Just as the telegraph revolutionized communication in the 19th century--followed by the telephone and fax in the 20th century--today we have e-mail and the Internet. The changes they have brought about are dramatic. Five years ago, few companies had a Web site; today, they are fast becoming an essential part of doing business. Project management via the Internet is also taking bold steps to establish itself as the new way of doing things.

"Today, most projects over $15 million are being considered for their own websites, while the really large ones ($500 million or more) have websites implented without questions," Jonathan Antevy says. "It's analogous to the fax machine. Are there still a few firms who don't have fax machines? Yes, but I think projects that required a fax will also require Internet systems--and the lower limit, as it pertains to project size, could be as small as a few hundred thousand dollars."

Antevy is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of MP Interactive Corp., a company specializing in the design and implementation of Internet-based project communication systems. In 1996, he was honored by Engineering News-Record as one of the top newsmakers of the year for pioneering the move of practical construction applications onto the Worldwide Web.

"There are many advantages to using Internet project communication and management systems," Antevy says. "For example, Internet systems are centrally located, allowing interaction with the data using only a Web browser, accessible via a local phone call. This means that anyone with a Web browser can now access information regardless of their location, or hardware and software infrastructure. In addition, by having other connections into one central system, the need for updating multiple computers when new software is shipped is eliminated."

One such Internet system is e-BuilderT, created by MP Interactive specifically to meet the needs of AEC firms. e-Builder's features enable users to manage, retrieve and submit RFIs; view and submit digital project photos; post critical project announcements; send and receive messages securely; store important project files; engage in group discussions; obtain context sensitive help on command; retrieve participant information, such as addresses and phone numbers; and designate an administrator to oversee users, change passwords and manage access privileges via the Web browser. The Web site can be accessed at www.e-builder.net.

e-Builder is based on the Project Specific Web Site (PSWS), a communication tool developed by MP Interactive and currently used by owners, contractors, architects, subcontractors and engineers. According to Antevy, these clients report significant benefits including improvement in RFI cycle times, decreased travel expenses, reduced mail expenditures, lowered insurance premiums, expedited project closeout times, enhanced ability to search and retrieve archived project information, and successful bid competition.

"e-Builder enables quick, efficient and informed decision making," Antevy says. "In addition, it improves productivity and produces significant balance sheet savings."

However, with the introduction of any new system, objections and resistance are bound to be encountered. "We encounter skeptics all the time," Antevy says. "Today, most of them are big proponents of Internet project communication and management." Some of the objections MP Interactive has encountered and how they overcame them include:

"We already have a system." The new system doesn't have to eliminate the current system; rather, the new system can be integrated into existing systems and processes.

"We don't want to change." For the new system to be successful, owners must be fully committed to it and provide reinforcement for the project team. "Unfortunately, we cannot play the role owner," Antevy says.

"I don't want to give up the actual CAD drawings to my team members as that is my livelihood." Technology is available that converts native CAD drawing to a non-threatening graphic file.

"I'm concerned about security." Aside from all the new encryption technology, there will always be a way to get in, but project communications, for the most part, are not that sensitive. "Of course, the pros far outweigh the cons," Antevy says. "I also remind people that the cell phones they use are very insecure, but would they not use them for fear of eavesdroppers?"

Another provider of Internet-based services, Meridian Project Systems (online at www.mps.com), creates project-specific Web sites. According to the company, advantages include:

  • Reducing communication errors among project team members.

  • Capturing up-to-the-minute information on all the decisions relating to a project.

  • Cutting the costs for duplicating and shipping copies, blueprints, etc.

  • The ability to customize each project to suit the needs of the team members.

  • Providing 24-hour accessibility to project information.

On Meridian's system, security is maintained by issuing passwords and allowing the various parties to have access only to those areas that are pertinent to them. For example, a plumbing subcontractor would be able to view drawings, specifications, change orders and RFIs, but would not be able to access information such as the project's budget.

Environmental Systems Design, Inc. (www.esdesign.com), one of the largest consulting engineering firms in the Midwest, has a project Web site feature dedicated to individual projects and designed to enhance communication and collaboration among team members. It is intended mainly for use by the client and ESD personnel. Projects can be updated instantly with notices documenting any changes automatically sent to all subscribers. This helps reduce copying, printing, mailing and other related costs. ESD maintains its customized site without the aid of a third party.

Interactive meetings are also possible with most Internet-based systems. This allows clients and team members from around the world to attend, regardless of their locations. Accountability is also maintained. Every event or activity on the site is tracked and logged, allowing for decision-making tracking, as well as simple bookkeeping.

More Input Leads to Better Plants

New construction projects aren't the only area where the Internet can enhance efficiency.

Welch's is the world's leading marketer of Concord and Niagara grapes. Headquartered in Concord, MA, the company oversees the processing and marketing of products from the 1,400 grower members of the National Grape Cooperative Association. When it comes to designing and modifying the company's processing plants, Welch's relies heavily on Internet project management.

