Take the electronic plunge: Electronic O&Ms beat paper hands down

Editor's note: Imagine, if you will, that you are a facility manager. It's come time to fire up a new building—something that fills you with a simultaneous sense of excitement and fear. The former for obvious reasons, and the latter because you simply dread the onerous task of sifting through the operation and maintenance manuals (O&Ms).

By Frank A. Niedzwiedz, P.E., R&N Systems Design, LLC, Memphis, Tenn. August 1, 2001

In preparing O&Ms for clients, specialty contractors and equipment installers, historically, select the necessary documentation from manufacturer web sites or CDs and print them locally. This material can be reproduced free of charge as it saves manufacturers reproduction and shipping costs. But it still costs the contractor to copy and assemble these volumes, which begs the question, why print them at all?

Electronic files offer a less expensive, yet infinitely quicker and searchable vehicle to track down items by model numbers and key words. And the best part is that such a vehicle can be built and implemented with equipment and programs already on most people’s desktops.

So where does the consulting engineer fit into all this? The design team must understand and work out what will be required. During design development, interactive O&Ms must be discussed with the owner, the architect and the applicable consultants.

Foremost, is that the owner has to understand the benefit and be able to derive value. Some owners may prefer paper documents. Others will see the benefit and require interactive O&Ms themselves.

The architect must decide which trade O&Ms should be interactive and which should be traditional. The consultant preparing the bidding documents must understand what each of the above players is expecting so that the specifications adequately cover the organization of the information. A description of what files are to be linked and what information is to be provided must be clearly spelled out.

So, the first hurdle is how to get where we want to be. The benefit must match the cost. For example, providing interactive O&Ms in addition to printed documents simply increases the cost to the owner. And contractors have no incentive to invest in generating quality documents. So if amenable to the owner, O&Ms in an electronic format are the way to go.

In a nutshell, an electronic O&M is simply a word-processing—and sometimes AUTOCAD—document that leads users to relevant information via hyperlinks. If you have ever accessed a web site and clicked on a section of underlined text that jumped to another window, you have used a hyperlink. Hyperlinks can be easily inserted in most word-processing programs. In addition to web pages, hyperlinks can also access files stored on your local computer. This is the key to making O&Ms interact with the user.

So how does one get started? Using a word processor, an overall description of complex electronic systems can be generated. The general overview of features and functions should incorporate references to the various manuals can be made where logic dictates. Clicking the link will call up the particular manual. There can be a single hyperlink for each manual or as many as necessary for easy access. Also, an index of manuals can be set up so that each title links to the manual. This gives the user the option to access information from a list or through the general description.

If a search provides too many entries to check, then the search can be narrowed until a workable number of selections is identified. The user can jump quickly to different parts of the file and access the information that best fits their purpose. Once a solution to a problem is found, the user can type up a brief description for future reference. The files can be made available over local area networks providing maintenance personnel with the access they require.

Other key software

In addition to word processors, other software packages can insert hyperlinks to provide interaction with the user. Most notably, AutoCAD 200OLT can insert a link for an object. For example, AutoCAD symbols for a building smoke detector or security lock can be given hyperlinks. This allows the user to simply click the lock to access the related wiring diagram or they could click the smoke detector to access the detector’s data sheet.

These documents would provide a user-friendly presentation of information because the presentation matches the actual installation. The model of the facility generated in AutoCAD would allow users to access information as their need for it occurred.

Furthermore, links can be inserted in any AutoCAD file. Clicking the fire-alarm panel symbol on a floor plan could link to the panel-wiring diagram. Clicking the power supply in the wiring diagram could link to a spreadsheet with load calculations. As changes are made over the life of the project, these calculations could be updated and maintained, providing an accurate model of the actual system.

The next major software program required for an electronic O&M is Adobe Acrobat Reader. It is standard practice for major manufacturers to use the Internet to distribute product information, but keep in mind that when product information is transferred from a web site to an individual computer, the format must be such that it can be read by the receiving PC. The most common format for this translation is a PDF file, which is readable only with Acrobat Reader. The program is frequently installed on PCs; if not, it’s downloadable for free. The reader can access the files, print them and perform searches for text or model numbers.

