Changing files across the globe – An interview with Australia’s Colin Asplin

Perth, Western Australia, Australia — CAD Administrator Colin Asplin, of Perth, Western Australia, loves a challenge. Whether it’s paragliding, video editing or re-mapping hundreds of design files, he’s willing to take the jump. He took some time away from his job at Thyssenkrupp Engineering Australia (TKEA), and paragliding, to give us a rundown of what’s happening down under

In one afternoon, Colin Asplin updated every title block, mark number, part list and reference in 200 design files.

MicroStation Today: Tell us about yourself.
Colin: I’ve worked as a draftsman for nearly ten years, mostly with TKEA, although I’ve also worked a few years for BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. [Editor's note: BHP Billiton is a global leader in the resources industry (minerals and petroleum). Rio Tinto is a leading international mining group.]

My hobbies include paragliding, photography and video editing. I’ve recently developed a keen interest in programming VBA. [Editor's note: Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is a programming language built into many popular software packages, including Microsoft Office and MicroStation, that allows automation of tasks and creation of new features.]

For those of you who don’t know TKEA, we design and manufacture industrial mining equipment. We also have a division that specializes in mineral processing equipment for clients across Australia.

It was the diversity of the work TKEA engages in, and the opportunity to learn new skills, which lured me back to work for them 12 months ago. This time it was in the role of “CADD Administrator”.

Currently, Western Australia’s resource sector is experiencing unprecedented growth due to the global demand for iron ore, driven mostly by China, with many new projects being “fast-tracked” (using existing drawings wherever possible) to take advantage of the higher commodity prices.

MST: What are some of the problems you encounter in your position?
Colin: Our clients mostly use MicroStation as their standard CADD application. Virtually all [clients] have their own, often quite stringent, set of CADD standards that we’re obliged to adhere to when submitting drawings to them.

Years of simply adopting client standards on each project, combined with a lack of our own CADD standard, has definitely reduced the efficiency and competitiveness of our drawing office in the long term. The industry boom we’re experiencing is exacerbating the problem as we struggle to reuse, or “fast-track”, our legacy data for new projects, with limited resources and time.

It was clear that for TKEA to remain competitive in the marketplace, we had to remove ourselves from exclusively using client standards in the future by developing and adopting our own set of CADD standards.

This has placed an increasingly heavy reliance on accurate and expedient conversion of drawings between CADD standards and also between platforms (MicroStation to AutoCAD for example). As CADD administrator, it falls on my shoulders to ensure these conversions are done in the most cost-efficient and timely manner.

One of the first decisions I made was to purchase [MicroStation] Productivity Toolkit. Its arsenal of ready-made tools has proven time and again to be extremely useful in all our conversions between DWG and DGN formats.

One of my favorite utilities in the Toolkit stable is Global File Changer. I’ve found it to be exceptionally versatile, and I’ve come to rely on it to do many of the conversion and re-mapping tasks that need to be done — whether they’re simple tasks performed on a single file, or complicated tasks to be executed across hundreds of files.

A recent example was a job that required the renaming and numbering of approximately 200 design files. Every title block, mark number, part list and reference number within the drawings had to be cross-referenced to new numbers and physically changed, including some common, non-standard variations. (A mark number is a numerical descriptor for a sub-assembly of parts used within a main assembly. For example, a mark number on a drawing should be written like this: MK A-084M08276. However some variations commonly found in design files include: MK A_F084M08276, MK F084M08276-A or even MK A-08276.)

In truth, the hardest part of the whole process was mapping the drawing numbers (old numbers changed to new numbers) inside a spreadsheet (that was done by the Lead Engineer). Once the original spreadsheet was given to me, I basically copied the original into separate spreadsheets and, using basic search and replace tools, created the variation lists. These were lists of the possible variations, like the variations mentioned for mark numbers earlier. I then appended them to the original spreadsheet. The rest was quite easy using Global File Changer’s built-in text replacement feature.

