Canadian Consulting Engineer

Exploring Extranets

In an Internet-based economy engineers will log onto a secure extranet to work on projects. Already a host of companies are waiting to help you get on-line.Fast and accurate communication is a consult...

March 1, 2000   By Paul Doherty

In an Internet-based economy engineers will log onto a secure extranet to work on projects. Already a host of companies are waiting to help you get on-line.

Fast and accurate communication is a consulting engineering firm’s most potent weapon in today’s competitive market. As a result, project extranets, or Web-based communication systems, are emerging as an important tool. Their use is spurred by the adoption of digital information throughout the construction process, and the need for better management of information and control of the project.

An extranet allows authorized people access to project information on a secure web site. These web sites act as your project’s home page where you can put drawing files, specifications, cut sheets and perform certain project specific tasks, such as requests for information or shop drawing logs.

Concerns about using project extranets are varied and depend on who is raising them.

The owner might ask:

What direct benefit will an extranet have on the project?

Will it slow down the construction due to a contractor (or subcontractors) taking time to learn the system instead of doing the work?

The contractor may question:

Who is going to pay for it?

I’ve been building for a number of years without an extranet, why do I want to use one now?

The consulting engineer may ask:

Who is going to pay for it?

Is it secure so drawings are not taken without my approval?

How is it different from other project management products that I use already (Primavera, Meridian)?

There are, however, many reasons for overcoming such hesitations and considering using a project-specific web site. The principal benefits are that a site gives time savings and better decision making during the design and construction phase. Whereas cost savings are minimal and hard to measure, time savings can be easily verified by seeing the turnaround times of data flow such as requests for information.

Other key reasons for using a project extranet are:

— to reduce communication errors among project team members

— to capture up-to-the-minute intelligence on all the decisions and collective information relating to a project

— to cut the cost of couriers, copies, and blueprints

— because you can customize the site for each project and each team member

— because it gives ubiquitous accessibility

— because it is secure.

We are also finding that there are additional benefits for the owner after the building is built. Using tools such as a corporate intranet, SAP, Peoplesoft or other enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, owners can interact with project data captured on the extranet, such as CAD, specs and cost reports.

There are choices in implementing an extranet. Your firm may elect to host a project extranet system internally within its own computer systems. You may outsource the maintenance of the system to a commercial solution provider. Or, at the client’s request, you could upload project information into the client’s project extranet.

Most engineering firms do not have the technical, financial, or human resources required to operate a project site internally. Therefore they either turn to the growing cadre of commercial providers of Web-based project management services, or they become part of the project team participating in the client’s own project-specific Web site.

Using a commercial project extranet service is similar to using an online service like America Online. You pay for it monthly, but the difference is that you use the extranet service’s software products tailored to the industry’s needs. This approach has huge benefits concerning maintenance and upgrades, but you are giving up control of instant access to your information because it is on the Web. If you, or anyone else on your project team has trouble getting online, you will have difficulty accessing project information.

An important management decision concerns who on the project team should have access to what information. The answer is that the entire project team should have access to the project extranet, although at different levels. A sub-contractor, for example, should have access to drawings, specifications and other pieces of information that are pertinent to them, but they should not have access to the project budget. The reason for having the entire team involved is so that enough information can be captured to allow people to make smarter, more knowledgeable decisions and to generate the “digital DNA” of the building.

Promise and problems

Standards are much needed if the extranet market is to grow successfully. Standard XML (eXtensible Markup Language) tags would be a beginning stage for smart linking of extranet services, regardless of what database they use. This lack of standards is a huge problem at the moment. There is no easy transition from one extranet service to another, either between projects or within projects. One solution being developed is a Project Portal that lists all projects a user is subscribed to in one easy-to-use interface. The portal grabs all the subscribed extranet data and publishes the results to the end user. It is a very expensive process at this time and not as efficient as if there were a set standard, like XML.

To be a truly useful system for engineering firms, project extranets must grow beyond the “low hanging fruit” of project management in order to survive since engineering firms provide many other services. Indeed, extranet systems that do provide other services, especially critical CAD services, are emerging to become the new desktops for engineering firms. The ability to run not only project management functions via an internet-based subscription model, but also applications like CAD, has staggering consequences for firms.

In addition, extranets will be able to outsource every software function of an engineer’s office, meaning that your CAD, project management, even financial information will not reside on internal firm networks, but rather will be set up on an extranet-type system as a subscription service. This type of service is provided by Application Service Providers (ASP).

Extranet services are also emerging as e-commerce centres for purchasing services and products, which will lead to stock market type purchases. If, for example, someone were interested in purchasing 30 windows and had a budget price in mind, they can use the search utility in the extranet system to go out and request bids for, say, $6,000. The system will monitor and report back when the price reaches the mark, on how long it will take to get the product to the job site, and what method of payment is required. The analogy is eBay meets Yahoo for the building industry.

