You spent big bucks on a CAD system, but you still don't see the gains you expected. Time is money, but your CAD system seems to soak it up. What efficiencies are you missing out on?

Let's look at CAD efficiency for the CAD station user, the systems administrator, the design engineer, the project manager, and the sales person.

For the CAD station user. Tip No. 1: Build it and they will save. Build or buy a library of reusable objects, blocks, and shapes. This library will save you drawing time and reduce rework. You'll have standards-compliance built in. Look at any 5 drawings you have done. Do you see common elements between them? How about drawing borders and title blocks? Other examples include panel schedule layouts, switches, receptacles, data jacks, and ground rods.

Assign block attributes, where applicable. Attributes for equipment include voltage, ampacity, and AIC ratings. You can assign attributes to title blocks: drawing title, project number, scale, and revisions. For text, assign style, height, insertion point, justification, and color. Attributes are easy to edit, and you can manipulate them in a database to provide equipment schedules or other information.

Tip No. 2: Feed your brain. Just as electrical people need a magazine like EC&M, so do CAD people need a CAD magazine. Find one and subscribe. Educators often point out the value of absorbing information in small chunks on a regular basis. This kind of education is exactly what trade magazines provide. Deborah Atherton, a former CAD director for an instrumentation company in Texas, made a practice of distributing photocopies of magazine articles and key pages in CAD books to CAD users in her firm.

Make sure to get permission from the publisher before using this form of "pass along" readership. Most cities have CAD users groups, which are a solid resource for improving your CAD skills.

For the CAD systems administrator. Tip No. 3: Use the right tool for the job. Slow computers mean slow CAD work. CAD drawings, being so math-intensive, hunger for CPU power and RAM. Most purchasers buy a fast CPU, but the system is wimpy because it lacks sufficient RAM. For many types of CAD operations, 128 MB is the bare minimum, with twice that much still considered modest. Are you using a business-grade operating system, such as UNIX or NT? If not, you are losing money. Also consider a multiple hard drive setup with system file distribution (pagefile on one drive, OS on another, program on a third), to boost system speed.

A weak video card means inaccurate and slow redraws, leading to errors, frustrated operators, and less output. Today, a 128-bit/8MB video card is under $90. You'll need a high resolution and a fast refresh rate (typically 75 Hz or higher). Make sure your card can drive that 21-in. monitor (at 75 Hz or more). A 21-in. monitor is now available in a high-performance configuration for under $900.

Tip No. 4: Keep your act together. Defragment and backup often. You can get free disk defragmenters from the Internet. Backup to removable media daily and after each major evolution of a project. If you do not have strict backup policies that require a combination of removable media, you are courting disaster. Hard drives do fail, and new viruses can wipe out NT workstation data. You must make backups in case of employee misconduct, accidental deletion, theft, fire, and natural disasters. If you have remote backup of your system, you can get your drawings to another office and head off a disaster.

For the design engineer. Tip No. 5: Lighten up. Most CAD programs have a "light" version. These programs cost substantially less than the full version of the software. They also require fewer computer resources to operate. A "light" version is the answer when you travel without access to a full-blown CAD station. The "light" file format saves on file size, so you can e-mail or FTP drawings; with reasonable efficiency; between locations. It also has a short learning curve, compared to a full-blown system; you may want to use the "light" version so you can focus on design instead of drawing.

Tip No.6: Set a new standard. Define standards at the start of a project; not after work progresses to the point of needing rework to meet standards. The standards should include text styles, fonts and heights, line types, layer names and colors, title blocks (and borders) and drawing sizes. People invariably find a need for special fonts, hatches, and symbols. You should have a standard policy that all such items go to the CAD manager to maintain standardization. If your company does not have such a policy, you would benefit from making a case for one. The standards provide for drawing uniformity and reduce CAD time.

Consider standardizing in other ways. For example, linking drawings is a wonderful timesaver. You can generate a floor plan once and then use it in multiple additional drawings. No need to reproduce the same drawing over and over. But what happens if you need to change the basic drawing? With unlinked drawings, you need to make the same change to every drawing based on the floor plan. With a linked drawing, things are different. To add a door or move a wall, do so in the one floor plan drawing. When you initiate an update (usually this happens automatically when you open a drawing) in any drawing linked to that floor plan, that drawing will automatically include the changes made to the floor plan. There is a price to pay: when you send an electronic copy of a drawing, you must also send all drawings that link to it, as well as any special fonts or linetypes.

For the project manager. Tip No.7: Stay on the straight and narrow. One way to keep the main drawing on the server and assign layers to certain. One of those people should be the project manager, who has an annotation or comments layer. The project manager simply opens the drawing as read only, and composes comments off-line. Then, when the comments are ready to add to the drawing, the project manager temporarily locks the drawing for exclusive use, and pastes the comments in place in the pmcomments layer. When a project engineer opens the drawing later, the comments appear. If it's a high activity drawing such that the engineer cannot release it for someone else to lock it out, there is another technique you can use.

You create a linked drawing (see Tip No. 6. Copy an existing project drawing to a new name (you might just append "CP" to the name). Then create new layers for both the critical path parts of the drawing and the comments. Use these layers (with a special color and linetype) to mark the drawing with its critical path information. Work with the team to develop a system that won't interfere with the work. When you've marked everything, delete all layers except the critical path ones. You now have a critical path drawing you can annotate whenever you need to, without touching the engineering drawing. And you can see the engineering drawing whenever you need to update critical path annotation layer.

A third way, if your CAD package allows it, is not to create critical path layers, but just a comments layer. You create a project management copy of the original drawing. Link the project management drawing's comment layer to the original and the original drawing's other layers to the project management one.

Tip No. 8: Foil costly plotting. Using a technique similar to that in Tip No. 7, you can eliminate costly plotting when you must make changes. Create a layer called "change notes" to keep everyone on the project informed. This means no more distributing uncontrolled paper. No more making updates per superceded notices. Make a layer that links, and you have automatic notification. Remind people to turn this layer (and the critical path one) on at the start of each drawing session.

For the sales person. Tip No. 9: Keep the momentum. You know to close a sale when a prospect is "ripe." But, suppose your prospect wants a design preview. In the past, you may have said, "I'll locate a drawing like that and get back to you." Then you waited a week for Engineering to find and plot one for you. You can no longer afford to do that. Today, you keep a database of sample drawings on your laptop. If you do power distribution, you should be able to pull up linked drawings that show plan views, one-lines, bills of materials, and basic Gant charts. This gives the prospect crucial information for understanding the budgetary and scheduling impact of the project. And it puts you in a position of knowledge and power.

Tip No. 10: Get webbed. Don't you hate it when you forget paper materials for a presentation; or your prospect never reads what you leave? You need to go to the next level: walk your prospect through a tour of your Web site. Become familiar with what customer benefits and needs the Web site satisfies. Identify what it does not satisfy, and address those to people responsible for content. Consider drawings online. You may be able to set up a URL just for your prospect, and load in appropriate CAD work. You can password that directory and give your prospect 24-hr exclusive access to you.