How to choose the best electrical CAD software for your needs

By Thor Vegge

Choosing the right electrical CAD software is crucial, but making a qualified decision can be tough for the first-time user. Below we take a look at what you can gain, and what you should demand, from your new electrical CAD software.

Today, even in larger companies, you can experience that the electrical documentation only exists as traditional paper drawings. Changes in the production line is probably added by hand - that is if the electrical engineer could find room for it on the paper, when the changes were made.

The rest of the electrical documentation is in his head, and most likely this has functioned quite well for several years. But the problem is what happens when he is no longer in the company. Maybe he retires, maybe he gets another job - who knows?

When this happens both the employer and the new electrical engineer have a problem.

Tough start for new employees

It is close to an impossible task for the new employee to get a survey of the documentation, which might consist of meter after meter of bookshelves stuffed with paper drawings of wiring diagrams and other electrical schematics:

  • Which changes have been made since the documentation was originally created?
  • Which „specialities“ should be taken into consideration?
  • Are all of the schematic references and all of the bills-of-materials up-to-date?

... etc. Loads of valuable information will be lost for good, and lots of man-hours will be spent regaining lost knowledge.

Increased security with electrical CAD

In the scenario above, it is far more accessible for a new employee to get a survey of an electronic documentation, which can be updated and printed continuously, and where comments can be attached to the electrical documentation without making a mess.

Along with this increased security and quality, there are huge amounts of time to save by using a good electrical CAD software, which for instance can update all electrical schematic references, update all kinds of lists, and fill out ordering requisitions automatically.

Difficult to get an overview?

One of the reasons why much electrical documentation only exists on paper, is that it can be difficult to get an overview of what to demand of a good electrical CAD software for electrical documentation. Furthermore it is difficult to see exactly which needs you have for the moment, and to foresee what you will be needing in the future.

The aim with this text is to make it easier to make a qualified decision about which electrical CAD software is the right for you in your situation.

Therefore we try to give some basic guidelines for what you could reasonably demand of a good electrical CAd software.

When is the right time to get started with electrical CAD?

Basically it is not a good idea to rush out and buy an electrical CAD software, just to keep paste with the rapid modern development. Such a decision matures over a period of perhaps a year, and all involved parties must be able to realise that the investment actually pays of for the company.

Is the electrical CAD software too expensive?

A reason for not buying an electrical CAD, is that people find it too expensive. Most people imagine that they neither have the money nor the resources for creating proper electrical documentation in a CAD program.

But the expenses by not doing so, instead occurs as a more troublesome error finding, longer stops in the production, poorer maintenance of the electrical documentation, spending too many man-hours creating the documentation - and a much longer starting period for new electrical professionals.

However, there will naturally be a transition period while getting used to the new software. In this period you will not have the full benefit of the increased production rate.

Reasonable demands for electrical CAD softwares

When you choose your coming electrical CAD, it is important to stick to the point that it is you and your needs that specifies the demands for what the new system should be able to do.

Having said this, it is a good idea to have an open mind, and be open to the new working methods and possibilities some of the programs offer.

A good electrical CAD software should set the user free to concentrate on the professional aspects, and at the same time utilise what the computer is good at - namely the time-consuming trivial tasks. This gives the electrical professionals a better survey, and liberates them from spending valuable time on for instance filling out components lists and bills of materials.

Automatic updating of lists

The trivial tasks that the program should handle mainly falls in two categories: Filling out lists and automatic support of drawing functions.

A major advantage is achieved if component manufacturer databases with electrical symbols have been created for the program. This makes it possible to draw the electrical schematics by use of the symbols from the databases, and then let the program fill out parts lists, components lists, cable lists, terminal lists and PLC lists automatically.

Beyond the huge amount of time saved by not having to type in this information yourself, you also get the security that you know that you have not entered incorrect component information. You are also sure that you order the correct amount of components each time.

Automatic support of electrical drawing functions

The other major area is about automatic support of drawing functions and about references, which makes it possible to keep the survey of the documentation, and fulfil the current documentation regulations.

Here you can for instance get help by automatic naming of symbols and their connection points, automatic wire numbering, support of mounting correct drawing, automatic line-drawing, design check, reference designations, automatic replacement of symbols in the entire project, and on-line update of references between symbols in the documentation - and many other features for electrical CAD.

To check these automatic functions you should get a demo version of the different programs on the market, and try for yourself how easy - or difficult - it is to use them when creating documentation. In some of the programs you will find that they function logical and clear, following common Windows standards, and that you only need a few mouse clicks to activate the commands.

In others you might have to specify lots of complex settings in more than one menu, or even have to type in commands yourself. This is specially important, because we are talking about routines you maybe have to repeat hundred times a day. In this connection you should also check if you can define your own single key short-cuts easily.

Does the program follow the general technical development?

Furthermore it is important that the development of the program continuously follows the general technical development.

This general technical development covers a wide range of areas, such as making proper use of the facilities in the newest releases of Windows, enhanced integration with other programs, support of the electrical design drawing standards, and improving of the drawing and structuring facilities in the program.

As a general rule you can say that the electrical CAD software must have a comprehensive update once a year to follow the technical development. It is therefore also an important economical parameter whether you can get upgrades of the program for a reasonable price.

However, this does not mean that you can not create electrical documentation with a two-year old documentation program. You will always be able to edit and print out the created documentation, have lists updated automatically etc. Even though you do not update your program, you will still be able to create proper documentation.

But if the program you choose is not updated regularly, this means that you will not be able to work as quickly and effectively as your competitors on the market.

Electrical CAD features in the next version

Many software producers will promise you that the next version of their software will be available tomorrow, and that it will contain all the hundred extra facilities you have always dreamt of.