Admittedly, I did have to re-work the mapping table [spreadsheet] quite a bit. This included adding common number variations to the mapping table to handle the variations from our standards that might be in the design files. The number variations in the design files were just slight differences in the way numbers were written. For example, two CAD users using the same bolt in their designs, one may have written the part number with hyphens and the other may have written it without hyphens.

Then I saved the file as a simple .txt (text file) so that Global File Changer could import it.

In this job, there were 500 to 600 lines in the re-mapping [text] file that Global File Changer imported, which had to be applied to the batch of 200 design files. Within an afternoon, every number in all of the 200 plus drawings was correctly updated to reflect the new project numbers! I’ve since repeated this on two more projects, with the latest being composed entirely of DWG files, saving us literally hundreds of hours.

The project manager was surprised at how quickly the job was done. He told me that a few weeks earlier, he’d spent the best part of a day manually processing five drawings for the client presentation and the client found an error on first drawing he looked at.

I’m still finding new uses for Global File Changer. When used in conjunction with your VBA or MDL skills, there’s very little you cannot do in a short amount of time!

I’d definitely recommend Toolkit to any CADD Manager who frequently needs to edit or update large drawing sets of DGN or DWG files. I haven’t calculated the savings yet, but we achieved a positive ROI [Return on Investment] with Toolkit from practically the first project we used it on.

[Paragliding is] one of the easiest and cheapest was to fulfill the dream of flight,” says Colin Asplin.

MST: What would you like to be doing in ten years?
Colin: Okay, that’s easy. Like most people, I guess, I’d like to be financially independent enough to be able to spend my time on my passion in life. In my case, that would be paragliding!

“What’s paragliding?” you ask.

It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to flying like a bird and, luckily, it’s also one of the easiest and cheapest ways to fulfill the dream of flight too. If you’ve ever dreamt of flying but thought you couldn’t afford to, or that it’s too hard — think again! If you’re interested, there’s a ton of info on the web, just Google “paragliding” and take a look!

You can also view a few of my videos on YouTube.

MST: What’s a book you wish you’d written?
Colin: Polymer-Layered Silicate and Silica Nanocomposites by Ke and Stroeve. Okay, I’m just kidding. There are so many books I’d love to be talented, smart or interesting enough to have written, I couldn’t possibly list them all. I guess the final book of the Harry Potter series springs to mind. I think J.K. Rowling is an incredibly gifted author.

MST: What do you predict will be the “next big thing” in CAD?
Colin: It would probably be easier for me to write a bestseller (no chance!) than predict this. However, I’ve noticed a few trends, with the most notable being the global shift in engineering to embrace collaborative technologies and solutions.

This is being fuelled by a hyper-competitive global marketplace and is made possible with new web and communication technologies. The ability to manage and share data quickly between business units, customers and with downstream processing has been identified as being a critical driver of business performance, and some would argue business survival.

For CADD and engineering applications, this inevitably means a continued drive towards more “open” formats and architectures that allow data transfer between applications with minimal data loss.

An open format requires an accepted, published standard. For example, without the web standards and guidelines created by the W3C since 1994, the development and usefulness of the Internet today could not have occurred. [Editor's note: the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is an international association of organizations where member organizations, a full-time staff and the public work together to develop web standards.]

I think once this occurs in the CADD industry, we’ll begin to see some exciting and truly innovative developments. Bentley has long recognized this with the excellent interoperability of DGN and DWG in MicroStation V8, and has extended this further with MicroStation XM by including Google Earth technology and support for PDF attachments.

What’s the next big thing?

Who knows, but hopefully I’ll be around in the industry long enough to see “virtual 3D”, where the engineering is done in virtual reality! Now that would be cool! Just imagine the internal debates of whether or not to go “virtual”, or stick with “traditional” 3D. It may not be as far off as we think.

As for 2D, “What’s that again?”

MST: Thanks, Colin.

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