Getting from CAD to GIS: Perspectives from the Autodesk Geospatial User Community

By Joe Francica

Chris Bradshaw, vice president of Autodesk's Infrastructure Division, spent some time helping users understand their current software environment, specifically how they are using Autodesk software relative to the solutions that the company offers. By dividing users into certain levels, the goal is to help them better determine a migration path to ever-increasing data management capabilities. He classifies users into five levels of software usage.

Level 1 - AutoCAD only users who are capturing geometric CAD data but do not georeference the information. There are possibly tens of thousands of users at this level.

Level 2 - Users who have migrated CAD data to Map 3D to begin the process of integrating geospatial capabilities.

Level 3 - Users who are taking CAD and GIS data and classifying them with extensive feature attribution. Bradshaw views this as the most critical stage in project development and perhaps the most time consuming.

Level 4 - Users who move a file-based system into a spatial database. This may be the least complex from an IT standpoint.

Level 5 - Users who are moving data from a GIS to other enterprise systems to enable organizations to leverage the full investment in geospatial data. These systems might include the organization's ERP or CRM. Data is now shared across multiple departments.

Bradshaw believes that there are 300,000 licenses of AutoCAD or AutoCAD LT that are used for mapping with the understanding that, as the scheme of levels above describes, there are different stages of user maturation and that market dynamics sometimes affect software usage. As such, he believes that as many as 50% of his users may be skewed in the range between levels one to three.

Representatives from the city of Tacoma, Washington and the Las Vegas Water Valley (LVWV) discussed, from a user's perspective, current implementations.

Nine years ago LVWV had separate CAD and GIS groups. The CAD group was doing most of the mapping work and the GIS division was handling the as-builts environment only. A decision was then made to build GIS-CAD interoperability, which reaped huge benefits but the process used in-house-developed software to accomplish the task. It was important to maintain a CAD model. LVWV is now pursuing the use of Autodesk's Topobase. The key business drivers to implement Topobase were the need to manage the geometric network and to help understand errors in display models telling them when drawings were not connected.

Eventually the in-house software was replaced with Topobase due to smaller code base. Topobase performs the job of GIS/CAD interoperability. LVWV realized a huge savings in the management of the system by going from 41,000 lines of code to 8,000 lines of code. The resulting return on investment was the saving of two hours per person when handling work order requests. Many more requests are being handled with fewer people and the payback for investing in the application was realized within six months. They have seen a 20% improvement in task completion and 15% savings in data quality issues.

The LVWV CAD/GIS group is responsible for 150-plus work orders each month. Field crews do redlines in the field, which help populate the database. The group is not just maintaining engineering records but can now engage in using more spatial information. Other divisions within the organization have begun to use geospatial technology. Some departments can go to a portal to access data. LVWV has integrated spatial technology with their PeopleSoft system. The Customer Service division is one of the biggest users of the system because it integrates customer names and addresses.

LVWV's current challenges include dealing with additional data requirements for asset management. They are going through a database review to prepare for long-term asset management. They have built an interface between SDE and Topobase that is managed by Oracle. For now, they will support both SDE and Oracle as they have a bi-directional translator between SDE and Topobase. The LVWV representative commented that he believes Oracle Spatial is an amazing piece of technology and he is seriously considering making that the primary database.

Tacoma, Washington
The city of Tacoma manages its geospatial data with Oracle Spatial. Data are used throughout the community for both government and commercial projects and to operate a community Web portal. The city manager understands that technology is not something that you purchase once but something that you continue to build upon. The city GIS department personnel feel they are staying in step with current technology. However, workforce development is an ongoing process in order to introduce the concept of geospatial projects. Storing data in Oracle Spatial gives easy access to MapGuide and the other in-house software such as ESRI. The city is currently undergoing a pilot program in 3D visualization.

My Take on Autodesk's CAD to GIS Vision
From my discussions with Bradshaw, Autodesk seems likely to build its base of users for its geospatial technology through the plan he is offering users as discussed above. But there are some expected bumps in the road.

If, as Bradshaw mentioned, there are many users who have yet to convert to Map 3D, what's holding them back? If it's technical, then perhaps some just don't want to tackle the conversion process. If it's political, it may be that some have already committed to going with another vendor like ESRI where the installed base of users is compelling. Why not maintain CAD drawings in AutoCAD while deploying another geospatial software solution for other applications?

When shown these levels by Bradshaw and his team, one user commented that his group was still at level "one-half". If that's the case, Autodesk may have a long road ahead. Or, looked at in a different way, they may have a steady stream of customers for a long time to come.

Personally, I like the vision because it shows a clear differentiation between levels. However, if I had any recommendation, it would be that a clearer understanding of time and costs should be associated with each level. For example, if I'm migrating 1,000 drawing files to Map 3D, how long will it take? If I'm migrating from Map 3D to Oracle Spatial, how much would a license for 10 users cost? Perhaps Autodesk is already doing this, but these are obvious questions to which I'd want answers. Is the "vision" just another way to sell product? That, and more, I hope; if not they're in the wrong business.
[Disclosure: Autodesk paid for travel and lodging for this event.]

Published Friday, December 8th, 2006

Written by Joe Francica

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