On many occasions it seems as if data management is placed in the same category as going to the dentist. It’s a necessary evil we’d rather avoid. We deal with it because it needs to be done. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I want to work with data management!”
But everyone who has touched a CAD file, or for that matter, a computer, knows the pain of not being able to find the right document at a critical moment and the futility of the endless slog of hunting for the needle in the haystack in order to find the correct drawing in an endless list of files with the same name.
Document management is not only important, it’s a critical part of your business strategy. Like it or not, maintaining a server with a defined structure of folders constitutes conducting data management. That being said, this question: remains: “How can we perform data management better?”
Autodesk provides a data management solution called Autodesk® Vault to organize its data. By using Autodesk Vault, we move beyond the structure of files and folders on a server, and gain the ability to better manage our data through more sophisticated controls.
The following are a a portion of the benefits that Vault delivers to the manufacturing industry.
When a user places a file into Vault, a copy of the file is moved to a centralized location on a server. All files checked into Vault can be backed up with a simple backup script running under a scheduled task. This ensures that all files in Vault are thoroughly backed up and can easily be restored if needed.
User Tracking and File Check out
Vault functions like a librarian who organizes your files, checking files in and out to users as requested. Here’s a simple scenario.
User “A” opens a part file from Vault in order to work on it, checking it out of Vault during the process, much like checking books out of a library. He saves and closes the file, but keeps the part checked out. User “B” opens an assembly that references the part file that is still checked out by User “A.” Vault permits this process, but seamlessly restricts access to read-only mode.
Since User “B” can’t modify the file, he or she can’t overwrite any of the changes that User “A” is making, even when “A” is not logged in. This prevents the infamous “last save wins” scenario of design where important data and time are irrevocably lost. Simply put, that lost effort translates directly into dollars tossed away.
Figure 1: File search through Vault
Vault Project Folders
Autodesk recently implemented Projects in Vault. This may sound odd, because Vault is supposed to manage our project data, right?
As each CAD application stores its data, it does so in an encapsulated application design folder grouping, which is rarely mixed with other application type data and is often not even on the same server. As a result, data that is being developed for the same project is not organized together and becomes more difficult to manage.
The Vault Project solves this problem by providing a virtual collection of data related to a collaborative design project. It is, as Brian Schaenen called it, a virtual Super-Folder that contains shortcuts to all the relevant project data, not only Inventor and Publisher files.
Project managers now have a clean localized organization with links to all the data being developed for a particular project.
Categories are now applied to Vault Project Folders, adding flexibility and an additional layer of sort capability.
Data Search and Dependencies
Autodesk Vault indexes information about the files into a SQL database. One key feature this database provides is the ability to index more than just the filename. Vault indexes information such as author, part number, description, and date checked in, among many other fields of information about your file.
Since Vault remembers these key fields of information, it can then be searched. This means that you don’t have to know the filename in order to find a file. You can know anything about the file, such as a part number, a description, or who created it. By searching for these fields, or any combination of the fields we might know, we can find a file much more efficiently than by using a search for files on a folder structure.
This ability is further leveraged across Vault Project files mentioned previously. Now we can simultaneously search across various data types that are related to the same project, but often may be on separate servers.
Figure 2: Vault file check-out by user query
The SQL database also gives us the capability of seeing the relationship between files, which allows us to see if a part or drawing is shared between just one component or several. Armed with this knowledge, we can determine how an intended change can affect other files we may not have been aware of, and prevents the unintended consequence of changing a file or assembly because there were unknown relationships in place.
Vault is unsurpassed in the realm of situational awareness, delivering information on the current state of anything that can be queried, including all the files that are referenced by an assembly or all project components that a particular user is editing right now.
Visual Data Mapping in Inventor
We can go far beyond searches and sorting by using the visual tools that are integrated between Inventor and Vault. Various aspects of sortable data can be reviewed visually in the graphics view area of Inventor using the supplied tools.
Figure 3: Vault map data visual report (image courtesy of Autodesk)
We can highlight component sets such as items listed in a change order and visualize which components are affected and who has been involved. This is all based on whatever query you need.
Data Cards were added in the last version of Inventor and Vault, which deliver a convenient method of displaying and editing key metadata that is associated with the Inventor Components. Global changes to iProperties can be administered right inside the Vault and distributed to all the parts and assemblies via their data cards.
Figure 4: Data cards (image courtesy of Autodesk)
Ability to Copy and Reuse Files
Finding files is half the battle. The other half is copying and reusing files efficiently. The SQL database inside of Vault sees the relationship between files such as part and assembly relationships in Autodesk Inventor and external references between AutoCAD files.
