AutoCAD Civil 3D: Collaboration in a Multi-Disciplinary / Multi-Firm Environment

September 30th, 2011

We all deal with it on a regular basis—sharing our drawing files with others. You won’t always be the only person working on a drawing file for a project and you should always treat these files as such—preparing information along the way for the next person needing to pick up where you left off. What happens when there are compatibility issues, though? How about if you need to continue to work on your files even after sending them off to a coworker or client? These are the kinds of questions I’ll in this article, as well as several others.


Low-Tech Collaboration

 

There are all sorts of new, fancy ways to share your Civil files and documentation internally and with clients. Let’s not forget, however, the many ways available to us over the years. The first of these methods I’d like to explore is through working with the PROXYGRAPHICS system variable.

Although not a complete solution, understanding how the PROXYGRAPHICS setting works will be your first round of defense for sharing intelligent AutoCAD® Civil 3D® files with your coworkers, subcontractors, or clients not utilizing Civil 3D for their own efforts. Proxy graphics store the last viewed image of Civil 3D objects, which lets users view your drawing without modifying the original objects. Also, they only hold the graphical representation of the current, active viewport when the drawing file is saved.

Setting up the PROXYGRAPHICS system variable is easy enough. Simply type it in at the command line and set it to “1.” The default is “0” and we’ll explore the differences in this section as a point of comparison. With PROXYGRAPHICS set properly, SAVE your drawing.

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Figure 1: A drawing file created with Civil 3D, saved with PROXYGRAPHICS set to “0” and opened in AutoCAD®. Note the Civil 3D entities are broken. (Compare with Figure 2.)

Figure 2: A drawing file created with Civil 3D and saved with PROXYGRAPHICS set to “1” and opened in AutoCAD.

It isn’t that simple, though, as there is an immediately apparent downfall of using PROXYGRAPHICS to control the visibility for your Civil 3D entities. The more complex a drawing file, the larger it becomes with PROXYGRAPHICS set to “1” compared with the default. Such a problem this may become, Autodesk even suggests in the Help documentation to save a copy of the original before attempting to apply the PROXYGRAPHICS system variable to your drawings.

Figure 3: The PROXYGRAPHICS system variable has a drastic effect on file size.

The better option when going for a low-tech option for sharing your files? See if you can convince your counterpart or client to download and install the Civil 3D object enablers for their AutoCAD installation (http://usa.autodesk.com/support). It will save everyone time and headaches in the long run. However, proxy graphics are your only option for sharing on AutoCAD WS.

Transferring Files

There are several options for sending a drawing file. Email, FTP server, and burned to a CD or DVD are the traditional solutions to this issue. Before exploring other transfer options in a later section, we first need to address the problem of ensuring your drawings look and act the same on any other person’s workstation as they did on yours—before sending them.

One of the most likely issues in this regard is delivering a DWG that contains a broken or missing reference. Not only is this an annoyance for a client or collaborator to have to track down the correct file or path, but it may also be unworkable if the file used as a reference was never included to begin with. You could always bind your external references and promote your data references, but what if you have a project consisting of dozens or even hundreds of drawing files? No one would want to be handed the task of opening, binding/promoting, saving, and closing all of those files.

This is where a simple solution called eTransmit comes into play. Sure there are other methods out there, but this is easily the simplest and most comprehensive way to package your project drawings for delivery to a client. The eTransmit tool will look for every reference file, pen settings, .CTB/.STB files, plotter drivers, font files, images, and anything else that has a relationship to the file(s) contained within the eTransmit job. It’ll do all this and change all paths to relative, as well as add them to the files table to be packaged.

The biggest perk of all, in my humble opinion, is when this package (a .ZIP or a self-extracting .EXE file) is extracted. All files are referenced accordingly to their new location on a hard drive or network and all paths are automatically updated. Thus, there should be no concern or confusion over broken or missing references.

