Using CAD templates to save time, money

Computer-aided design (CAD) has been an important tool for industrial plant engineering since the technology's inception in the mid-1980s. Most manufacturing plants employ CAD technology — generally for the design and manipulation of system assembly models that serve as blueprints during new, retrofit, or expansion projects.


Key Concepts
  • CAD templates are available in online libraries, on manufacturers' web sites, and on CD-ROMs.

  • A CAD template can be viewed from all angles, and may be used in any major CAD modeling program.

  • Manufacturers that use CAD templates save approximately 10% per year in engineering labor costs.

How plant engineers employ CAD templates
Benefits of online/CD-ROM access to CAD templates
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Computer-aided design (CAD) has been an important tool for industrial plant engineering since the technology's inception in the mid-1980s. Most manufacturing plants employ CAD technology — generally for the design and manipulation of system assembly models that serve as blueprints during new, retrofit, or expansion projects.

CAD technologies continue to evolve each year. But just as important as the technology itself is the medium by which the CAD templates are sent, received, and disseminated. Previously available only on request, CAD templates are now available in online libraries, on manufacturers' web sites, and on CD-ROMs — with no payment or special authorizations required. Now, plant engineers can access CAD templates directly and faster. And downloadable CAD templates are manufacturer validated, so users can depend on their accuracy.

The result has been a surge in CAD template usage and efficiencies. According to a report issued by Mason & Madison and Clark Marketing Research Group, LLC, engineers downloaded more than 10 million CAD templates from the web in 2001, with the average user downloading 168 CAD templates into 306 drawings. CAD template usage on , a leading CAD template library, has increased about 50% over the past year. Swagelok Co., one manufacturer on, reports that CAD activity has increased from 8000 in December 2001 to nearly 26,000 in November 2002 (Fig. 1).

According to a 2002 Thomas Register survey, engineers employing electronically accessible CAD templates saved 12 hr/mo in 2000, 15 hr/mo in 2001, and 17 hr/mo in 2002 (Fig. 2). Of the engineers surveyed, 60% said they would switch suppliers if their current supplier did not offer downloadable CAD templates and an alternative supplier did — up from 44% three years ago.

Not surprisingly, conveniences and efficiencies realized through downloadable CAD templates translate into cost savings. Today's plant engineers and managers prefer suppliers that employ web-accessible CAD templates (all other things being equal) and they are encouraging employees, co-workers and subcontractors to employ CAD templates if they do not already do so. In the 2002 Thomas Register survey, 90% of respondents said that electronically accessible CAD templates had a significant impact on their company's bottom line.

How plant engineers employ CAD templates

Design engineers are the main users of CAD templates, but plant engineers are employing them as well. Plant engineers overseeing manufacturing operations are requiring their engineering teams to employ downloadable CAD templates when applicable to keep costs down. Engineering teams may include piping, electrical, fluid, mechanical, gas handling, or MRO specialists who fall under the rubric "plant engineer." They may be responsible for replacing or repairing obsolete or malfunctioning parts or systems. If a part breaks and is no longer available through the original manufacturer — or, alternatively, proves to be unreliable — the specialist will seek a replacement. The engineer who employs an online CAD library — containing CAD templates from many manufacturers, not just one — will move many times faster than the engineer employing hard-copy company catalogues. The number of resources available in an electronic format is greater and more quickly accessible.

In addition, a CAD template is a virtual representation of the part in question. It may be viewed and examined from all angles. It may be dropped into any major CAD modeling program, such as SolidWorks or ProEngineer, enabling the engineer to test the part for fit, clearance, and other dimensional compatibility with the other parts in the system.

Even if an electronic model of the entire system does not exist, CAD technology may still be effective and applicable. The manufacturing industry is fast approaching a point where virtually any part — new or old — will be available in a CAD template. So an engineer may find and download CAD templates for those parts surrounding and connecting to the replacement part. Then, the various candidates for the replacement part may be dropped into the mini model for testing.

CAD templates may prove valuable when engineers are developing a new manufacturing system, expanding a current system, or updating a system to meet new manufacturing requirements. In each of these processes, plant engineers may collaborate with design engineers, R&D, design consultants, and project managers. Such projects proceed in layers of specificity, with broad outlines established initially, followed by part specification and positioning. At each point in the process, CAD templates may be used as a convenient, efficient, and accurate means of gathering and disseminating information.

