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A Closer Look at Collaboration

Last summer I wrote an article on collaboration, and it is time to cover it some more.  In last year’s article, I chose the definition for collaboration as:

Working with others with an end goal of producing or creating something.

For CAD professionals, designers, architects, and engineers, this is our job. In last year’s article, communication, coordination, and sharing files via email, FTP, and cloud services were discussed along with some tips on how to best do so.  This year we will dive more in to specific tools and processes within AutoCAD® that can be used to achieve affective collaboration.

In any industry, from manufacturing parts to constructing buildings, drawings are created to show how an end-product is to be built.  Collaboration involves sharing these drawings with multiple parties during the design process to get their input and assistance, and coordinate putting all the pieces together.

Once again, this article will focus on the construction industry as that is where I have spent my entire career, but the principles here can cross into many other industries.  In building construction, the team that will be collaborating is typically composed of an architect (usually the lead), civil, mechanical, electrical plumbing and fire protection engineers, interior designers, contractors, suppliers, vendors, and, of course, the building owner—the one everyone is ultimately working for.

With all these players, it is important to communicate changes to all pertinent parties on the team in a timely and easy-to-understand way.  This will often be handled through emails and the exchange of electronic CAD files that are created in AutoCAD.  On BIM projects other software is used, and in many cases, a vertical package such as AutoCAD® Architecture is used, but since this column is AutoCAD focused, we will stick to it.  Sharing of these files was discussed in last year’s article, so be sure to check that out (AUGIWorld, July 2016).

Communication

Communication is key to a successful project, but in this modern world of instant messages, snap chats, and tweets, it seems as if shortness in responses or descriptions has become the new norm.  Evidence of this shows up in emails without subject lines or signatures, drawing background updates without any indication of what was changed, and generic submittals without options checked or highlighted.  Everyone is flying through processes or multitasking, thinking that they are saving time—but in reality it is costing time and money for them and likely others in the communication chain. 

Some of the biggest mistakes made on projects happen due to the lack of good communication.  Without clear communication, things are assumed, done shoddily, or are missed completely. When collaborating, communication is what keeps the project moving forward. 

Coordination

Coordination requires communicating items shown in an electronic file that represent real-world items with the rest of the team. Wall or space configuration changes, new equipment, revised lighting layouts, or myriad other items need to be communicated to the entire team in order to make sure nothing is missed.  In the early stages of a project, when the plans are not yet annotated, printing would show lots of lines, circles, and rectangles that represent appliances, furniture, fixtures, and millwork.  Some are pretty easy to determine as they look like their real-world counterparts—this is typically the case for drinking fountains, water closets, doors, windows, and the like.

Unfortunately, many of these items show up in a print as just rectangles or circles and it requires going into the drawing file to figure out what they are—not a big deal, because as designers we spend most of our time there. The frustrating thing to find out is that they truly are just rectangles and circles… and they are on layer “0” or “text,” or something similar.  This is where the guessing, assumptions, or emails and phone calls start.  This has BAD CAD written all over it.  Whether you are a CAD guru or not, some simple AutoCAD tools can be used to make sure that you, if you are the plan creator, can effectively communicate your ideas to others on the team.

AutoCAD Tools

There are some basic core tools within AutoCAD to help you communicate your ideas and keep the team up to speed with changes.  Two that are very basic and easy to use are BLOCKS and LAYERS.

Blocks

With the Block command, you can turn your rectangle into a “Table,” a “Microwave,” a “Toaster,” or a “File Cabinet” and your circle into a “Fire Extinguisher,” a “Dining Table,” or a “Hot Tub” with a few quick steps.

  • Select your rectangle that is supposed to represent a “Toaster,” and change it to layer “0” and set it to Color “Bylayer” (see Figure 1)
  • Type ‘Block’
    • Give the block a name: “Toaster” (see Figure 2)
    • Select “Specify On-Screen” for your insert point
    • Select object and pick your rectangle on screen
    • Select “Convert to block” (so it will now be saved in your drawing)
    • Uncheck “Allow exploding” (we don’t want people messing with your work)
    • Select “OK” to finish
  • When the dialog exits, there will be a cursor asking you to select an insertion point. At this point, select a point that makes sense for the particular block. For the Toaster, let’s just pick the top midpoint of the rectangle.

