The AutoCAD Rainbow

When you are a long-time CAD professional and AutoCAD® user in a position where you provide support to others, every phone call can bring something new to you. Maybe the phone will ring and someone will need help using AutoCAD to create a design for a life-saving medical device. Or maybe the phone will ring and someone will need help designing the next great design for front end suspension on a luxury car. Or maybe it is a first-time user calling with a question that you’ve never even heard before. Unfortunately, it is most likely going to be someone asking you the same question that you have been asked 10,000 before.

That call is the one that came today: Ring… ring… “Hi. I’ve been using AutoCAD for a few years and now I have to do this job and I want to customize my AutoCAD. What would you do?” That’s right, it was the dreaded “how do I customize AutoCAD” call. Over the years I have gotten this call more times than I care to count.

There was a time when I would have taken more time to discuss workflows and industry specifics with the caller. I would have gotten my little yellow sticky notes and made scribbles about other scribbles. Inevitably I would have had to do some research and check some prices and then report back to this caller.

In 1991 the world was very different. If you worked in a certain industry and wanted your AutoCAD installation to have libraries and scripts specific to your industry, things were not easy. You had to delve deep into the dark arts of variables and plug-ins. You had to purchase libraries and install side applications. Maybe you even wrote your own LISP routines and made your own custom menus. Times are different now, and like the Monkees said: “That was then, this is now.” In 2013 I sort of wonder why people who want industry specific customizations even want to go through the process of customization.

Today Autodesk offers so many flavors of AutoCAD that choosing a certain version is more akin to choosing a new flavor of ice cream at Baskin Robbins than buying software. If you are working in the civil engineering field, then AutoCAD® Civil 3D® is the AutoCAD for you. For those in the utility market,  AutoCAD Utility is your choice. The list goes on, but more on that later. Truly, today’s modern AutoCAD has fulfilled the promise of a “platform” rather than a single product.

Rather than spending this “Customization” issue of AUGIWorld discussing the endless ways in which you are able to outfit AutoCAD, we are going to discuss the variety of AutoCAD packages on the market. All of the software packages we will look at share not only the AutoCAD engine but also the interface. Soon it will become obvious why I feel that patching, plugging, and twisting standard, vanilla AutoCAD is not as necessary as it once was.

AutoCAD Civil 3D

The first AutoCAD variant that we will take a look at is the one that I use just about every single day, AutoCAD Civil 3D. Although Civil 3D is a very close cousin to AutoCAD, it is packed with tools and routines germane to civil engineering projects made for design and documentation. Whether your infrastructure project is a detention pond, a neighborhood subdivision or a major highway, Civil 3D has the tools for you.

With features such as survey data collection and advanced grading, Civil 3D is stuffed full of just the types of tools civil designers need. Major features include advanced surface modeling functions, corridor design and modeling, parcel design, and advanced style management. There are even newly enhanced tools for pipe networks that include both pressure and gravity systems.

As a long-time AutoCAD Civil 3D user, I cannot imagine taking the standard version of AutoCAD and customizing it to better suit the needs of a civil engineering office!

AutoCAD Architecture

One of Autodesk’s flagship products is its Autodesk® Revit® collection of programs. Over the past few years Revit has become the de facto standard in nearly every architecture office in the country. With the increasing popularity of the Building Information Modeling (BIM) concept, Revit has spread even further into adjacent disciplines. Still, as wonderful as Revit is, in the eyes of many CAD users it lacks one major feature: the AutoCAD interface.

Because Revit is a completely separate product from AutoCAD, it does not share the AutoCAD engine or interface. That can be a stumbling block and cause a steep learning curve for transitioning CAD professionals. Never fear, Autodesk has just the solution for the CAD professional seeking to customize his tried and true AutoCAD installation for a more architecturally oriented task: AutoCAD® Architecture. 

From the simplest sections and elevations to the most complex materials schedules and renovations, AutoCAD Architecture brings all the tools the AutoCAD professional needs to tackle the project. And all of it is powered by the familiar AutoCAD engine features the familiar interface.

Users moving from standard AutoCAD to AutoCAD Architecture will begin making short work of just about any architecture task. With enhanced tools for placing walls, doors, and windows, layouts will happen faster than ever. Room documentation and advanced tagging and annotation features along with the industry-standard buildingSMART system, Industry Foundation Class, will make sharing work with others quick and easy.

Going from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Architecture will help experienced users move from standard drafting to complete architecture plan sets and rendering quickly and easily. Check this program out before digging around the Internet looking for a set of pre-made door blocks to use.