Those owners willing to make a small investment to purchase the full Adobe Acrobat software would gain the ability to generate their own Acrobat files. The benefit is the power to insert bookmarks—reference points inside of a document. The difference is that hyperlinks jump to the front of the document, while bookmarks jump to any point inside a document. This subdivision provides more control for individual links. Instead of linking to a manual on a system’s data communications module, the link can jump to a table of acceptable transmission lengths inside the manual.

Since word processors can insert hyperlinks, maintenance documentation can include links to O&M documents to simplify reports. Instead of trying to describe where a problem was found, a link can be inserted calling up the actual plan or detail. Each user can build their own individualized interface document customized to enable them to perform their specific function better. The document can be set up in the most logical manner for that user. As time passes and responsibilities change, the document can be changed accordingly.

Multiple benefits

Not only can interactive O&Ms provide operation and maintenance information in a more useful manner, they can provide a useful tool for keeping communication lines open between the owner and the supplier. Major equipment manufacturers and contractors have their own web sites and use e-mail. In addition to the traditional requirement that contact names, addresses and phone numbers be provided as part of the O&Ms, the suppliers’ web sites and e-mail addresses can be incorporated into the interactive O&M. In other words, clicking a link takes the user directly to the manufacturer’s web site. Clicking an e-mail address automatically accesses the computer’s e-mail software with the appropriate e-mail address entered.

Maintenance personnel could e-mail a copy of the operation manual, parts list or schematic directly to the service representative and ask for replacement parts. Since the request is tied to the manufacturer’s documentation, the service representative would have a much better understanding of what was being asked. In the event that a part had been discontinued or replaced, the service representative could describe the replacement using a document that both were familiar with.

The interactive O&M is a tool that benefits all members of the building team. Owners, of course, lose the massive manuals and gain quick and easy access to information they need. Manufacturers, in turn, can better manage customer relationships, allowing them to add links in O&Ms to general information pages on their web sites by automating the connection. Increasing web-site traffic will increase the potential for future revenue through sales of additional services and replacement parts. Manufacturers and contractors who invest in generating better interactive documents can realize a competitive advantage in their respective markets.

For contractors, aside from saving reproduction and labor costs, electronic O&Ms also improve the product they deliver to their client. And since the information is electronic, it can be quickly modified for new projects. Each iteration will improve the quality of the information since the presentation is improved during each development. The best features are passed on and the less useful are revised.

For now and tomorrow

The idea of an interactive O&M is also useful to those who adjudicate construction in their communities. Over the past several years, building code organizations have contemplated moving away from prescriptive to performance-based codes. Part of this reasoning is based on the belief that “living” design documents will emerge detailing the reasoning behind various systems and criteria that generated the final design.

While not quite there, an interactive O&M document could directly impact how a facility was operated on a daily basis, and could define conditions assumed for the future. If future conditions change, then the operation of the facility must change as needed.

While not living, interactive O&Ms are far better for this purpose than traditional paper manuals.

2000: A Profitable Year for A/E Firms

Architecture, engineering and planning firms attained record profits in the past fiscal year, according to a newly-published survey from Natick, Mass.-based A/E consultant ZweigWhite.

The results of its 2001 Finance & Accounting Survey of Architecture, Engineering & Planning Firms, revealed the year 2000 was the best year for most firms solicited for the survey since it was first conducted in 1997.

Net service revenue was $86,384 per total staff, and a record high $104,513 per professional/technical staff, according to the survey.

What’s more significant—and cause for even greater optimism—were the profit margins that major architectural and engineering firms realized. Median net pre-tax, pre-bonus profit on net service revenue increased to 12 percent or the fiscal year, compared with 9 percent in 1997. Further, net pre-tax, pre-bonus profit per total staff has almost doubled, from $5,981 in 1997 to $10,527 in 2001.

Ian Rusk, CFO at ZweigWhite, explains that the increase in profitability is especially significant considering the increase in overhead costs over the last three years. Rusk suggests that firms overcame increased costs through stronger labor multipliers, which also reached five-year highs.

“Firms were able to charge higher fees for their services than in prior years,” says Rusk.