You now have a toaster block and if someone picks on it in AutoCAD, the properties will indicate that it is a block called “Toaster.” You can copy this all over your drawing or save it to disk for use on other projects.  And if you want to make it look more like a real toaster later when you have more time, you can just double-click on it and open it in the block editor and add some fancy stuff to make it look more real world.  The process to make your rectangle into a block takes about 20 seconds or less—a great use of time!

Figure 1

Figure 2

Make it a habit to make blocks for commonly used items. It is common for users to have toilet and sink blocks, but it seems that items such as hand dryers and paper towel dispensers end up being just rectangles drawn on a wall. Many manufacturers have downloadable drawing blocks for these commonly used items. Alternatively, you can draw them yourself from a manufacturer’s specification sheet. By having an accurate representation of the item, it is easier to verify potential physical space and clearance conflicts as well as potential ADA issues. Once you get in the habit of using these blocks, you will realize how much more accurate and useful your drawings are.

This can be a big help to others who use the drawings, whether it be consultants or in-house coworkers. A small selection of common items I see on background drawings that are represented by rectangles and circles and could easily be made into blocks include clocks, microwaves, coffee machines, ice machines, fire extinguishers, trash cans, and hand dryers. You can amp them up a bit by including notes and model information on one of your non-plot layers that we will discuss shortly.

Now the following may seem a little too detailed for some, but I think it is a good practice. If you work with a team that specifies the same equipment on each project, and that equipment is typically installed, use blocks that appropriately reflect that. For example, in Figure 3 are images of a water bubbler (left) and a water cooler (right). The one on the left looks prettier to some than the one on the right, but the one on the right is specified and installed in nearly every project. Knowing this, why would you continue to represent the water cooler with the water bubbler symbol on the left?

Figure 3

Layers

The “0” (zero) layer is a chameleon. If you create a block on layer zero, when inserted on another layer it will assume the color and the line type of that layer.  Note: creating a block on zero and giving it the color blue defeats the purpose of creating it on "0.”

A huge benefit of creating blocks this way is that they can be used to represent different phases by just placing them on different layers with different line type and color properties. This also helps other team members—i.e., consultants who print the files on their end can revise a layer color to their choosing to match their own plot settings. Not everyone plots the same colors and the same line weights.

Layer DEFPOINTS is commonly used for items that users do not want to print, but show up on the screen for reference. Layer DEFPOINTS is for dimension “definition points”; it is not for design notes. You can easily create your own “non-plot” layers for notes or attributes in your blocks that do not need to be plotted, but need to be seen.  Just select the plot column in your layers dialog and toggle the printer to the non-plot image.

Figure 4

A good way to organize and keep track of non-plot layers is to prefix the layer name with an NP-. This way all your non-plot layers are sorted together. Another option is to add -NP at the end of the layer name to designate that it is a non-plotting layer.  You may have a layer called A-WALL and a layer called A-WALL-NOTES-NP for reference notes that you don't want to plot.  It all depends on how you want to organize them, but the NP makes it clear that it is not a plottable layer. It won't take long for teammates to figure out that those are non-plot layers that they can freeze as necessary in their drawings. When using DEFPOINTS for your notes and construction lines it can clutter up the drawings, so others will either erase them or  freeze the layer they are on. 

Layer Zero and layer DEFPOINTS have a relationship that can cause confusing issues for users. Have you ever tried selecting a line in model space or paper space that you could not seem to touch? Frustrating... This issue is caused when layer zero is frozen and there is line work on Layer DEFPOINTS. Until you thaw layer zero you will not be able to erase the line on layer DEFPOINTS. Layer zero should not be frozen, but if it is this can come up.

Layer Colors

There are at least hundreds (256), and possibly thousands of colors available in AutoCAD when creating layers. Use this to your advantage and communicate specific features to the team by creating different colors for different layers. A side benefit of this is that it helps you realize when something is drawn or placed on the wrong layer.

Example:
Create a layer called A-FURNITURE and sent it to color 44. Create a rectangle the size of a table on layer zero and save it as a block called “Table.” When you insert this block on the ‘A-FURNITURE’ layer, it will turn to color 44 automatically. Having items as different colors on the screen helps differentiate background items to drawing users. With properly configured CTB and STB files, being a different color does not necessarily mean it will plot a different line weight.

