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Drafting Tips: Boosting AutoCAD Productivity with Tool Palettes

In an office, design staff must ensure that project files, presentation drawings, and construction documents communicate effectively within the office, across disciplines, and to clients and contractors.  In response, all offices have developed some level of CAD standards to guarantee expected results.  When it comes to implementation, however, these standards can be difficult to enforce.  Conforming to drafting standards takes time and effort, and time-consuming mistakes can be committed by anyone from the new drafting technician to the studio principal.  As a result, two underlying concerns drive the development of employee drafting skills and CAD standards: efficiency and accuracy.

Efficiency refers to the ability to complete a certain set of tasks in the least amount of time.  It is not synonymous with speed.  A drafter who focuses on speed is more likely to perform many simple tasks quickly rather than finding the shortcuts to reach the desired end result.  Efficiency helps keep the project on schedule and on budget, minimizing the use of resources to complete a project.  Accuracy refers to the completion of a certain set of tasks without error.  Reckless speed and undisciplined drafting can rapidly propagate errors within a project file.  These errors lead to the costly use of office resources to correct the issues, or worse, poor error-laden products. 

Drafting productivity has come a long way in the last sixty-five years.  (Image credit: Carl Guderian, 1951 Paul Damm F89 Meisterklasse factory 666-09 Engineering drafting office, available under Creative Commons 2.0 Public License)

AutoCAD has long dominated other drafting software in landscape architecture. Though a number of alternatives—BIM or otherwise—have become increasingly prominent, AutoCAD continues to dominate.  Even so, the program is complex even without vertical applications and requires.  While many methods exist to boost both accuracy and efficiency in AutoCAD in the design office, one of the most powerful tools available is tool palettes. Yes, tool palettes: the little box that used to open upon installation of a fresh version of AutoCAD, containing an odd assortment of 3D shapes. Most users would close it immediately and never see it again.  Tool palettes, however, are an easily customizable and implementable feature that can ensure drafting standards are followed while also reducing drafting time significantly. Let’s examine how simple tool palettes are to use.

Far Left: A blank tool palette created after launching TOOLPALETTES.    Mid Left: A circle drawn on the red layer (current).    Mid Right: The circle is dragged onto the blank tool palette.    Far Right: The circle tool is utilized, creating a new circle on the red layer though the blue layer is current. (Image credit: Nicholas Buesking)

Basic Steps:

  1. Type in ‘TOOLPALETTES’ to the command line. 
  2. Right click on the default set of palettes that appears and choose ‘Create New Palette’. 
  3. Now draw a circle in a new CAD file. 
  4. Select and drag the circle over the palette.

AutoCAD automatically populates the palette with its first command, a circle.  Pressing the new button launches the circle command.  Virtually any command can be placed on a tool palette, from model-space drafting to reviewing and plotting.  Custom commands can also be created through the use of command macros, which allow users to program a series of keystrokes into a single button.  Users who customize their own toolbars, menus, and ribbon through the CUI interface will recognize this process.  In fact, if launching commands and macros was the extent of tool palette functionality, it would be no different than these elements.  What makes tool palettes so powerful is that each command can be associated with specific details, including layer, linetype, scale, and style.  As a result, users do not need to switch to the proper layer or style while drafting.  The button performs all the work for them.  This functionality can readily be implemented to draft utility lines, contours, dimensions, and site labels as well as creating standard layouts from templates with the click of a button.  For dimensions and multileaders, the tool palette will even import the specified style if it does not exist in the drawing.  In addition, the current layers and styles remain current, so users can quickly switch back and forth between their current task and utilizing specialized tools from the palette.

Not only can tool palettes launch commands in AutoCAD, but they also have a unique functionality: the execute tool.  The execute tool inserts blocks from remote files, eliminating the hassle of navigating the office server or Design Center.  As with other commands, many of the blocks properties can be pre-set: the layer, the rotation, the scale.  The block can even be set to explode upon insertion, useful for populating generic specifications.  The execute tool also creates hatches with preset pattern, scale, layer, and rotation. Personally though, I prefer to handle hatches through command macros rather than the execute tool.  As with commands, these tools are simple and expedient to create.  Simply drag and drop into the tool palette whatever object for which you want to create a tool. 

Far Left: A tool palette with annotation tools.    Mid Left: A tool palette that inserts paper space layouts based on templates in a separate file.    Mid Right: A tool palette built to place planting blocks.    Far right: A tool palette with pre-set hatch patterns. (Image credit: Nicholas Buesking)

Multiple tool palettes can be created to organize related tools into groups, for example planting, drainage, grading, dimensioning, and specifications.  The palettes can then be stored on the network and accessed office-wide.  A word of caution: Due to the simplicity of editing tool palettes, if left unprotected they can be ruined irreparably by the unwary CAD user.  The good news is that the palettes can be locked easily by changing their source files to read-only.

To take a more in depth look at implementation of tool palettes across an office workspace, check out these two webinars by Matt Murphy and Paul Munford given at Autodesk University 2015 (the videos must be accessed with an Autodesk subscription).

Tool palettes are one of my primary drafting tools, but I would love to hear from you! What other tools do you use improve productivity in AutoCAD? 

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