CAD Software & Services

Here's a story I wrote for an Australian CAD Magazine back in 2001.

A bit of nostalgia at the turning point of the old pen and board Drafting Office moving head on into todays computerised CAD Office. The lesson doesn't change, just the technology you're yearning. The same bottom line goals and buzz of 'return on investment', 'industry standard', 'User friendly' all still apply.

After reading this I was tempted to revise and update some of the information, but that would be like changing history. It is verbatim, but send yourself back to 2001 to digest it. Be Aware that the financial decisions required where much higher back then, and hardware, operating systems and CAD software needed to marry well, so to speak. And only a few had 'the internet', so we needed magazines and faxes and snail mail to do business and keep up to date.

You should only proceed if:

>>> you have time to spare.....
>>> you know what a razor blade was used for in a drawing office.....
>>> you have seen and used a parallel motion machine.....


Some big shoes to fill buddy....


The story of two small Consulting Engineering firms that have to prepare 2D working drawings. The days of 'by hand' or 'on the board' are well and truly gone, now a draftsman has to know a lot more than how to draw a few lines with ink pens? The important exercise of working out what is the best 'return on investment' solution for their drawing office at this point in time. But there is no IT Manager or System Administrator. No accounting department, no human resources staff nor acquisitions clerk. Not even a tea lady. This is just a typical office where the draftsman deals with the clients, answers the phone, is capable of doing their own invoicing and even gets their own morning tea and lunch. Where doing the company banking and getting the mail are acceptable chores in a working day. They have to produce the drawings and also keep abreast of the latest in computers and CAD software.

you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone?

Poetic words from Bob Dylans classic song "The times, they are a-changin'" It's a timeless song and statement. It's hard to contemplate a world where things didn't continually change. I'm from the old guard where "Staedtler, Rotring, Kent, Greenfields and Linex" provided the tools of trade for a typical drawing office. When all where called draftsmen, even the women. Now the tools come from "Intel, Microsoft, Autodesk, Norton, HP and Epson" and people are called Drafters and CAD Operators. I know my position in my company is Chief Draftsman, but I'm called the "CAD Manager". In reality "The times, they are a changin?." but we're still doing what we used to do, just with new tools of the trade.

In my specific discipline of Structural Engineering drafting, my job is to create clear, concise and accurate 2D detail drawings reflecting the Engineers design. There has to be enough information to make or build from. Accuracy is paramount, easy to read and interpret is the goal. But just as important as accuracy, is the time required to achieve this goal. Time is money as they say, so you not only have to be able to produce the goods, you have to be efficient in doing so. To be a proficient CAD User you must be trained in the field you work, be well versed in the software and hardware you use, and be prepared to continually improve your CAD based knowledge to maintain and further your potential.

I've been drawing for over 25 years now and have seen plenty of change. Back in 1984, (yes the year of Orwalls "Brave New World") I committed myself to the new computer era. I was in a partnership where we invested in the new technology. The claims of the first affordable solution of a Computer Aided Drafting package that would work on a Personal Computer were too much to resist. Our principle Engineer had already jumped head first into this new technology with the purchase of an Osborne 01 Personal Computer. It had Visicalc, Wordstar and BASIC, and a wondrous 52 character, 5 inch (diagonal) display. Even this lowly powered CP/M computer system gave us enough insight to see that computers where going to become essential in our industry. We were willing to take the plunge into Computer Aided Drafting believing that computers were not a passing fad, an expensive toy, or a time wasting gamble, but in fact would soon become a very time saving necessity.

We actually wrote an Office Management program in BASIC on the Osborne 01 which (with minor changes over time) we still use under Win9x today. Our original mail merge Wordstar templates have been ported through numerous operating systems and programs, and many of our basic BASIC (pun intended) programs still work and give the needed results. Even our initial CAD library is still all archived away and generally still useable today.

It was my biggest step as Chief Draftsman in a small office, my first steps to CAD Manager. We purchased a full "CAD System" from an Engineering and Computer Company in Newcastle. They were using the system and were willing to show off its capabilities to anyone who wanted to see. For a bit over $30K we received AutoCAD v1.4, a 6MHz (8MHz turbo) APC III 640x480 CGA system with twin 720k 5.25 inch floppy drives, a Summagraphics digitizer (Xerox hadn't invented the mouse yet) and a Houston Instruments A1 single pen plotter. It took me a full week (day and night) of configuration, learning and customization to produce a plotted copy of a simple A2 drawing with the system. The drawing I chose to produce would normally take about 3 to 4 hours to draw manually on the board. However, I could easily claim to have spent in excess of 60 long hours to create my first digital drawing!

