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Ultimate Guide to AutoCAD Electrical

Learn how AutoCAD Electrical can save you time by verifying designs, extracting information, and documenting electrical controls. Gain insights in Todd Schmoock’s 4-part blog series.

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The ABCs of AutoCAD Electrical

If you are using standard AutoCAD to represent your electrical controls designs, you run into the issue of those designs being individual drawings with text and lines and no intelligence. This puts the burden on you to ensure the drawings are accurate. In addition, there is no way to extract information from them.

Since AutoCAD Electrical is built on standard AutoCAD, many of the core concepts are the same. In fact, the specialized toolset is basically standard AutoCAD tools grouped together with some special programming blended in.

Gain insights into time savings in verifying designs, extracting information from your electrical drawings and documenting electrical controls in the 4-part blog series by Todd Schmoock, Manufacturing Implementation Consultant, on saving time by doing your controls drawings using AutoCAD Electrical:

Benefits of AutoCAD Electrical

The following information can be found in the Autodesk document: “Productivity Study Highlights: AutoCAD Electrical toolset

The AutoCAD Electrical toolset brings dramatic time savings and increased productivity to common electrical design tasks. In 2018, Autodesk commissioned a study comparing basic AutoCAD to the Electrical toolset (previously known as AutoCAD Electrical) for performing ten common electrical design tasks. Results showed that the Electrical toolset provided a 95% overall productivity gain compared with basic AutoCAD when the tasks were performed by an expert level AutoCAD user. The Electrical toolset brings time savings and increased productivity to common AutoCAD® electrical design tasks. They include:

  1. Comprehensive symbol libraries (potential time savings 85%) – Simple icon-driven menu system with over 2,000 standards-based “smart” schematic symbols for inserting devices into a design.
  2. Automatic wire numbering and component tagging (potential time savings 82%) – Places sequential or reference-based numbers on wires and components.
  3. Real-time error checking (potential time savings 83%) – Helps avoid errors during the design process. Requested changes are compared with the current project.
  4. Real-time coil and contact cross referencing (potential time savings 78%) – Sets up parent/child relationships among electrical component symbols, even for different project drawings.
  5. Electrical-specific drafting features (potential time savings 63%) – Includes many commands specifically designed for electrical schematic drawings, increasing efficiency.
  6. Automatic creation of PLC I/O drawings (potential time savings 99%) – Create PLC I/O drawings quickly from spreadsheets using the PLC I/O utility.
  7. Creation of smart panel layout drawings (potential time savings 61%) – Create physical “footprint” representations of panel layouts in project drawings linked to schematic component symbols.
  8. Automatic project reports (potential time savings 97%) – Automatically generate comprehensive project reports including components, wires and bills of material.
  9. Share and track drawing changes (potential time savings 86%) – Share project drawings with basic AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT. Changes made outside the Electrical toolset can be tracked and reported.
  10. Reuse existing drawings (potential time savings 81%) – Import external drawings using the Update/Retag tool. Reduce time spent renaming DWG project files.

Check out the webinar “AutoCAD Electrical Overview” with Todd Schmoock for more details.

Understanding AutoCAD Electrical Project Manager

Excerpted from Autodesk Knowledge Network: Using the Project Manager

The AutoCAD Electrical Project Manager tool helps manage project drawings, which can number dozens or even thousands. To open the Project Manager palette, select the Project tab and click the Manager icon.

When you open Project Manager, at the top of the Project Manager is a row of icons that are frequently used. The first icon is “Open Project,” followed by “New Project,” “New Drawing,” “Refresh,” and so on.

Below that is the Project drop-down menu, which you can expand by clicking the arrow to expand it. A display shows the active and open projects. The one highlighted is the active project. You can also access three other project commands from this drop down: Recent, New Project and Open Project.

