Managing Your Civil Design Software Environment

August 16th, 2013

What has the AutoCAD® Civil 3D® environment become? We’ve grown from the “basic” installation of Civil 3D to entire suites of software supporting, supplementing, and expanding the range of capabilities accompanying Civil 3D. Add to that the complexity of people—upper management, which may or may not have an understanding of the software’s capabilities, a user base at varying levels of experience and technical knowledge, and an ever-growing need to stay billable during a time when budgets and overhead are tight. What’s a person to do in this sea of resellers, suites, training options, and budget cuts?

Let’s explore some opportunities to get significant gains in productivity, while reducing demands on time, and improving the overall level of expectations surrounding the software we use day in and day out.

License Management

There are several reasons why I can’t ethically suggest specific software packages, suites, or Value- Added Resellers (VARs). However, I can offer some perspective on evaluating your software uses and needs, purchasing timeline, as well as the organization and maintenance of software licensing.

First off is your choice of VAR. It’s as simple as this: if you aren’t happy with the information and service you are receiving, look elsewhere. One VAR may not suit all firms’ needs. Some of those reasons include cost, responsiveness, and level of expertise for support services, as well as training options, software advisement, down to the pleasantries of individuals you have grown to enjoy working with. There are dozens of options available from international, regional, and web-based VARs. Autodesk has also attempted to better address which VARs may be a better fit for firms by creating Partner Tiers (Platinum, Gold, Silver, etc.) and Partner Specializations (advanced customer solutions, consulting, training, etc.). To find a VAR in your area, visit http://autode.sk/weY77m.

You should also be regularly looking into what software licenses are being used, how many, how often, and if you have more licenses than what suits your firm’s needs. Don’t underestimate the need to evaluate if you have too few licenses as well. Nothing brings production to a halt faster than attempting to load your software of choice and no licenses being available. This also raises the question of what array of network or standalone licenses you should maintain. Whatever you do, don’t ignore this potentially expensive step of managing AutoCAD Civil 3D. The Autodesk Network License Manager is your de facto tool for managing licenses, but tools such as SAMreport, FlexNet Manager, and JTB FlexReport make understanding usage patterns and demand load a snap.

Figure 1: Example FlexReport—license report (courtesy jtbworld.com)

When you should purchase can make nearly as big a difference as what you purchase for the cost of your software. Given the myriad software purchase combinations and impossible-to-predict changes in pricing, there is no magic answer for deciding the best time to purchase engineering software. However, anyone experienced with the process should be aware by now that there are regular promotions and discounts available at different times of the release cycle. Simply put, be on the lookout via Autodesk’s and VAR’s social media accounts or sign up for email alerts to keep in the loop for potential cost savings. A good place to start is @Autodesk on Twitter, but there are numerous resources.

Installation Management

There is much more to Civil 3D and the Infrastructure Design Suite than just opening the software and creating a model. Someone must be responsible for ordering, downloading, configuring, and installing the software for one or even thousands of workstations. Then there are hotfixes, updates, and service packs, legacy software compatibility issues, and uninstallation when licenses deprecate.

Unfortunately, this is nearly unavoidable. There are options such as skipping releases or waiting for a service pack before installing a release, but there are always downsides such as missing out on new features or workflows, larger learning curves, and (worst of all) not having a release implemented and ready when a client or partner dictates its use within a project contract. Focus on what works best for your firm and what resources are available for implementing a new release, keeping in mind what downsides exist under each circumstance.

With the annual cycle of Autodesk software releases and the aforementioned updates, there can be a lot of time invested. Without the option of eliminating that time requirement, it is possible to minimize it and reduce the burden on most users. The primary method for doing so is to create and manage deployments for Civil 3D or Infrastructure Design Suite.

A single person can set up deployments for varying installation types (AutoCAD, Civil 3D, Infrastructure Design Suite, standalone, network, etc.) to include product keys, serial numbers, network support paths, program extensions, customization files, and other installation options to essentially turn the deployment into a “one-button” install process for each workstation. This also accommodates many hotfixes, service packs, and the occasional need to reinstall the software.

Figure 2: Example Infrastructure Design Suite deployment and installation configurations

Creating a deployment can be a time-consuming process, but it is much more effective than distributing that time and those tasks to dozens or hundreds of workstations with the possibility of inconsistent settings. You can find more information on installation and maintenance of software here: http://autode.sk/Zs3gal.

People Management

People management, without a doubt, is the most difficult aspect of managing engineering software. There are numerous articles, posts, and even entire websites devoted to the concept of managing people. However, I’m more interested in what it takes to manage aspirations, abilities, and continual use of Civil 3D and Infrastructure Design Suite.

Before beginning any software initiative, you must have buy-in from upper management. This will include setting expectations for time and effort required to successfully implement the software, a plan for who is to manage templates, what projects are appropriate for which software, and when certain individuals will be responsible for learning and using the software. This is a 10,000 ft. view of the essentials, but the essentials aren’t to be taken lightly. Too many firms adopt Civil 3D and the surrounding software without a realistic plan in place. That plan may or may not include the assistance of VAR training, educational books, conferences or seminars, and on-going, in-house training. As a matter of fact, one of the most important things you can do is continue regular, in-house training.