Nothing new here, I hear you all say, everyone has their teething tales. The stories you would sooner forget than confess to. But it is all relevant, we all have to start somewhere. The main difference now is you have a choice of powerful, affordable, capable hardware and software solutions for every drawing office. I do think we were lucky investing in Autodesk, as they have gone from strength to strength, and now (arguably) offer the broadest base of vertical CAD software packages and tools, and are deemed to be the "industry standard".

Let's not start worrying about which is "the best" CAD program, it is more important to decide which is the best tool to let you achieve your specific design or drafting goals. It's easy to be contradictory here. We all know that the most popular is not necessarily the best. I'd love to drive to work in a Porsche or Subaru WRX, but is that the most practical, cost effective way for me to get from point A to point B. Reality tells me no, but I'd still like to do it.

Correct decisions can reflect in $$$$

Benefits of being a Proficient User!

This all leads me to one of my many stories as a CAD Manager, and how important it is to keep your finger on the pulse, to keep up to date with what is out there. Many companies, big and small, go through the upgrade and re-deployment stages almost annually, whenever a software upgrade appears. Often I have to assess and advise on upgrade paths for fellow CAD Users and for the company I work for. For some reason though many don't bother to do their homework each time. Some get stuck on the software upgrade path, thinking they must purchase, or have the latest version no matter what.

Nowadays most software packages are bloated with commands and functions that we just don't need or will never use, and CAD package are renown for this. Often the upgrade enhancements will have no noticeable effect on our drawing production, but we feel obliged to keep upgrading on compatibility grounds alone. This is a real contradiction, as most upgrades create the incompatibilities, not resolve them. Once again, I don't need a Porsche if I'm stuck in the same traffic day after day!

I've been fortunate because I have had hands on experience (some limited, some extensive) with Generic Cad, TurboCad, IntelliCad, AutoSketch, Atrix Technical, MicroStation SE, Smart Architect, Caddsman Architect, AutoCAD LT and DataCad. All are capable products worthy of a place in todays electronic drawing office. But to be a CAD Manager, and a proficient User you have to determine which is the best 'return on investment' for your particular requirements.

Nearly 2 years ago we faced the regular dilemma of upgrading to the latest AutoCAD release. Remember that I have been a daily AutoCAD User since 1984. I have used most versions released on the Australian market, and know what was worth the upgrade price, and what definitely wasn't. It really does depend on the type of work you are doing, wether the upgrade is valid or not. Many past AutoCAD upgrades improved the 3D capabilities, external referencing, visualisation, programming extensions and the like. If you work in a totally 2D environment without the replicative need of Xrefs, why upgrade? What good is ADS, ARX, Diesel, Lisp/Vlisp, VBA and ActiveX if no one in your organisation can load it or code it!

Here's another misnomer. I've found (generally) it is only the offices where someone can do coding that are drawn into the world of customisation, command enhancement and interface tweaking. There are many offices where people are using the software "out of the box", and hence do not need such powerful customization features in the first place. Many small companies don't have the resources, time or necessity to buy a package and then spend weeks or months tailoring and customizing it for their needs. They purely need a tool that can do drawing for them. You don't have to know how to build a Porsche to drive one. Conversely you shouldn't have to buy a Holden and try to turn it into a Porsche. You just need to get the tools to do your work, not all the bells and whistles that the salesman tells you that you need.

What the....

Where do I begin?

All rumours where that AutoCAD 2000 was a quantum leap, improved performance, better more intuitive GUI (Graphical User Interface) and finally incorporating an MDI (Multiple Document Interface). I was approached by a small Engineering company to upgrade their existing CAD systems, both hardware and software. I had just finished networking our office and was also facing the same software upgrade choices. We were also advertising for a new CAD draftsperson so a whole new system would be required. There was no time restriction, just get a solution to suit our drafting needs. This is where your pure unadulterated knowledge, experience and faith confront you. Everyone wants to just buy a Porsche and be done with it. The arcane attitude that a sledge hammer can still knock in a nail or two! But really, this is not a professional answer.

It gets back to the age-old adage of choosing horses for courses. First I had to define the work environments, and create a short list of hardware and software solutions. Then do the pros and cons of all options on my short list. Follow that with some painstaking research to validate my choices to confirm that each will do what is required. Finally, discuss my options with the other principles involved, then purchase and deploy.