Engineers usually manage seven to 10 projects at one time. To keep on schedule, they rely on constant communication with the plants while designing new manufacturing lines or reengineering existing facilities. For example, if Welch's is planning a new kettle installation, engineers can post AutoCAD drawings for review and get immediate feedback to learn if the new equipment will block paths or transport juice and jam efficiently. If an installation requires several pieces of equipment, AutodeskT software lets designers reroute existing equipment and reuse parts of their drawings, saving time and money.

"People are becoming more comfortable with technology, and they are not afraid to refer to our engineering drawings," says Heather Vitella, a Welch's engineer. "We have found that our drawings and 3D renderings are a great way to communicate, present more ideas, and evaluate costs all at once."

Streamlining the Inspection Process

Construction inspectors can also benefit from using the Internet. The Inspections Division of the city of Greensboro, NC, uses technology developed by BellSouth Mobility to allow its inspectors to conduct a greater number of inspections and return the results more quickly. The Mobile Inspector system combines handheld computers with an automated system, APRIL (Automated Attendant for Permits, Plan Review, Inspections and Local Ordinance Enforcement), to assign inspections, provide an itinerary for inspectors and provide 24-hour access for scheduling inspections and receiving results.

The system also allows inspectors to begin and end each day in the field. Prior to using the Mobile Inspector, the first two hours of each inspector's day was spent driving to the office, getting assignments and filling out paperwork. Inspectors can now begin their workday by reporting directly to their van, where they log onto their computer and receive an electronic itinerary for the day.

Upon completion of each assignment, the inspector enters the results directly into a handheld computer, then places the computer into a docking station inside the van. The computer, which is polled every four minutes, then transfers the inspection results to the main inspection system computer and updates the files. The system allows inspectors to exchange data without the hassle of paperwork or travel time back and forth to a central location.

"The Mobile Inspector has transformed the inspection process in Greensboro, allowing us to deliver better service to our customers by giving us more time to conduct more inspections," said Walter "Butch" Simmons, Code Enforcement Manager, Engineering and Inspections Dept.

The Mobile Inspector has also made the inspection process easier for contractors and others who need to request an inspection. In the past, inspections could only be scheduled between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. Callers now have 24-hour access to schedule building, plumbing, mechanical and electrical inspections. The system will also call or send a fax to a pre-designated number to let the builder or owner know if the inspection has been approved or rejected. This eliminates the need to have someone to drive to the job site to see if the inspection card has been signed.

In addition, in the case of a final inspection, the appropriate utilities--electric, natural gas, water and sewer--are notified that the inspection is complete and that the utilities can be turned on.

Permits Without Pain

Obtaining a permit is a process that has always been time-consuming and often annoying for contractors and engineering firms. Several services now make that process less painful. One of the most prominent is NetClerk, Inc., based in South San Francisco, CA. The company's forms management service was set up to guide firms through the bureaucracy of permit requisition, completion, submission and archival to save them time and money.

Having completed beta testing in scores of cities in the San Francisco bay area last month, the company is now gearing up for a general launch of its forms management service. Operating exclusively through its Web site, www.netclerk.com, the company expects to offer more than 5,000 forms and be in 2,000 cities by early 2001.

"Because many firms do business regionally in many cities and counties, they need one aggregated interface through which they can do business," Jon Fisher, the company's Chief Executive Officer, says. "We can instantly include any city in the country in our application because what we do is automatically aggregate them. We integrate our Web-based permit applications--electronic versions of their actual paper forms--into their standard permit processing procedures. We're nearly invisible to the cities we deal with."

NetClerk provides a four-part service that helps makes the permit application and tracking process easier:

Forms Requisition. Users can enter their password and select the permit form they need for a given job. They then download the form and complete it online.

Forms Completion. This feature eliminates the need to enter repetitive information. The user fills out one profile with all the basic criteria needed for most permits. "Every time they bring up a new form, they can have all of that data automatically populate the form," Fisher says. "This feature fills out one-third to one-half of the form automatically."

Forms Submission. This feature electronically routes the permit with payment to the appropriate authority. "They push a button and payment and the form are submitted--no one ever has to show up at the counter," Fisher says. "We cut their time in half across the board."

Forms Archive. This feature allows for electronic storage of a firm's filed forms and easy retrieval of copies when they are needed.

NetClerk's charges range from $50 to $2,500 per month, depending on the volume of permits that a firm does. Fisher said that firms can also use the service on a per-submission basis without purchasing the full package. The cost for this is $20.

NetClerk's future plans include expanding the service offerings available to the company's customer base. Currently under design is an e-commerce service that will allow NetClerk customers to purchase the goods and service they need to complete the job for which they are obtaining the permit.

OnlinePermits! is another company that offers a permit and forms management service. Participating cities currently include Houston, Cincinnati, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa, CA. Available online at www.permitsonline.com, the company offers services that include: online permit application, electronic permit fee payment, online inspection scheduling, access to public parcel/ownership data, secured access for works in progress, and faster turnaround on plan checks.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

"E-commerce is surely the next big change," Antevy says, "although it will take at least two to three years before it starts to gain wide acceptance. The idea is that all the purchases done for projects go through the Internet. Billing, estimating, etc., all would be programmed in. However, even I question how well the Internet can handle delivery, warranty and maintenance aspects. A lot of standardization will need to take place."