The CAD Admin Basic To-Do List
CAD administration can go by a lot of different names and can have many different functions. Many times, those doing the work don’t carry the title or get the recognition; they just get the extra responsibilities on top of their regular designer or drafter duties.
The CAD Admin is usually someone who actually uses CAD, but sometimes it can be someone from the IT department who has access to and knowledge of all of the hardware and software. If a company is smart, they will team up individuals from these two functions to have the most impact. You really need direct CAD expertise as well as IT access to make this position work.
Beyond just the CAD and IT duties, the job also often strays into database admin territory and software beyond traditional mechanical engineering and manufacturing documentation. Everything from libraries, PDM, rendering, engineer-to-order, E/MRP and external data access portals to 3D printing, CAM, drafting standards, tech support, training and software reseller relationships can all fall under this very large umbrella. A better title would be Engineering Technology Manager due to the breadth of responsibility.
Larger organizations probably already have such a position established, but growing companies will find a need for such a position when CAD users become overloaded and underserved.
You hear the term “digitalization” frequently in the engineering media, referring to digital documents and processes throughout the organization. The CAD Admin, or engineering technology manager, is the position responsible for producing many of the consumables for this process. Other positions throughout the company need to read or otherwise process the data created by the engineering department.
There is no doubt that gaining the technical information and intuition needed to manage the technology used to drive your business is a big task—but don’t underestimate the human side. Many engineers are less skilled at managing humans than they are at managing technology, so this can be challenge for people who gravitate toward engineering work. Engineers can have an above-average resistance to change, and managing people’s feelings about changes is one of the biggest obstacles you are likely to run into when it comes to making improvements.
Of course, all companies are structured differently. We all use the technology in different ways and for different purposes. It is impossible to generalize about how every different company will make use of a CAD Administrator type position. This means that some imagination is required to apply the following ideas to your particular situation, company and workflow.
Become the Expert
If you work at a company that does not have anyone looking after the engineering software, where do you begin?
If your company does not have a formal position for CAD Admin and you want the job, the first step is to position yourself as the expert. Knowing the company’s products and processes is helpful, but knowing the tools is more important. To develop your internal CAD Admin, start by becoming the go-to person for tech support and be ready to take on any support task, including installation, keeping track of serial numbers, copying settings, standardizing libraries and more.
The best place to start is by getting your CAD system in order. Your company’s product development starts with CAD and the product development process spends a lot of time in the CAD software. Making sure the usefulness of the of the CAD process output is maximized at every point downstream will go a long way to making the process work better—and may even give some unexpected results, such as happier and more productive employees.
Tech support can be a frustrating, time consuming, thankless and stressful job that involves as much application of psychology as it does technical knowledge. As if you do not have enough problems of your own, you also have all of your co-workers’ problems. This is why one of the primary requirements for someone who wants the CAD Admin job is someone who is a natural helper and problem solver. Patience is a primary requirement because users often present a misdiagnosis. Their problems are vaguely described—something is usually happening, but often the problem is not what they think it is. You will have to start from the symptoms and work back to the causes on your own.
Tech support works best when you have some history of problems you solved, including who brought the problem to you and other details such as how the issue was resolved. You need this for several reasons. There may be a pattern with a user, a machine or a process that you need to establish in order to get intervention from another source such as the software vendor, reseller or management. Personnel issues can come into play, and your records can help a manager evaluate the performance of employees. You may at some point need to justify bringing in a consultant, or a new piece of software or hardware. Records of problems and solutions can be helpful in justifying expenses to management, or help explain why you may need to pass the job on to another person.
One of the lowest-hanging fruit for a CAD Admin is to standardize libraries. Avoid mapped drives, and instead use UNC paths direct to the central server (i.e., the \\server\library_folder). Libraries can be created for all sorts of things, from templates and hardware to common sketches, blocks, sheet metal features, special holes and many, many more. Every time you reuse library data and avoid redrawing something, you save time and money.
Libraries also increase accuracy and uniformity in designs. Reusing verified, accurate data means fewer mistakes down the line. It means better manufacturing results. Libraries are one of the unsung heroes of standardization and automation in design.
A PDM vault can be used like a library with the added benefits of search, keywords, properties and more.
If your company does not have PDM (product data management), getting PDM in place should be a high priority. The process of implementing a PDM system will help you get several parts of your process standardized. Everything from file names, part numbers and revision schemes through to release process, change process and meta data/properties, keywords and searchability.
You may have a small department and think your Windows Explorer-based file management process works—but implement PDM, and you will see big benefits.