It was time to take another hard look at what was out there. IntelliCAD98 had proven to me that there was finally a cheap, compatible alternative to AutoCAD. In its time it had provided an outstanding price performance alternative that really shook the Autodesk world. I have to admit that I much preferred using AutoCAD R13 DOS and IntelliCad 98 to AutoCAD R14 WIN. R13 DOS was fast and extremely configurable. IntelliCAD was more (AutoCAD file) compatible than R14, had an MDI and that great Drawing Explorer. I give credit to Visio for pushing Autodesk back into the race. They forced Autodesk to deliver an MDI product, and obviously helped in introducing AutoCADs fantastic Design Center (aka Content Explorer).

Can we really move out of the stoneage ????

2D or not 2D this is the question?

Okay, here are the scenarios I was faced with. Two offices that have been doing similar 2D Structural Engineering drafting work for the last 10+ years. Very simple on paper, but each with its own unique requirements and environment, which is often the case. I don't know of any two companies that have identical drawing offices. They may service the same market, doing the same kind of work with similar tools, but usually get there by their own means.

Office One (other Consultant):
Existing Working CAD Environment:
- 1 x ACAD 13 DOS (Senior Structural Design Draftsman)
- 1 x ACAD 12 DOS (Senior Civil Design Draftsman)
- 1 x IntelliCAD 98 (Experienced CAD Draftsman)
- HI multi-pen A1 Ink Plotter and Canon Bubble Jet A3 printer on a complex switch box system.

Planned New CAD Environment:
- Three new CAD stations - all new hardware.
- Upgrade current software.
- Deploy office networking.
- New CAD printer.

Office Two (my Office):
Existing Working CAD Environment:
- 1 x ACAD 13 DOS (Senior Structural Design Draftsman)
- 1 x IntelliCAD 98 (Senior Structural Engineer)
- HI single pen A0 Plotter and Epson A2 Inkjet printer (on switch box) on network.

Planned New CAD Environment:
- New Seat. One new CAD station - hardware and software.
- Upgrade current software.
- New CAD printer.

Both offices have their own unique office standards firmly in place. The important things like layers, fonts and text styles, linetypes, dimscales, hatch patterns, naming conventions, file sharing, plotting, backup strategies etc have all been established and carried through from the initial setup (DOS) days.

This will be one of the on-going headaches of most drawing offices in the future. It will be a very slow process to introduce any real industry wide drafting standards and conventions to many offices, because they were forced to create their own when CAD systems where introduced. The more time invested in producing drawings to an individual office standard, makes the option of ever changing to a generic standard remote at best. "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" is a crucial and valid argument whenever introducing any new software, hardware or standards in to any CAD based drawing office.

Increased interoperablility and data exchange will be the only thing to force this contentious issue. Problems with different font, layer, linetype and hatch conventions as well as poorly deployed (or understood) external referencing methods, and all this to be compounded by the new (zombie) proxy objects are giving all us CAD Managers something to think about.

After balancing the facts and fiction....

The Short (on competitors) List.

Okay, I had to short list the available CAD software options. It was fairly easy once I rationalised it.

1) Both companies do strictly 2D drawings. I know, the salesman insists you buy the package that comes with 3D modelling tools and built in ray tracing engine capable of producing animated fly-bys and walk-throughs. Neither office is going to change the way they do their drawings just because their software can. I wish someone would tell the salesman that not all Drafters use or need 3D objects or visualisation tools.

2) One office loves customising and tailoring their system. The other does basic configuration only, and uses the software "out of the box". That means one needs a package that they can fiddle around with, which can import its developed CAD routines. The other needs something very powerful and User friendly straight out of the box.

3) It is important that the software has powerful print/plot capabilities. Must be networking friendly. Must be compatible with (AutoCAD) DWG format, so their existing block libraries and drawing base may be used, maintained and expanded.

4) The User interface and command set must be similar or configurable to AutoCADs command set, as I calculated there was a bit over 70 years total AutoCAD drafting experience amongst the 6 Users.

5) Three of the CAD operators had extensive experience with digitising tablets as their CAD input device. This should be considered where practical.

That in a nutshell covers the major system requirements and operating environments that I had to consider. Remember they are both small offices on strict budgets. You can't just buy the best toys because you want to play with them, you have to be able to justify every purchase.

