CAD + SharePoint + Prune Juice

When I first got out of school, one of my best friends got a job as an auditor. I immediately started making fun of him for it, partially because it seemed kind of lame, but mostly because he had a real job, and I worked at a senior center pouring endless glasses of prune juice for about a third of the money. Today, my present job doesn’t require me to pour nearly as much prune juice, and over the years I’ve learned from my friend that one of the most interesting things about being a professional auditor is that every client you work with ends up teaching you the basics of his or her business. 

The more popular SharePoint becomes, the more this kind of thing happens to us here at Bamboo. Yes, we make List Rollup, and custom columns, and work with Active Directory accounts all day. But ultimately, our customers use those things to actually go about their daily business, and sometimes, we get to learn a few things along the way. 

One thing I admittedly never thought about was facility management, and specifically, how a big organization with a bunch of different buildings kept track of them all. Whether you’re responsible for fifty hamburger joints, or a thousand post offices, the fact remains that every individual building is different. Each goes through its own changes, repairs, and additions, and all of this is likely implemented separately someone at the local level. But back in your office, at world headquarters, you’re supposed to be managing these changes, and making operational decisions based on the status/shape/functionality of these facilities – and how do you know that you’ve got accurate, updated information? As it turns out, the truth is that… you actually don’t know that at all. What you’ve got are a series of CAD drawings that – in theory – are up to date, and reflect the actual, current design of each building. But ultimately, these are just files, and if they’re out of date, you’ve simply got bad information.

I don’t know, personally, what I find more amazing – that this kind of thing is a problem (as it’s one of those logistical things you just sort of take for granted if you’re not responsible for it), or that the tools we work on here at Bamboo are actually part of the solution. But as it turns out, they are – today, Bamboo customers are building SharePoint-powered drawing management solutions specifically designed to address this very common situation, and they were nice enough to show us how they work. 

SharePoint Drawing Management

When you stop and think about it, SharePoint is actually a pretty logical place to build a global drawing management solution. It’s accessible from anywhere, it uses your existing login credentials, it’s customizable, and most importantly, it’s one of the world’s best document management systems. And while it’s not designed to handle AutoCAD .DWG files (the drawings themselves) out of the box, several third parties (including us) have taken it upon themselves to add that functionality. With a combination of tools from Bamboo (DWG Parser), and our partner Cadac Organice (Publish, Explorer), it’s actually pretty easy to teach SharePoint to handle .DWG files as smoothly and naturally as it handles Office files – which, as you probably know, nothing manages better. 

And once you’ve trained SharePoint’s best-in-class document management tools to embrace your file format, the rest of the Bamboo product universe – plus a few out of the box tools – allow you to build not just a repository, but an actual system for managing building change requests, and the documents that are affected them, that is traceable, searchable, and always up-to-date. 

Your System May Vary (… if you want)

The beauty of building a SharePoint-powered solution is that (a) all of the technology you need is either baked into SharePoint, or available as plug-in technologies from vendors like Bamboo and Cadac Organice, and (b) you can make the system as complex, or as simple, as you need it to be. For instance, building out the aforementioned .DWG Document Library is easy; you can be up and running in no time, and gain immediate benefits over manually managing your drawings on a file share or (shudder) via e-mail. Security trimming, check-in/check-out, version control, the works. 

But if you need to meet additional security, procedural, or governance requirements? Just keep going. Build literally any process control you can come up with Workflow Conductor. Add automated, custom e-mail alerts with Alert Plus. Or store drawing data across sub-sites, and automatically aggregate it with List Rollup. Extend, extend, extend, until you’ve got exactly the system you’re looking for, with nothing extra. I know this is possible because living, breathing customers are doing it right now.