The high-level plant engineer may work closely with the design group, drawing on his or her breadth of knowledge concerning the manufacturing process. In reviewing proposed plans, he or she may search online for CAD blocks to be employed in lieu of those proposed. Further down the process, the specialized engineer may work with CAD templates to specify particular parts in an electrical, mechanical, or other application.

CAD templates are effective at all stages of a plant project because they are readily and quickly available; they are more consistently accurate (as opposed to human calculations); and they're effective in widely disseminating consistent, visual information to all members of a team. Indeed, because they are visual, CAD drawings can be persuasive when the team presents proposals to internal audiences. CAD templates bring a system alive. In a CAD format, a system is no longer a set of attributes, but a tangible, realizable model. From a set of CAD drawings today, users can create automated color movie clips showing the project in its completed form. Armed with this technology, engineers can make the strongest case to decision makers, who, in turn, are better able to make informed purchasing decisions when they can see the final product in three dimensions.

Benefits of online/CD-ROM access to CAD templates

There are many ways engineers may obtain a CAD template for a part in question. Customarily, engineers have created the CAD template themselves based on dimensions obtained from the manufacturer. Or, they have obtained the CAD template by e-mail after requesting it from the manufacturer. Both of these methods require that engineers wait for and rely upon a third party, which introduces inconveniences, such as "phone tag," poor fax transmissions, undeliverable e-mails, or wrong information. It is not unusual for engineers to phone in a second or third request because CAD templates or dimensions they received were not the ones requested. It is also not unusual for engineers to request a part but find after testing that it is not the best one for the application. The communication process between engineers and component manufacturers is a slow and cumbersome one and may take several weeks to complete. Further, these traditional methods of CAD acquisition require the engineer to do a fair amount of work toward the creation of the CAD, in the form of communication, drawing, or programming.

Using CAD templates, available online and in CD-ROM format, is a convenient alternative to e-mailed or self-drawn CAD templates. For one, engineers can access them on their own, anywhere, anytime — and download the CAD template instantaneously. The process is direct and simple. The engineer logs onto the CD-ROM or web site, which represents either a single company, a supplier, or a consortium of companies, as in the case of The engineer selects a part by entering specifications or, in some cases, by typing in the part number, and accesses the CAD template for examination in two or three dimensions. He or she may pan the part, rotate the part, move it in multiple directions, or zoom in on particular features, such as the threads or diaphragm (Fig. 3). These functions occur on the web site or CD-ROM; no special software package is required. Then, if the part fits, the engineer can download the part into any of the major CAD modeling programs installed on his or her computer. From here, it is a familiar process of manipulating the various CAD templates to check fit, clearance, and functionality.

Besides speed and convenience, web-accessible CAD templates offer an additional and highly valued benefit — they are easier to maintain. Online CAD templates are not stored on the internet in the same way that a 2-D CAD drawing might be stored in a file cabinet. What is stored on the internet is not the drawing but the dimensions for the drawing — the latest dimensions provided by the manufacturer. On cue from the user, the program builds the CAD drawing and presents it to the user in three dimensions. If the user desires, he or she may request a made-to-order part by altering template dimensions to produce a slightly different drawing.

Because CD-ROM CAD templates are stored in a static format, they are even faster to search and download than internet versions. Also, most companies offer frequent updates. Companies are experiencing demand for CAD template CD-ROMs. CD-ROMs, like many web sites, offer multiple languages, including Spanish, French, and German.

A final consideration relating to CAD template acquisition is research — how does the engineer find the part in question if he or she does not know the part number or even the manufacturer? Without electronic tools, like the internet or CD-ROM, the process may be laborious. However, online tools put the engineer in the driver's seat with a dashboard of options for searching, either by manufacturer or part specifications. Search mechanisms on online CAD part libraries or on manufacturers' web sites provide a simple way to home in on the desired part based on product category or key parameters, such as materials of construction, dimensions, and end connections (Fig. 4). In fact, through sophisticated search engines, engineers may discover that their company has been "over-specifying" parts — in other words, buying and using parts with more expensive features than may be required for a given application.

Some companies provide component calculators, which are advanced search tools that allow users to determine the appropriate product based on system specifications, such as pressure range, temperature, media, specific gravity, flow, and many other criteria.

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If you have questions on downloadable CAD templates, contact the authors. Steve A. Sackett can be reached at 440-951-7100 or ; Tom Gubanc can be reached at 440-349-5934 or . Article edited by Jack Smith, Senior Editor, 630-288-8783, .

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