I won't bore you with the hardware, that was a very simple decision. The most demanding software on my short list was full version AutoCAD 2000. It needs minimum hardware of a Pentium 133, 32Mb RAM, 800 x 600 VGA, CD-ROM and a pointing device. It is impossible to buy a new computer system of that low a hardware specification today. My only real recommendation is to pay for a good graphics card and at least 17 inch (1280 x 1024 capable) monitors. I really favour the Matrox dual head graphics cards as they allow you to simultaneously run a second monitor (like the old 15 inch sitting under a desk somewhere) with active Help files or tutorials without encumbering your working drawing. Backup strategies with Orb, Jaz, Zip, HDD in tandem or CDR-W drives on the network server are all important, but not the focus of this story.

With office two the 3 new CAD stations were configured with Windows 2000 OS with a simple (cheap) 10 Base T ethernet TCP/IP based network because there was no anticipated demanding network traffic. Each system ended up with a printer or plotter attached, with each shared around the network. A new A0 Encad Inkjet printer filled their new printer requirements. Two other computers were added to the network to allow Engineers access, and for secretarial and accounting purposes. The company's dial-up Internet access was easily "modem shared" through the network so all systems have the ability to send and receive mail and documents over the Internet.

So what should we be using ????

(Drum roll) and the winner is.....

As with the hardware, software in my eyes, has gone a long way past what I need it for. I'm a draftsman, not an Engineer or designer. I have to prepare 2D drawings, not 3D fly-bys for clients, nor do I have any need to check in 3D for crucial design clashes between services in large commercial projects. It is still fairly rare for us to receive electronic drawings from the many Architects we deal with in the domestic field. Most commercial designs however, do have electronic drawings available for us to work from/with.

So my short list of software came down to (obviously) AutoCAD 2000, AutoCAD LT 2000 and IntelliCAD 2000. Both offices had used IntelliCAD and knew it was as capable as AutoCAD R14 for their purposes. Too much had already been invested in their existing drawing base archive, block library, knowledge base and on User training and establishment of CAD office standards to change to a different program such as Microstation or TurboCAD. I looked, and thought hard but it fell back to the familiarity and compatibility issues, which satisfied the overall return on investment criteria.

Office one had already invested in two full AutoCAD licences, but really didn't need the full versions to do their work. The upgrade price on the full AutoCAD version is fairly substantial, and has to be budgeted into working overheads. We were told by an AutoCAD dealer that R12 could no longer be upgraded and that R13 also had a limited upgrade future. That puts a bit of a new slant on things. IntelliCAD was dormant after 5 bug fix upgrades and was rumoured to be over and out.

The only thing left on my list was AutoCAD 2000 LT. The first couple of versions did not do anything for me. They were simple diagramming packages, not drafting engines. But the 2000 LT promised another quantum leap just as its big brother. In fact it sported the new standard AutoCAD interface and had full file compatibility with its big brother. No in-built 3D functions, LISP nor ARX. Still has the user friendly toolbar and menu customization and maintains tablet support. It was getting good press and Internet feedback, with several support sites on the web. Fully compatible with existing library and includes the new Design Centre and MDI. Cheap purchase price and very reasonable upgrade pricing structure. Okay, what's the catch?

Finally, after talking to a few other Users and checking out feedback on several Internet sites I made the decisions and went to the principles. Office one was now ready to do something, so we ordered 1 x AutoCAD LT 2000 to replace the IntelliCAD seat, and to try out the new kid in town. Within a week of deploying and configuring it into the drawing office environment, they decided to default on the full AutoCAD licenses and ordered 2 more LT packages. It's finally the 2D drafting engine that most small offices need. Much cheaper investment overhead, very configurable and extremely compatible.

With no entrenched LISP, ARX or ADS add ons in their office they encountered no major migration problems. The only problem was teaching the DOS veterans how to get around in a Windows environment. Once they got used to the MDI and tricks like "copy with basepoint" and "paste as block" they were impressed. Even using a tablet as a glorified mouse, whilst still using a mouse at the same time really impressed them. We all know that no ball mouse can match the precision of tablet input. The plotting was configured so they could plot to any printer on the network, and a simple backup strategy, and block libraries were established on the network. Now they are pursuing networked profiles so that any User can work from any machine. To put it bluntly it was the horse for the course for their office. They are waiting for the new version to see what other great tricks and goodies Autodesk have included. With the experience gained and success of office one I was confident with choices for my office. But our drawing office runs on keyboard shortcuts and LISP functions. 2000 LT does not do LISP, but there was an advertised LISP enabler from DRC-Auto (famed Smart Architect creators). I ordered 1 x AutoCAD 2000 LT and an LT-Toolkit from DRC-Auto to replace our IntelliCAD seat. Not a full working seat so it gave me some time to evaluate this cheap combination in lieu of purchasing a second full AutoCAD seat. To my delight, it was like duck to water, this old DOS stalwart got the Windows interface working as well as my beloved R13 DOS. The LISP enabler got 95% of my routines running from the first version. After 4 or five upgrades I'm now at 99%, which is really pretty good. I could make it 100% if I re-code the couple of routines that don't work, but that defeats the purpose. I reckon that the Version 2 of the LT-Toolkit will get all my code working and offer even more enhancements.

