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Is Visio a sensible alternative to CAD systems?

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Many of the companies we work with at Visimation use Visio as a low cost and more sensible alternative to CAD systems like AutoCAD, MicroStation, ProE, and more.  While CAD has its strengths, we find that as many as 80% of CAD users can perform their work more efficiently and at lower cost if they were to use Visio.  Of course it all depends on what you need to do with a graphics system.  In this article I’ll share our experience regarding why companies choose to use Visio in lieu of CAD.  For specific examples of companies that are doing this today, we have a series of case studies on our web site.

Visio schematic of HVAC air handling unit from Carrier Corporation

Visio schematic of HVAC air handling unit from Carrier Corporation

Visimation builds visual solutions to real world technical and business problems.  Our staff is comprised of professionals with considerable experience using and implementing various CAD and graphics systems over the past 20 years.  The work we perform often deals with existing CAD installations, either to supplement or replace them with a Visio solution.  We are quite familiar with the business issues that drive our clients’ decisions to select Visio, and we are often asked to discuss the economic benefits of Visio with respect to AutoCAD. 

For the great majority of the users we encounter, Visio provides the most economical environment to create, maintain, and deploy diagrams and drawings. A small percentage of potential users have highly technical needs for which CAD systems are better suited.  In cases where direct and complete file compatibility is critical, CAD may also be a better choice.  For everyone else, Visio has more than enough capability to support the drawing process and integration with corporate data. 

For the purposes of this discussion it is more meaningful to compare the two platforms with regard to total cost of use than to compare individual features and functions of Visio vs. AutoCAD.  Below, we present a table of comparative costs and then a more expanded description including a list of “myths” that we’ve heard from CAD proponents who don’t take Visio seriously.  I hope this will help you make your own informed decisions about which is a more sensible solution for your particular needs.

Latest Versions License Upgrade Maintenance Subscription Training Days
AutoCAD $3995 $595 $450 6 – 10
AutoCAD Mechanical $4495 $695 $495 6 – 10
AutoCAD Architecture $4994 $795 $595 6 – 10
AutoCAD Electrical $5295 $795 $595 6 – 10
Visio Professional $559.95 $349.95 $0 2

Cost of Software

  • Visio Standard is $259 and Visio Professional is $559 (retail)
  • AutoCAD LT is $1200 and AutoCAD is $3995 (retail)
  • Both versions of Visio have the same programmable automation capabilities, while AutoCAD LT programmability is limited.
  • Visio provides extensive sets of pre-made symbols and drawing templates that are additional costs with AutoCAD
  • Visio produces presentation quality graphics while AutoCAD can do so only with significant add-on programs or customization; therefore, a worker may use Visio for a variety of technical and business tasks with no additional software or training
  • Visio integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Office applications without additional software

Cost of Training

  • A comprehensive generic Visio training course requires one day, and with a workshop geared towards specific uses the total training is 2 days
  • A similar level of generic AutoCAD training requires minimum 4 days plus additional courses for specific applications
  • Because Visio is so much simpler to learn, users typically retain their Visio knowledge even if they are casual users.
  • AutoCAD users require consistent usage to retain their knowledge while casual users often need refresher courses or ongoing support from additional staff to maintain their skills
  • Visio’s user interface is consistent with Microsoft Office products, so it is instantly familiar to most workers who therefore require less training than for AutoCAD’s more complex interface

 Cost of Custom Development

  • Both Visio and AutoCAD provide Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable the development of custom applications.
  • It is easier, less expensive, and quicker to integrate Visio graphics with data to automatically generate valuable drawings
  • Visio provides much more control over the user interface, enabling developers to hide functionality that would be distracting to a user’s specific task
  • Visio symbols may be easily programmed to behave as real world objects, while AutoCAD geometry consists of basic elements (lines, circles, polygons, etc.) that require significantly more effort to program with intelligent behaviors

