CAD Admin Basics: Automating 2D Drawings
There may be sexy CAD topics to talk about; 2D drawings is not one of them. Drawings conjure up black and white images of 1950s haircuts, starched white shirts with rolled up sleeves, drafting boards and people worried about their lettering skills. Fortunately, that’s not what we’re going to discuss.
In contrast to drawings, automation is a sexy topic—for engineers, anyway. Automation can make the boring repetitive work go away. It can make you feel like you’re getting away with something. It’s fast, and it ensures accuracy and consistency.
Automating 2D drawings is some of the most rewarding work you can do in the entire CAD process. You only have to do it once and from then on, you will reap the rewards every time there is another drawing to be made. But it is also a good feeling that you can help standardize your company’s product while still putting your personal stamp on the output.
The automation we’re talking about here isn’t anything exotic. In fact, it is built into SOLIDWORKS. However, a lot of companies fail to make use of it. The tools take some thought before they can be implemented in a meaningful way. Then you have to communicate the new method to all the users. You have to write a standard (see Why Do We Have 3D Standards?).
It is best to get all of your automation set up before you ever start using your CAD software, but how often does someone get to start from scratch? Most people in most companies will have to jump on a process like this somewhere in the middle of actual production and design. If you are lucky, you will get to implement it between projects or in a phased manner starting with a pilot project. Regardless, it is important to get the new way of doing things correct on the first try. Iterating towards a set of correct settings can cause a lot of turmoil and confusion. It is much better to work out what will be used going forward and then turning it all on at once. Design the system, test on a dummy installation, then roll it out to a set of hand-picked and trained users on a single project, re-evaluate and adjust, finally train everyone and roll out the new process to everyone.
With that in mind, a new drawing automation process will include all of your files—parts, assemblies and drawings. It is best to get it all set up before you turn it loose on your company’s production data.
CAD standards are very important, even in 3D modeling, and especially as a way to get consistent 2D drawings. Standardizing your 3D process also helps with establishing the goals of user training, enforcement and the expectation that any user can pick up any model and know how to do what they need to do. CAD standards take some time to develop, but in the long run are well worth your time and effort.
Libraries are the ultimate way to reuse data. Make the part once, and many users can reuse it hundreds of times.
Of course, it helps if part libraries are shared. If you share via mapped drives, make sure everyone maps to the same drive letter. If you use a UNC (universal naming convention) path, make sure everyone has access. Individual libraries copied to local hard drives can work, but you need to make sure that changes to one library are reflected everywhere. People may like their independence, but to make this work, you really need to have everyone sharing the same data.
Ideally, libraries should be shared through PDM. That makes everything easier. A PDM program handles local copies, latest versions, duplicates, where-used lists and more. Even a small installation will save administrative and troubleshooting time with a PDM. PDM is just a programmatic way of enforcing file management discipline. It is necessary because users will not apply that kind of discipline consistently on their own.
If you are starting with Toolbox, remember that it has a special set of requirements and shouldn’t be used as a fresh out-of-the-box install. If you have configured library parts, make sure that updates to the configurations are shared with all users and that users aren’t stashing data locally—or if they are, that you employ PDM to ensure they always have the latest versions.
Configured libraries are easy to create, but for a lot of reasons it may be safer to use non-configured libraries (where each part or size is a separate file), especially if you aren’t starting with all the sizes you’ll need later. This makes the file management much more direct and troubleshooting problems more straightforward.
Templates for parts, assemblies and drawings are low-hanging fruit for automating your process. Templates need to be implemented as a part of libraries. There are three main aspects of document templates that need to be established:
- Reference geometry. Named planes and axes.
- Document properties. Tools>Options settings that apply to the current document.
- Custom properties. Metadata is useful for BOMs, PDM searches ad reports, drawing title blocks.
You might even consider special templates for special kinds of files, such as sheet metal, plastic parts, 3D prints or other processes.
Assemblies are often used to stage a part to be rendered in a certain way or might be used for 3D printing multiple parts in a single session. In short, if you find yourself making the same kind of changes repeatedly, you might be able to use a template to save yourself a lot of repetitive work.
Templates can also apply to tables such as BOMs, in case you have customization that you need to use consistently.
Drawing templates can store some information that will make your life easier. For example, you can establish pre-defined views on the drawing sheet that will automatically place various types of views that you know you’re going to want on certain kinds of drawings. Pre-defined views are under-used and can save you a lot of time when you consistently need something other than the three standard views. And if you have your parts consistently started on the same plane, the views work out nicely.