The principle didn't want to loose the investment he had in full AutoCAD 2000, so we did the upgrade dance from R13 to 2000. That's my seat, and I love having the full development power with active LISP and VLisp editor at my fingertips. The new cad station was for a young experienced CAD Operator that had previous LT experience. I deployed the 2000 LT with LT-Toolkit on it for him. He was blown away with the enhancements in 2000 LT and literally stunned when my custom routines, shortcut commands and dialogues where at his beck and call. It even allowed simple button access to custom on-line HTML help documents while he learns our system. We ordered a second 2000 LT for the Engineer. No toolkit as he mainly uses it for simple design sketches and layouts, with an occasional design/drafting fix or redline if needed.

At the outset of the exercise I did not even consider LT as an option. The previous versions where too different to the full AutoCAD. Now it is truly a little sibling to the big brother, and is ideal for those extra seats where a real drafting engine is required, but 3D and active programming is not. Our two primary drafting seats have for all intent and purpose the same GUI and functionality. The only difference being the top left corner says "AutoCAD 2000" on one, and "LT-Toolkit" on the other. If you do have legacy LISP functions that your office depends on then the LT-Toolkit add-on really makes this combination a very economically viable (and formidable) choice.

Back on the road again....

Isn't hindsight grand!

I've been so impressed I've actually bought LT 2000i for home, were I can do my foreign orders. I believe it is the cheapest full featured CAD package to suit "my drawing needs" that I've ever come across. At the latest Architectural Desktop seminar presented by Autodesk they stated that there is a 60% productivity gain going from R14 to 2000. It may be a little exaggerated to suit one persons usage, but it definitely was a quantum leap. They also state a further 25% gain going from 2000 to 2000i. I have noticed some significant enhancements in it, and I'm getting very used to the real-time Internet distraction. I seem to be spending more time at "" than I do drawing. I'm also starting to look at DRC-Auto Smart Architect LT as a similar viable alternative for a few house designer friends of mine. LT may equate to LITE or under-powered in many minds, but don't be too quick to dismiss this one. To me it is the 2D drafting engine I've been hoping and looking for, and it can only get better now that Autodesk treats it as a LITE (clone) of the full package. Mind you, I don't think Autodesk will fail on this one as they already have over one million registered Users for LT.


Stop, look, listen....

Ten Years Later.

It's hard to compare and explain how much things have changed in 1 decade! Software now purchased within defined annual budgets (subscription bandwagons) - hardware power (Intel i7 or AMD quad core), workstation graphics driving 2 or 3 x 24" (sub $200-1920x1080 HD) monitors - running smoothly on 8Gig 64bit Win7 OS (or OSX MAC! again). Being a CAD draftsman is still a dream job.

Getting to the end I now look for a similar solution to the same upgrade questions. I am biased being an Autodesk and (ex) DRC Reseller, but I must state there is a new kid it town. I have been trialing 'Corel CAD' for a potential distributor and must be honest and say it is the best valued 'AutoCAD & LT' clone out their. Native DWG support, MDI with 3D and LISP for under $AU700. It has most of the AutoCAD command set in a freindly and configurable GUI. Within an hour of use and tweaking the only time I knew I wasn't using AuoCAD was the lack of my custom 'tool palettes' (residing on the second monitor with my command line window) and the size and shape of (icons) on the 'few' toolbars I use. It doesn't do ARX or VLisp, but all my vanilla LISP code works a dream. Also, even on good Autodesk certified hardware, it 'feels' quicker than AutoCAD on regens and redraws. Multi viewports shaded/rendered (AutoCAD 2010 DWG) 3D building models with no lag for pan / orbit / zoom! Nuff said, everything changes over time......!