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Autodesk Review

AutoCAD 2005: A First Look

By Greg Corke, AEC Magazine
February 18, 2004

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What more can you add to the industry-leading CAD package? This was the main topic of conversation before the unveiling of AutoCAD 2005 to the European press in Barcelona last month. For a software product that was competing in age with some of the journalists in attendance, I, too, had my concerns about what Autodesk could do to AutoCAD that would give its customers sufficient incentive to upgrade. AutoCAD 2004 was a good release, well received by press and customers alike, and there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a tough act to follow. Furthermore, it didn’t seem that long ago since AutoCAD 2004 was released, and for those not already on a subscription, you had to question whether users would be willing to put their hands in their pockets so soon. In checking my dates, the last release was over 18 months ago, but we were soon to learn that it won’t be long before AutoCAD releases are coming around as regularly as Christmas.

AutoCAD 2005 marks the beginning of a yearly release cycle for Autodesk, which will be supplemented by a SE (Subscription Edition) of AutoCAD every six months, available only to subscription customers. To me this yearly revision cycle does seem a little excessive for a CAD package that already seems to be bursting at the seams. From a business perspective Autodesk clearly sees it as a move in the right direction; only time will tell if its customers, particularly those not on subscription, will welcome having to pay for frequent updates. This will become even clearer when Autodesk decides the time is right to retire previous releases, cutting off the upgrade path from previous versions of AutoCAD (as Autodesk did this January).

An Emphasis on Workflow

The members of the press in Barcelona were treated to an hour-long presentation of the new features of AutoCAD 2005 by John Sanders, Vice President, Design Solutions Group, Platform Technology Division, and Shawn Gilmour, CAD Product Line Manager. Since then we’ve not been given the opportunity to look at a beta copy of the software, so these initial thoughts will be based on what we saw in the presentation and on the supporting documentation presented at the event.

From the outset it was clear that Autodesk has been focusing its development resources in the area of Drawing Management, or as Autodesk more generically describes it, “workflow.” Central to this concept is the introduction of Sheet Sets, which are designed to help users organize their drawing sheets into subsets that represent different types of drawings and manage drawings more efficiently.

New workflow capabilities were also highlighted with enhancements to Autodesk’s DWF (Design Web Format) and the way the format can be used in the context of a collaborative design/review process. Non-AutoCAD users can now make use of a new Autodesk DWF Composer that provides mark-up, measure, and annotation capabilities that integrate with AutoCAD 2005.

Elsewhere, Autodesk has overhauled the way in which AutoCAD deals with tables; users now have access to a utility that pretty much works like an embedded spreadsheet application. This will make AutoCAD’s handling of data much more capable, and the physical creation of tables more automated and efficient.

One question on everyone’s lips was what is going happen to the DWG format? The release of AutoCAD 2004 brought about a completely new compressed DWG format and with it much controversy with claims from the OpenDWG consortium that the new format was encrypted. So would Autodesk change the format yet again? The general consensus was that Autodesk couldn’t afford to change it again for fear of a backlash from users on compatibility issues. True to form, Autodesk announced no change to the DWG format and compatibility with third-party applications.

So there you have the highlights of the new release. On paper it doesn’t look like there are many new features, but when you start to look into exactly what Sheet Sets can do, the potential benefits are quite far reaching. Before we get into these perks, let’s first define what a Sheet Set is.

Working with Sheet Sets

The basic concept behind Sheet Sets is to provide users with a powerful means of managing their drawings more effectively by project, and providing a deliverable item to communicate project information. While Autodesk introduced the ability to organize a Sheet Set as a series of layouts in a DWG file a few releases ago, this restricted members of a project team from simultaneously editing different layouts. As a result, the primary method of managing DWGs is still to group them into folders and assign appropriate files names, and if users need to print, archive, or email a complete drawing set or part of set to a client, they must find, open up and work with each file on an individual basis.

Sheet Sets in AutoCAD 2005 are managed by the appropriately named Sheet Set Manager, which resides inside your AutoCAD session. It displays all your drawing sheets and sheet subsets in a clear tree structure, and you can see who currently has drawings open for editing and which drawings are available.

Here’s an example to illustrate exactly how the Sheet Sets are managed. Suppose a company is designing a building. They might create a Sheet Set for the entire project and then create subsets for architectural, electrical, and mechanical drawings. Within each of those subsets, a subset for details could be created. Named sheet selection sets could be defined for each subset (architectural, electrical, mechanical) and one for the entire project. If a set of drawings had to be produced for the electrical contractor, you would simply restore the electrical sheet selection set. If the entire set of drawings had to be created for the client, you would simply restore the project sheet selection set.

The benefits here are immediately obvious: the ability to plot or create an electronic transmittal set of an entire sheet set or a specified set of sheets, or publish a sheet set to a DWF (Design Web Format) file with hyperlinks that provide one-click navigation through the sheets. However, this “packaged drawings” approach to DWG management offers benefits for the user on a much finer level.

