Engineering documentation — that pile of paper drawings that we love to hate. We’d really like to clean out our files, but we’re equally afraid we might need something that’s there. Our younger engineering brothers and sisters, who cut their milk teeth on digital toys, think we’re an anachronism.
“Let them laugh,” we say. “The day will come when they’ll need one of those drawings.” (My wife says the same thing about all the shoes in her closet (but that’s another story.)
So, am I clinging to a dusty memory? Or is there some validity to my way of thinking? Can we really put new life into our old drawings?
Lowest Common Denominator and Long Lifecycle Products
One reason why we seasoned engineers cling to our drawings is that you can go anywhere with a drawing; you can derive all the information that you need from a drawing. Traditional drawings are the lowest common denominator, universally accessible, so we continue to hang onto them. This is particularly true for drawings used to design, develop and equip products with long life cycles: aircraft, factory machinery, heavy equipment, and the like.
Take the aircraft as an example…
These long lifecycle purchases represent a 20 to a 30-year commitment that begins with the acquisition of an airplane and continues throughout its operation, maintenance, and modification, and doesn’t end until the airplane is eventually transitioned out of service. This lengthy commitment means that the manufacturer must maintain documentation and drawings in order to provide long-term customer support, including:
- operational performance
The Engineering Documentation Quandary
While the time of 2D drawings has come and gone, some industries are forced to retain them. They represent the heart of a design era when we distilled our 3D reality onto sheets of paper with representations of dimensioning and orthography. Yet today so much has changed¦
We design in 3D. We see our designs with a virtual reality that looks nearly identical to what we see in real life. Product Manufacturing Information (PMI), 3D Modeling and Simulation have made paper drawings lifeless representations of design — ¦EXCEPT when we need a part for a 20-year-old plane or machine.
If you find yourself reaching for some of those old drawings more often as products age, then it’s a worthwhile exercise to recreate those most frequently used 2D drawings in 3D. It’ll save you time going forward. By converting 2D drawings to 3D CAD, you can use them over and over, ensuring that the parts fit correctly, making modifications quickly and calculating accurate assembly mass properties. Since most CNC routers today accept 3D information, the machine shop will appreciate your conversion as well.
If you don’t want to take the time to convert the drawings yourself, there are many bureaus that offer 2D-to-3D model conversion.
Have an Archiving Plan
Beyond the one-off conversion of drawings as needed, consider your overall plan for archival or abandonment of the filed data. Any firm that continues to store needed drawings in paper format is courting disaster. A better recommendation is to have the drawings scanned by a service bureau and archived as TIFF or PDF files. They can be stored in the Cloud, accessible as needed. Cloud storage is relatively inexpensive these days.