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Something for nothing

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A document management system tailored to the needs of the construction industry is up for grabs on the Internet

Oasys, the computing arm of engineer Ove Arup and Partners, has developed a document management system named Columbus which it believes is ideally suited to the needs of the construction team. And it is giving it away .

For free.

It improves communication, explains Alec Milton of Oasys. If every - body on the construction team is using it, then project s should run more smoothly. People come to us because of our engineering and architectural knowledge. They won t be able to compete better on that basis just because we are giving away Columbus.

In 1996 the comp any was using two document management systems, one for large and one for small project s, but the Birmingham office in particular felt that neither was entirely adequate. It found commercially available systems were unsatisfactory and expensive. At the same time the office had been doing some work with AutoCAD to make ways of finding external references easier , and Columbus grew out of that.

Columbus is a combined navigator and viewer that allows you to organise data the way you perceive it, says Oasys. For instance, you can gather all the files for a project under one heading even though they are spread across multiple servers around the globe, are accessed by different methods (eg remote file systems, FTP) and are on multiple file systems including UNIX, NT and Novell. This makes it easier for all staff to find, view , edit, print and issue project data regardless of the document type or where it resides (Columbus incorporates the INSO viewing engine which can view more than 200 commercial file format s). And you can do all of this without having to tangle with the complexities and restrictions of a data - base.

The company says that because Columbus combines the features of an internal document management system and an extranet system, you can use the same tool to handle both activities.

Arup had also become concerned that, as extranet s increased in popularity as a way to run project s, they were seen as huge money-spinners for whichever organisation (of ten the con - tractor) set them up. Every extranet is different and not necessarily compatible with all the players way of working.

The beauty of Columbus, Arup believes, is that it is compatible with lot s of different ways of working and, because it sit s on top of the existing file system rather on top of a database, it works as fast as the companies servers do. Other benefit s which the engineer list s include:

Columbus viewing cap ability means that anyone in your organisation can find and print document s without having the native applications installed.

By using the Project Set-up Wizard you can pre-create an entire project structure so that participant s are not left wondering where to put their documents.

When it comes to issuing your documents, Columbus can optionally issue to an extranet site, make a record copy on your own server, and notify selected participant s via e-mail. This is all configurable.

If you use AutoCAD you can load the CAD plug-in which will automatically extract title-block information from your drawings for display in Columbus.

Minimal configuration. Columbus uses your system registry to determine which application to use to edit a file. If one person uses WordPerfect and his neighbour uses MS Word, Columbus will load the appropriate editor without any configuration.

Since the end of last year , Columbus has been available for download on a website. One of the practices to down - load it is Archimedia Consulting, which comprises architect Mervyn Hill and two architectural technologist s, all operating from their homes in the north of England, with a port folio of work ranging in value from £15,000 to £2.5 million.

The hardest p art of spending all your time flashing material back and forth over the Internet is knowing who has got what, which generation it is, and making sure it ends up in the right directory , Hill says. Columbus software will make it a lot easier to keep in close touch with collaborators throughout the design and procurement chain by streamlining the transfer and notification process and by providing an audit trail of information transactions.

At a simplistic level, Columbus based project s allow very quick preview of almost any file type. The updated version (v2.02) links to the latest Auto - CAD Volo Viewer .

Creating project-specific templates is carried out in a text editor this is effective but can appear a little inelegant for users familiar with wizards in other programs.

One particular advantage to my practice is that Columbus allows peer-to-peer networks to see all information for a particular project as a seamless series of files, even though the material is held on a series of PCs in geographically dispersed offices.

Hill appreciates the system s role as servant rather than master: Most document management systems use some form of database to control the accession, iteration and distribution of documents. They usually offer very powerful control and administration facilities, provided that the system is allowed to t a k e over the interface between the user and the document. Columbus is a file management system which allows the user to retain a far greater degree of control over the interface, but with a corresponding trade-of f from control and administration.

There is already a busy Internet forum on the Columbus website, and upgrades appear on the website as soon as Oasys has them available for internal distribution within Arup.

To see a demonstration of Columbus or to download it, visit Ove Arup s website at www.arup.com/columbus. For details of seminars, contact Oasys on 020 7465 3302.

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