Using AutoCAD Efficiently

June 24th, 2013

When buying new software or upgrading existing software it is normal to expect that you will be more productive or efficient in your work. After all, that is how the software is marketed, right? In this day of technological marvels and wiz-bang software that will do everything except mow the yard, most users do not come close to utilizing anywhere near all the features available.

Most software is written to do more than any one person could hope to accomplish, which allows the software to appeal to a larger market at a reasonable development cost. AutoCAD® is a great example. With AutoCAD, you can draw houses, boats, furniture, landscape, and more—the possibilities are endless. But unless you are using an Autodesk vertical package, like AutoCAD MEP or AutoCAD Architectural, you’ll find that AutoCAD primarily is set up to draw lines, circles, squares, squiggly lines, and text out of the box—and it does this quite well. If you are using it to draw furniture, piping, electrical diagrams, landscaping, houses, or buildings of any type, you need to set up the software to draw the things you need accurately and quickly, particularly if you run a business that survives on this type of work. To get there, it will likely involve some customization, purchasing third-party add-on applications, block packages, or a combination of these.

In a business, profits are the key to survival and you make profits by being able to produce a desired product quickly and efficiently. And, no, quickly and efficiently are not the same. I know folks who can draw very quickly, but often their work is not done very efficiently because the content that they create has little value for reuse. If we look at the definitions of these two terms, we can see the difference. The following are some excerpts from dictionary.com:

Quick:

  • Done, proceeding, or occurring with promptness or rapidity, as an action, process, etc.; prompt; immediate: a quick response
  • That is over or completed within a short interval of time
  • Moving, or able to move, with speed

Efficient:

  • Performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort; having and using requisite knowledge, skill, and industry; competent; capable
  • Utilizing a particular commodity or product with maximum efficiency

I know folks who are very proud of how “quick” they are in AutoCAD, and they achieve rock star status among some of their managers. “Man, that Bob is quick in AutoCAD, he is quicker than any other CADD person I have ever worked with.”

I know many of the Bobs in the world and have worked with them over the years, both side by side and through relationships with outside architects, consultants, and clients who are just as quick as Bob is. But I hate having to work with their drawings because they are just not efficient. The time it takes to clean-up after a “quick” user often negates the original speed advantage. Sometimes quick is good, but the problem with the quickies of the world is the end result is not always satisfying; the quality is just not there.

So, where am I going with this and how do we achieve efficiency? The two definitions above, combined, spell out the goal of our work and, when reworded, sound something like this:

  • Having and using requisite knowledge, skill, and industry experience to competently perform or function within AutoCAD to create drawings in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.

Yes! Sounds great… so how do we do this? As I said at the beginning of this article, AutoCAD has more power and capabilities than most people know or utilize. Learning the actual capabilities of the software is a good start, add some quality standards, and then learn some very basic customization tools. Now I know that “Bob” learned how to customize the PGP file years ago—after it came out as an option in the Express Tools menu. So now Bob can draw rectangles, circles, and polygons with a few keystrokes and can move, offset, and delete entities just as quickly.

The problem is that Bob uses circles for columns, down lights and sinks and rectangles for more lights, bathtubs and desks and the quick polygons he makes are used for hex and diamond notes and such. But Bob never took the time to learn how to make blocks or set up leader and dim styles. He uses the “Standard” styles for all of his work, because they are ‘his’ standards and he is quick! Anytime we import Bob’s drawings—in order to use his room names, for example—all of his text goes to a funky Architect font or Simplex or TXT, depending on what “our” standard is. Why? Because Bob never created a company standard text style; he just modified the “Standard” template style in AutoCAD.

Okay, so enough about Bob. There are quick AutoCAD users out there who are also efficient. These users learned as much as they could about AutoCAD and its features and how to do some basic or even advanced customization. This shows up in their quality drawings that they produce efficiently.

New and existing AutoCAD users can make big productivity and quality gains by practicing or performing three simple things when using AutoCAD: Standardization, Automation, and Training and can be stated with a simple acronym "S.A.T." If you SAT on your AutoCAD systems, you would be far more efficient with your projects production.