Favorite styles can be applied to annotations and rather than recreating and applying certain formatting to annotations, you might save a lot of time for your users by setting up a set of favorites for everything from annotations to tolerances. This kind of thing can take some research to see what parts of the available functionality apply to your situation. There is more to this setting than we can cover here, but users should look into setting up favorites that can be shared to help automate and standardize the formatting on your drawings.
Having consistently named standard reference planes throughout your process is important. This makes it easier to know what to expect, especially when connected with 3D modeling standards that help you decide which plane to start sketching on, symmetry and where the bulk of a part should go. When you set up standards, you should always be looking to make downstream processes easier. This should include assemblies, analysis, CNC toolpath creation, 3D printing and more.
Standard axes for X, Y and Z directions can be useful for assembly and patterning in both parts and assemblies.
Even standard folders added to the Feature Manager, feature naming conventions and requirements for documentation for equations, notes for manufacturing or purchased components can help remind users to use a certain workflow established in the company CAD standards.
In addition to the Tools>Options type settings, it can be useful to have visualization and material type properties set. Having templates already set up with materials with visual properties established makes it that much easier for the people actually doing the work.
Colors for special types of features can highlight types of data that might require special handling downstream. Making this stand out visually helps ensure that it won’t escape anyone’s attention down the line. Don’t be afraid to use colors within your modeling scheme. There is no law that says sheet metal parts have to have the same color as the sheet metal. Parts with different colors will draw attention to details in parts, such as sizes or tolerances, that would otherwise be hard to detect.
Custom properties can be any piece of reusable associated text and can be chosen to make your life or work easier. Some custom properties can be filled out ahead of time and sometimes that data can pre-exist in the template. Again, if you find yourself or your workers making the same changes over and over again to the standard template, it may be time to create a new template to save yourself all that repetitive work.
Custom properties can be used in a number of places, including in equations, BOMs, title blocks and annotations. Don’t be shy about using this data, especially if your CAD data goes into PDM. In PDM, custom properties can be used as search terms or in reports. If it is a piece of information that is important to that part or that assembly getting used, made, designed, purchased, manufactured, assembled or documented properly, include it. Custom properties can be entered by non-engineering staff. It takes just seconds to attach the information, but it can be reused or recalled frequently.
Custom property data can be entered using the Summary Information dialog but it is more efficient to use the custom properties tab and the Builder, which enable you to create drop down lists of choices—a great help in avoiding variations in spelling and terminology.
Title blocks have been available for quite some time now, but they are one of the newest functions in this list. Your title block can reference many different custom properties that essentially fill out the fields for you.
When SOLIDWORKS first started, there were some terminology hiccups. Formats as we know them today were originally called templates, which is why formats have the extension *.sldDRT, for drawing template. When SOLIDWORKS started using document templates for all the file types, users needed to be re-educated. The use of “formats” has always been one of the more confusing things about SOLIDWORKS drawings.
Around 1997-1998, the switch to the use of the word template happened and formats were introduced. Also about the same time, SOLIDWORKS went from a three letter extension (*.prt, *.asm, *.drw) to six letter extensions (*.sldprt, *.sldasm and *.slddrw). There were still applications that could only accept files with three letter extensions and …prt, …asm and …drw would get truncated. You would wind up with a *.sld files that had to be renamed.
That was a long explanation of why SOLIDWORKS can read *.prt, *.asm and *.drw files. Don’t get these legacy SOLIDWORKS documents mixed up with native Pro/ENGINEER (or Creo) files as they are not interchangeable.
In any case, the format, or what most mechanical engineers and designers know as the “drawing border,” is often imported from a 2D application. Editing 2D in SOLIDWORKS is a fairly miserable task so you’re better off either keeping it simple or doing the work in a 2D application. If you do so, do make a separate format for every size and orientation.
Most of the time, formats are already saved onto drawing templates that are already set up as a certain size, so end users shouldn’t have to deal with this—the Admin should have all the sizes sorted out as separate templates.
SOLIDWORKS offers a lot of automation that can be useful for drawings. This starts with metadata in part and assembly documents and can add quite a bit of custom detail to templates, formats, libraries and favorites. The CAD Administrator for a company needs to be on top of all the available tools to make the best use of functions that can be automated. Getting it right can be very rewarding because CAD users will collectively save a lot of time—and it will keep the look and content of the drawings consistent.