You can choose to run eTransmit from the Publish tools in the Application Menu or command line to package your open drawing file or from a Sheet Set Manager file to combine all relevant files for an entire project.

Figure 4: eTransmit from the Application  Menu or SSM.

Figure 5: Configuring the eTransmittal for packaging.

Packaged eTransmittals can be set up to also accommodate many other challenges faced when working with subcontractors or a client. The “Transmittal Setups…” portion of the Create Transmittal dialog easily allows formatting all files to a different DWG version than the one in which they were saved, exploding AEC objects for those without Civil 3D or the object enablers, and many other functions to improve compatibility.

It is also very easy to add files pertinent to the project, which wouldn’t otherwise be associated to any of the drawing files. These could include transmittal forms, calculation tables, reports; there is no limit to what file types can be added. All in all, eTransmitting is a simple and straightforward process.
Constant Updates Internally

With any project comes change; in many cases, constant change. Autodesk has aided in dealing with this for internal collaboration in Civil 3D 2012 by integrating the Sheet Set Manager with Autodesk Vault 2012. More specifically, this integration is only available to the following version of Vault 2012: Vault Workgroup, Vault Collaboration, and Vault Professional.

This integration allows you to perform the following actions from Sheet Set Manager:

• Add sheet sets to Vault
• Access and modify sheet sets in a multi-user and multi-site environment
• Provide Vault status information for sheet drawings

Vault also supports all sheet set functionality. This includes property management, plotting, and publishing tasks. Within Vault Explorer, search capabilities can be used to find sheets and sheet sets based on properties inside of the Sheet Set Manager. Relationships between sheets and associated drawings are kept, though sheets are represented as individual files with Vault.

Figure 6: Sheet Set Manager integration with Vault 2012.

Consistent Updates Globally

Another scenario to consider is sharing your files externally and pushing consistent updates to those stakeholders and collaborators. Autodesk Buzzsaw comes to the rescue and, just our luck, Autodesk integrated Buzzsaw into Autodesk Vault via Project Sync. Project Sync is a utility that is built into Vault and allows for updating information directly from Buzzsaw. This is a quick and easy way to keep files unified internally and through exchange with external parties.

Figure 7: Add files to Autodesk Vault from Buzzsaw with Sync.

Hot Tip: Project Sync and Buzzsaw Sync are two separate applications. Where Project Sync allows for quick additions in Vault from Buzzsaw, Buzzsaw Sync “watches” folders for updated files for inclusion in Buzzsaw.

Analyzing Combined Models

As much as we do within the Civil industry to ensure our models are accurate and work with real-world conditions, we also have to consider what other disciplines are doing. Suffice it to say, Navisworks is Autodesk’s flagship application for collaboration between multiple disciplines, consultants, and design software applications. Autodesk has developed tools and standards over the years (such as the .ADSK file extension) to assist in data portability between applications, but nothing else comes close to the power, capabilities, and flexibility of Navisworks.

Without going into a full-depth review of Navisworks, it would be nice to know how to best work with Civil 3D for later use in Navisworks. There are few methods to do so, but your best bet for consistent results without unnecessary amounts of additional effort is to export a Civil 3D drawing for direct use in Navisworks. This should simply consist of freezing layers and hiding items you don’t want displayed in Navisworks, then using the NWCOUT command and saving the new .NWC file to the proper location.

Important: The NWCOUT command won’t be available in Civil 3D unless you had Civil 3D installed before installing Navisworks Simulate or Manage. Also, if you or your company doesn’t own a license of Navisworks, a free exporter utility can be downloaded from the Autodesk website.

Conclusion

With all these tools available (along with many more), hopefully you can discover a solution to any of your current hurdles in collaboration and coordination internally, as well as with client and subcontractors alike. Finding what works best for you and, more importantly, your clients, will be a constant evolution. Thankfully, Autodesk understands this and continues to develop new tools to aid in the process. (Just check out Autodesk Labs whenever you get a chance!)

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