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Virtual filing cabinets

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To make better use of your existing IT, why not consider using project-hosting websites to improve performance and profits

Some years ago I worked as a draftsman for a structural engineer in North Yorkshire. This was back in the days when my back ached from leaning over a drawing board, and producing drawings was a linear process with just one person working on one drawing at any one time.

When I left to study architecture, a computer replaced me.

With the advent of the affordable PC came the ability to draw on a computer. Backache vanished and eyestrain became the norm. But the computer did have other advantages.

Early adopters of CAD applications were able to gain a competitive advantage and, in turn, they were either able to charge higher fees for their services or complete work in a shorter time, thereby increasing profits.

My former employer invested in CAD and never looked back. It realized that if the computer was to be used for one task, then the product of that task might easily be reused in the execution of another. The computer enabled it to change its linear process of structural design and drafting. It integrated its spreadsheet macros used for calculating the design of steel portal-frame buildings with its new CAD tool and immediately truncated a three-day job into a morning's work.

Now everyone uses CAD, and it is accepted that the digital drawings produced by one designer have inherent value to another, thus reducing duplication of effort and increasing the value of using the computer. E-mail has made sending and receiving digital drawings easy.

There is, however, a problem with sending information via e-mail (or fax); it requires human interaction at one end of the wire. In the global economy we collaborate with other designers, suppliers and manufacturers who are often dotted around the world and whose working day rarely corresponds with ours. However, it is possible to use the different time zones to our advantage, and share the workload so that we are effectively continuously producing design information 24 hours of each and every day.

While the benefits of shortening the time it takes to get from the initial concept to site are clear, there is little overlap between one's working day in London and another's in, say, Indonesia. The possibility of someone being available when you want to ask a question or to request some information via e-mail is slim. Therefore, if you are unable to access information until the following day (when your request has been turned around) the benefit of continuous working is lost.

The technological solution to this human problem is to store project information where everyone can access it all of the time.

Project websites have been growing in numbers during the past few years and the market is awash with offerings from CAD companies such as Autodesk's Buzzsaw. com and Bentley's Viecon. com, and from independent companies including both Caddnet. net and Citadon. com (created following the merger of cephren. com + BuildOnline. com).

As with many other things in life, you get what you pay for.

The tools developed by the CAD companies have tighter integration with their CAD applications. This makes extracting only the desired information from a file a simple process. For example, this year Viecon. com intends to deliver the kind of component-level searches which will, for example, locate all the steel columns on a plan and display them on screen.While this functionality is of benefit to some, it does not address wider issues such as full data management and data security.

Unfortunately the services which are offered free of charge are often the technological equivalent of a culde-sac, and will leave you wanting as the project develops. They are little more than a virtual filing cabinet with no project management facilities. If you want full data management with high levels of access control and file-history tracking then you are getting into some expensive waters.

So which project management solution should you choose - a project website or a fully functioning data management solution?

If you are just starting on a project, you would probably select the web approach as you may not be certain of the project's longevity and you may not wish to invest heavily in hardware, software and network infrastructure. Conversely, your choice may be made for you by a third party who may be appointed to manage the project and who intends to implement their own 'back-office' data management system.

Instead of having a 'back-office' solution with the ability to publish data to the web, which has high startup costs, wouldn't it make more sense to start with a free web-hosted service, which can be scaled up so that the functionality always matches your requirements? Better still, choose a service which can be configured to synchronize automatically with the system selected by the client or project manager; this will enable the data produced at the start of the project to be available throughout the process without further intervention on your part.

If reducing duplication does lead to increased profits for the practice and better buildings for the client, then reusing design data is an essential move.

Joe Croser is a director with CAD consultancy Adrem-DCX, e-mail Joec@adrem-dcx. com

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