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Sat 7 May 2005 04:00 AM

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Net gains of using a web-based collaboration system

Web-based collaboration is gaining popularity as an effective means of handling vast amounts of information

Net gains of using a web-based collaboration system|~|71 Vis a vis body pic.jpg|~||~|Major projects rely on offices from all over the world to generate drawings and documents that enable the actual work on site to proceed as planned. Construction Week speaks to Leigh Jasper, the director of Aconex, about how web-based collaboration can effectively manage and track the distribution of vital project information.

Are more companies now using web-based collaboration?

There is a trend for projects, particularly the larger ones,
to move towards web-based collaboration systems to track and control all the information that flows between the various parties working on a project. This can be seen in all major markets as people realise that there has to be a better way of handling the massive volume of information that is passed around on projects.

How well has this new online method been adopted around the world?

It is interesting the way that the adoption of online collaboration has developed. There has been a rapid acceleration in the rates of adoption over the last year or two all around the world. Construction tends to be a very traditional industry and I think people were waiting to see whether this technology actually works. Now that it has proved itself, they are more than happy to roll on with it.

What type of savings does this technology offer?

Ernst & Young conducted a report several years ago when collaboration was just beginning to enter the market, so the results would probably be higher now, but the study showed that over 1% savings could be achieved on a project when web-based collaboration is used. If it is a US $1 billion or $2 billion project then that translates into a lot of money — especially when the margins are tight — as is the case on most construction projects.

We believe that if you count productivity gains and efficiency improvements then the savings can be as high as 2, 3 or 4%. Since this is shared amongst the project’s participants, they all benefit from improved productivity, time and money savings.

Many sites in the region host FTP servers — what does web-based collaboration offer that an FTP site doesn’t?

The Aconex system is a step or two ahead of a simple FTP (file transfer protocol) site. Although it is easy for users to upload information onto an FTP site, it is difficult to limit a user’s access to certain files and know who uploaded each document and when it was last accessed.

The Aconex system essentially mimics the way that the construction industry operates. It matches the traditional offline processes where a hard copy of a document or drawing is sent to another user, and at the same time records each piece of correspondence so that it can be tracked and controlled.

Aconex also hosts the service for clients on its servers. Many customers regard this as a great benefit because they do not have to set up servers when they start a project.

They also don’t need any other hardware or software as it is completely driven by the system, just as Google and Yahoo! Mail are. All you need is a good Internet connection to move the documents around.

What type of Internet connection is required?

Broadband isn’t a must, and you can do it over a dial up connection. But if you are moving thousands of 2mb files, then a broadband connection is the way to go. I have been encouraged in Dubai and the Middle East in general by the way the telephone companies have developed local broadband networks.

Which project participants use the system?

We tend to work with the contractor, the developer or the project manager. The consultant will usually have a look at the system as well. Not every company involved in a project always agrees to use it, but the more the better, so ideally you need the developer, the contractor and most of the consultants to be comfortable with it.

Has the system been popular in this region?

There is definitely a willingness in the market to use web-based collaboration, because many of the super projects are now just starting to roll out and we are also seeing projects on the horizon that are bigger than anything that has been done before.

Big projects handle large volumes of information. One of the things that is interesting about the Middle East and Dubai in particular, is that it is simply inconceivable to do the larger projects without a system to control the vast amounts of information. And on the larger projects, the parties involved are saying that they need a web-based collaboration system. Anyone working on the bigger projects knows that there will be millions of documents used by multiple participants in a variety of different locations.

Aconex has been used on projects where over one million documents have been transmitted over the system after just one-third of the job has been completed. For the Dubai airport project I expect that millions of files will be transmitted across the course of the project.

The system is being used on 19 tower projects, a
and a number of other high profile projects like Dubai International Airport and Dubai Festival City.
How sophisticated are contractors in the Middle East when it comes to electronic collaboration?

There is certainly a spread. There are a lot of different levels of sophistication within organisations, but the trend is certainly towards doing things better.
One of the great things about web collaboration is that the companies that have fallen behind the times and have never used electronic forms of collaboration before can bring themselves up to date with just a few computers and a good
internet connection.

The Middle East has a different working week to much of the rest of the world. Does an online system make it easier for companies with different working hours to work together on a project?

Absolutely. The system works around the clock, seven days a week, so a design consultant working in Hong Kong and another consultant in London can work together on a project based in Dubai. All the parties will be able to access the system whenever they want because the system is always running.

One of the big problems with e-mail is that if you try to send a large set of documents it can sometimes take a long time across the web, whereas with collaboration as soon as you put the uploaded documents onto the system, then they are immediately available for everybody on the project who has been sent those documents to access.

How does the system control access privileges?

Unless a document is sent to a user, then he or she will not be able to access the document. This makes it very easy to understand and conceptualise, because if they want give someone access to a document they just have to send it to them, as they would do with a hard copy.

The system is entirely web-based so the user just has to log on from anywhere in the world and they will have access to the system’s servers; this enables them to see any information that has been loaded into the system they are allowed access to see. From this they are able to see what has happened over the whole life of the project.
Can everything be done remotely or is a presence on the ground still important?

While it is a web-based system, the users are locally based so local support is essential for clients. We see it much more as a service that helps deliver a successful project, rather than a piece of software. In my view this is very important, because it is all about making the system easy to use. There are no servers, no software requirements, all the heavy lifting is done by the system, which just leaves clients to get on with their projects.

How much training does the program require?

Setting up the system is essentially instantaneous as far as
the technical side of the system is concerned, so you can actually have a project up and running on Aconex in as little as half an hour.

To get an individual who will use the system adequately trained will usually take around an hour to an hour and a half. However if a couple of hundred people across a project require training, then it may take a week or two to get everybody properly trained.

With so many CAD packages now on the market, does it really make any difference what file type is

It doesn’t matter what file is put onto the system. PDF files tend to be used a lot because they are in a commonly understood format, but essentially any file can be used on the system, because all it does is manage and track the distribution once the file is created.||**||

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