One of the constants in the construction industry has always been the blueprints. The drawings that were created to be a set of instructions to allow builders to transform an owner’s idea into a reality. Until recently, little has changed in the world of “blueprints”. Yes, we have seen some incremental changes; CAD has replaced hand drawn documents, and we print or plot drawings instead of actually using ammonia based “blueprints”, but while these might have been transformational changes for the design and detailing segment of the industry, they have had little effect on the way we use the drawings to manage a construction project. Likewise, at the workface these changes have for the most part gone un-noticed. The crews have still had to reference a big roll of drawings to get the information needed to build the project. That is until now.
The last few years have seen an incredible leap into the utilization of digital drawings, and this now looks like it will represent a transformational change for the construction industry. The ability to forgo printed hard copy drawings altogether, in favor of digital documentation is a huge change. Just like eBook readers promised to let us carry around an entire library of novels in one slim digital reader, digital drawings promise us the ability to carry around complete sets of construction drawings, for all our projects, on our laptop, tablet, or even our phone. For those of us that have been around for a while and have dealt with the management of what could literally be hundreds of pounds of large format drawings, this has incredible implications! As a construction manager, or an area superintendent for a trade contractor, the tool box on my truck was filled with plans, not tools. I rarely had all the drawings I needed, and it was always a guess as to whether I would have the latest revisions. Part of the job was constantly ensuring that the crews had the correct drawings. Likewise, as a construction manager for a general contractor, it has always been a challenge to ensure that the latest drawing revisions had been passed along to the actual crews working out on the site. Using the “old” set of drawings often had costly results. We are now at a point where this should no longer be an issue.
Of course, embracing any transformational change is going to be met with challenges; and telling a seasoned construction worker that we are taking away their paper blueprints is almost incomprehensible to many of them. The first questions are bound to be “why”, and, “how does this help us”. These are always good questions to ask before making any major change, and in this case the answers are easy. Quite simply, if digital drawings are managed correctly, our crews in the field, our management teams in the office and our supervisors in the job trailers can always have immediate access to the most current set of construction drawings by carrying nothing more than a small electronic device that many of them are already using anyway. The potential benefits of this are almost to immense to calculate (although that sounds like a great Construction Management grad student thesis). The amount of time we spend with work stopped due to not having the correct drawings is huge. The amount of money we spend on re-work due to proceeding instead of stopping is immense. Digital drawings can make these issues a thing of the past, and these issues represent such a large amount of waste, that it is easy to justify making the transition from paper blueprints to digital construction drawings.
While justifying the change may be easy, taking the steps to make it happen may be a little more difficult. Things that work in favor of going digital include the fact that the design and detailing community have already made the change. It’s very rare these days to see hand drawn construction drawings for an entire project. That segment of the industry has already made that transformation and in fact is currently moving to the next level of transformation from two-dimensional to three-dimensional design. This means that the drawings we are seeking to manage already start their life in a digital format, and that format can be easily transformed to the PDF files that have become the favored standard for distributing these drawings among the construction team. Now it’s up to the construction industry to develop the means and methods to work successfully in the digital format.
Many tools already exist to help with this effort. Software companies like ProCore offer complete digital document management systems that allow companies to manage everything from digital construction drawings and specifications, to electronic RFI’s and daily field reports. At the same time, software from BlueBeam is becoming a commonplace tool to for marking up and sharing digital construction drawings. Implementation of any of these tools or systems is not going to be successful without thought and planning. Companies need to acknowledge the fact that the move from paper to digital will require new tools and new processes. Individuals need to realize that they are going to need to learn new skills to work with these tools and processes. All of this is going to take some effort to learn, but the benefits to the construction industry are clear. It is time for the industry to embrace digital and move forward.