The shortcut menus are a useful feature within Project Manager. When you right-click any Project, folder, or drawing file in the Projects pane, you will see a list of options that refer to that Project, folder, or drawing file. When you right-click the active project, it displays a variety of commands:

  • Close
  •  Expand All
  • Collapse All
  • Descriptions
  • Title Block Update…
  • Sort
  • New Drawing…
  • Publish

When you scroll down the project list and right-click an open, non-active project, the shortcut menu is different than the one associated with the active project. The shortcut menu has fewer commands than that of an active project. Similarly, when you right-click a drawing file, the shortcut menu displays fewer commands.

If you right-click in a blank area of the Project Manager, another shortcut menu displays. From here, you can access the New Project, Open Project and New Drawing commands.

Migrating from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Electrical

In the Applied Software, Graitec Group webinar, “Migrating from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Electrical,” Todd Schmoock explained the ten most common reasons for moving from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Electrical:

  1. Access to comprehensive symbol libraries
  2. Automatic wire numbering and component tagging
  3. Automatic project reports
  4. Real-time error checking
  5. Real-time coil and contact cross-referencing
  6. Creation of smart panel layout drawings
  7. Electrical-specific drafting features
  8. Automatic creation of PLC I/O drawings from spreadsheets
  9. Ability to share drawings with customers and suppliers and track their changes
  10. Ability to reuse existing drawings

The top reasons for moving to AutoCAD Electrical now rather than waiting:

  1. You can create a project and place the standard AutoCAD drawings that make up your design into your newly created project. This could save you up to 15% of time compared to using standard AutoCAD. The drawings may still be standard AutoCAD drawings, but with AutoCAD Electrical you can access them and navigate more easily, update your title block attributes automatically with the electrical properties, and run a report that lists all the drawings in your project.
  2. You can easily copy projects using an AutoCAD Electrical tool. Any combination of drawings can be copied faster than using Windows Explorer. This could save you up to 10% compared to using standard AutoCAD.
  3. Files are native DWGs. This means you can easily exchange data with customers and suppliers.

Watch the on-demand webinar for a helpful demonstration on using AutoCAD Electrical.

File Types Used in AutoCAD Electrical

The AutoCAD Electrical toolset includes electrical design features that help you create, modify and document electrical controls systems. With the Electrical toolset, you can access a library of over 65,000 intelligent electrical symbols, automate the numbering of wires and generation of component tags, and generate and update multiple customized reports automatically. These features can boost your productivity by up to 95%.

The most common file types used in AutoCAD Electrical are:

  1. AutoCAD files – .dwt and .dwg
  2. ASCII text file
  3. MS Excel – .xls
  4. MS Access – .mdb

The most common ASCII text files used in a typical project are:

  1. .WDP – Project files used by AutoCAD Electrical for organizing project drawings. You can have unlimited number of projects but only one project can be active each time.
  2. .WDD – Project specific description file for components, Source/ Destination description (for example, wd_desc.wdd is the project description default).
  3. .WDL – Project descriptive line information files. Typically, these files are changed to match the attribute values of the drawing title.
  4. .WDT – Project-based title block mapping files. With most configuration files, AutoCAD Electrical first searches for the first matching project name, for example *.WDT. If the WDT file with the project names not found, AutoCAD Electrical uses the default .wdt file.

The most common Microsoft Office file types are

  1.  .MDB – AutoCAD Electrical uses Microsoft Access for its database files. Examples are Catalog (default_cat.mdb), Footprint Lookup (footprint_lookup.mdb), PLC (ACE_PLC.MDB), and the project database.
  2.  .XLS – AutoCAD Electrical uses Microsoft Excel for its data exchange and output files. Examples are Export/Import From Spreadsheet and Save Report to File.

Import and Export File Types are:

XLS, CSV, MDB, and XML – You can select various file types to import into AutoCAD Electrical. For example, Insert Connector from List tool, Export from Spreadsheet and Save Report to File. ASCII is also used as an export report format.