AutoCAD Mechanical

Another important product for Autodesk with a quickly growing market is Autodesk Inventor®. You have no doubt heard of this powerful program, but may have thought, “I’m too far into my career to move from AutoCAD to something new.” To that I would first say, “You’re never too old!” Secondly I would take a moment to understand that feeling (we’ve all been there) and tell you to check out AutoCAD® Mechanical.

Designers working on a wide variety of mechanical projects will welcome the features AutoCAD Mechanical has to offer. Whether you are tired of drawing tension springs or you need some help determining the perfect design for rotation pattern of your cam, you are going to find a tool to help you here.

Why would you take the time to find blocks, even dynamic blocks, of bolts or threads or any of that? AutoCAD Mechanical comes with a multitude of tools that are perfectly suited for this sort of work. Sporting a robust library of more than 700,000 discipline-specific parts and shapes, support for multiple standards and intelligent, dynamic geometry, this is a package ready to do some work. Of course, all of this sits atop the familiar AutoCAD interface.

AutoCAD Electrical

It seems that one of the largest groups of users I meet looking to customize their AutoCAD installations work in the Electrical fields. Whether it is a small contractor trying to find an economical route or a large outfit looking to retool, I pose this question: “Why don’t you check out AutoCAD® Electrical?”

Like all AutoCAD-based products, AutoCAD Electrical is a product intended for both design and documentation. That means electrical designers are going to find the tools they need, all in one package that has the familiar AutoCAD interface and commands in addition to many industry-specific functions. Whether you are laying out panels or bringing together your bill of materials, there is something here for you.

One of the common (but unloved) tasks I hear electrical designers and CAD professionals discuss is creating Programmable Logic Controls. AutoCAD Electrical offers the automation and dynamic logic that makes this sort of job much easier. Not only will electrical designers be able to choose from a prepared library of more than 3,000 PLC IO modules, they can create their own PLC IO modules with the Module Builder tool. That one feature alone is enough to save any electrical designer or CAD professional from a head full of gray hair!

Documentation tools are just as robust in AutoCAD Electrical as the design tools. Out of the box, your designer or CAD professional is going to be armed with automated report generation features to create bills of material, terminal plans, wire labels, and much more. Probably just as fantastic is the fact that you can run reports on a sheet, a panel, a section of design, or just about any other selection you can need.

Sure you could piece together all this sort of functionality yourself. You could go out and download modules and blocks from manufacturer sites or purchase plug-ins with similar routines. Then you could do the installation and compatibility dance, but why? AutoCAD Electrical is ready for the electrical designer or CAD professional now, requiring no more effort than to install it.

The Rest of the Rainbow

We have taken a look at three of the AutoCAD-based products that I point people to most often. The wonderful part is that there is still a whole slew of products out there built on the AutoCAD platform. Users seeking to customize their AutoCAD installation with model-based GIS tools, P&ID libraries, or structural detailing documentation reports just need to check out the rest of the impressive collection of AutoCAD-based products:

  • AutoCAD Architecture – for architectural layouts, elevations, and other projects
  • AutoCAD Civil 3D – for all manner of civil engineering projects from roads to water systems
  • AutoCAD Electrical – for electrical distribution projects
  • AutoCAD Map 3D – for adding mapping and GIS data to support planning projects
  • AutoCAD Mechanical – for a wide variety of mechanical and manufacturing projects
  • AutoCAD MEP – for adding mechanical, electrical, and plumbing documentation to building projects
  • AutoCAD P&ID – for design and documentation in piping design projects
  • AutoCAD Plant 3D – for the 3D layout and design of process and manufacturing facilities
  • AutoCAD Structural Detailing – for creating shop drawings for steel and concrete structures
  • AutoCAD Utility Design – for the rules-based design and layout of electrical distribution systems

The End of the Rainbow

As you can see, there is wide variety of predesigned, industry-specific flavors of AutoCAD. From laying out processing facilities to bringing electrical, water or sewer services to that facility, there is an AutoCAD out there for you. If you are like me and many other CAD professionals I know, you will probably find that selecting one of these versions of AutoCAD is much quicker, easier, and often cheaper than taking the time to search out, purchase, and install various plug-ins for a standard AutoCAD installation.

While there are certainly other Autodesk products that perform many of these functions, these are not AutoCAD-based and will have different interfaces. This change in user interface and product design can often bring a steep and unwanted learning curve to a firm or project. By choosing an AutoCAD-based product, you will not only be adding specific functionality, you will be able to benefit from the familiar AutoCAD design and user interface.

So the next time you are considering taking the time to customize your standard AutoCAD installation with various libraries, scripts, or plug-ins, think about the alternatives. Take a moment to investigate the world of AutoCAD products that are ready and available to serve your industry-specific needs. You may be surprised at how much benefit the rainbow of AutoCAD versions can bring to your company.

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