AutoCAD: Keys to Collaboration Success

Brian Benton discusses the keys to successfully collaborating in AutoCAD.  He looks at using a method to structured folder and file naming conventions.

It's very rare that any of us has to work in AutoCAD® by ourselves.  Even solo designers have to deal with clients. Is there a right way to collaborate with others? 

That's a difficult question to answer because there are so many AutoCAD users and each one has his/her way of doing things.  Those ways aren’t necessarily wrong, but they could be difficult to discern.  Think about the times when you opened somebody else’s file and couldn't figure out what the designer did.  Now think about the times when somebody else opened your file and grumbled a few choice words about you under their breath!  It's happened, trust me.
What does it mean to collaborate?

Collaboration means different things.  What it is and how you collaborate depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  One definition I found for collaboration was, "To work, one with another."  To collaborate means working with another person.  That’s the trick, working with other people on the same design project.  AutoCAD allows only one person at a time to edit a file.  That's good.

Figure 1: Collaborating will be difficult if everyone does their own thing.

But how do users really work together?  Each of our fellow collaborators must handle specific parts of the project.  AutoCAD can help us with that.  Perhaps one of the biggest collaboration tools are external file references.  The Xref Manager is a tool that is used by most of us, but many are not using it to its fullest potential or at its best efficiency level.  There are best practices when implementing reference files.  If you are collaborating with other AutoCAD users on a project and aren’t using references then you are making things more difficult for yourself and the potential for errors is increased.

Before you begin referencing data, make a plan.  Stop thinking of AutoCAD files as drawings.  While some of them are, files are actually different forms of data.  That data is then placed into a drawing.  The drawing is then annotated, plotted, and submitted. 

Don’t put all of your data in one file.  One big all-encompassing data file is bulky and inefficient.  Create base files that contain specific data types (like site info in one file, building info in another, and so on) then reference that data into your drawing files.  Reference files as an overlay instead of as an attachment.  That keeps your data free to be seen but not forced upon other files.  Once your data is divided up and organized, everyone can get exactly what they need when they need it.  It also means that when the data is updated, everyone who needs that data is also updated.  Don’t copy and paste data into your drawing file.  That changes it from a drawing file to a data file. Keep your base file names the same.  When they are revised, copy them and rename the old file.  That way your references, and the references of others, won’t be broken.  And everyone will always know which file is the current data file.

Figure 2: Cross referencing (Xref) files in AutoCAD is one essential tool in collaborating with other AutoCAD users.

Collaborating in House

Everyone involved in your project has a part.  If any one part is out of step it will affect the entire project. When collaborating in AutoCAD, make a plan.  That’s the most important thing to do.  The exact details of the plan are not as important as is having some sort of plan.  That means having CAD standards in place before the work begins.  In your standards you need to create a few ways of doing things such as folder structure and file naming conventions.  These two aspects will make or break your collaboration abilities.

Folder Structure

Where do you store your files?  Why do you store your files?  How do you store your files?  Let’s look at these things one at a time.

Why?  Because you or somebody else may (will) need them in the future.

Where?  It doesn’t really matter where you store the folders as long as they are accessible to those who need them when they need them.

How?  This is the make or break part.  If you don’t know why (or what) to save, save everything.  If you don’t know where, then just put it on the server.  But how?  How do I know what to save where?  Does this make sense?    Your CAD standards needs to have a method to show users how to determine what to save and where.  A formula, in other words.  Two important tips: Keep it simple and make sure it isn’t linear (X=Y).  If so, you will be forced to make a formula for every possible scenario and that is impossible.  Its OK to have a short list of absolutes, but you will find that not every project is exactly the same. 

For example, say you work in a small civil engineering firm that also has in-house surveying.  Obviously members of the engineering and surveying departments will need to collaborate with each other.  They will need data from each other.  Create a system where the engineers manage their data while the surveyors manage theirs.  Makes sense and it’s simple. 

