Boosting Integration, Reducing Frustration16 May, 2007 By: Heather Livingston
Software for AEC firms can streamline process and productivity issues within the company's current IT infrastructure.
Ever incorrectly code a metatag, causing you to misplace critical information? How about file an email in the wrong project folder? You’re not alone, but Newforma, based in Manchester, New Hampshire, hopes that your numbers will soon be dwindling.
Newforma was founded in 2003 by seven AEC and software engineering professionals, whose goal was to create a comprehensive software solution to streamline project process and productivity issues -- all while working within a firm’s existing IT infrastructure. Newforma Project Center, the company’s flagship software product, is used by AEC/O to manage project information, issues, submittals, transmittals, internal document quality control, design iteration and takeoff. “We don’t give firms the overhead like a document management or a project extranet system where you’ve got to organize the information,” said Ian Howell, CEO. “We’re giving them a basis to reach in and get the information in a project context, which allows new employees on the project team or in the office to be productive much more quickly.”
To pinpoint the problems, Howell said, the company started by identifying AEC customers’ “points of pain” in the project process and execution. By and large, the customers interviewed were happy with individual applications, with most using programs that have developed into best in class, but because those applications automated a single task, customers ended up having information islands. “They had a bunch of information about cost in the Timberline product,” Howell said. “They had information about scheduling and resource planning in Primavera and all of the documentation trapped in AutoCAD, so these became islands of information.” Adding to the confusion, customers were frustrated by the difficulties of sharing and reusing information.
Howell says that to find the solution, they modeled the manufacturing industry. “The way manufacturing [achieved] their efficiency was to take a process view,” he explains. To take the process view, you need to be able to draw out different pieces of information at different times and you need to involve various decision makers in different roles. Newforma’s goal was to reach into the existing islands of digital information and connect them, allowing information to be shared and reused while streamlining the process and the information flow. The resulting Newforma Project Center divides its functionality into three main categories: finding and organizing project information; sharing and communicating with the project team; and enhancing and reusing project information for streamlined work process.
Finding and Organizing
“When we started the business we didn’t know that project email, with its overflowing Inboxes and inability to open attachments was one of the highest points of pain for every customer in the industry,” Howell said. To address this problem, the team created a plug-in to Outlook that allows users to take any piece of project information out of the Inbox and put it on the central file server as part of the project documents.
Then, it became clear that finding information stored on multiple networks was often difficult and time consuming. Although firms invest considerable dollars in project and document management systems, the programs require a lot of structure. Team members need to file materials very carefully in a predefined hierarchy and metadata has to be applied for search filters. However, Howell said, “at the end of the day, that’s just not how architects and engineers work.” The Newforma team realized that a lot of time and money is wasted searching for project information, so they came up with a search tool that reaches into project data across all the different AEC file formats to help users find what they need. The search function enables users to find documents and files in CAD, PDF, DWF and Word formats and also in zipped files and email.
Newforma software integrates with Microsoft Outlook so that AEC project team members can file messages and process issues, submittals and transmittals from their email in-boxes.
Newforma Project Center's search, sort and filter capabilities enable HOK Sport team members to find keywords and phrases in any of 195 AEC file types, including Microsoft Outlook email, email attachments and drawing x-references.
Sharing and Communicating
Another point of pain the developers identified is file conversion and sharing among project team members. During the course of the project, it’s inevitable that files will be received in a non-compatible format. “Today, even in very advanced digital offices, the best work practice is that the project manager walks down the corridor and says to the CAD guy, 'Can you plot this out for me please?' ” Howell noted. Everything deteriorates and regresses right back down to paper, a red pen and a fax back to the contractor. To combat this problem, Newforma has a single viewer that will open attachments regardless of the file format, allowing redline and markup on the screen through a simple tool. According to Howell, “you don’t have to be a CAD guy to be able to use Newforma.”
In addition, when sending a project email, the message is automatically filed in a transmittals log, capturing a record of the transaction.
Enhancing and Reusing
To eliminate lengthy manual comparison, Newforma visually identifies differences between iterative versions of project folders, documents sets or drawing files. The project issue function allows issues to be managed and tracked throughout the project lifecycle and automatically logged to the project and supporting documents. Finally, a submittals activity center facilitates the receipt, processing, review and approval of submittals by the design team through batch import from Excel.
But, what Howell thinks firms most appreciate about Newforma is the ability to “drape” its solution over a company's existing infrastructure. Users don’t have to stop using their existing applications or reconfigure existing servers. “We come in and sit in a very complementary way where we coexist on the network and take advantage of everything that’s there,” Howell said. “They like that because it gives them a quick win.”