In 2008 Autodesk released a White Paper for Autodesk Vault which detailed the use of a single Inventor project file with Vault as opposed to the multiple project file approach traditionally used with Autodesk Inventor and a Windows Explorer based file management system. For the most part its a great and necessary practice to use, however, I believe a lot of people take it as gospel when they could be using Inventor in a more efficient way with Vault and multiple project files.

A more recent version of this post can now be found here from the 28th November 2012

For your convenience here is the Introduction to the White Paper, which is the only part explaining anything about Autodesk’s suggestion other than how to implement it:

They are three very good reasons to use single Inventor project files and pretty tough to argue with. Nevertheless, in my opinion the first two points are mute since they are easily attainable by using some simple rules when creating your project files for use with your Vault. The first point is valid if you work on a large number of short duration projects but its the third point which will determine if you should consider using a single project file or not. That is; if you regularly reuse CAD models from old or existing projects in new ones then using a single project file is likely the way forward for you. However, if like the company I work for, each object you design is completely unique 99% of the time and the materials etc. vary constantly from project to project then you should consider using multiple project files, albeit following some strict guidelines.

Lets get to the point or to the Root of the Issue…

We work on the concept of having a master project file, which is the one set within the Autodesk Vault client and a new project file for each new contract we have in the design office. This is achieved by placing all the  project files in the root directory along with the library folders and a single ‘Projects’ folder which contains all the project workspace folders. The diagram below shows how the workspaces for each project file are setup in relation to the folder structure.

Vault Multiple Project folder structure

I’m of the opinion the design data folders and templates shouldn’t be in Autodesk Vault and instead should be located on the local network. That way any changes made to the contents of those folders or the files themselves become effective immediately for everyone. Generally I have no need for versions of those files so it works out well. However, if you need to have them in Vault then make sure the Design Data and Templates folders are in the Root folder at the same level as the Library folders.

For Multiple Projects to work there are a few things you need to understand if you don’t already:

  • Assemblies saved in the project workspace have searchable links to their children. So although the assembly file contains a path to its children, its not fixed. This means when you use an Inventor project file set to use unique file names, you can move any of those child files anywhere within the workspace. Conveniently, when you open the Assembly the child links get resolved automatically when Inventor searches the project workspace for a file of that name. Understanding this behaviour can save you a tonne of work and allow you to use a few sneaky work arounds from time to time.
  • Assemblies in a project library have fixed or hard coded file path links to their children. This improves performance when opening the assembly since Inventor doesn’t have to perform any kind of search. However, it means you can’t move any of the child files since it will break the file links within the assembly. Its also important to note library paths are relative and not full paths.
This behaviour isn’t restricted to just assemblies, but to any file relationship, so derived parts, iParts & iAssemblies etc.
Considering these traits there are some rules you must adhere to when creating your project files:
  1. Always make sure the project libraries have the same name from one project to the next, that includes the Vault Master Project.
  2. Always make sure the project libraries are pointing to exactly the same set of folders, so the relative path doesn’t change from one project file to the next.
  3. Make sure all the project files reside in the same folder, so really that can only be the Root folder if you use a folder structure as detailed in the image above.
  4. Stick to the same Content Center definitions and structure.
Now here’s the good bit, some freedom, you can change the following aspects of a project file:
  1. The workspace. Since its searchable remember.
  2. The Design Data folder
  3. The Templates folder
Having this flexibility means you can:
  1. Define a different set of templates for each project in a single folder, reducing the clutter in the new file dialogue and the ability to select the incorrect template. This is especially important if you have project specific iLogic rule event triggers set on your template files.
  2. Define project specific style libraries for all file types, this is especially useful when it comes to drawing styles.
  3. My favourite is the ability to focus your Material and Colour styles (Materials & Appearances from 2013 onwards) to just the ones you need for the project, instead of having to wade through dozens of unnecessary colours or materials to set the one I want.
  4. One less folder to click through to get to the folders and files you need to work with.
  5. Since Vault still has a Master Project file which encapsulates all of the projects you ever create, you can still use copy design to copy designs from one project to the next which was the third benefit of single project files in the Autodesk White Paper.
So there you have it, Single Vs Multiple project files in Autodesk Vault. I think Multiple project files wins by some margin and the single project method is now a little outdated since the advent of the Vault master project file from Autodesk Vault 2011 onwards.
Just a parting thought, the rules I’ve outlined above for project files should probably be used even if you aren’t using Vault.