Figure 5: File copy in Vault
By taking advantage of the SQL database, Vault grants us the additional ability to copy a top level file that has several references, such as an AutoCAD® file with external references or an Inventor assembly. However, instead of just copying files, we can use the SQL database to copy files we know we need to change, while telling Vault to reuse files that are to remain referenced. This ensures that files that are common to multiple documents aren’t copied, and prevents us from creating duplicate files.
Ability to Track File Versions
Autodesk Vault also keeps track of previous iterations of a file you’ve checked in. Every time a file is placed into Vault, it creates a new version, remembering previous versions of your files. Should you need to recall one of those versions for any reason, you can do so in minutes.
Having the ability to track and access previous revisions provides a safety net to correct mistakes, or try a new iteration on a design. Imagine the freedom to try new ideas knowing that Vault remembers a previous version of the file you can use to quickly return to your “decision” point.
Files in Vault are all stored in a central location that’s easily backed up with a script. You don’t have to worry about copying files and folders and making sure that when your users transfer files to the server they put them in the correct location. Vault ensures the files are stored properly and that location can be easily found and backed up.
Vault Server Collaboration and Professional can sync data efficiently between numerous users in offices that are 100 feet or 100 miles apart. It performs this using resolved IP addresses over the Internet. However, as you have certainly experienced by now, performance lag and problems due to latency in poor Internet connections can be annoying. When it’s continuous, it can be a headache.
Autodesk Vault permits data to be copied from the Vault on one server to another in order to provide access to the data with no latency problems. Vault then maintains the copy of the data and syncs it with the other server when any changes have been performed. Vault server can maintain these sync orders even when the servers lose contact with one another. It syncs all the data the next time a connection is available.
Figure 6: Replicated Vault (graphic courtesy of Autodesk)
Autodesk Vault is actually is available in four levels. Vault is included with several of Autodesk’s manufacturing products. Increasing in value and capability are Autodesk Vault Workgroup, Autodesk Vault Collaboration, and Autodesk Vault Professional.
Autodesk Vault Workgroup
Helps you improve productivity by making it easier to create and share design information throughout workgroups. It adds:
- data management functionality
- revision control
Autodesk Vault Collaboration
Includes all the features found in Autodesk Vault Workgroup, plus advanced tools that aid large workgroup management.
- Connect workgroups across multiple sites
- Share design data downstream
- Visual reporting and data analysis
- Automate server tasks
Autodesk Vault Professional
Autodesk’s most comprehensive data management application, which adds even more functionality on top of Vault Collaboration:
- Change order tracking
- Bills of materials tracking
- Data exchange with other business applications
These tools each expand upon the capabilities of Autodesk Vault. As you step up the ladder of products, you gain additional abilities such as those mentioned and a large list of additional features.
Before You Install
Autodesk Vault contains some great tools that can simplify data management. But like anything else, a little planning goes a long way. Here are some things to think about before you get started.
Evaluate Your Process
Just because you may work in a company that was around when Eisenhower was president doesn’t mean we have to continue to do business that way. Take the time to look at how you do things, and retool it if it makes sense to do so. Using flawed or outdated processes with a new tool could mean that you’re simply using a more efficient tool to make the same mistakes.
Choose the Vault That’s Right for You
Look at your process and compare it to the tools provided by Autodesk Vault, Autodesk Vault Workgroup, Autodesk Vault Collaboration, and Autodesk Vault Professional. Your software provider can help you choose the right tool for your needs. After all, you’re paying them—make them work for it!
Remember that the scalability of Vault will let you grow into more sophisticated tools at a later date.
Prepare Your Infrastructure
Make sure that you have a server that is up to the task of running Autodesk Vault. It doesn’t have to be top-shelf hardware, but make sure it’s a good, stable, reliable machine. Check to see that it has enough hard drive space to hold your data for a while. Good hardware will make sure your Vault runs smoothly. Here is a link to the minimum requirements for Vault.
This also includes safeguarding your data. Make sure you have a plan to backup your data as well as a plan to maintain it. Your data is valuable. Maintain it as such.
Autodesk Vault can be a key tool in your management strategy. Not only that, it goes far beyond data management in the standard sense, and extends Inventor’s reach and functionality as part if Vault’s integration. It is so powerful and capable that its features truly become addictive.
By implementing Vault, you can organize, reuse, track, and protect your valuable data with greater efficiency. Combining Vault with other management strategies discussed here can help ensure that your organization runs efficiently and smoothly.
Vault can help reduce that time your designers spend finding data, fretting over lost data, and recreating lost data. It gets them back to what they do best.
John Evans is an Autodesk Certified Inventor Professional living in the Florida Panhandle, where he provides technical troubleshooting at Gutin, Cothern, and Tucker Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jon Landeros is a Senior Application Engineer at Ketiv and has more than 10 years of experience in sheet metal design, data management, and CAM.