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Sharing Drawings With People Who Don't Have AutoCAD

By Rick Ellis, Cadapult Software Solutions, Inc., April 3, 2003

Sharing drawing information with people who don’t have AutoCAD has always been a problematic issue for AutoCAD users. In this article we'll look at some of the most common format solutions to this problem, including the updates to the DWF format and the new, free Autodesk Express Viewer.


PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) seems to be one format that I get questions about all the time. The Adobe Acrobat Reader format is popular and has almost become the standard for exchanging documents of all types. Almost everyone has a copy of the free Acrobat Reader installed on their computer and most people are comfortable with receiving a PDF file and know what to do with it. However, the PDF format wasn’t exactly designed with CAD files in mind and there is no way to create them in AutoCAD without buying a third party program, either from Adobe or a variety of other developers.

Advantages: Popular format for all documents, difficult for someone to edit

Disadvantages: You must buy a third party utility to create them; Raster based format so as you zoom in you lose quality; difficult to control scale when printing; no control over layers.

Process: Install a third party utility that creates a new plot device. Plot to a file using that device to create a PDF.

Conclusion: A reasonable alternative, but not the best option for most people.

TIFF and other Raster Formats

Raster formats such as TIFF (which stands for Tagged Image File Format - also licensed by Adobe) don't seem as popular as PDF, but I know that some people are using them. The raster option also solves the compatibility problem well because almost everyone has a program that can display and print most common raster image formats. For that matter Internet Explorer will handle most of them. The problem is that these are raster images, so to get very good quality you will probably end up with very large files. And there will always be a limit to how close you can zoom in to the image because eventually you will only see the pixels.

Advantages: Common format; difficult for someone to edit

Disadvantages: Large file size; Raster based format so as you zoom in you lose quality; difficult to control scale when printing; no control over layers

Process: Use the Add a Plotter Wizard to create a plot device that plots to your desired raster format. Then plot to a file using this plot device. You can also use Raster Design if you have it.

Conclusion: Only a good option if your organization has standardized on this format for other reasons.


Autodesk's DWF (Design Web Format) file format is a 2D, vector- based description of drawings and illustrations. DWF seems to be coming of age and could be a real answer to the drawing distribution dilemma. For starters, its vector format allows users to zoom in infinitely on a drawing without a loss of quality. A line always looks like a line, rather than a collection of pixels. It's also a very compressed and efficient format.

The new DWF6 format - available in AutoCAD 2004 and in 2002 by installing the Design Publishing Extension - is the next step in the evolution of the DWF format. It adds the ability to create a single, multi-sheet DWF file that contains an entire set of drawings. The DWF format is also more secure because it is not editable. The new DWF6 has even added the option of password protection. Viewing and printing DWF files is similar to working with a PDF file, you just need to install a viewer. You can view them with the new Autodesk Express Viewer, Volo View Express, or Volo View. Both the Autodesk Express Viewer and Volo View Express are free downloads. The new Autodesk Express Viewer may be the best option for most people as it is only a 2MB download. On their website, Autodesk has a viewer comparison table so that you can decide which one is best for you.

Advantages: Not editable with security options; ability to control layers; option to print to scale; small file size; vector format allows zooming while retaining quality.

Disadvantages: Not as well known or recognizable as other file types to non-Autodesk users.

Process: Plot to a file using a DWF device or use the PUBLISH command from the Design Publishing Extension. DWF files can also be created as part of the Publish to Web command.

Conclusion: Probably the best option now available for sharing CAD files and one that's bound to only get better. You'll just need to educate people about the format when you send them a DWF file for the first time.

About the Author

Rick Ellis is the co-founder of Cadapult Software Solutions, Inc., a member of the Autodesk Developer Network; and author of several AutoCAD training manuals, including “Digging into Land Desktop.” He teaches classes focusing on AutoCAD, Map, Land Desktop, Raster Design, MXRoad and MXRenew for skill levels ranging from beginner to advanced users. Consulting services range from installation support to the implementation of standards.

If you have any questions about this article or for more information you can call Rick at (503) 829-8929, email rick@cadapult-software.com, or visit the Cadapult website at www.cadapult-software.com

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