The many flavors of CAD maintenance

Remember the Maytag guy? Remember how bored he was, sitting around twiddling his thumbs because a Maytag dishwasher was uber reliable? Yeah, well, that’s not the case for CAD administrators.

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CAD maintenance reminds me more of Dr. Who tumbling about the Tardis with one hand on the throttle (is that what that thing is?) and one foot on the “timey whimey” dial to drop him and Amy into the correct decade, but never with pin-point accuracy.

Generally, CAD Admins are:

  • Typically tasked with the impossible
  • Carry no real clout
  • Are given zero dollars
  • Have unreasonable expectations routinely thrust upon them

I suppose it’s the nature of “the CAD beast” and the monkeys that use the software. They’re always too smart for their own good and incessantly impatient about speed, the latest CAD features and, by golly, will this assembly not loader FASTER!

Nobody would argue that we’re demanding monkeys. Couple these high-pressure needs with volatile, not so stable CAD software, and your fuse is blown before you’ve even downed your first triple-shot mocha with extra sugar.

To attempt to clear the cobwebs of this CAD mania, I investigate the concept of CAD maintenance. While it comes in many flavors, these are the three most common:

  • CAD and PDM software maintenance
  • CAD use case process maintenance
  • CAM and 3D printer maintenance
28One who administers the CAD software and is responsible for overseeing how CAD is used at an organization is going to need a more diverse set of tools than these.

CAD & PDM software maintenance 

In the context of CAD software, maintenance has two meanings:

  • Maintenance fees – Annual or monthly cost levied from the CAD software or reseller
  • Maintenance plan – A strategic and well thought-out implementation plan managed in conjunction with your IT protocols that identifies when and what will be upgraded within the CAD applications

Annual maintenance fee for CAD software 

The “maintenance” fee that accompanies your CAD software is generally referred to as the technical service fee provided by a CAD reseller. This is: “We sell you the software outright, but if you want our help to install, navigate, or update, we need more moola.”

I have no objections to the cost, because I use and abuse my “maintenance” technical service fees to the max, and feel as if I get my money’s worth. Many are concerned with the “maintenance fee”, especially if they have multiple CAD packages, and their users are not utilizing the full breadth of the technical services, i.e. ROI (Return on Investment) is not realized.

Additionally, many organizations have steered clear of upgrading their version every year. In my experience SolidWorks users are current or only 1-2 years behind; Creo users are generally 1-4 years behind; NX users are current or 1-3 years behind; and Catia users may be as much as 5 years behind. I expect this trend has to do with the cost and complexity of each CAD system.

Maintenance plan for CAD applications

I generally get flack for my recommendations in this area, but because technology and software updates and upgrades are occurring more rapidly than ever before, it is imperative that you strategize an upgrade plan in order to take advantage of the rapid lifecycle from the software vendors.

A CAD software infrastructure is complex, and the more CAD users and stakeholders, the demand increases for a more orchestrated software maintenance plan.

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Example of a CAD platform upgrade lifecycle. This is a gradual, yet predictable upgrade implementation plan that will assist your users and IT departments to maintain consistent expectations.

CAD use-case process maintenance

I have not seen any organization baseline this concept, but I sure wish they would. Because the way in which we document product designs is rapidly evolving, and in order to be “best-in-class” it is imperative that organizations carefully evaluate how their CAD is produced, consumed and re-used. Without a complete understanding of the technology and upcoming standards that surround 3D model based methods, it will be next to impossible to fully comprehend or realize the monetary benefits of reusing CAD.

An example of a CAD use case and its associated process may be: imagine a handheld remote joystick for the gaming industry, or a soldier controlling a robot in the field. The joystick has fairly complex electronics embedded inside, yet it’s outer shape is ergonomic and organically created for the hand. No-doubt the outer surfaces are complex and the inner surfaces are likely optimized to mount and thermally control the electronics.

Even if this is a single part, defining it’s product definition with a traditional 2D method will be time consuming and tedious (not at all how us designers want to spend our time). However, using model based definition (MBD) is a time saver, and if adequately configuration managed, yields a superior design to manufacturing process than with 2D drawing methods. Voila. MBD methods prevail for this situation.

In contrast, look at the cable-wiring diagram that connects switches and dials of the motherboard of that hand-held controller. Is the 2D drawing method more or less complex? Most likely the 2D drawing is less complex, well established, and a non-wasteful method to create and managed that CAD in 2D. Common sense would dictate that we leave this CAD use case process in 2D.

Getting a firm understanding of each type of component and how it is generated and consumed is of critical importance to understanding your digital enterprise.

CAM and 3D printer maintenance

And here’s a maintenance issue that blurs the line between software and hardware: 3D Printing, or if you prefer, additive manufacturing (AM).

Since a 3D model is the only manufacturing process that requires a 3D model, if your business owns a 3D printer, then it must “maintain” the printer, as well as the CAD / CAM software that interfaces to it.

Here is where I flop-out of my swim-lane. My understanding of printer and related tool maintenance is limited to anecdotes provided by customers who relay the trials and tribulations with inexpensive 3D printers. I expect, as with anything, the more expensive the machine, the more reliable and robust. A lesson I recently learned about a $150 pod coffee maker serving that was used to serve 50 people every-day. Long story short, it broke after 8 months of use. The tool always must match the need.

As 3D printers seep into the commodity market, their use in everyday lives will become clearer. One limiting factor may be that it still takes a pretty seasoned expert (self-taught or formally trained) to manipulate 3D models through the printing and CAM software to yield the desired end item result. It sure is a fun learning curve though!


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  • Ryan

    Decent article and thanks for writing it. I have to agree, as an admin, that users expect to get their answers to software bugs and modeling errors ASAP…but won’t admit to bad modeling practices..

    You did make one comment that I’ll like to comment on..”I expect this trend has to do with the cost and complexity of each CAD system.” I would not assume that the delay in upgrades is due to the cost or complexity to the CAD system. But more to complexity of the integration of the CAD and other tools in the rest of the business.
    We run a fairly common CAD package. We are running a 2013 version not because the software is complex but because the CAD package and PDM system are integrated with our CRM, quoting, website and other business tools. To make a software change- which we are doing this year- is a complex project that requires testing all the custom business code built around the CAD and PDM software.

    • Ryan, Thanks for commenting. You make an excellent point, and one I also agree with. The interoperability maintenance complexity within and amongst your other business tools adds yet another layer of complex maintenance.

      In my opinion, that makes it even more imperative to set and stick to a regular maintenance schedule.

      Thanks for commenting.