Sign on the Digital Line

3 Jun, 2009 By: Gadi Aharoni

Expedited workflows and significant cost savings are motivating AEC firms to adopt digital signature technology.

The Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority (PRHTA) was running the risk of not satisfying review standards because of improper project documentation and approvals -- and was in jeopardy of losing federal funding. By implementing a digital signature solution and requiring inspection staff to place digital signatures on project documentation, PRHTA was able to increase employee accountability, eliminate fraudulent requests for certifications, and guarantee that payments were timely and accurate. As a result, the agency significantly improved its review standings, which removed the authority's high risk status and the possibility of losing federal funding.

As AEC firms attempt to alleviate the pains they encounter in collaborative work, many are turning to standards-based digital signature solutions like CoSign digital signature software from Arx to streamline and accelerate these business processes. Using digital signatures is saving tens of thousands of dollars with each project while expediting daily workflows and enabling faster project completion. Digital signatures also bring a quick return on investment (ROI), with annual cost savings reaching several hundred thousand dollars for some firms.

Evolution of Digital Signatures
A digital signature takes the concept of a traditional paper-based signature into the digital realm by creating a digital fingerprint for the document. This signed fingerprint is unique to both the document and the signer, and it conveys any changes that have been made to the document. These capabilities replace written signatures or stamps but serve the same purpose: assuring a recipient that the document was signed by a specific person and validating the veracity of the file content.

An example of a digitally signed document.

The technology behind digital signatures has been around for more than 30 years. However, it was stymied by high costs and lengthy deployments. In the traditional public key infrastructure (PKI) digital signature architecture, user signing keys (private keys) are stored in software or hardware tokens, which creates technical and logistical problems and significantly increased the total cost of ownership of the system.

The PKI technology in a digital signature is used to establish that the signatory is indeed responsible for the signature in the message and that the signer approves the content of the document. PKI technology is well established and accepted as the only standard method capable of guaranteeing an electronic document has not been altered. Any changes made to the document after it has been signed invalidate the digital signature, thereby protecting against forgery, ensuring no repudiation, and securing the documentation.

Today, new centralized approaches that enable intuitive user management have solved the cost and deployment issues. In centralized systems, signing keys are stored in a central secured repository.

Digital Signatures in the AEC Market
The routine processes of AEC organizations require multiple signing authorizations from internal employees, external partners, and third-party entities. Documents ranging from drawings to invoices to contracts must be signed before work can proceed. The need to either route paper-based documentation or reintroduce paper into document-management (DM) and workflow systems for signature purposes creates extensive bottlenecks and brings progress to a halt.

By introducing easily implemented standards-based digital signatures, organizations can maintain expedited and fully electronic workflows from document creation through signing authorization to enhance collaboration and speed project turnaround. Specifically, standards-based digital signatures allow organizations using collaborative software such as Autodesk Constructware or Bentley ProjectWise to leverage the full benefit of their web-based tools by enabling them to seal electronic documents and files.

A signed and approved document.

A signature shows that this document was reviewed but not approved.

AEC organizations can also cut costs by using digital signatures to reduce both paper-related signing costs, including printing, shipping, and archiving, as well as the staff costs incurred by time-consuming operations such as the manual routing of documents, scanning, shipping, archiving, and retrieving misplaced documents.

Stimulating Business Processes
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. government's recent stimulus package, will invest $150 billion in the country's infrastructure and should significantly affect the AEC industry. It highlights the benefits that digital signature solutions can provide to AEC organizations. Calling for transparency and accountability in the use of the finances provided, the act includes specific objectives for funding recipients. Among them are the prevention of fraud, abuse, and protracted spending.

A digital signature's uniqueness and ability to detect changes that have been made to a document after signing enhances an organization's capacity to combat fraud, error, and abuse. The additional control and significant efficiency gains from use of digital signatures also can help organizations expedite stimulus spending and cope with the influx of work that results from the stimulus plan.

Choosing a Digital Signature Solution
Not all digital signature software is the same. Consider the following features as you evaluate different products.

Portable, nonproprietary technology. Because most AEC workflow is collaborative, documentation is passed regularly between organizations working on projects. To address this transfer process, the ideal digital signature solution for AEC organizations must be portable and nonproprietary. Solutions that embed the standard signature technology directly into mainstream business applications allow anyone to verify and retain proof of identity, intent, and document integrity without costly, complicated, or proprietary software. This scenario truly enables seamless collaborative work.

Central user management. A digital signature technology that enables centralized management leverages the organization's active directory (and similar lightweight directory access protocol [LDAP]-based user directories) to ensure a rapid setup. This lets users sign within hours of initial deployment. This allows a company to use its existing management procedures and policies while consuming almost no additional IT staff time.

Interoperability and ease of use. AEC organizations should make sure that any digital signature solution they consider provide two other characteristics: broad application support and ease of use. It is extremely problematic to deploy a technology that does not allow the organization to continue using all its current and future applications, without interrupting established operating procedures. This touches on the need for a solution to be simple as well. An intuitive user interface enables quick and simple signing, verification, and retention of digital documents. Put each potential product to the test to ensure the signature process is quick and easy.

Users enter digital signature criteria in a dialog box, then the official signature appears automatically on the document itself.

With benefits that include expedited workflows and reduced costs, the number of AEC organizations that adopt digital signature technology will likely increase significantly during the next few years and even become an industry-wide standard, much like they are now in life sciences and other highly regulated industries.