Taking a look at where utility distribution design is going

This past week SBS announced that we entered into a strategic relationship with Autodesk. As part of that agreement SBS will be responsible for future development, support and licensing of a successor to Autodesk’s AutoCAD® Utility Design (AUD) product. The product will have a slight re-branding, and will now be known as Automated Utility Design™ (AUD, once again).

AUD has been a successful, mature product with a solid level of adoption within the utility industry. It started in the 1990s and accomplished several innovative things that added rules and intelligence to the distribution utility design process. As time has gone on the product has received an exceptional level of investment from Autodesk and has continued to progress in a number of key areas. Most notable was the re-engineering of the product to support model-based design, which transformed the product from the world of two-dimensional CAD to a multi-dimensional, object-based environment. Implementation of AUD on the underlying platform of AutoCAD Map3D also opened up the product to support a much more advanced level of integration with core utility business applications. So the big question is this: Where do we go from here?


SBS has solicited a number of its current and prospective clients for their guidance. We have also formulated internal opinions based on where the industry is going in the context of today’s high-impact technology trends and the key business drivers for today’s utility industry.

With this in mind SBS is proposing the following high-level directions for AUD:

  • Improvement in job throughput
  • Advanced integration support
  • Overall reduction in implementation and support costs

Direction 1: Improvement in job throughput is more than just improving design tool performance. SBS acknowledges performance is important and will continue to improve performance wherever possible. Throughput also involves opening up the design tool so the workflows between the integration points can be done seamlessly with limited need to manually go back and forth between different systems. A designer should not need to open up a session in SAP or Maximo to generate material lists; and external engineering tools, such as pole structural analysis, should only be invoked if the design tool identifies special engineering conditions. The GIS, while always critical, will be accessible to support sharing of land and facility information. This will typically be performed with standards-oriented, service-based integration, depending on the capabilities of the GIS platform involved. Integration of design information back to the GIS is best accomplished via an assisted approach, rather than a fully automated transaction. This allows GIS data stewards to address the fundamental differences that exist between distribution design tools and geographic information systems.

Usability is a key part of this direction as it empowers organizations to flexibly add resources to support periods of increased workload without having to deal with extensive, specialized training requirements. SBS has also received consistent direction from AUD customers that our focus should be more on having a usable, standards-based design environment rather than investing more heavily in engineering design optimization.

Direction 2: Advanced Integration Support is fundamental to the next generation of AUD, and aligns quite closely with Direction 1. Utilities are finding that most design efficiencies are coming from the ability to automatically generate bill of materials, manage materials and have a consistent approach to estimating. SBS will focus on continuing to improve the ability to integrate to core utility business platforms. Our focus will be on:

  • ERP platforms for the larger scale utilities, such as Maximo, SAP, Oracle and others
  • GIS platforms, with a focus on Esri, Smallworld, Intergraph and Map3D
  • Seamless integration with GIS-based mobile and staking tools
  • A continued expansion to support engineering tool integration

While much of this work is already supported with the SBS Utility DataHub™, SBS is now in a position to have a tighter integration with these products while further refining our technical approach.

Direction 3: An overall reduction in implementation and support costs allows utility organizations to move forward with AUD as part of a hybrid approach that can accommodate both engineering-based design along with mobile and GIS-based tools for lighter design tasks. Traditional, custom utility integration initiatives have often cost millions of dollars to perform one-off interfaces between utility business systems and design tools. This has made integration between both a GIS-based sketch tool, and a CAD-based design tool cost prohibitive. Our assessment is consistent with Gartner Group’s most recent utility GIS Magic Quadrant research note that identifies a shift towards these kinds of “best-of-breed” solutions.

These cost reductions will be accomplished via several means:

  • Standardized, semi-agile implementation methodologies that will allow our clients to rapidly converge on their requirements
  • An expanded use of design templates to address common configurations which we believe will significantly simplify the implementation process
  • The adoption of smarter configuration tools that are being developed in the industry

To reduce the cost and frequency of system upgrades SBS will be implementing an AUD plug-in architecture. This will allow AUD users the ability to run a given version of AUD on multiple versions of Map3D, thus addressing issues related to being locked into a specific product version. More details will be available with future product announcements.

We believe that the road ahead for AUD and utility distribution design offers an exciting opportunity for utility organizations to improve their workflows and reduce their overall operating costs. As always, we welcome and encourage your feedback. Please comment, or drop us a line here at SBS.