A Dialog about AutoCad Layers

I am anal about layers. I admit it. My drawings typically have up to about 300 of them, and if I have my druthers, they are mapped to the PWGSC (Public Works & Government Services Canada) layer standard. They don’t scare me – largely because I have customization that makes them easy to handle – and take advantage of.


The AutoCad Layer Palette

Translate this to the AutoCad working environment, and it can be a bit of a problem. Not so long ago, the boffins at Autodesk introduced the Layer Palette, which actively scans and updates while it is on or active – even while docked. It was one of those things that appeared magically with a new AutoCad version, and seemed cool at the beginning. Gradually I noticed how sluggish things were becoming during normal AutoCad operations, like switching between open drawings. I am currently using version 2015 with an Intel i7-based PC and high-end graphics card – and it seems to make no difference.  The way AutoCad was handling the layers seemed to be inefficient.  I could highlight some layers and try to change their bylayer colour – and wait for it to respond before it presented the colour dialog box.  I noticed that sometimes it helped if I closed down AutoCad and restarted it – flushing memory perhaps?

So I threw the question up on the Autodesk Forum – and soon the answer was forthcoming from a marvelous contributor: Dean Saadallah. He “reminded” me of the AutoCad variable LAYERDLGMODE (which I had never heard of) and advised that if I were to set it to zero, it would turn off the Layer Palette, and return my world to the CLASSICLAYER interface. And all of the problems went away. Selecting 40 odd layers at once to freeze them or whatever is now very fast – and I am happy. A downside is that you cannot dock the old layer dialog box – but I can live with that.


The Classic Layer Dialog Box

I can see why a live and dockable interface would be useful and funky – but it has to be written around efficient code – something that perhaps caches the layer information? Perhaps it already does that – but whatever methodology being used, it isn’t what I need it to be.


Life Experience via Cessna Citation

I often think back to March 2015 and one of life’s better experiences – the day I spent visiting the NAD Klima factory in Sherbrooke, Quebec. I received a call a week or so earlier from a good buddy Chris who works in the HVAC Sales trade – asking me if I would like to visit the factory (possibly) and oh: just so you know, we will be travelling via a privately leased Cessna Citation (absolutely). So early on the morning of March 19th I drove to Ottawa International Airport and headed to an area I had never been before – where the private jets reside. Entering the small office area I was greeted at a reception desk with smiles and a newspaper – you can wait in the lounge for the others to arrive. It was a bright and clear blue day and a glance out the window revealed our chariot for the day, all gleaming white in the early morning sun. After a short while my peers arrived and after a brief chat with the pilot and copilot, the six of use were able to walk out to the aircraft with a refreshing lack of security checks.


Having never been in a small passenger jet before, this was an exciting experience I assure you.  These aircraft are strikingly small in diameter, made very obvious by the way Chris didn’t quite fit into his seat without leaning a bit into the aisle. Another thing that was striking was the lack of any locked door separating us from the cockpit – I was able to turn around and speak with the pilot easily, his seat being only about 6 feet away from mine. And then there was the take-off – the thrust-to-weight ratio has to be experienced to be believed because this thing took off like a rocket – the take off roll was short and the ascent was steep and fast.


Getting back to business, we weren’t there just for fun and games – this was a trip to visit the NAD factory, and primarily learn about the NAD High-Induction line of diffusers. Before this trip I confess I knew little about these and was keen to see why I should use them. We were picked up from the tiny Sherbrooke airport and driven to the factory in a large SUV – and I was immediately reminded how driving styles differ in Ontario and Quebec. The Citation was not the only vehicle having impressive speed on this day. Soon after arriving at the factory we were settled into a fine meeting room decked out with product and multimedia. Seated around the large table, we were taken through all aspects of the NAD diffuser and what makes it special. I was impressed to hear about its virtually self-balancing characteristics, excellent performance at variable air volume conditions, and high customer satisfaction statistics. We were then shown around the factory which is cleverly kitted out with a number of test rigs at high level that demonstrate (with the aid of smoke generators) the induction and throw characteristics of the various diffuser models. By the end of our time in the factory, I had decided that there simply is no good reason NOT to use diffusers of this type – and my HVAC design work since then takes full advantage.

