AEC Tech News #139

2 Mar, 2005 By: Michael Dakan

Cadalyst AEC Tech News

Examining AEC File Exchange

Survey finds e-mail dominates data sharing
in AEC, but physical file delivery still heavy

A recently released survey completed by the Harris Interactive polling organization has outlined the current state of document/file sharing issues among AEC industry participants. Adobe Systems commissioned the survey and allowed Cadalyst to review the results. The survey looked at all types of file-exchange formats, not just Adobe's PDF.

The Internet-based questionnaire, which did not identify Adobe as the sponsor, resulted in 965 qualified respondents — 444 architectural and engineering design professionals, 430 construction/project management consultants and 91 building owners and facility managers.

Results were not especially surprising; however, the data is extensive and informative, and it highlights the magnitude of current file- and information-exchange issues AEC. In the September 16, 2004 edition of this newsletter, I reported on a NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) study that pegged the cost of inadequate interoperability in the AEC industry at a whopping $15.8 billion annually. Explaining those staggering numbers, the study cited interoperability in electronic file and information exchange among industry participants as one of the greatest factors, along with lack of adequate CAD and other information standards (which this newsletter has recently discussed) and other interoperability issues.

Document Exchange for a Typical Project
E-mail is the most used method of document exchange — 90% of survey respondents use this method. Physical delivery of files is still heavily used, but tends to be more popular with construction professionals and owners/operators than with architects and engineers.

File formats currently being exchanged within and outside organizations run the gamut. The most popular file formats and types that organizations typically share, exchange or collaborate on with internal and/or external project members, according to the survey, are Word (88%), Excel (82%), JPG (77%), PDF (74%) and PowerPoint (65%). The most common file formats shared with outside organizations by survey respondents are Word (63%), PDF (53%), Excel (47%), JPG (28%) and 2D CAD (26%).

CAD information is heavily exchanged in electronic and hard copy format among design professionals in the industry, but 41% of survey respondents overall said they never work with CAD files. About two-thirds (62%) of the owners/operators do not work with CAD files at all; on the other hand, 41% of all respondents reported they do sometimes review or read information from CAD files.

2D and 3D CAD represent 42% and 20%, respectively, of files exchanged both internally and externally. CAD files are most commonly reviewed both on paper and electronically. One-third are reviewed electronically only, and 18% are reviewed on paper only.

The top three difficulties, or "pain points," cited by respondents related to current information-exchange methods were:

  • the number of different file types and applications they need to deal with (39%)
  • the amount of time it takes to search for documents (35%)
  • lack of ability to manage document workflow across different disciplines (33%)

Survey Conclusions
The survey concluded: "The AEC industry is often faced with grueling deadlines and performance contracts that can be costly and expose companies to legal liability if deadlines are missed or critical information is overlooked or mismanaged. As such, not only do documents need to be accurate and secure, but they must be distributed to members of the project teams in a timely manner. Customers rate this as the most important need or pain point in document exchange efficiency.

"Since a large portion of customers indicate that documents are still being delivered using traditional methods (fax, courier, mail), an electronic solution that allows customers to combine all key file formats and send them electronically to team members in a secure fashion, would improve efficiency. Overall, there is significant room for improvement in the document exchange process to support the AEC industry."

What the survey did not say specifically, but what would be a logical extrapolation of the data, is that AEC needs a document-management solution that utilizes an almost-universal file type — such as Adobe's Acrobat PDF (portable document file) format — to address many of these pain points. The survey did identify that almost all the respondent organizations (97%) have and use Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader software to some extent.

Especially with the release of the latest version 7.0 of Acrobat Professional software (reviewed in the January 20 edition of this newsletter), which improves its ability to handle CAD files and to package files from multiple applications into one PDF file, Adobe Acrobat 7.0 goes a long way toward offering a viable document- and workflow-management solution that addresses many AEC-related information-exchange issues.

A Side Note About My Reviews
On the subject of my Acrobat write-up, I should mention that after I reviewed Acrobat 7.0 Professional, several readers wrote to ask whether the new Acrobat addresses certain details of various CAD file handling — problems they'd experienced with previous versions. I want to clarify that discussions of new software or software upgrades in this newsletter seldom qualify as full software reviews and testing such as those you might find in the print edition of Cadalyst magazine -- which is to say that in these cases, I likely have not tested every feature of CAD programs and other complex applications. My advice to the readers who raised questions about how well Acrobat handles things such as wipeouts and text masks is this: You should always test new software in the specific ways you use CAD to ascertain if it will adequately meet your specific needs. No review or testing regimen is likely to address all possible ways CAD can be used.

Summing Up
My enthusiasm for Adobe Acrobat files has more to do with its abilities to work with a wide range of file types as well as the file exchange and archival needs of the kinds of overall document management issues identified in the Harris poll than the specifics of how well it handles CAD files. CAD is obviously important to us in the AEC design professional disciplines, but it is still only a portion of the larger document- and information-management picture.