Additional AutoCAD Electrical file types are:

File Extension File Type: Description
.env ASCII text file Environment File – Project search paths
.dat ASCII text file Menu Files, Family Code Mapping
.set ASCII text file Report Format – Report presets
.wda ASCII text file User defined attribute list
.rep ASCII text file ASCII report export file
.loc ASCII text file Location Codes
.inst ASCII text file Installation Codes

2018, Autodesk commissioned a study that compared basic AutoCAD to the Electrical toolset when performing tasks common to electrical engineers. Results showed that the Electrical toolset enabled over 95% overall productivity gain compared to basic AutoCAD when tasks were performed by an experienced AutoCAD user.

Tips for using AutoCAD Electrical

Setting up a Secondary AutoCAD Electrical Catalog

AutoCAD Electrical allows you to define a secondary catalog to search for catalog data. Setting this option up gives the user an ability to store additional manufacturer part numbers in a totally separate database.

Creating a secondary AutoCAD Electrical catalog

  1. There are several options for creating company catalogs. Here are two ways:
    1. Make a copy of the “default_cat.mdb” file and add or remove records as desired to create a company specific database. A naming option could be “Secondary_cat.mdb”. Place it where the default catalog is located.
    2. Open an existing project which contains all the desired catalog information and use the “Create Project-Specific Catalog Database” tool on the Project tab. This tool extracts all the catalog data from the project. After running this tool, move the database created from the project folder location to the shared content folder location. A naming option could be “Secondary_cat.mdb”. Place it where the default catalog is located.
  2.  Right-click on the project file and select Properties…
  3. On the Project Settings tab in the “Catalog Lookup File Preference” area, select the “Other File…” button:
  4. In the Catalog Lookup File dialog, select the second option “Optional: Define…”
  5.  Browse to the location where you copied the new database file as defined in step 1 above.
  6. Select OK.
  7. During a “Lookup” to add catalog information, use the “Secondary” option located in the Catalog Browser dialog: One option to consider when defining a secondary database is to have all your typical company catalog information used in projects located in the Primary (default) database, and make the secondary catalog be the full out-of-box database. Keeping the Primary database a smaller size will also reduce search times when looking up catalog numbers. This is also useful for keeping custom catalog information separate from out-of-the-box information, so when you upgrade all that is required is a copy and replace with the new version’s database. It is worth trying this option on a project to see if you like it. And if you do, set the option in your company template project so all projects moving forward will be set from the start.

Using DesignCenter to Import Wires into AutoCAD Electrical

You may have valid AutoCAD Electrical wires located in various template files, or files inside other projects, and you would like to use them in the current drawing you are working on. However, you do not want to waste your time re-creating them using the Create/Edit Wire Type tool for every new drawing created. AutoCAD Electrical has a tool inside the Create/Edit Wire Type dialog box called Import…:

This tool does the job, but if you are an experienced AutoCAD user, the DesignCenter option is a better way to go. By using the DesignCenter (Ctrl+2) and selecting the valid wire layers from another file, it will populate the Layer Name cell and any other cells you used to originally create the valid wire layer using the Create/Edit Wire Type tool:

By using the DesignCenter option, you can add other content into the drawing being worked on, but if you use the Import… tool you are only adding the wire data. An example would be adding several symbols or footprints from template drawings or other project drawings. Even if you are new to using the DesignCenter, you will quickly get familiar with how much time it will save you.

As you will see, using the DesignCenter (Ctrl+2) is the better choice, since it will save you time by allowing you to pull more content from other sources using one interface.

Creating a Template File

Additionally, you could create a template file that has all the wire types and use this procedure to populate the wires as you need them. Add symbols and footprints to the template file, and you will save even more time. Learn how it’s done in the webinar, “Creating an AutoCAD Electrical Wire Layer Template.”

Updating an AutoCAD Electrical Project File to a New Environment File

The environment file (wd.env) in AutoCAD Electrical controls where the software retrieves the content needed to create the drawings. The wd.env identifies:

  • where the libraries are located for various symbols used in
    schematic drawings;
  • the 1:1 footprints used in panel drawings;
  • where the menu files are located that allow you to choose the
    schematic symbols and footprints.

If changes are made to the environment file, the project files created before the changes will not automatically update the library and menu file paths that were established when the project was originally created. In some cases, you will want to keep the original locations in the project, but in most cases, you will want to update the project to the new locations.