The drive back to the airport was equally hair-raising and on entering the Citation for the flight home, we were all happy when the copilot opened a cupboard that divulged all manner of in-flight goodies like shots of whiskey and a regular smorgasbord of snacks. This was a fine way to wind down what was a spectacular day out with my peers, some of whom are shown below on the flight home.



Let’s Edit PDF’s

For over a year now, I have been working on a contract with a local Crown Corporation to survey the waste pipe systems in nearly all of the buildings on their main Ottawa site. The waste piping below the site streets was installed in the mid 20th century and it is a combined sewer with both storm and sanitary effluent mixing before eventually heading east towards the main Ottawa sewage treatment plant. My client intends to replace all of this waste piping and split it into two dedicated systems below the roads, storm and sanitary. Each building on the site generally has sanitary waste discharging into one or two septic tanks, with (mainly) water leaving these tanks, and joining a main rainwater storm pipe leaving the building.

My task is to survey everything inside the buildings – to make sure that there have not been any potentially disastrous cross-connections over the years. The theory being that if the new sanitary piping leaving a building is sized based on potential usage – possibly NPS 6 – and a whopping similar storm drain is connected to that system inside the building – we could have a problem. You may be thinking “where are the record drawings” and quite rightly you have guessed that these do exist. The original building drawings date on average from about 1945, back when drafting was a profession – they are largely masterpieces of yesteryear. Gradually all of the drawings have been scanned to PDF – that wondrous file format that we tend to take for granted these days.

This being said, things inevitably get missed. Responsibility for updating drawings to “as-built” condition is rarely taken as seriously as it warrants, and companies cannot afford the luxury of technicians to perform this task. Often the actual designer gets handed a set of contractor marked-up prints about 3 months after the project is complete – and these sometimes get misplaced. SO anyway I have been studying thousands of original PDF’s gleaning what I can about the base building systems, transferring these to AutoCad, and then wandering through the bowels of the buildings with mini-plots at hand. Luckily back in the mid 40’s, the drawings were beautiful as stated, and contractors tended to install things exactly as drawn. Not like modern day when contractors often install systems in an entirely different (and perhaps more economical) fashion.

A prime example of a cross-connection was revealed last month when I was starting my surveys in the main boiler house on the site. I informed the guy in charge what I was up to, and he walked me across to the back of the main floor and pointed at a floor drain next to some menacing looking pumps: “Whenever we get heavy rain, water pours out of this floor drain, and floods this entire area“. Interesting I thought and sure enough, a day or so later of wandering around at high level revealed that a main rainwater leader drops about 40 feet down the building, only to turn horizontal below these pumps, and instantaneously become a sanitary drain. The one that the floor drain connects to. So 40 feet of head rushing down manages to go backwards through the trap, and floods the floor. Added to my list of required corrections as you might imagine.

This is leading me back to those thousands of scanned PDF’s. I have relied upon the excellent Adobe Reader (latest version at time of writing is DC) for years – because it displays a PDF quickly and allows you to zoom around it and pan it and mark it up with ease. However – it does not allow you to “tweak it”, which is often what I need to do. We have to remember that the person manually scanning thousands of original drawings is likely to get bored with the task, and might not always make sure that the drawing is “straight” in the scanner. Consequently there are many PDF’s that are a little skewed – enough to annoy me anyway. Also there are many PDF’s that have too much white space around the drawing border and it would be nice to crop them back a bit. Not with Adobe Reader DC.

After months of not editing bad scans, I eventually downloaded a trial of Adobe Acrobat DC, expecting it to do everything I needed it to do. Alas even with the monthly pricing plan to contend with, I was sad to find that I could only rotate a PDF by 90 degree increments – when I typically need to just tweak them about 2 degrees left or right. The trial version was rejected after about an hour. I am not trying to criticise what has to be a superb product here; I am just saying I could not get it to do what I needed.