PDM does not have to be elaborate from the start; Instead, it should be something you can grow with. You do not have to implement all the fancy features (such as ERP integration) but they should be available when you are ready for them. Automating your ECN process alone will bring your engineering department into the 21st century.
One of the biggest benefits is that PDM can unify several disjointed parts of your company. PDM allows purchasing to peer at engineering information without having duplicate information created for them. Manufacturing can also use PDM to see engineering parts and processes for their purpose.
CAD standards have long been the cornerstone of the CAD Admin role. CAD standards can take on many forms and they can include much more than just drawings. Many companies implement best practice recommendations for part and assembly models, as well as for more complex CAD processes including surfacing and multibody use. Standards make sure that drawings and other documentation can be interpreted consistently. Standards for 3D parts also ensure that the parts are easy to edit by any user in your organization and that they react to change predictably.
Remember that best practices are generally thought of as suggestions, not hard rules. Standards and best practice need to go hand in hand with training and tech support.
CAD standards can be like a religion to some people and making changes to the standards is not something to be taken lightly. Changes should get a blessing from the power users. Don’t stray too far away from industry standards. Highly non-standard drawings can be tough for people outside of your organization to read and interpret.
CAD Admins will often write and deliver their own training based on company standards, best practices and workflow processes. But many also bring in reseller trainers or consultants. Customized training can be more expensive, but sending a group of people out of town is likely to cost even more. A highly experienced CAD consultant is often someone who worked at a reseller for several years and has broken away to work for themselves. Searching out these consultants can help you with creating training that is specific to your company.
You may also want to incorporate training for GD&T or MBD, or for a specialized process-based design such as plastics or sheet metal.
Related to training is mentoring. The best CAD Admins are bringing someone up along with them. Identify people who have the interest and ability to develop into power users and employ them as assistants to extend your capacity. The best leaders are always training their replacements.
If your company is growing, you may get the opportunity to evaluate, select and implement new engineering tools. Changing CAD software can be one of the most challenging tasks assigned to a CAD Admin. This is a situation where emotions can be a big obstacle.
Selecting new software can get political. Users will each have their favorite—often the software they are most used to working with. New employees may have used other CAD systems than the ones at your company. It is no longer about how fast you can draw a line, but about the relationship with the vendor or reseller. Does the software offer a path for growth? How often are we going to have to migrate our CAD files to a new system? Can we find employees that already use this software?
Partnership with Reseller or Vendor
Training and tech support often come from a reseller or vendor. These relationships are sometimes fraught with concerns, as selecting a reseller can be as important as the software you ultimately select. Does the reseller have a high turnover rate? How much experience do the trainers and support techs have? Does the company have senior, qualified experts? What happens when you have to escalate an issue? Do the salespeople shield you from the technical resources? Do they have all the communication options that you think should be available?
Partnership with IT
Much of the work that you can do as a CAD Admin involves areas under the jurisdiction of the IT department. In this case, it is vital to develop a good working relationship with IT. At the very least, you need to understand how the network is set up, the shared areas on servers, how the company keeps track of software licenses, and be able to install software and access library areas and the PDM server, if you have one. Bringing an IT person to PDM training can be a great idea. They may also include you on database or network training. The importance of this relationship and cooperation cannot be overstated.
If you are a CAD Admin with other responsibilities such as design or documentation, it is especially important to keep a record of changes that were done to settings, processes, servers, networks and software installations. IT may require this kind of record keeping, and when you have multiple software packages interacting on data over networks, there are many factors that can affect one another. Relying on your memory is opening the door for complex problems to creep in and be difficult to troubleshoot.
If part of your task involves implementing a PDM system with a workflow component, you must ensure that you understand the existing product development, design and documentation processes at your company. A good way to do this is to interview people involved at each part of the process and develop a flow chart that shows the decision-making process of a design from the initial stages of proposing new products through the field-servicing of products. You can’t make changes until you agree on where you are in the process.
This often uncovers disagreements about how the existing process is supposed to work and gives you an opportunity to make changes and ensure everyone is on the same page with internal processes. Digitizing the process often creates opportunities to streamline the process and possibly eliminate some steps.
Automating processes through PDM allows for greater efficiency, better traceability and reduces clutter.
The CAD Admin to-do list is long and requires many skills outside of the normal skill set of engineers, designers and CAD operators. The position requires the ability to prioritize and cajole, to get the attention of management and to gain the trust of users. This is the opening article in a series that will take us through the various aspects of becoming a CAD Admin and growing that position into something greater. Managing engineering technology can be a rewarding career field, but it is also a great deal of work that requires expertise (or at least good instincts) in a wide range of disciplines, some technical and some non-technical, such as finance, business and psychology.
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