Standards

By having standards, your drawings not only come together quickly, but they also look consistent. Consistency provides efficiency because the expectations are already defined. Standards create a visual benchmark and allow for automated tools and processes to be developed to maintain them. Standards provide a consistent look, feel, and flow to your drawings. Things that you should typically standardize are layers, drawing templates, blocks, detail formats, text styles, plot styles, and your directory structure. When adding custom dim styles, linetypes, and text styles, use a common prefix to differentiate your standards from the rest of the world. For example, if you work for Anniston, Barley and Cribbits, Inc., add “ABC-“ to the beginning of your custom styles and linetypes.

There are some things that you don't want to use as standards such as the built-in Standard TEXT styles and DIM styles that come with AutoCAD. These are meant to be templates that you use to create your own company standards.

Automation

The second area that can quickly increase your efficiency is automation. Anything that you find yourself repeating on a regular or even semi-regular basis should be automated to reduce keystrokes, mouse clicks, and brain strokes (remembering the steps). Automation has a side benefit of increased consistency and accuracy. Some examples of basic automation include using pre-written scripts and LISP routines (load common LISPs in your startup suite with appload), Express Tools, Action Recorder, Toolbar macros, and Sheet Sets for plotting. Some automation will require a bit of basic-level customization for which you can find help in AutoCAD’s Help system and online at various blogs and forums. If you are looking for some assistance, check out the AUGI Forums.

Utilizing templates with company-standard layers, dim styles, and text styles and utilizing blocks are a great way to automate your work process and reduce steps. For instance, let’s take a quick look at blocks.

At the basic level, lines, polylines, and circles can be used to graphically represent real-world objects. But a more efficient use would be to combine these lines and circles to create AutoCAD intelligent objects that match their real-world counterparts in size and usage. You do this by drawing the object with a series of lines and circles in AutoCAD on appropriate layers and saving them as a block. Making them dynamic blocks makes them even more powerful and can reduce insertion time by using alignment insertion and changeable base points. Combine this with a script that sets the proper layer and automatically scales the block appropriately, and you are saving lots of time while maintaining a quality drawing.

Training

Training probably has the most significant chance of increasing user efficiency because it allows them to learn the software’s true capabilities. Without training, users may not stumble onto great features or tools on their own. Training should involve more advanced topics beyond just drawing lines and circles and command memorization. Training should teach users how to do things that will actually increase their efficiency. Users will be more productive by utilizing some of the seemingly “scary” features of AutoCAD such as sheet sets, paper space, dynamic blocks, custom linetypes, and text styles. Although not a necessity, taking a higher level of training that involves customization can help an entire office. By getting one or more users knowledgeable with some of the more advanced features, such as how to write LISP routines and scripts and how to create and customize toolbars, palettes, and ribbons, will help in the automation portion as well for controlling standards.

Having the best software means little if your users do not know how to operate it efficiently. In a recent article I did for AUGIWorld magazine (“The Domino Effect,” February 2012) I discussed how many companies are willing to spend thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars on technically advanced software, but won't invest in training for their people. New software comes with new tools and new features. To best optimize your investment, you need new knowledge to use it. When upgrading your software, don’t forget to upgrade your people! Keep I mind that self-learning is a form of training. Don’t think that because a company will not invest in your to training that you cannot invest in yourself. This will help make your daily work easier and may actually set you up for better possibilities elsewhere.

Conclusion

AutoCAD’s vertical applications such as MEP, Electrical, Architectural, and all the Autodesk® Revit® products are quickly gaining market share and have some great time-saving features that go beyond standard AutoCAD. To be efficient in them, you will need to learn how to use their features and possibly apply some of your own customization. In these more advanced products, if you do not know how to manipulate a regular or dynamic block, customize a custom object or family, you can’t just explode it and move on because you will have destroyed the efficiency that was built in for you. To survive in this increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, you will need to be more than quick—you will need to be more than Bob!

If you are struggling with setting up standards or customization, you may need a fresh perspective such as an outside source of information or input. To automate and standardize your AutoCAD setup you can find many of these resources online by watching videos, visiting blogs, and forums, or joining a user group. If you don't have the time or patience, enlist the help of your Autodesk dealer or hire a CADD consultant to help you.

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About the Authors

Walt Sparling

Walt Sparling

Walt has worked in the building design industry for 25+ years, starting as a hand drafter. He moved on to CADD in the late 80s and then into CADD and networking training and consulting.  Walt has served as project manager and designer in the mechanical and architectural realms and currently works with an electrical engineering firm in Tampa, Florida.  In his “spare” time, he maintains a blog and a personal website: FunctionSense.com and WaltSparling.com.

 

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