn’t the way we used to do it!

When drawings were manually applied to vellum or Mylar, there wasn’t a desire to make changes after a certain point, since it would mess up the drawings and the consultants would require more time and extra fees to change all their drawings. Well, we are now “making the time” to deal with a lot more changes, and we are not getting any extra fees, since “it’s so easy to take care of changes.” The client makes a change, sends you a CAD file with the new drawing, you have to open it up and look carefully at where he may have made the changes since they’re not marked on the CAD file anywhere, and then change your drawings to match the latest CAD file. Now, repeat this 47 times through the course of the project and let it happen one week before the Tender date. Tell me again, how much time are computers saving us?

Exchanging drawing information is so much easier nowadays. Yes, it sure is easy to send CAD files all over the place via e-mail and CD-ROM, but the drawing exchange format still isn’t quite up to the task of dealing with the different software packages. Hands up how many of you have had CAD files sent to you in a “.dxf” format from a client using something other than AutoCAD and you couldn’t open the file, or when you did open the file, there was nothing usable that looked like any drawing you had from him previously. Thought so. Again, how many of you have had to spend time individually revising clients’ CAD files (even when they were using the same CAD software as you) to change the line types and layering to suit the work you are trying to superimpose on the base drawings? Hmmm, I don’t think we are quite “there” yet on the subject of drawing exchange, are we?

The latest technologies are allowing us to use Internet-based websites for document management and CAD file exchange. This ability allows an interactive use of the drawings and files, but it also introduces more opportunities for more people to make changes at the same time. And, unless the client hosting the CAD drawings has a tight management reign on the process to communicate when/where and what got changed on the CAD files, the sub-consultants can get off track and be playing catch-up all the time, instead of doing productive design work. One of the fundamental issues in our business is that most of the time we sub-consultants are expected to have our 100% finished drawings ready at the same time as the client for tendering purposes. This means the client has to stop making changes after a certain point to allow us to catch up.

Loss of artistry

The big thing I’ve noticed over the last decade is the loss of artistry in creating our design drawings. We have people coming out of high school and post-secondary facilities where CAD drafting has been taught, and these people are quite adept at the keyboard and have a good understanding of the software, but they don’t have a clue on how to arrange and create a drawing that communicates properly what it is we are trying to do.

CAD software comes with spell checking routines — so why don’t people use them? Why aren’t notes lined up and arranged in an easy to read manner on the page? Why are all the line types the same so that there is no contrast between drawing items? We are blessed with people coming out of school who are very intelligent with respect to running the CAD software, but I don’t believe they have been completely taught: “What is a drawing?”

While CAD programs and systems have provided some improvements in our business, I can’t say that they have actually made our work any easier, or allowed our work to be done any quicker. There are many time-saving benefits if repetitive details and plans are used over and over again. Unfortunately, that situation is not the case for most of us in the building construction industry, where each building is distinct and different, and where we work with a different set of consultants and architects on each project.

CAD also creates more of the insidious creep of “multi-tasking” that professionals are expected to keep up with. It wasn’t that long ago that we had secretaries and administrative assistants to do day-to-day memos, letters and general documents. Now any professional is expected to use a computer and do their own word processing. Then there was the development of spreadsheet programs that created the need for the professional to know and use another piece of software and to allow them to do their own calculations, where previously someone lower on the totem pole was charged with that job. I used to be able to work on many more projects in the past when I had a pyramid of people under me to do the different tasks. Gone are the days when “designers” designed, and word processors wrote text, and the engineer at the top of the pyramid went to meetings and procured the work. Using the computer is now deemed to be a required function, like knowing how to use the telephone. The engineer at the top of the heap is now doing word processing, expected to do CAD work, and develop spreadsheets for the day-to-day work. Just how much “multi-tasking” can be crammed into one day?

So here I am, still waiting for a real breakthrough for CAD drawing production in the building construction industry.

Geoff McDonell, P.Eng., is a senior mechanical engineer with EarthTech Canada in Burnaby, B.C. Illustrations are by Chad Niwranski and Mike Kirstiuk.


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