This document will show you the steps needed to update an older project, or a project made by someone else, to the current environment file locations.

Most of the time, you realize the paths are wrong because a dialog box displays letting you know the software looked in several locations for the symbol you were trying to insert, but it could not find it. The dialog box looks something like this:

Many times, users get this message because they upgraded to a new version of the software, and they are working with a project file that was created in a previous release. Additionally, if the project was created by another company, it will have different paths identified. This happens when companies that work together share their projects, like panel builders supplying the completed panels along with the drawing files. After activating the older project, the user tries to retrieve a symbol from the library and will get the AutoCAD message showing you where it looked.

When this happens, the user typically goes to the project properties option, expands the library locations and realizes they are pointing to the wrong locations. Rather than editing the locations one line at a time for every project that needs to be updated, there is a Default button that will allow you to update each category.

To update the project to the locations defined in the environment file, you need to select each of the four categories on the Project Settings tab under the Library and Icon Menu Paths and click the Default button. If default paths are used from one release to another, the project file will automatically update to the new paths. But if any changes are made, the paths will not update.

Here is an example before using the Default button to update the older project file:

Here is the same project after updating it:

Understanding how to manage the AutoCAD Electrical environment and project files can save hours of time and frustration.

The environment file also tells AutoCAD Electrical where to retrieve and save other files too. Some examples are:

  • the browse button in the Icon Menu dialog box;
  • the default Location path identified in the New Project dialog box;
  • the catalog database.

Setting up the environment file to work as a single source for all group members will ensure everyone will be working, and retrieving, from the same content.

The AutoCAD Electrical content can be set up on the server or through the Autodesk Vault. Moving the shared content to the server or Autodesk Vault will avoid being locked into a version and will also make migrating to new releases easier.

Now is the time! The longer you wait, the more cleanup you will have to do.

There are two options for plotting a project in AutoCAD Electrical, and they are located in the Publish/Plot tool in the Project Manager palette.

Clicking the drop down on the printer tool gives you an option to Plot Project or Publish to PDF/DWF/DWFx. Many times AutoCAD Electrical users have trouble getting a good plot using these tools, but it’s not because the tool doesn’t work! The issue comes from an AutoCAD setup that many AutoCAD Electrical users do not know they have to set up – making sure your drawing has the Page Setup created in the file. This tells AutoCAD how you want to plot/publish the file.

When experienced AutoCAD users migrate to AutoCAD Electrical, this usually isn’t an issue since they already have this completed. But for users who skip standard AutoCAD, the page setup is not completed.

You can access the Page Setup several ways:

Type PAGESETUP at the command line.

Right-click on the Model or Layout tabs at the lower left, then select Page Setup Manager.

Use the drop down at the upper left flyout for the Print option, and select Page Setup.

This document will not go through the steps to create a valid page setup, but if you do not have one set up, the Page Setup Manager dialog will look like this:

The image above is if you are working in Model Space. Here is what it looks like if you are setting up Paper Space:

Here is an example of how a drawing using a properly established page setup would look:

Having a properly created page setup will solve the Publish to PDF, but if you are going to plot to a printer, you should create a .pc3 file that matches your printer. This option often gets missed for AutoCAD Electrical users too. This document will not go through the steps to set up the .pc3 file, but one way to create this file would be using the drop down at the upper left flyout for the Print option and selecting Manage Plotters.

After selecting this option a Windows Explorer session will open showing the existing .pc3 files. The location is controlled in the Options under the File tab. There is a file called “Add-A-Plotter Wizard” listed at this location. Double-clicking on this file will open a wizard that steps you through setting up the .pc3 file to work with your printer.

Once you get the Page Setup and .pc3 file setup completed, you should have no issues using either of the tools located in the Project Manager:

The Plot Project option allows you to print any combination of the project drawings using a .pc3 file that is configured to your printer.

There are many options, so experimenting with them is the best way to determine which works for you and your company.

The option to Publish to PDF allows you to make a multi-sheet PDF.

