A fact that’s common to all industries and jobs is that we all have to work with other people. There is no job that does not require some sort of data sharing. Even if you are self-employed and work out of your home, you still have to deal with somebody and you will have to exchange something, even if it is only the money for your services.
Designers around the world have been sharing project data for decades in one way or another. The key is to use a method that everyone can access. Another important factor is to present that data in a format that all can read and understand. One format that has been accepted worldwide is the construction document; also known as a drawing. Hollywood refers to them as “blueprints” even though they are rarely blue anymore. This type of document can take on many different forms: a blueprint, sketch, picture, text, drawings, render, and others. It can also be a combination of two or more of these formats. The final construction document, or product, is what we are trying to achieve. Once that is done, it is easily transferred, shared, sent, copied, printed, emailed, uploaded, snail-mailed, or downloaded.
Communicating the end result is easy. The real problem is sharing of project data during its creation.
Collaborating During the Design Process
There are a series of events that happen during the design process. Here is one look at a possible course of events. The beginning of a project starts with the client having an idea of what they want to do. They contact you or send out an RFP (Request For Proposal) and the process begins. You have to put together a proposal. This process requires communication with the client to make sure you are headed down the right path. Things are very general at this point, but you need enough detail to make sure you are on that proper path. This is a risky time. You want to put enough work into your efforts to get the job yet you want to minimize your lost time and resources in case your competitor gets the work. This is where accurate communication with the potential client comes into play. Verbal communication is quick and easy to do, but is not always clear and accurate. Getting ideas documented early on helps to better define what is needed and expected. Autodesk Design Feed is a tool that can help do both, and more.
Autodesk Design Feed
The Autodesk Design Feed tool is found in several Autodesk products. It can be found in AutoCAD® 360 (Autodesk’s mobile CAD platform), AutoCAD® 2014, and all AutoCAD 2014 verticals (AutoCAD® Civil 3D®, AutoCAD® Map, AutoCAD® Mechanical, etc.) Design allows users to communicate from within the actual CAD file. It shares several different types of information in several formats, all of which is accessible from within the file itself as well as the cloud. The shared data is mobile and easily accessed. The tool creates a “paper trail” of questions and answers that will document to the designer and client what was discussed and decided. This tool can prove to be invaluable to the design process.
Figure 1: Sign into your Autodesk 360 account while inside AutoCAD
How We Collaborate Now
Before we look at how Design Feed works, let’s look at how we get work done now. There is nothing inherently wrong with how we share our information now, but it is cumbersome and manual. We read the client’s RFP and decide on a direction to take. We have a meeting to discuss it with the project manager, the designers, the technicians, and anyone else who might be involved in the process. Notes are taken, napkin sketches are made, and we distribute the new data we generated via email or store it all in a folder on our server.
If these files change, we make a new copy, date it, change the file name or use some sort of established process to track these changes. We put together a concept plan and any other design documents that need to go with it, put it all in a PDF file and send it out for review. The client prints the PDF files, marks it up in red (hopefully it’s red and not blue or, worse, black or pencil), scans it, PDFs it, and emails it back to us. We print that out, print our drawings (again) and mark those up in red. Distribute the mark-ups, have a meeting or two, make the changes, print again, markup again, print again, PDF again…you get the idea.
How We Want to Collaborate
When we collaborate we want less back and forth, less printing, fewer meetings, better commenting tools, clear communication, and less time spent redoing work. We want to get it done right away and on the first try. Regardless of how great our tools are, this goal will always be difficult to achieve. Design Feed is not perfect and will not make everything rainbows and unicorns, but it can provide a set of tools we can use to help us get closer to these design process goals.
Figure 2: AutoCAD 360 is Autodesk's mobile and browser-based CAD program
How Design Feed Works
Design Feed is found inside AutoCAD and is very mobile. How many times have you had to stop working to ask a question only to have to wait until the person you queried gets back to you? Design Feed is native to AutoCAD 2014. Using it requires this version of AutoCAD and an Autodesk 360 account (which is free). Sign into your account from within AutoCAD and share your file. Now the client (or coworker, project manager, city official, builder, planner, designer, inspector, etc.) has access to the file. Both of you can comment and ask or answer questions at any time.
Let’s say you are designing and have a question. Ask it from within AutoCAD using Design Feed. Point to the exact place in the drawing file that you have a question about and type in your question. This triggers an email to the person you tagged in the question, alerting them to your question. Because they are clever and have a smartphone with them wherever they go and have installed AutoCAD 360 (Autodesk’s mobile CAD program), they are immediately alerted to your question even though they are golfing instead of sitting in front of their desktop computer. They can view the file on their device, see your question, and immediately type in a response, click send, and grab the next golf club they need. You then receive the alert and see their response and can continue to work on the project. You never left the file, you didn’t print anything, and there are design notes saved in the CAD file that document the interaction. If you didn’t archive the emails that were sent, there is still proof of the communication in the file that you can access. Lots of time saved and work never stopped. This is done because Design Feed is mobile and is embedded within AutoCAD. That is its key feature.
Figure 3: Design Feed in AutoCAD is a palette. See the TAG balloon locating the area the post is describing
Collaborate from the Field
Suppose that you, your inspector, your fabricator, your builder, or your client needs to leave the office for a site visit (or needs to visit the fabrication plant, etc.) to see how construction (fabrication) is going. They can carry a clipboard, a set of rolled-up drawings, a laptop, measuring tape, camera, etc. Or they can bring just a smartphone, tablet, and that measuring tape. The drawings are saved in their Autodesk 360 account and are accessible on the tablet and/or smartphone. Open the drawings in the AutoCAD 360 app (on the smartphone or tablet) and make your notes in the Design Feed tool. All notes are saved in the CAD file.
Did you take pictures while on your visit? Do you know the area they were taken? Doesn’t matter. You added the pictures to Design Feed, which tags the location of the pictures in the drawing file. Which corner of the room were you in when you took that pic? No need to write extra notes or keep track of file names of the picture because Design Feed associates that picture with the location in which it was tagged. Putting the picture into Design Feed uploads the picture file to AutoCAD 360 in the cloud. The Tech at the office has been alerted from AutoCAD 360 that there are new field notes and pictures and gets right to work on the drawing. The Tech knows what to do because you included instruction in the Design Feed notes. You do not need to save an archive of the old drawing because AutoCAD 360 saves a history of your drawings for you and allows you to access those older versions whenever you need to.
Figure 4: The Sharing tab in AutoCAD 360 browser version. Click here to share/review files
Collaboration, One Step at a Time
Design Feed is a great tool with a lot of potential. Before you can use it you have to set up an AutoCAD 360 account and so will anyone you will be collaborating with using this tool. Storage size on these accounts is free but limited so you can’t store all of your files in it. The free account that will fill most of your needs, but if you need to be able to use larger CAD file sizes and need more storage space there are premium accounts available that really aren’t that expensive. You will also have to use the cloud and so will your collaborators.
The cloud is a great tool but it also scares some people, and for good reason. In order to fully utilize this tool all parties involved will have to learn to trust the cloud and deal with their fears of using it. This is not an easy task and many people will be reluctant to create yet another account on yet another service. IT and CAD managers might also object to having to deal with another service and one that can be out of their control. It’s not something that you can jump into and expect everything to be perfect. There will be new issues to deal with and problems will arise. But Design Feed, Autodesk 360, and AutoCAD 360 do offer new tools that have a lot of potential to assist you when collaborating with others. Try it out first in-house. Share files with group or team members first before you expand its use to include clients or any other third-party group.
Figure 5: Create a "New Snapshot" to establish a new version of your file while working in AutoCAD 360 browser version