Like many busy people who neglect to clean the garage, I will eventually sort through the piles on my workbench to keep the mess at bay. As a reward, I will occasionally find some treasures, such as forgotten projects or lost tools. Unfortunately, I may also discover something important that should have been repaired or a bill that never got paid. There’s nothing worse than getting into trouble with my household because I failed to keep myself organized.
Computer systems are notorious for collecting “treasures,” just as my garage workbench is. One of the main causes of this disorganization is the multiple files that any CAD system will generate. Without an organized file system in place that is used consistently, CAD files can quickly become overwhelming piles of lost treasures. To help, here are some best practices for organizing your CAD system that I’ve used over the years to keep myself out of trouble.
Common Problems with Disorganized CAD Drawings and Other Files
Of all the computer programs that I have worked with, PCB CAD systems generate the most significant number of various files. I’m not talking about the system files, just those generated from day-to-day work. Here are some examples:
- Database files
- CAD library files
- Configuration files
- Schematic drawing files
- NC drill and routing files
- Circuit board artwork files
There can be multiple instances of any of these examples, plus many others we haven’t mentioned, including read-me, aperture, template, and manufacturing files. Once you start designing several projects or update existing designs with new versions or revisions, the files will only multiply. If you don’t put an organizational system in soon, here are some of the problems that you’ll encounter:
- Unable to find your work. If you don’t have an organized file structure for your CAD projects, you may be unable to locate your regular work files. They may get saved to a different location or have an unrecognizable name. Usually, CAD systems have default locations for saving files, but if those haven’t been set up correctly, you’ll be searching through many different piles in your computer for them.
- Overwritten files. Without the proper file structure for your CAD projects, you run the risk of important work being inadvertently overwritten. Other users may not understand which files they should be working on, and you may accidentally open up or overwrite a file. CAD systems will protect you to some extent by using automatic file versioning, but that won’t help if someone renames or deletes files they shouldn’t.
- Other users can’t find or access designs. This problem frequently happens when people use their user accounts to store CAD files and drawings. Depending on their file permissions, other users may not access or even view the data. On the other hand, user accounts wide open on CAD libraries or database archives invite disaster by leaving their files unprotected.
To protect your CAD files and yourself from costly file recovery efforts, here are four best practices for file organization that can help.
Four Best Practices for Organizing Your CAD System
While these aren’t the only methods for organizing and protecting valuable CAD files, they should give you a starting point to come up with a system.
1. File structures
The configuration of the file structure you create isn’t nearly as important as having a file structure in place. Many design shops have a network drive with a “Projects” directory. Underneath the main “Projects” directory is all of the individual design directories. This structure allows file permissions to be set up so only designated users can access the project’s directory. For larger companies, it may be necessary to create multiple project directories to simplify design organization for the users. Corporate libraries should also be set up similarly, with different directories for symbols, footprints, and other library elements.
2. Naming conventions
Designs can be named with their part number or their board name. My personal preference is to use part numbers so that the databases can be separated easily by dash numbers or revisions. Library naming conventions depend on how your specific company catalogs the parts. For those companies that have a proprietary part number system for components, those values should be used where appropriate, while smaller companies may use the vendor part numbers instead. Drawings and other manufacturing files usually use an abbreviated part number and file description for their naming convention.
3. Archival process
There is a distinction between backups and archives, which your users need to understand. Backups are for saving a copy of work in progress so that you have something to go back on in case of a problem. It is very important to make regular backups to protect your work, and most CAD systems will do periodic saves automatically if you configure them for it. Archives, on the other hand, are for storing a completed design. These files should have their permissions locked up to prevent them from being accidentally used or altered. Users often archive a job without the proper protections, and that archived version of the board will be in jeopardy of unintentional contamination.
While the first three best practices in this list are good for getting you started organizing and protecting your CAD files and drawings, this last practice is the most essential. Whatever system of organization you set up, be consistent in its use, and enforce its use with all of your CAD users. The best file organization system in the world won’t help you if it isn’t used consistently.
CAD System Organization Can Save Time and Money
Organizing your CAD system files and drawings not only will make life easier for your users, but it can also save you a lot of time and money. For example, a design company that doesn’t have any file organization or protections will result in designers altering and overwriting their library parts as they see fit—resulting in constant data corruption of their shared designs. A standard workflow could include several board spins to correct bad library parts, which could easily be avoided with some simple file organization steps.
To protect yourself from expensive and time-consuming design problems, implement an organized file structure for your CAD system. If you’ve got more questions about how to do this, give us a call at VSE. We’ve been working with PCB engineers and designers like you for over 30 years, and we can help you optimize your CAD file system structure for the best results.