Clouds

Clouds don't have to be restricted to revisions. They are a great way of communicating changes to teammates. Create a changes layer, such as “NP-Changes” with the color set to color #10 (red) and cloud items you have changed using that layer. If it is a global sheet or plan change, type out a quick note in the center of the drawing and cloud it with the #10 red cloud. This type of communication helps to avoid what equates to Easter egg hunts by other team members.

Auto Publish

When it comes to communicating changes effectively, PDFs are often the “go to” method. An AutoCAD tool we use regularly is Auto Publish, which allows you to automatically publish DWFs or PDFs to your job folder when exiting or saving a file. When it is used, saves or exits (depending on your settings) will generate a prompt that asks if you want to publish the drawing to PDF.  The benefit of using Auto Publish is that you constantly have updated PDFs of ongoing edited drawings. This may or may not be advantageous depending on how you do your work. For instance, we work with XREFs in a sheet in model space, where the paper space tab is an actual final sheet drawing, like E1.1. If you commonly work in one file that has paper space tabs for each of your final printed sheets, Auto Publish is an excellent tool to keep an ongoing record of your progress in PDF.  Configuration options can be found under the “Options” dialog.

Figure 5

When first using the Auto Publish feature it will seem very annoying (it was for me), but once you get accustomed to it you will find it very useful (as I did).

Example Usage:
If you are regularly getting inquiries from your team members about progress on your project, you do not have to stop and shift gears to open each of your files and create individual PDFs. With Auto Publish being one of your tools, when this request is made you can simply reply to the email and attach the PDFs from your project’s working directory that were automatically created when you left the working drawing. This feature actually adds only seconds to the time it takes to close the drawing, but can save a lot of time over the course of the project.
 

Speaking of PDFs…

PDFs are one of the most common forms of electronic media used to share updates and records of a project's status. For example, when a revision is made to a drawing sheet, it is common to not only send the signed and sealed document, but also a PDF of the revised sheet. This allows someone to track the history of specific sheets or specific revisions in a set. Hopefully, the architect and the consultants are keeping a historical record through standard folder structures for the various releases or revisions on the project. This makes it easy to resend individual sheets or records of drawings up to a certain revision, etc.

A habit I have formed, which is easily done with Auto Publish, is to not only have the individual PDF file in the directory, but also to have a merged set of all sheets. This makes it much easier to coordinate than trying to assemble a bunch of revised individual sheets from multiple folders. The ability to merge PDFs is in most commonly used PDF editors.

Highlight Changes

After the project has gone from design to plan review, or after bids have come in, there is a chance that changes may be required to the plans.  This is another area where communication is key.

Let everyone know what has changed. When making changes, develop some method of tracking and then sending that information along with the drawing updates. Consider sending a PDF with the areas clouded and commented on or add this to the drawings on a separate layer.

Seeing Red

As a checking mechanism, we use text in our details and notes that is set to color #10 for specific information that requires changing for each project (see Figure 6). We set up a color #10 in our CTB that will force it to print in a red color in PDFs, which we use for plotting and checking.  If we or the engineer see the red color, it is known that it has not been addressed. Once the item is updated, it is changed to color “Bylayer” so that it plots correctly.  This is a great way to communicate a variety of items to in-house team members and consultants as well.

Figure 6

Flexibility

The cool thing about AutoCAD is there are multiple ways to do things. You may use STB files in lieu of CTB files or you may use sheet sets in lieu of standalone sheets. We are not limited by our tools when it comes to collaboration.

Even though I'm talking about basic AutoCAD tools, keep in mind that these tools, when used properly, are a great way to communicate your ideas and intentions.  All of these suggestions are small individually, but when used together, can go a long way towards making your collaboration smoother. If you use other tools within AutoCAD or in conjunction with AutoCAD that you feel have made your collaboration process more effective or official, email them to me and we can possibly include those in a future article. 

Combining a little customization with the tools in AutoCAD discussed here can be done to automate a lot of these processes. By using palettes or toolbars with macros and scripts, you can make these additional steps very fast and efficient. If you don't know how to do this, just ask.

Collaboration is a team effort, and sometimes the little things we do can make a huge difference. When it comes to collaborating with the team, the team leader sets the tone. Let it be a good one.

If you want more details or have a comment, feel free to send me an email at walt@functionsense.com.

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