The Stages of Developing CAD Standards

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This article covers the stages of developing CAD standards, laying the foundation for creating a full set of CAD standards to help your team of CAD professionals be their best.

The Importance of CAD Standards

In today’s modern CAD industry there is a preponderance of voices crying out for standardization. While some advocate CAD standards on an industry-wide basis, others are in favor of localized organization-oriented standards. Regardless of the preferred direction, there is nearly universal agreement that CAD standards are a necessary step for any organization employing CAD professionals.

There are plenty of strong reasons to support the creation of CAD standards in any organization, regardless of the scale. Different people may cite different benefits, but to my mind they all boil down to two essential factors: efficiency and continuity.

Who Should Develop CAD Standards?

A very common question that arises around the topic of CAD standards is “Who should develop CAD standards?” It is a deceptively complex question, but the answer can be surprisingly simple: Everyone who does CAD work should employ CAD standards. Like any generalization, this statement deserves some fleshing out to be useful.

For our purposes, we will make the following statement:

“Any organization, large or small, employing any number of CAD professionals producing production designs or plan sets will benefit from CAD standards.”

This is true from the largest civil engineering, architectural, or other design firm down to the smallest of independent contractors, working alone. Codifying the processes by which production plans are created and building standardized libraries of assets will increase of efficiency and consistency in short order.

What Are CAD Standards?

Now that we have determined what benefits CAD standards can bring to an organization and that all organizations can benefit from CAD standards, it is time to determine precisely what the concept of “CAD standards” means to any organization, in particular.

It is very difficult to overstate the importance of this exercise since simply stating, “We need CAD standards” is not enough. The truth is that the term “CAD standards” is an umbrella concept that can encompass any number of specific facets such as:

  • Uniform layering configurations
  • Documented production processes
  • Standardized detail block assets
  • Universal file naming conventions

All of the above, and more, are valid ideas for inclusion in your organization’s new CAD standards. Which items are included, and at what stage of development, is best determined by each individual organization. We will discuss the process of selecting the components of new CAD standards later in this article. For now, let’s assume that your new standards will consist of the bare minimum of the four items listed above.

The Stages of Developing CAD Standards

Too many organizations fail at their attempts to develop and implement CAD standards for one very simple reason: They believe that the development of CAD standards is purely a CAD exercise. This type of thinking drives efforts to be completely focused on the drawing and ignores too many important aspects. For this one reason, I believe that the development of any CAD standard should be viewed in three stages:

  • Meta Stage
  • Development Stage
  • Execution Stage

Clearly delineating the development of CAD standards in these three stages serves to not only ensure that proper attention is paid to each of these necessary aspect, but also to create natural milestones for measuring progress.

This conceptual framework is applicable to the development of any CAD standard and can easily be adapted to suit almost any type of project in general.

The Meta Stage

There is a certain amount of work that has to be done before the work of creating a CAD standard can happen. You can think of this as the “meta-work” since it is the work that largely facilitates the actual work of creating your standard. In the Meta Stage you will largely be concerned with answering the question of “Who” in many different ways.

The bad news is that this stage of development will not actually produce any employable version of a CAD standard. Instead it sets the foundation on which your standard will later be built.

The good, actually great, news is that this stage is largely a one-time only effort! Even as you create your organization’s CAD standard in specific categories, or “modules,” this foundation will hold strong. Even a complete change of directions, for example moving from the creation of civil engineering standards to architectural standards, should not require a total restart of the Meta Stage.

The “Who(s)”

Before we can begin to think about what your CAD standard will look like, we have to examine the most important question of, “Who will create the CAD standard”? This might seem like a simple and obvious matter, but anyone who works in even a moderately-sized organization can tell you that a good idea is not enough. There must be a person, or persons, who accept ownership and responsibility for this effort. So who should that be?

Some medium and large organizations have already answered this question by employing staff members with the responsibility, and hopefully a title, of “CAD Coordinator” or “Director of CAD Operations.” If this is the case, then this individual most likely has the creation and maintenance of CAD standards already built into their job duties.

For smaller organization, or those that simply do not have these positions, there is no reason to fret. This may be a perfect time to create just such a position and elevate an experienced CAD manager or staff member. New positions are wonderfully clean slates and natural demarcations for new directions to be taken.

