New demands on the type of work you do require new types of drawings. Depending on what your goals are, you could benefit from a new type of drawing software.

Although software use is increasing throughout the electrical industry, many of us still don't use software for design, data visualization, or collaboration. This is unfortunate, because much of this software can contribute dramatically to the bottom line.

Technical drawing software is one of the software categories you should take a serious look at. Those who use technical drawing software to create, maintain, and update electrical drawings benefit from increased accuracy, decreased design time, lower costs of design and construction, increased profits, and a competitive edge over those who don't use it.

What is technical drawing? Technical drawing (or diagramming) is a relatively new variation of conventional CAD, and it fits squarely between traditional 2-D and 3-D. When CAD arrived on the scene, it promised and delivered increased accuracy and efficiency for visually depicting physical objects in two dimensions. Since then, CAD has gone beyond the physical display of objects to include automation of non-CAD-related processes through integration with compatible software.

Technical drawing fills the gap between traditional 2-D and 3-D. While technical drawing software displays physical representations in 2-D, it foregoes traditional 2-D geometry to produce a drawing. Instead, it uses objects with context sensitive behavior and other intelligence that rivals even the most sophisticated 3-D CAD applications (see sidebar below).

Several software applications are now available for functional design, physical design, and asset tracking. However, few affordable software applications integrate all of these capabilities. The most effective available technology combines an interactive graphical interface with links to pertinent data for a comprehensive, yet easy-to-learn-and-use technical drawing environment. Of the technical drawing packages available today, the most widely known are Actrix Technical 2000, from Autodesk, and Visio 2000 Technical Edition, from Microsoft.

Sample scenarios. Let's walk through scenarios suited for today's technical drawing applications.

• You are designing the power distribution system for manufacturing equipment. Another team already designed the mechanical components, using a popular 3-D CAD solid modeling application. Your primary challenge is to create a 2-D electrical drawing to represent the components (bus, transformers, panels, conduit, and wiring) each piece of equipment needs. Traditionally, we identified components by description, size, and part number, but now you can easily add a customer-pleasing value-added twist to this process. You provide links to maintenance procedures, installation instructions, photographs of the final installation, and even suppliers' Web pages.

You insert a 2-D view of the 3-D CAD model into the technical drawing session for reference. Using the drag and drop method, you select intelligent, industry-specific content to represent each component. Intelligent connectors automatically snap, orient, and align in accordance with established conventions. You add hyperlinks to the 2-D electrical drawing to create that extra value-added content mentioned earlier.

• You're doing a turnkey design on a new instrumentation system for monitoring the performance of an existing plant. Another team laid out the main and secondary plant processes. This information is available as 2-D CAD-generated Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (P&IDs). Your goal is to use the existing P&IDs to represent the process piping, add the instrumentation, and create a material take-off for procuring the required instrumentation components.

You insert the P&ID into the technical drawing session as an interactive background. You drag intelligent objects representing instrumentation system components (such as piping, tubing, instruments, and electrical controls) into position. They automatically snap, align, and orient correctly with respect to the background P&ID. Next, you generate a report including pertinent information such as description, manufacturer, and cost. You export this to a spreadsheet to automate the procurement process.

• You're laying out and wiring the light fixtures, lighting controls, receptacles, data jacks, and other electrical devices in an office complex. Your task is to display the electrical system components with respect to the floor plan so your client can review the configuration to ensure the arrangement satisfies their needs. Traditionally, this is one of the most irritating tasks in office construction because the client can't visualize the changes.

As in the previous examples, you insert the floor plan into the technical drawing session as an interactive background. Then, you insert electrical symbols representing receptacles and other devices into the drawing by merely dragging content from the content catalog. Symbols snap, orient, and align automatically to the CAD background. Within a single drawing session, you and your client evaluate multiple electrical system configurations for convenience and consistency with customers' needs. You even compare the costs of alternative designs by placing alternative layouts on different layers. You incorporate client-requested changes immediately, by dragging the symbol to the new location while associated components remain connected.

• You're managing a technician crew routing cable for a new voice and data telecommunications system. Your goal is to show the completed network so the IT department may subsequently use the network diagram when diagnosing problems.

You use combinations of drawings, layers, and hyperlinks to group portions of the network into logical groups for convenience when diagnosing network problems. You automate the work order process, using the available customization tools. To make the system even more functional, you set up a context-sensitive command to display a standard form. This form automatically populates selected fields with properties - such as component ID and location - obtained from the selected object. Now an operator can add instructions or other information, then submit the form directly to the appropriate department for corrective action.

Because "faster, cheaper, better" is what more customers expect, they turn increasingly to the contractors who can deliver the best mix of these factors. To compete, you can't just work harder - most of us are working about as hard as we can now. You must leverage your existing strengths, and software is one way to do that. You don't need every software package out there, but you do need the right mix.


Sidebar: Notable Features, Capabilities, and Benefits

Here are some of the features, capabilities, and benefits of today's "Best of Breed" technical drawing and data visualization applications.

• Drag and drop drawing creation is much more efficient than conventional CAD options, and enables those with no prior CAD exposure to immediately become productive.

• Logically groups thousands of industry-specific intelligent objects.

• Intelligent connectors remain connected and aligned. This allows you to maintain relationships between objects when you edit the drawing.

• Publishing drawings to the Web allows collaboration with suppliers and clients - not just those typically involved in the design process.

• Hyperlinks allow you to associate objects with technical drawings, other documents, photographs, and Web pages.

• The ability to insert CAD files into a technical drawing session enables you to extend CAD data throughout the design process.

• Built-in property reporting automates generation of material take-offs, work orders, purchase orders, and similar documents.

• Interactive shape authoring allows you to convert graphics to intelligent objects.

• A powerful Application Programming Interface (API), an effective event handler, and built-in VBA combine to maximize the ease of satisfying requirements unique to a particular project.