In the real world, software products can be years behind schedule. In stead of focusing on what the producer claims will come, you can therefore focus on which extra facilities have already been added to the program in its last two versions. This gives you a good idea of the quality of the resources that are put into the development of the program.

In the next version you could then reasonably expect to get just as many extra facilities, as were released in any of the previous two. The interval between the upgrades also tells you when you could probably expect the next version of the program. Therefore ask the reselling agent of the program for information about of which functions have been added in the last two versions, and when these two versions were released.

This gives you concrete information about the general development of the electrical CAD software - and not just wishful thinking of what might happen in the next version of the program. However, if the reselling agent does not have this information, you could check whether you could find it on the homepage of the company producing the program, or by contacting the company directly.

Supporting IEC/EN standards

These years there are a lot of focus on supporting the international standards in electrical documentation. In most European countries - and especially in the European Union - lots of electrical standards are being updated and effectuated for the moment.

It is therefore important that the electrical design software supports these EU electrical drawing standards, and that it is flexible enough also to support you in following other standards.

In order to do so, the company developing the program must have detailed knowledge of the existing standards. If you are not sure this is the case, you could do one of three things: Ask the reselling agent about material on standards, visit the website of the developing company for information, or send an e-mail directly to the developing company and request for information about standards.

If the developing company does not take your request seriously and mail back information, you might be better of buying your software elsewhere.

Integration with other programs, Viewer and PDF

A part of the program development will be increased integration with other programs. This is because it is very important how the program interacts with the other programs in your company.

Here you can save even more time if the software for instance can:

  • Export data to the applied storage management program
  • Exchange files with the plc programming tool
  • Import AutoCAD files (DWG/DXF files) intelligently
  • Export AutoCAD files
  • Send information to the applied wire numbering tools and component label tools.

Companies with contact to other countries must further examine whether the program supports translation of texts to other languages.

Also, it should be possible to send a free project Viewer along with a documentation project, so that customers can view and print out the electronic version of the documentation without having to purchase a program license for themselves. If the software can save as PDF, this can also solve the problem. But please examine if the generated PDF files also contains active links between the symbols in the documentation, so that the customer navigate properly in the documentation.

The flexibility of the software developers

Another aspect is the flexibility of the program developers. This flexibility can vary a great deal from company to company, and is basically a question of company style or culture.

Some companies pay great attention to their worldwide customers, and try to incorporate their suggestions in the next version of the program. If you sent an e-mail to a company with this culture, they would ask you interested questions, and advice you how to get what you want until the next version is released. For smaller, but important, details they might even create an update of the current version for your benefit.

Other companies are more difficult to get in dialogue with.

Programs developed by smaller versus bigger companies

Another aspect is whether the program is developed by a smaller or by a bigger company. This could have impact on what you think the chances are that the program will still be updated ten years from now.

Most people consider programs developed in bigger companies to give a better guarantee of the future existence of the program. Mainly because bigger companies usually have the most money.

On the other hand, bigger companies can sometimes have to make some very harsh decisions because of the interests of their share holders - such as when a large US company closed down their electrical CAD-program.

In smaller companies the software developers could also be the company owners, who would give their right arm to keep the program running. You could also ask yourself how important a customer are you in a bigger company, compared to how important you are in a smaller company.

An alternative approach could be to take a look at how long time the company have already existed? Five years, ten years, or more than twenty years? This is always a good thing to check.

Getting qualified employees

Furthermore it is important that training in the software can be given on demand, and that it is possible to get a proper hot-line service when you start using the program, and if you run into difficulties.

It could also be important whether it is possible to get qualified employees. Is it for instance possible to get consultant aid from the outside, who are capable of creating parts of the documentation in the chosen program. And what happens if you choose one company the one time, and another company the other. Will both companies then be able to maintain the documentation properly?

Cooperating with the vendor

Often buying the program is one thing, and what happens after the purchase is a completely different story.

Here it is important to find a credible program vendor, who is interested in your needs. Does it suddenly turn up that you have to purchase extra modules for the program in order to make partslists, graphical terminal plans, automatic wire numbering, or to document hydraulics, pneumatics and electrical installations? Or to draw mechanical assembly drawings to see how much room they take up? Or does it suddenly turn up that you have to pay extra to get functions, which you thought were included in the first place?

It is therefore always a good idea to ask others in the same situation how they have been treated, and whether their program vendors have been responding positively to their needs - also after the deal has been closed.

Cost-free correction of program errors

Because of the rapid technical development, no computer programs on the market are a 100 percent error free. It is therefore a good idea to ask what will happen if you meet an error in the program. The reaction of the program vendor might give you a hint of how the future cooperation will work out:

  • Is it a minor or a major error?
  • Do you get a propper work- around, so that you can get a solution here and now?
  • Will the program developers then correct the error and update your program for free?
  • Or do you have to wait for the next version of the program, which you will not be able to get before the end of next year?
  • Do you then have to pay for the corrected version?

Get a free electrical CAD demonstration

All serious vendors on the market will furthermore offer you a free demonstration of the program. It is a good idea to make use of this offer, and get the opportunity to discuss your needs with a professional. Here you can see which options the different programs offer - and find out for yourself whether you can use it in your situation.

Alternatively, you can get a free demo program, with proper guidance and documentation, so that you can test the program thoroughly yourself.

Choose the right electrical CAD the first time

Finally it is important to test the available programs on the market, and make sure that you pick the right program the first time.

This is very important, because you can not necessarily transfer electrical documentation from one program to another. All the man-hours spent on documenting in the wrong program can therefore be wasted.

Buying the wrong program and spending the double amount of time creating the documentation, will also be a waste of money. It is in other words important to check out the various program vendors and check whether they meet your requirements.

- Well, the next step is just to get started. Good luck!

Useful links for getting started with electrical CAD software: