May 31, 2012
Column | Korky Koroluk
Is the “paperless office” a reality?
We’ve been hearing about the “paperless office” for a generation now.
Computerization was going to put an end to the blizzard of paper that at times threatened to bury our desks. It never happened. In fact, computers have made it so easy to print out “a copy for the files” that we’re doing that more than ever. Paper is everywhere, and it’s costing us money.
Now Fiatech, a consortium of firms in the design professions, universities, service providers and the like, wants to persuade the architecture-construction-engineering sector to give up its dependence on paper, and save time and money as well. Fiatech, which uses the tagline “Innovation that builds the world,” was formed a dozen years ago. It’s based at the University of Texas, but its reach is global, with members in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Asia, as well as the United States.
It has just launched a publication dealing with digital signatures and digital seals, in the hope that the AEC industry and those who buy from it, will use this digital technology to streamline operations and, in the process, increase productivity.
It’s a laudable objective. How to increase productivity is a problem that has bedeviled the industry for years, but improvement has been modest. The AEC sector spends a lot of time generating and moving documents around. The report tells us that a “typical $100-million building project generates 160,000 separate documents: drawings, contracts, purchase orders, RFIs and schedules.” And someone has to sign off on every last one, so it seems like a place where productivity could be improved
The Fiatech report serves as both an introduction to digital signatures, and a primer to help you get started. This is not some new thing that’s hard to find. The technology is readily available from a dozen or more vendors, including Adobe, Autodesk, Bentley and Microsoft.
In spite of the availability, the vast majority of jobs are supported by documents that have been printed or scanned, that move, usually by courier, between project managers, architects, engineers, and anyone else who must see them, and, often, sign them or stamp them in ink — what the report’s authors call “wet” signatures.”
But technology has enabled us to accelerate work in other ways.
“Design firms are awash with a wide variety of technology options, all promising fast project delivery and even faster return on investment,” the report says. “From 3D modeling to 5D BIM to the latest product life-cycle management deployment to fully integrated project management software, these technologies transform cumbersome workflows into fast electronic ones to help firms move faster, with more efficiency, and to save money.”
But for all that, documents usually end up being printed and physically transported across town solely to collect a seal or signature. It’s easy to ignore the reports that come out of Fiatech. I’ve heard it dismissed as an organization whose work is of interest “only to the big guys.” And it’s true that its membership doesn’t include small or medium-sized firms.
But innovation often starts with the “big guys,” partly because they’re the ones who have the budgets to do the necessary research, and partly because competition at their level is tougher than most of us can imagine.
Innovation, once introduced, doesn’t stand still. If a new idea isn’t worthwhile, it’s quickly abandoned. If it is worthwhile, others find ways to use it, including small firms. So if the use of digital signatures is adopted for big jobs involving big firms, the technology will inevitably trickle down to the level we all know—the architect practicing in a mid-sized city, the general who makes his living building schools and community centres.
That’s why the Fiatech report (www.fiatech.org/project-management/project-deliverables) is important to all of us. It’s a free download.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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