To help reduce repetition and errors, users can now coordinate and update title block information, sheet numbering, sheet names, and detail labels across an entire sheet set. For example, if you change generic project information, the order of your sheets, or add a sheet in, the Sheet Manager will automatically make updates to each sheet in the family and the corresponding information in the title block. Building on this, a sheet index can be inserted on the title sheet, which automatically lists all the sheets in the set and creates hyperlinks, which you can use to navigate to each drawing. Hyperlinks are also used to good effect when working with design details and callouts, where callouts automatically link to the sheet with the corresponding detail. Again, if sheet numbers or details names need to change, these changes can me made once in the Sheet Set Manager and all the drawings callouts and detail labels will be updated automatically.

Creating and Managing Tables

In AutoCAD 2005, Autodesk has finally enhanced the process of how tables are created and maintained. Before 2005, tables had to be drawn and trimmed element by element, and if a new row was added to a table all the contents had to be manually shifted down. For the new release, Autodesk has basically embedded a simple spreadsheet inside AutoCAD and the potential benefits are huge.

You can now create tables via a new Create Table dialogue box where you can specify the number of columns and rows, enter specific values for column width and row height. Or you can define the table size and let AutoCAD 2005 determine the column width and row height. To populate tables you can enter data by pressing the tab or arrow keys to move across the cells.

Using grip support, the table location, column width and row height can be modified. The individual properties of cells can also be edited in the Properties palette; a context-sensitive menu enables the insertion and deletion of rows and columns as well the ability to merge or unmerge adjacent cells.

While the addition of these tools provides the potential to slash the time spent on creating and editing tables, the new functionality goes beyond the cosmetic and also focuses on the ability to share data with other applications.

Table data can now be copied from Microsoft Excel and pasted it into drawings as AutoCAD entities, and conversely, if tables are created within AutoCAD, it's now possible to export the table data as a CSV (Comma Separated Value) format.

Design Review with DWF

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a war raging between Autodesk and Adobe over the future of CAD document distribution. The CAD industry has embraced Adobe’s PDF format with very little push from Adobe; meanwhile, Autodesk has decided that DWG - despite its stranglehold in the AEC market - is not for sharing outside of the AutoCAD community and that the future is with its own DWF (Design Web Format).

For the new release, the DWF format has been much more tightly integrated with AutoCAD and can now be used as part of a design review process. Once a Sheet Set has been published as a DWF in AutoCAD, those in the project who do not have a copy of AutoCAD can use a new application called DWF Composer, which enables them to mark up, measure, and annotate each drawing and then send the DWF file back to the designer.

Once back in AutoCAD 2005, the drafter uses a simple navigational interface to select a mark-up for review. AutoCAD finds, opens and overlays the DWF mark-up onto the appropriate AutoCAD drawing files, and the drafter can review the proposed design changes in context with the DWG file and make the design changes.

Other Enhancements and New Tools

There’s a lot more to AutoCAD 2005 than Sheet Sets Tables and DWF. Here are some of the highlights.

Drawing managers can now standardize drawing content and store customized commands on space-saving, project-specific tool palettes that you can distribute to the entire project team. There are additions to AutoCAD’s text tools, with an enhanced multiline text editor that supports indents and tabs. You can now add engineering symbols available in AutoCAD 2005, or apply a background fill (colored or opaque) to multiline text to improve readability when placed over drawing geometry. Users can now reuse drawing content by placing it on space-saving tool palettes; palettes can also be grouped together for added efficiency.

AutoCAD’s Layer Management dialogue box has been redesigned to enable layers to be managed more easily, and users can also group layers using filters to quickly apply properties changes to all layers in a group.

Aiming ease the pain of upgrading, Autodesk has also supplied a full set of migration tools that allow you to move customized files from your old version (as far back as AutoCAD 2000) to your new version.

Elsewhere, Autodesk has made enhancements to its plotting utilities, introducing background plotting for large jobs that frees you to perform other tasks simultaneously at your computer. And finally, plot logs now can also be created to support accurate billing.

Conclusion

The introduction of Sheet Sets is by far the most important and far reaching of the new features in AutoCAD 2005. However you label it, it’s clear that Autodesk is laying the foundations for document management in AutoCAD 2005. The company also revealed it is their intention to incorporate some basic vaulting technology in the next release.
A recent survey by Autodesk showed that 80 percent of its customers still use Microsoft Windows Explorer to organize their projects/products and associated drawings and to view and open existing drawings, so getting users interested in Document Management after all these years might still be a major stumbling block. Indeed, Autodesk admitted that there has already been some resistance to change in some of their beta sites but after a week or so, the users and managers really begin to see the benefits of working with this new methodology. But what else is there to AutoCAD 2005 if you’re simply not interested in managing your drawings better?

I think the introduction of new Tables functionality speaks for itself. It’s remarkable that there haven’t been tools to deal with this problem before, but from what I’ve seen the addition is sure to please many users.

And then there is DWF. At the Barcelona launch, Autodesk proudly announced that it had solved six out of ten of the items on AUGI’s wish list when it released AutoCAD 2004; now with the release of 2005, three more items are addressed. The remaining issue involves better integration with the PDF format. With Autodesk’s current stance on publishing formats, however, it looks like no amount of wishes over birthday candles will make this hope come true. Autodesk has been promising much from its Design Web Format (DWF) and the introduction of DWF Composer and its tight integration with the design review process makes much sense. There is no doubt in my mind that DWF is a powerful format, much more intelligent than PDF, and this year should be an interesting one in helping to shape the future for publishing formats.

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