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ECM: Handling the complexities of CAD

This article appears in the issue October 2007, [Vol 16, Issue 9]
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The U.S. economy is now considered to be knowledge-based, with much of its value derived from intellectual capital and service activities. However, even a knowledge-based economy depends on a physical infrastructure supported by energy, transportation and other tangible components. For those industries, much of the knowledge resides not in words but in pictures. Computer-aided design (CAD) documents provide vital information for constructing, operating, maintaining and repairing those facilities. Keeping the documents current and accessible is a task that is now being made easier with enterprise content management (ECM) systems, which can handle complex files.

Suncor Energy is an integrated energy company headquartered in Alberta. Recognized this year by Fortune magazine for its environmentally responsible practices, Suncor has a major oil sands operation at Fort McMurray in Alberta to extract and upgrade oil sands; a natural gas exploration and production program; refineries in Denver and in Sarnia, Ontario; and several alternative energy development projects.

CAD-enabled ECM

Because of its extensive engineering, operations and maintenance activities, Suncor has thousands of files produced by AutoCAD, a computer-aided design application from Autodesk. When Suncor decided to purchase an ECM system several years ago, one of the requirements was that it be able to manage the CAD drawings.

After considering the available options, Suncor selected Livelink ECM from Open Text as its document repository. "Livelink was the best match for our needs based on our evaluation criteria," says Kevin Flynn, manager of document control, major projects, at Suncor. "It stores our reports, procedures, minutes and other documents, and also handles our CAD files."

Access to drawings

The files are stored in both native format and PDF in the Livelink master vault. Those files are the documents of record when a design or modification is completed. For viewing purposes, 2-D drawings in native format can be seen using AutoVue Professional from Cimmetry Systems. Because some of the files associated with 3-D drawings are not viewable using AutoVue, 3-D documents are converted to PDF for storage and viewing.

Suncor employees who access CAD drawings through Livelink range from maintenance people to equipment operators and construction crews.

"There was a learning curve," reports Flynn, "but the system is quite user-friendly. A maintenance person on site who needs to change out a piece of equipment can look at the drawing and see what should be put in place."

When a request for a drawing revision is made, the native drawing is downloaded to the Livelink project folder and modified in AutoCAD. "The current revisions are kept in a project folder," Flynn says, "and then the final version is processed to the Livelink master vault." Drawings are also "redlined" (marked with changes in the field), and a scanned version is placed in the Livelink project folder. The changes are later drafted into AutoCAD.

One change that Suncor is considering is a switch to Livelink’s CADManager for viewing 3-D drawings. "This module can present all the files associated with a 3-D drawing," says Flynn, "and would eliminate the need for PDF conversion in the case of displaying a native AutoCAD file."

Although managing PDF files poses no special challenges for an ECM system, managing the files associated with CAD documents does. "There are particular requirements around managing CAD files," says Chris Vassalotti, director of business solutions at Open Text. For example, the file may contain a mix of structured data, such as a title block, and unstructured data, such as parts numbers written throughout a document. The system must be able to distinguish between the two and index the data accordingly.

The real challenge

In addition, many CAD drawings contain numerous reference files; a composite drawing is rendered by pulling in other component files. "A door that is drawn once and stored as a file may appear in multiple floor plans," Vassalotti notes. "The ECM system must be able to connect the door image to all the associated drawings." If a specification changes, the door can then be located throughout all the affected drawings.

Getting the primary file into an ECM system is the least of the challenges, according to Vassalotti, who explains, "The real story is what you can do with it afterward."

Any time a critical component in an oil or chemical plant changes, OSHA Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals (29 CFR 1910.119) becomes applicable, requiring a change management process to ensure safety. "When engineering content is in an ECM system," Vassalotti says, "workflow controls and auditing tools can be used to manage the process."

Although some of the higher-end engineering applications do have that ability, many individuals who need the information are not trained on the applications, which have complex interfaces and proprietary files. One important goal of using an ECM system is to make the content accessible to a broader range of users.

Leveraging ECM

CAD files can also be managed by running a specialized application on top of an ECM system. Hess—a global, integrated energy company—had been a FileNet (now an IBM company) customer for 15 years, but was open to using whatever platform worked most effectively with Enterprise Engineer (EE) from McLaren Software. In 2006, the IT department at Hess had carried out an evaluation to select software for managing its technical documents, and considered McLaren to be the leader in the space.

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