CAD vs. Visio and/or CAD Myth Busters

  1. Visio is not precise enough: 
    • Visio calculates to 12 decimal places which is precise enough for all but the most demanding uses
  2. Visio is just for flow charts and organization charts
    • Visio is widely used for schematic and detailed technical drawings
    • It is ideal for objects that are assembled into systems
  3. Visio is not for technical drawings
    • Visio is the most popular software for network and IT diagrams
    • Visio is widely used in the HVAC industry with leaders such as Carrier, Johnson Controls, TAC, and Siemens
  4. Visio is not compatible with CAD systems
    • Visio can import CAD files
    • Visio can write to CAD files
  5. Visio cannot display 3D
    • Just like with CAD systems, Visio can display 3D with an add-in product
  6. Visio is not as widely used as CAD
    • Visio has more total users
    • Visio is very popular for IT, HVAC, Controls, Security, and other layouts of systems
  7. Visio does not have layers
    • Visio has layers and can import CAD layers
  8. Visio does not support large format plotters
    • Visio does support large plotters
  9. CAD and Visio produce simple line drawings:
    • Visio can produce technical drawings with rich graphics suitable for presentations
    • Visio can produce very realistic drawings of any equipment
  10. Linking drawings to data requires expensive add-ons or custom applications
    • Visio provides tools to link with external data
    • Data Graphics illustrate those data on drawings
    • Pivot Diagrams enable users to generate multiple views of data
  11. Fact: Visio has more graphic formatting options than CAD
  12. Fact: Visio can save as XML and SVG

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12 comments to Is Visio a sensible alternative to CAD systems?

  • Microsoft Visio Add-in such as the Disk Space Monitoring tool employs the radical Data Graphics feature of Visio 2007 to display the results of server monitoring. Another add in is the Visio for SQL Server Add-In, a tool for IT administrators who require to continually interact with users during SQL server installations in any IT infrastructure.

  • If you are looking for a free AutoCAD alternative check out this comprehensive list here:
    http://ninjarabbits.blogspot.com/2010/03/free-alternatives-to-autocad.html

  • Terje

    In “CAD vs. Visio and/or CAD Myth Busters” it’s listed : “Visio can import CAD files ”
    I have problems importing DWG-files into Visio Strd. 2007 – I can’t find a list with supported AutoCad versions – anyone ?

  • Visio Standard 2007 does not have the AutoCAD import feature. You need Visio Professional 2007 for that.

  • Terje

    Thanks!
    I’ll make an upgrade…

  • Haiduc

    Would you trust your life with an electric machine designed with visio ?

  • Interesting comment, Haiduc. There are many tasks that are better suited to a CAD system, but there are also many where CAD is far more complicated and expensive than necessary. I would not use Visio to design a machine with all of its parts and details, certainly if it needs to be modeled in 3D as well. However, for 2D drawings with repetitive elements such as control system diagrams, network topology and infrastructure, security systems, modular furniture, and many other designs that are assembled from a libarary of parts… I would argue that Visio is a much better choice. Easier, cheaper, and the quality of the graphics that you can create with Visio is much better than with 2D CAD.

  • Bill

    I’m a CAD user.

    With Visio,
    Tell me; on a data center floor plan, how do I accomplish the following:

    move a piece of equipment exactly 6.25 inches horizontally without moving it vertically?

    How do I make an item larger by an exact quantity in one direction without changing the size in the other direction?

  • Hi Bill,
    Visio has a Size &Position window that gives you the ability to do what you ask. In Visio 2010, go to the View tab and select Task Panes, then Size & Position. When you select a shape you will see it’s size and x-y location in this box. You can enter formulas in this box to help you position objects precisely. For example, if you want to move something 6.25 in the X direction (horizontally), click in the X field and type “+6.25in” after the current value (don’t delete it!), then press Enter.

    Similarly, you can click on the Width and enter a new amount to change the width without changing the height. However, if the shape you select has a protection for aspect ratio set, then increasing the width will proportionally increase the height. Protections are set in the Protection dialog you open from the Developer tab in the ribbon. If you don’t see a Developer tab, go to File>Options>Advanced and scroll down to General to check the “Run in developer mode” item. This will open the Developer tab in Visio.

  • Jeremiah

    I have seen Visio used for building layout drawings but can it also produce 2d drafting type drawings of simple mechanical items like a bracket. With top front and side views and dimensions. Where can I get the 2 days of training to be able to use it in this way?

  • We don’t know of any Visio training that’s specific for mechanical drawings. There are some useful videos on YouTube such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYcXPSFsnGo. From that page you can also link to other Visio tutorials that you may find helpful.

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