There are, however, still some problems associated with project extranet usage. If any project team members do not have access to the internet they are kept out of the loop. Getting connected to the project extranet web site can be slow or it can be entirely offline due to heavy internet traffic or service problems. In addition, the contractor, architect and engineer might each want to use their own extranet solution. Which service does a project team use when faced with this dilemma?

A key failure point in extranet projects is a lack of training, support and business processes. It is not that these functions are performed incorrectly, but that they are not performed at all. Being aware of this lack, and making plans to remedy it, will help avoid failure.

Choosing the right system

At the time of publishing there were 60 available extranet systems on the World Wide Web according to Extranet World (http://www.extranets.cc). From these, we have chosen eight systems that meet an engineering firm’s needs well. Our selection criteria included: relevance to the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) market, financial stability, executive talent, functionality of system (AEC-specific work flow), future growth plans, and estimated market share of online projects. We concentrated on the top four services for this article.

Project extranet market leaders include t
he “Killer B’s” (in no particular order):

buzzsaw.com (www.buzzsaw.com)

Bricsnet.com (www.bricsnet.com)

Bidcom (www.bidcom.com)

Blueline/Online (http://bluelineonline.com)

Emerging contenders include:

Collaborative Structures (www.collaborativestructures.com)

Constructware (www.constructware.com)

Framework Technologies (www.frametech.com)

MP Interactive (www.mpinteractive.com)

buzzsaw.com. Buzzsaw.com and bricsnet.com are two service providers that are beginning to offer services beyond project management, calling their services integrated environments. Buzzsaw.com’s free service and affiliation with CAD market leader Autodesk gave it an enormous boost when it entered the market in November 1999. The seamless integration with native AutoCAD documents, as well as DWF (Drawing Web Format) documents, is giving buzzsaw.com users a familiar environment in which to work. Buzzsaw’s project management tools, called ProjectPoint, are very good.

Based on ActiveX technology, ProjectPoint does not use Java for its interactive interface, giving its users superior system integrity over its competitors. Its integration with other types of industry data like product information is good, but is not adapted to Canadian focused projects.

Bricsnet.com. Bricsnet.com has been moving in a similar path of integrating CAD in that it has secured the rights to package the Open Source CAD product IntelliCAD from Microsoft/Visio. Bricsnet’s project management system, called ProjectCenter (formally called EVOLV) has one of the easiest to use interfaces, along with robust work flow tools for RFI’s, and free use of the American Institute of Architects’ G-Series Documents, which include Change Order Requests. Bricsnet’s integration of Microsoft/Visio’s IntelliCAD with ProjectCenter is an alternative to buzzsaw’s integration of AutoCAD and ProjectPoint. The differences lie in the pricing structure, where buzzsaw.com is free to use. Each one of your limitless number of projects that you run on buzzsaw is provided with 100 Mb free. For a nominal amount, you can choose to increase the storage space for the project. Bricsnet charges on a per project basis, around the U.S. $289 range per month, but has plans eventually to provide its IntelliCAD product for free.

This leads to three questions:

Do you pay for CAD with one provider but get your extranet service for free?

Do you pay for the extranet service and get your CAD for free?

Which of the remaining extranet services will purchase or partner with Bentley Systems, the number two market leader in CAD, and what will their pricing plan be?

In addition to the CAD feature, Bricsnet is integrating resource information, including product manufacturer data, and is focusing its resources by region.

Bidcom. Bidcom has also integrated with Construction Market Data Group’s information and launched its highly touted eMarketplace for the Building Industry this past November. Although not yet integrated with a CAD product, Bidcom’s eBusiness solutions are proving to be a commerce and content hub with numerous high profile clients. Bidcom’s high visibility in Silicon Valley has pushed it into the forefront of “mindshare” and it takes advantage of this by backing up its system with very good process mapping tools that are built in. Bidcom is also the first to integrate tightly its project service tools for use on a palm device for mobile computing in the field. The fees for using Bidcom vary but can be in the U.S. $2,500 per month range for a mid-sized project.

Blueline Online. By using their ProjectNet service, users are treated to a familiar Outlook-style interface that can be customized. One of the first companies to emerge in this space, Blueline Online is making large strides in getting projects actually using the service. With numerous high profile projects under their belts and backing from Bechtel, Blueline Online is proving its staying power while reinventing itself as a project portal company. Its pricing structure is close to Bidcom’s.

Project extranets have evolved very quickly and they have created as many issues as they have answered. Still their benefits go beyond the immediate project needs. Using extranets, your firm will be creating vertical data silos of project information. The smart firm will create reporting tools that can look horizontally through these silos for trends, scenarios and general firm intelligence. This powerful ability will be the differentiating factor between one engineering firm and another as we move forward in this internet-based economy.CCE

Paul Doherty, AIA is a principal in the digit group, Global Management and Information Technology Consulting and Services, in Germantown, Tennessee (www.thedigitgroup.com)


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