Now create a system for the surveyors where they put their data in a similar format and in a similar place every time.  That way the engineers will know where to go to access the data.  Sounds simple and logical enough, right?  The problem comes when you do the next job.  If you use the same filing system as before then the engineers will know what to expect.  So will the surveyors.  So will the administrative staff.  Do it the same way—all the time, every time.  What system should you use?  Doesn’t matter so much.  Just put the field data in the same place in the project folder all the time and everyone will always know where to find it. 

An easy way to ensure consistency is to use a template, just as you do in AutoCAD (you are using templates in AutoCAD, right?)  If you find that the folders don’t work, change them.  (Keep the changes to a minimum, though.) Put in place a regularly scheduled time to review and update your folder procedures.  Make sure everyone knows how to organize files in the folders.  That means everyone—from top to bottom. That way everyone can do their jobs the same way everyone else is.

File Naming Conventions

Use the same theory as in the folder procedures.  It doesn’t matter what you name your files.  In this case a name is simply a unique identifier for a set of data.  Come up with a naming formula.  In the United States, the NCS (National CAD Standards), has a pretty good file naming guide.  It’s a guide with some absolutes, of course, but remember to keep them to a minimum.  What does a file name need?  It needs to clearly describe what it is, but briefly.  There was a time when file names could be only eight characters long and could not contain spaces.  That’s not the case anymore but back then we were typically much better at file naming.  Here are a few suggestions to consider:

Project number (or name). This helps make sure the file is in the proper folder.  Accidents happen and files get dragged out of place and into the wrong folder.  More often the file is sent via email (or some other form of file transportation). Having a project identifier in the filename will help keep it straight.  Here are a few more: Department identifier, project type, data type, and a basic description.  Essentially a file name can contain any bit of information.  Remember to set up a format for the name so that all names have the same structure.  That makes it easier to identify the file and to know what's inside.  A possible formula could be this: project name-department-description.  With this simple, three- part naming convention, all users will be able to understand the file without opening it.  They will know the project to which the file belongs, which department created the data, and what the file contains.

Naming Standards

Just as your folders and files have structures, so do their parts.  With regard to the subfolders in your project folder, create a deliberate method of determining where files go.  Make sure you have a place to put everything.  Use subfolders—the same subfolders every time.  This is where a project folder template will serve you well.  The subfolders need to be logical.  Create subfolders for different departments.  That will allow departments to create the subfolders they need to manage their data.  Don’t reinvent the subfolder structure every project.  Keep it the same.  This enables all users to know where to go when specific data is needed.  If you find that you have to email a file (or its file path) to coworkers so they can find it, then there is a problem.  That is a sign of an inefficient folder structure.  If you can’t find the files you need in house, then how can you ensure accuracy in your projects?  How do you know you used the proper data when producing your drawings?  If the engineers in our example need a site survey for a project they should be able to find it on their own. 

In this example the engineer only needs to go to the proper folder.  If the work has been done, then the data is there.  The engineer can reference the file and do his/her engineering magic.  See how efficient that is?  On the other hand, if the engineer doesn’t know where the data is, then he/she has to contact the surveyor and they will have to find it, get it, and send it.  Now there are two copies of the same data source and it took more time and effort than it ever should have.  Everything needs a place. (Make sure the engineers have read-only abilities—we don’t want them messing with survey data. They only need to use it, not change it.) 

Do the same with your file names.  Create a naming format and create consistent standards for each name part.  Project names or numbers should be created in the same way.  If done correctly, when a file is seen it will be easy to know to which project it belongs.  Do the same with department and data/file type designations.

Figure 3: Get everyone working with the same method and collaboration will be more efficient.

The Goal of Collaboration

The goal of collaborating is to get more work accomplished correctly in a shorter period of time.  It also allows a group to take advantage of skill sets possessed by other people.  One employee may excel at writing permit applications while another excels at designing site plans. 

While one person could always do all of the work, it is a great idea to get skilled workers to contribute to your project.  This ensures a higher quality of production.  If your product or service is high quality, then your chance of continued success is increased.  The skill of your collaborators means little if you can’t work together efficiently.  The key to working together is to create a system that is efficient and simple to understand, but powerful enough to get the work done.  When determining your collaboration method keep in mind it needs to be a method where the folders and file names will almost fill in the blanks for you.  The key to collaboration success is in the method.

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