Needs must

There is no substitute for formal software training. Not only does it keep you up to pace with advances in technology, it can also improve productivity. Charles Clarke reports.

There is a strong misconception that if your CAD/CAM product looks like Microsoft Word it is easy to use and you don’t need training.

If anything, if your software looks like other Microsoft products, training is essential for you to use it effectively. The same goes for Word and Excel. It’s fairly well accepted that 90 per cent of Word users use only about 20 per cent of the product. How many Word users do you know who are not looking at the standard white-on-blue Windows desktop or who don’t know how to change the contents of the ‘right-hand click’ shortcut menus, let alone how to use them effectively?

Competent CAD-literate engineers can teach themselves how to use Microsoft Windows-based CAD software, but it’s very difficult to escape from the 90 per cent/20 per cent trap in isolation.

Jonathan Butters knows this all too well. In the early days after setting up Jab Design Consultancy his focus was solely on his profit margin, which he has now come to regret. ‘We were involved in designing a range of street furniture. If only we’d gone to the training course sooner we could have done the work much more easily. The street furniture consisted of similar products mounted on different lengths of steelwork that was cut, welded or rolled.

‘We could have specified these families of products much more easily as spreadsheets, parts lists and bills-of-materials and effectively modularised the entire design rather than creating individual models and individual drawings every time. This would have speeded up the process significantly and reduced errors – 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.’

‘One of the less obvious benefits of training is good design discipline. The models we produce are much more cohesive and logically ordered,’ said Butters.

‘We can bring in a client, who sits next to the designer and changes dimensions of elements deep in the feature tree. We will quite happily do it without having to cross our fingers and toes that the model will regenerate, because we have confidence in our modelling techniques. Good training leads to good design discipline and even those users who haven’t yet been on the formal training benefit from the good discipline of those who have.’

‘If you bring people together with software and you charge for the output, you have to optimise your use of the software,’ said Butters.

‘The only way you become good at using design software is by using it all the time and having the insight to know what is possible with the product – the latter can only be properly achieved on a training course.’

‘Being self-taught you can probably be as good as 80 per cent of other users, but it’s that 20 per cent that’s difficult to achieve,’ concluded Butters. ‘You can probably charge more for your work and you can provide a much better level of service with respect to speed, quality of delivery and integration of the higher-level features that make for good CAD modelling.’

Another benefit of training is that you learn how to model effectively on your own CAD/CAM product. To be truly productive in your system of choice you need to forget all you ever learned of other systems and get to know how to use your own product to its best possible advantage.

You also need continuous training because most quality CAD/CAM products change frequently. In addition, it’s good to get offsite and experience other ways of doing things, or just talk to other people who use your product in slightly different ways. Often you can learn as much from the guy sitting next to you on a training course as you can from the guy standing at the front.

According to Steve Whitby, a design engineer responsible for several CAD/CAM implementations, ‘As I witnessed the latest implementation, it soon became apparent that my own ability and efficiency in operating the software left room for improvement.’

‘Since my initial training in 1997 the software had developed beyond all recognition, but I had not. The functionality and efficiency of software is continually being developed and I have long learned that to make the most of the considerable investment in software, the operators need to be developed in parallel with the code.’

As your competence increases with the product you need a different kind of training – on new features or faster, slicker ways of operating. Most CAD resellers provide this kind of training or would be happy to quote for it.

For most products, the price of training has stayed relatively stable at around £300 per day. Obviously as the product gets more complicated, longer training sessions are required. But most vendors do deals. When petrol is nearly 90p a litre, £300 per day seems like a steal to learn how to reduce your ‘time to profit’.