So I went on the hunt for a full-featured PDF editor that would not break the bank. It turns out that these are not that easy to find and only a chance conversation at a friend’s office introduced me to PDF-XChange Editor. It looked promising so I did some research and this product proved to do everything I needed – and plenty more I don’t. The price is very reasonable, and it turns out that this software is produced by a Canadian company out of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Now it is my default PDF viewer, and anytime I load a (nasty) PDF that needs some cleaning up, I do that on the fly. It even allows you to customize the toolbars, and the printing interface is far better than what I had been used to – such as Print Current View being available from the main print dialog box (not embedded deeper).

PDF-XChange Editor

I highly recommend this product, cheers.

Hands Off My Digitizer

The Workspace

The Rodders workspace – in all its glory. Note the usual amount of stickies and other paraphernalia without which I could not function in this life.

So back in 1988 or so when I first experienced AutoCad, a typical CAD Station cost a whopping $5,000 CDN, and consisted of a 286 DOS-based PC (if you were lucky), an ugly and heavy monitor, a keyboard, and a Digitizer. Sometimes referred to as tablets, they were the de facto pointing device for AutoCad, which expected their presence. That’s one on the left of this photo. Instead of a mouse, you moved the “puck” across the surface of the digitizer, which assuming the puck was located correctly, also moved the crosshairs on the CAD monitor. It all made perfect sense and allowed for accuracy of movement on the screen.  Not to mention myriad possibilities for picking commands – but more later. AutoCad was DOS-based and from what I remember, it was very fast.

The Microsoft Windows environment evolved into its earliest practical forms and with this came the gradual adoption of a mouse as the default pointing device. Software developers started making their products more Windows “compliant” and added more and more icons, plus the standard set of drop-down menus we all come to expect in the Windows environment – FILE on the left and so on. Autodesk soon joined the masses and altered the AutoCad interface for mouse use – to the demise of the lowly digitizer. Soon there were piles of disused tablets to be found in CAD offices – relegated as scrap in the name of progress.

The Digitizer

So take a closer look at my digitizer.  It is 12×12″ in size, and has a 16 button puck. In the centre of the digitizer there is a rectangle that I designate as the actual “screen” on my monitor.  Everything surrounding that screen area is littered with actual commands to AutoCad – either simple commands like “LINE”, or calls to LISP routines I use on a regular basis.  The entire surface of the digitizer is actually programmable by the user and you can make any point on the unit correspond to any command you choose. That is actually an AutoCad drawing under the puck – a drawing I originally created back in 1988 – and have evolved steadily for more than 25 years.

So what advantage does it give me over mouse users? Ignoring the entirely customizable interface, I can achieve so many things with just one click with this device, that others might have to delve into screen menus to find. It could be argued that with the introduction of the “Ribbon”, all of this could be transferred to the screen. Like inserting particular blocks for instance. BUT I don’t want this stuff cluttering my screen space. It just isn’t efficient.

AutoCad still supports digitizers, but it refers to them as Legacy devices. This worries me because something tells me that any day now, they will drop support for them altogether.  Another problem is that while AutoCad recognizes the digitizer as a WINTAB Pointing Device, the drivers packed within AutoCad are not enough to allow efficient use of the device on their own. All of us digitizer users have been relying on drivers created by the now defunct Digitizer Technology – drivers that allow for the programming of individual areas of the tablet surface.  Without these, the tablet is just a pointing device. It turns out that the gentleman who wrote the drivers managed to patent them and had a virtual monopoly for many years. Recently he passed away and has left many of us wondering where to get drivers from… (I take great care of my Windows 7 PC and might need to keep it running for another few years unless new drivers appear – possibly Calcomp will produce something early in 2016).

I have been using AutoCad basically the same way for most of my career. It is a brilliant product and is largely responsible for giving me a good living. However, each time Autodesk releases the next version, I like many of my peers roll my eyes and wonder what they have changed this time – and what it will mean when I try to use my standard set of LISP routines. There have been so many releases of the product since 1988 that I have lost track – and certainly ignore a large amount of commands available – my world generally involving the creation of 2D drawings.

Perhaps by the time they remove support for the digitizer, I will have decided to put my feet up, and have a long nap.