That said, continuing training should include the use and instruction on your firm’s customized templates and defined workflows. Leaving processes too vague or non-specific as to how “you do things” will create numerous opportunities for inconsistent drawings, rework, and overwork on projects. Many projects have and will be “over modeled” due to a lack of oversight, causing over-complexity of drawings, larger files, delays in processing, and a reduction in potential profit on projects.

Utilize opportunities such as lunch-and-learns, morning meetings, or monthly internal user group seminars to assign different team members an opportunity to learn and present on topics applicable to active projects. This will ensure all staff is taking part in both sides of the learning process and reduces the possibility of burnout on your part. Use the following link to get more information on Autodesk software training options: http://autode.sk/MNixHg.

Whatever you decide, remember to evaluate your choices every six months to a year to ensure everyone stays on track. “Everyone” includes upper management, training, and production users. If there is a gap in expertise, understanding, or support of the process as a whole, consider methods to engage those individuals.

Drawing Management

We’ve finally progressed to the point of managing Civil 3D and Infrastructure Design Suite which involves production. The previous topics are all necessary in the engineering software environment, but do little for billing against projects. Let’s explore some tools and techniques to maximize the productivity of projects.

Foremost are your company or client standards. Although the thought of standards in Civil 3D pairs directly with a template, the process begins at a baser level. You can’t overlook text and dimension styles, layers, fonts, LISP routines, or plotter configurations. AutoCAD and Civil 3D allow for support paths to be local to each workstation or from a server location. These are defined from the “File” tab of the OPTIONS dialog, shown in Figure 3.

Unless you are constantly mobile, working on production outside the office, or have less than a handful of users, do you and all users in your office a favor and set up support files within a designated location on the server. This will allow for consistent configurations and make it easier to maintain standards, especially if you save a custom user profile from the settings in the OPTIONS dialog. Also, if your firm has preferred System Variable settings, those can also be saved from the SYSVDLG dialog and imported to each workstation.

Figure 3: Options support paths, profiles, pipe network catalog, quantity, and system variable example configurations

Next, consider your company or client template. Beyond just the .DWT template file, you must think about settings configured locally or on the network for Pipe Network Catalogs, Quantity Takeoff Pay Items, and Reports. These dialogs are represented in Figure 3.

Creating and maintaining a template is a never ending process that will require additional styles created over time and to be imported into the template file for future use, as well as regular communication with all users regarding changes to or different methods used for styles during the design process. You never know what inventive uses could be overlooked or what problematic settings can sneak back into templates. Don’t disregard the questions and concerns of your users and educate them on the importance of starting from a clean and updated version of your templates for each new drawing.

Figure 4: Edit Feature Settings and Edit Label Style Defaults are quick ways to apply styles and settings, while the import, purge, and replace with tools are methods to cleanup and refine template styles

In Figure 4, you’ll see some of the options available to make maintaining a template easier. Right-clicking an element from the Settings tab of the Civil 3D Toolspace and choosing “Edit Feature Settings…” or “Edit Label Style Defaults…” will allow you to apply mass changes to object layers, units, text styles, and many other properties. This will save considerable time and allow minor changes involving just the unique elements of each style. The “Import” and “Purge” style commands from the Manage ribbon make transferring and cleaning up styles from files en masse possible. Also, for the purposes of refining a template to remove any unnecessary styles, the “Replace with…” and “Find references…” options from the right-click menu allow for granular control of those hard-to-remove styles.

Figure 5: Don’t forget the elusive Survey User Settings dialog before importing a database or network

Figure 5 represents the Survey User Settings dialog, which is an often forgotten area of Civil 3D setups. This is partially due to residing on the Survey tab of the Toolspace as opposed to the Settings tab. It is important to ensure that settings such as Figure Prefix Databases, Equipment Databases, Linework Code Sets (as well as Coordinate Zone and Units from the Survey Database Settings) are defined before importing any survey events into Civil 3D. Again, these resources can be located on a server to share office-wide to maintain standards.

Special Note: One tendency of some network administrators and CAD Managers is to “lock” or write-protect resource folders and files shared on a network. However, in certain cases such as Figure Prefix Databases, for example, this can inhibit or completely prevent the use of these files by Civil 3D. Be sure to research what network resources can or should be freely editable.

Wrapping up, there are many tools and methods to manage the madness that Civil 3D and Infrastructure Design Suite can become. Although this article focused on Civil 3D, many of the topics can be utilized for AutoCAD, Map 3D, Utility Design, and many other programs. Even extensions or supplementary applications, such as Autodesk Storm and Sanitary Analysis, have the ability to create templates and standard definition files for consistent use of the software. Keep in mind, too, that not all effort must be done at once. Development and maintenance over time will keep you sane and ensure you’re applying new concepts learned from support and production throughout project lifecycles.

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About the Authors

Bryan Tanner (South Bend, IN) is a Senior Engineering Technician at Lawson-Fisher Associates (LFA), focusing on training, customizing, and designing with AutoCAD Civil 3D and the entire Autodesk Infrastructure Design Suite. Bryan has been an Autodesk Authorized Instructor, Certified Product Support Professional, Certified Technical Sales Professional, as well as AutoCAD and Civil 3D Certified Professional. He is a member of the AUGI AutoCAD Civil 3D Technical Advisory Committee, manages the AUGI AutoCAD Civil 3D Blog Page and Linkedin Community, and is a member of several local and online user groups. You can find him discussing Autodesk products and the Civil Engineering industry on Google+, Linkedin, and Twitter under the handle @Indydrafter.

 

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