This month I wanted to take another look at the Autodesk App store. I rarely use third-party apps, which has positive and negative impact on my performance. On one hand it is much easier to support teams when my day-to-day workflow remains out-of-the-box. On the other hand, I do love some good coding.
For those who are not familiar, Autodesk has an App store that houses numerous published apps for Autodesk Inventor® and many other software platforms. Some are free, while others are installable for a fee. Most of the free apps are simply trials. There wasn’t time to try out the service for this article, but I did want to mention it for the benefit of our Inventor readers.
In this article, I present a promising third-party app, Flatter Files from CMV Technologies LLC.
What Is Flatter Files?
Flatter Files is a cloud-based publishing platform for drawings that is based on the Google cloud infrastructure. It allows users to easily access their company’s drawings and associated data securely. The company wanted to make a service that permitted organizations to access their drawing content more effectively and efficiently for both the CAD technicians and recipients alike
While the service is designed to be an access point for the drawing PDF deliverables, the native Inventor model files can be uploaded along with each checked-in revision. While the native files can be included with the drawing PDF, the service is a publishing platform for your content and not a Vault-type Product Data Management system.
The service is configured and operated by two components: The desktop Uploader app and the web client.
Accounts and Users
Flatter Files service fees are tiered by the number of contributors of content in the organization. Each tier is priced according to the number of users in each tier and the amount of storage available.
There are two types of users involved in Flatter Files services: Creators and Viewers. Creators have read/write rights on the system and are part of the organization tier. An organization can, however, invite as many viewers as they desire during the sharing processes. Viewers can view and comment on shared files as their shared rights permit.
The Uploader App
The Flatter Files Uploader allows users to publish their drawings and documents to the Flatter Files cloud.
Figure 1: The Uploader app
The uploader app resides in the Windows application tray and can be started at any time.
The Configuration button launches a dialog that allows users to define what file types are associated with Drawings and Documents.
Figure 2: Flatter Files folder configuration
This configuration is based on a folder structure, and allows users to define what types of files are expected in each folder location. As many folders as needed can be defined and added to the folder list. The “oldversions” sub-folder is skipped.
This configuration tells the Uploader what programs cores are required to develop the appropriate PDF files during the upload process. The applications supported are AutoCAD®, Inventor, SolidWorks, Visio, Word, and PowerPoint. PDF files that are already created by the users are simply uploaded.
Flatter Files Uploader can be configured to upload documents in one of three ways:
- Manual selection
- By a scheduled time interval
- Automatically when the files are updated
Once the configuration is complete the workflow becomes reasonably simple.
The Uploader app allows users to upload the configured folders, whereupon all pre-configured document and drawing file types in all sub-folders are uploaded to the cloud.
Temporary PDF files are then created by the identified software (here that would be Inventor). Additional options include:
- Automatic STEP, IGES, STL, and DXF file creation.
- Associated native files such as Inventor Assemblies may be included.
- 3D geometry for the web client’s 3D model viewer can be included.
A notification window is present to keep the user aware of the status of the upload.
Check In and Out
When working with files in Inventor, users can use the app to “Check-Out Open Files.” This tells the cloud account to release the hold on the drawings associated with the parts and assemblies that are being modified. Once the components are modified and the respective drawings are updated and saved, the user can “Check-in Files” and the check-in and review process is started. A review dialog is presented, and once selected, the check-in is completed and designated users are then notified that the files are ready to review.
If you are using an on-site product data management (PDM) system, the Flatter Files Uploader can be configured to integrate with it. Currently, Enterprise PDM by SolidWorks is fully integrated while an upcoming release will include simple integration with most PDM and PLM system including Autodesk Vault. With this option, PDM data revisions are automatically uploaded upon release and the entire review process can be skipped because this has already occurred within the PDM system.
The Web Interface
The remaining half of the scenario is the web client which handles the administration and collaborative efforts.
Web User Interface
The interface is divided into a Library and Folder browser, the assembly file view, a small preview of the assembly or document PDFs, and the detailed view. The web client includes a built-in 3D model viewer for Inventor files as well.
Figure 3: Highlighted changes—notice the “highlight Changes” option used here.
Libraries are configurable lists, such as saved search criteria, but permit both easy organization of file data and specific permission assignments for shared files.
The default libraries are Drawings, Documents, and Assemblies. Drawings and Documents are simply the flat list of data based on whichever search criteria is used.
Your assembly drawings are automatically grouped into assembly views respective to the Inventor component Bill of Materials (BOM) associated, such that all of the associated drawings (part drawings or sub-assembly drawings) needed for a sub-assembly or top assembly can be viewed within a single PDF. This is a great way to organize the drawing data, and can also be manually created as desired with any drawings or documents.
Each assembly view is displayed in the familiar collapsing tree grouping. Picking the Assembly displays the hierarchy, and limits the drawing previews to only those in that assembly and in the order of the BOM list.
All data is searchable, including metadata that is handed off during the upload and PDF conversion processes.
Advanced search strings are allowed including category key words as well as AND/OR statements.
The drawing view allows team members to see a selected drawing in its current revision.
Button controls above the view allow zooming and review or each associated revision. Changes on each revision can be highlighted.
Additional buttons allow users to:
- Request revisions
- View attachments
- Download the PDF, native, STEP, etc.
File Sharing and Review
As files are created they are added to the Library, but are held in stasis as checked-out without revision awaiting the designated reviewer’s approval of the file check-in. The reviewer can either accept or decline.
Once approved, the files are checked-in, the revision is assigned, and everyone in the organization can view them.
Figure 4: The Creator Account Dashboard, displaying a check-in review request
External sharing is simple and well organized. Users can pick the Share button and identify by selection which files to share with external viewers.
Flatter Files uses simple and secure link-based external sharing. The content is password protected and always stays up to date even if the drawing or documents are revised.
Once a drawing is shared, that status is indicated in the main drawing data list. The drawing can be unshared with the push of a button.
The list of shared external viewers is maintained for each drawing. Viewers can be added or removed as needed and shared data can be logged for usage tracking.
Figure 5: Sharing files
Mobile Viewing and Annotations
The Flatter Files site can be navigated by both web client and Flatter Files mobile apps. Each permits navigation and drilling down through assemblies.
Figure 6: The iPhone app
PDF files can be annotated by any viewing user with the recently supported PDF markup features, included in all mobile and web platforms (iOS requires the purchase of a $9.95 supporting app). Once the markups are completed, the PDF file is then reloaded to the Flatter Files library as a revision.
Revisions and markup notifications are automatically sent to the specified file creators.
This type of service has been tried a few times from the desktop, and really did not do well because of extreme costs and IT complexities. However, implementing it from the cloud is a wonderful way to approach the task.
Flatter Files has really streamlined the review process for deliverables and I can think of numerous ways this platform would be welcomed in manufacturing and permitting review processes, not to mention a single point for all file version validation.
What would I like to see soon in Flatter Files? Vault integration, as well as handshaking (bi-directional notification) extensions for companies that use other data management cloud solutions such as SharePoint, etc., but lack the streamlined easy-to-employ nature of Flatter Files.
I think the ROI–price intersection is not too hard to see and appreciate. The first tier is $1,500 per year for five contributors, 500 GB of storage, and unlimited viewers. That price may keep many small companies struggling with deliverables; $300/year for each user could easily be eaten up with the unproductive tasks associated with ensuring that all the contractors have the right documentation, not to mention the court costs and delayed payments when things get built from the old drawings. Just a thought.