This option also allows you to choose any combination of drawings that are in the project. There is an option to include the Parent-Child Hyperlinks (cross-references).

After selecting OK. You may get a message box saying there is a DSD Settings Conflict. Click Close; you can ignore this.

A Publish dialog box will open allowing you to set/adjust additional options. As with the Plot Project option, run experiments on what the best options will be for you and your company. At a minimum, clicking the “Publish Options…” button at the upper-right area to set the location of where the PDFs are saved would be best.

Click Publish at the bottom and the “Specify PDF File” name the dialog will display. Use the default name of the project file, or give it a different name, and click Select. Not sure why they called it Select, other than confirming you like the file name displayed, but it works the same as other save dialog boxes that say OK. You will get a message box asking if you want to save the current list of sheets. Most people select No here. You can experiment with this too.

The publish will be done in the background, and an icon will show up at the lower-right corner of the AutoCAD Electrical software letting you know this is happening.

Once the publishing is completed in the background, a message will display letting you know it has completed.

Once the PDF is created and opened, you can hover over the various cross references. When the mouse pointer turns to a hand, you can click on the component, and you will automatically be sent to the linked component.

You can experiment with these options by trying different settings to see what works best for your company requirements. Going right to the Publish to PDF option seems to be the best because of the settings available in the Publish dialog and getting the cross references added to the PDF in a multi-sheet file. If you need to print to paper, use this PDF to do that, as it gives you the best of both options.

Creating an AutoCAD Electrical Wire Layer Template

In the Applied Software, Graitec Group webinar, “Creating an AutoCAD Electrical Wire Layer Template,” Todd Schmoock explained that AutoCAD Electrical looks like regular AutoCAD with the addition of a Project Manager. The product ships with default projects.

Todd demonstrated using a Template Project and explained that the big difference between AutoCAD and AutoCAD Electrical is that you can group drawings into projects. There is no limit to the number of drawings you can put into a project and the ways you can organize them.

In AutoCAD Electrical you don’t have to create your own layers. It comes with a series of layers that it organizes the files and blocks onto. Just as in AutoCAD, it’s preferable if your wire, or default layer, is zero. But you can make a wire layer be a default when you are building wires in AutoCAD Electrical. The other layers shown in your drop-down menu are AutoCAD Electrical layers and Electrical manages them. When using AutoCAD Electrical you don’t need to manage layers. You can add them, but you don’t have to manage them like you would in regular AutoCAD.

instance, the Schematic ribbon has all the tools you would need to work on a schematic drawing.

When you create layers for wires, you can use the one out-of-the-box and utilize the Edit Wire Number tool: create -> edit -> wire type.

Once it is recognized as a valid wire, you will have the option to add a wire number automatically. For Todd’s step-by-step demonstration on wire layers, see the webinar recording at the time stamp 7:00.

Manipulating Wires in AutoCAD Electrical

Excerpted from Autodesk Knowledge Network: Manipulating Wires

Trim Wires

Use the Trim Wire command to remove a wire segment and wire tees as required. You can pick on a single wire or draw a fence through multiple wires to trim.

This removes a wire segment and any wire tees or dots. Pick on a single wire, draw a fence, or draw a crossing window to select the wires to trim.

Stretch, Extend, Trim Wires

The Stretch Wire command stretches or trims the end of a wire segment to the nearest wire or inline component wire connection point. Select the wire, and the program automatically finds the wire or component in its path.

Bend Wires

The Bend Wire command bends a wire in a right angle and makes three right angle turns to avoid or add geometry.

You can modify the wire defined at a right angle. You can replace the right-angle bend while maintaining the original wire connections to the components.

Note: This tool terminates if the bend attempts to connect two different wire networks or if the bend bypasses more than a single right-angle turn.

Properties, Updates and Components

For tips, tricks and demonstrations around properties, updates, components, and drawing coordination, begin at time stamp 28:00 in the Applied Software, Graitec Group webinar “Office Hours” webinar hosted by Todd Schmoock: Quick Power Tips for AutoCAD Electrical.