And while I’m thinking big (I tend to do that), it’s not a requirement that you do so yourself. In fact, in the case of handling .DWG files, the most direct benefits apparently come in the form of accessibility, and ease of management. Users don’t need individual copies of AutoCAD to view drawings – the system automatically generates PDFs, which they can view quickly, and without individual licenses of expensive design software. Honestly, that alone is a sufficient cost justification for some of our customers. But… if you’re building a system to reduce inefficiencies, why not build the system you actually want? Why not automatically pull the metadata from your drawings into SharePoint, associate it with said drawings, and then make all of that data searchable users? Why not automate the process controls you have to abide anyways, and let SharePoint do the work for you? Why not protect yourself with automated version backups, easy audits of who’s changed what, and best of all, up-to-date information that you know you can find, and count on? The best part about SharePoint, though, is that the choice is ultimately yours.

What’s next?

So in just a short couple of weeks, I’ve learned a little bit about how some of the world’s biggest organizations handle one of their most mundane, but valuable, assets – their buildings. At the same time, we here at Bamboo also learned how some of our favorite technologies are being used to do it, and now we’re actually kind of excited to show you. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time trying to build an application in SharePoint knows that it’s not without its frustrations; but trust us, we know – the technology you need is there, and the rewards for making the leap are enormous. 

So check out the new facility management page on the mothership, even if you don’t manage any buildings, because the real story is the power of SharePoint as an open-ended, problem solving application platform. And if it can manage a world of facility drawings, what can’t it do?

Personally, I’d like to see it pour 300 glasses of prune juice at 6:30 in the morning. But that’s just me.

Richard Duffy
re: CAD + SharePoint + Prune Juice
on Wed, Feb 23 2011 10:53 AM

How does this solution work when it is required to work on these ACAD drawings, especially when there are other drawings being referenced?  In my experience of using ACAD and other drawing packages (Bentley Microsotation for example) SharePoint cannot handle drawings which in turn reference other drawings.  For example, I select a drawing which I need to work on, I can configure the DocLib to use Check InOut when I select Edit which is fine for that file, but if the drawing being opened references another drawing or resource file (borders, style sheets, layers, etc) SharePoint doesn’t have the intelligence to Check these files out as well to prevent someone else editing files which are being referenced me (hope that makes sense).  It is for this reason, despite significant corporate spend on SP, other EDMS solutions were sought to manage the vast numbers of drawings in use as design and engineering is a core part of the business.

Julie Auletta
re: CAD + SharePoint + Prune Juice
on Wed, Feb 23 2011 12:59 PM

Thanks for these questions Richard – I’m glad you asked. These are exactly the issues we can overcome withour solution.

What we typically recommend is that you keep a Viewing Library (or set of libraries) and an Editing Library (or set). The DWGs are in the editing library. Store PDF or DWF versions of the DWGs in the viewing library for those that just need to view, which in our experience is often the majority.

The reasons for a separate viewing library are (1) PDF/DWFs are smaller, compact files made for web viewing so you don’t have to wait as long for them to be delivered to your PC for viewing (2) they don’t require AutoCAD for viewing so no expensive license or end user training is required of the viewers, and (3) the referenced files are bundled in, so only one file is delivered for viewing.

To create the PDF and/or DWF files, we use the Organice Publish product. It can be configured to generate a PDF/DWF when a new DWG is uploaded or if a change to an existing file is checked in. It is pretty flexible.

So the remaining question is what to do about xrefs for the people that need to maintain the edit repository and edit the DWGs? If you edit/view a DWG file in AutoCAD and you don’t have the referenced file(s) available where ACAD needs to have it, you won’t see all the data in the drawing – you will see an error. It’s hard to know what the referenced files are until you see these errors, and it’s too much to ask the end user to download these files individually. So the trick is for the system to figure out what the referenced files are upfront and deliver them with the main DWG file. This is where the Organice Explorer comes in. The Organice Explorer knows how to check for referenced files and deliver them to the requestor. It is available as its own application or as a plugin for AutoCAD. Using the plugin, you can browse your SharePoint document library from within AutoCAD and choose which file to open, check out/in, etc. It has a bunch of other very useful features also, as Cadac Organice has been doing this kind of stuff for quite a while now.

If you have other specific questions, please call or email. We’d love to tell you more about the solution.

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