It’s natural to assume that the most “experienced” CAD staff member is the best candidate to create your new standard. However, I recommend the looking for the following two characteristics when choosing a person to take on the responsibility of creating these new CAD standards:

  • Management Aptitude — Creating a new CAD standard is a large-scale project that requires research, attention to detail, and the ability to work with others. For these reasons the ideal candidate should show an aptitude for data management and organization.
  • Adaptability — Creating a new CAD standard is literally about change. This includes obvious changes to the way CAD production staff works, but also may require changes in the way your chosen leader thinks. Therefore, adaptability is a must!
  • Enthusiasm — Creating a new CAD standard is not fun. It is complicated work that will have setbacks and unexpected issues along the way. To overcome these negatives, the person selected to develop the standard must have a genuine enthusiasm and excitement to see the project through difficult times to completion.

One final note on who should be responsible for the creation of a CAD standard: avoid committees! It is a natural instinct to assume that a committee of experienced CAD staff and management will create a better standard in a shorter time. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and, in fact, can be the root of failure.

Many psychological studies have shown that “committees” are not the ideal way to create a reasonable result without inefficiencies. Not only do people tend to “work less” in committees they have the built-in facilitator of not having individual responsibility. “The committee failed to deploy a usable standard” is a very different thing from “Mark has failed to create a usable standard.” One is the topic of mild complaint, the other is an actionable item for review.

This is not to say that any one person should have total control of a CAD standard, far from it. However, I will predict poor results for any organization trying to create a CAD standard who does not identify a single responsible person. Ownership is a powerful thing. It is also a weighty matter for anyone who is asked to take it on if it is outside their current job description. Again, this is another perfect reason to appoint a “CAD Coordinator” if your organization does not already have one.

The “Supports”

Ownership in creating a new CAD standard is one key aspect of successfully creating a standard for your organization, but one tree does not make a forest. So your coordinator will need help in the form of input and support from other members of your CAD and management staff in order to succeed.

Obviously for any standard to be successful it will require the support of your organization’s management. This stakeholder buy-in is very important to identify a proper direction for the standard to take and to assure its adoption. Therefore, senior members of management should be named to supply oversight and ratification for the coordinator at specified stages of development. Without the involvement of management, the result could be a completely unusable standard and a complete loss of invested development time and effort.

Much like senior management, which can be thought of as “high on the org chart,” CAD leaders who are “lower” on the chart should also be included. Rather than approving or justifying the direction and development of the standard, these staff members are integral voices in the development process. The coordinator should rely on these people for suggestions, detailing existing work processes, and keeping the development grounded in real-world possibilities. Without the input of CAD managers and experienced production staff the new CAD standard could be “theoretically” great, but useless in actual application.

The Existing Standard

Very soon in the process of creating a new CAD standard the coordinator has to examine whether or not the organization has a CAD standard that is already in place. If there is already a defined collection of practices and guidelines in place that is fantastic! This single fact completely transforms the efforts from “creating” a CAD standard to “updating” a CAD standard. No reinventing the wheel for your coordinator! Simply review the standard, section by section, examining its applicability in modern production work and update as needed.

However, the real trick comes when there is no defined collection of practices and guidelines in place. Rather than assume this means that there is “no standard” time must be taken to determine if there is an “assumed” standard. This sort of standard is better known as “the way we do it.”

Every CAD production room has certain ways that they work. These small details lie in layer colors, plotting habits, and even highlighting markups. Each of these miniscule habits that production CAD staff pass on from one to another comprise a de facto standard. It may not be documented, but it is very much alive and well and the smart coordinator will do well to not ignore it! Instead, effort must be made to work with CAD leaders and identify these habits and document, as well as possibly improve, them for inclusion in an approved organizational CAD standard!

All of the above comprise the Meta Stage of developing successful CAD standards. It is largely about the “Who” of the creation process. But, as you can see, it also can play a pivotal role in determining the all-important “What” of the direction that your coordinator takes in the development of your organization’s CAD standard.

By the end of the Meta Stage you should have established the following:

  • Who is responsible for the CAD standard (the coordinator)
  • Who will review and approve the CAD standard (the management)
  • Who will help develop the CAD standard (the CAD leaders)
  • Where your coordinator will begin with the documentation process

These Meta Stage steps are applicable to nearly any form of standards development and will benefit those creating standards for civil, architectural, mechanical, or any other discipline organization. Even in large firms, comprised of multiple disciplines, the work done in the Meta Stage can be reapplied, or at the very least, is partially applicable as the coordinator pivots from discipline to discipline.

With the Meta Stage complete, you can begin focusing on creating the actual CAD standard that is the goal of your organization. Read more about this in the article, “Developing CAD Standards: A Complete Guide.”

Curt Moreno is the CAD coordinator for a Texas-based engineering firm and owner and editor of Kung Fu Drafter, a blog that is CAD-centric and geek peripheral.