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AutoCAD revamp aims to cut out paper

Software maker Autodesk is set to launch an update to its flagship drafting application that is designed to make it easier for owners to use digital documents instead of paper.

Software maker Autodesk wants to write off paper with a new version of its flagship drafting application AutoCAD.

The San Rafael, Calif.-based company is expected to unveil on Monday AutoCAD 2004, which includes a number of changes aimed at making electronic versions of building plans and other architectural documents easier to store and share, as well as cheaper to use than paper rivals.

Typically, architects create plans with AutoCAD and then print them as blueprints when the information needs to be shared, said Eric Stover, product manager for AutoCAD.

Keeping design documents in their electronic format throughout the process can save time and money and improve the flow of information, said Stover. Instead of working from a second-generation set of blueprints, a construction supervisor would have access to electronic documents that clearly display the architect's ideas and intentions.

"AutoCAD was the spark that transformed the architectural industry 20 years ago," he said. "Now we're looking at how...we leverage those improvements further downstream in the building process."

Enabling consistent use of electronic documents has become a major plank in Autodesk's business strategy, and AutoCAD 2004 spearheads this push with a number of new features.

Architects can now save all drawings for a project in a single file using the new DWF format. DWF documents can be transferred securely using new e-mail features, such as digital signatures, and be viewed by anyone using the free Autodesk Express Viewer.

The upshot is that architects can e-mail documents to clients and partners, in many cases, rather than having to send blueprints via overnight mail--speeding up the design process and cutting costs, said Stover.

"Obviously, paper's never going away in our industry," he said. "But there are a lot of cases where customers don't need to send blueprints--they can send electronic versions. A lot of the overhead on a project goes to shipping and blueprint handling, so you're talking about a lot of potential savings."

Autodesk has also streamlined the DWG format AutoCAD uses for most documents, so that files come in at about half the size they would with the previous version of the application. That not only makes it easier to e-mail documents, Stover said, but encourages architects to include more in their files.

"By having the file size cut in half, they can put more and more data into their design," he said. "Things that would normally end up on sticky notes, Excel spreadsheets, pencil marks on a blueprint--those can be incorporated in the document."

AutoCAD 2004 also includes expanded text-editing tools; expanded management and licensing tools for IT administrators responsible for multiple AutoCAD desktops; and support for portable computers based on Microsoft's Tablet PC format.

"Architects are very excited about being able to take their work out into the field," Stover said. "Whether this is used for production-level drafting remains to be seen, but we wanted to get in there early with support for Tablet PC."

Release dates for AutoCAD 2004 and AutoCAD LT 2004, the 2D version of the product for light-duty users, will be announced later. The products will be available as standalone products or as part of Autodesk's subscription programs.