The Rest of the Roundtable, Part 1- Technology

In October and November, CSE shared discussion from a roundtable discussion held in New York City in August. Here is the first of three extra installments from those discussions, focusing on the use of technology at engineering firms.

By Jim Crockett, Editor in Chief November 17, 2001

CSE : An item brought up earlier in the discussion was that technology was the key to meeting the increased demands of a speedy schedule. We talked briefly as to how technology is impacting your firms and that it really is an ongoing and evolving process. In fact, it’s become such a part of the process that many engineers and architects have moved completely away from their original disciplines and now are purely IT people, and some of them love it. What are your experiences with that curve of technology?

STEPHENS : It’s certainly created the opportunity for better and faster communication. But it’s another thing to do the fundamental work faster. Technology, rarely, in my experience, allows you to do the fundamental design work faster, but it does help you to communicate. For example, because we are a multi-city firm, it has allowed us to leverage people in different cities, because communications among offices is easier.

CSE : What about cost? Does this become an key part of your budget?

ZWEIG : I can tell you right now that 3 to 4.5% of revenues are going for IT in this industry, and faster growth firms are spend-ing even more. I think it’s one of the reasons why the construction industry—and the whole U.S. economy for that matter—has been more productive. It’s wide-area networking, and as you just said, multi-office firms are finally getting rid of some of the woes they’ve been battling in this business for years: The Houston office is making money, but Ft. Worth isn’t. Now we finally see firms where we have people working in five offices on one job and it’s seamless. They are all working on one file server, they all have the exact same stuff. The tools are available to everybody, you can get people up to speed a lot faster.

CSE : What has upper management’s reaction been? How about staff as a whole, particularly those who are not crazy about computers?

ZLOTKOWSKI: It took me five years to stop checking my calculator against my slide ruler, but eventually I did put it away. With 200 people in the office everyone is set up electronically and that covers the guy just out of college right up to the guy with 35-40 years of experience. The system is so user-friendly today that even those who might figuratively put out a cross to ward the evil off embrace it after a while. I admit, I do have one guy who pays a girl to check his e-mail, but he is too good an engineer to let go. Computers have simply come so far in terms of user friendliness, I can’t envision it ever being an issue again.

As far as it’s importance to our business, we have made such an investment that we try to do everything we can electronically. We have even converted our in-house mail routing to an electronic format. To keep up with client demands, we used to photocopy drawings in the mailroom and send them to all the prime disciplines. Now we simply scan it and e-mail it to everybody on the team at one e-mail address. We probably save 40-50,000 copies a month this way.

WALLER: It’s amazing how we started in CAD when the CAD systems first came out and it was the draftsmen who got the computer first, then it slowly spread and so forth. But what we’re finding is, as you’re hiring new people out of school, they know the computer backward and forward. So it’s really those employees with 30-plus years of experience that have had to learn. But I agree with Alan [Zlotkowski], it has gotten to be a much easier process and they have seen the value of it. The Internet, in particular, has been a great tool as the quick research it allows on products and information is unbelievable.

CSE : You mentioned the Internet and internal e-mail. What are some of the other hot technologies?

DERECTOR : Project web sites. They allow the architect to do some background and then distribute that through the site as everybody has access. Correspondence can also be entered. Certain systems also create various levels of access restriction, as you may not want some people to have access to financial information. From a practical standpoint, it does speed things up. You don’t have to wrap up mylars, send them to the blueprinter, do a transmittal and get 10 sets of prints delivered to the contractor. You just tell the blueprinter what you want printed up, he has the electronic files in the central blueprinter, and then does all the distribution from that.

CSE : What kind of owner feedback have you received from using these web sites?

WALLER : It’s created a whole new service for us because our IT group is actually setting those web sites up.

DERECTOR : The administration is the key.

CSE : Do you always build your own site, or have you had success with products on the market?

STEPHENS: There’s been some disappointments in the proprietary project web site systems. A couple of years ago there were 15 or 20 of them set up. The market is gradually weaning them out, but some people who bet the wrong horse are very disappointed.

ZWEIG: Very similar to CAD.

MARGULIES: We just recently launched our own intranet, which we never had before, and we are finding that to be a very useful tool. We use it for human resources, for project manage-ment and for financial information. We have project pages where all the correspondence, faxes—everything is accessible. It’s basically a pointer system which retrieves information in a logical format. As opposed to having to know what drive and folder and everything is in, you look for correspondence for a job and it all comes up.

ZWEIG: The other technology that is going to be a big deal is CSM-client service management. This is going to be as big as DST or Win2: all will have products to service so that we can share client information throughout the company. In other words, anybody willing to make a phone call or send out a piece of correspondence can find out what we did for a particular client, how long it takes them to pay, etc. All of these things are going to be available to every single employee and that’s going to be a big market. Basically, the accounting software vertical market is like $100-million-a-year business for the AD industry and that’s going to be every bit as big. Most firms still don’t have that today, which to me is mind boggling because it’s critical to your success.

MAGLIANO : I want to throw out something. I find that I’m disappointed in the progress of technology with respect to what I will call design software. We host a meeting about once a year with a leading provider, they bring five people in and it’s just a crashing disappointment. I don’t know that higher quality design software will make a huge dent in what we do, but we’re talking about a business that could be impacted by small percentages. I believe with all the capability that’s out there today, it is a dismal situation that we’re facing with respect to available design software. Now maybe we have to look at ourselves, look in the mirror to find the cause of this. Certainly from my past experience, it’s driven by the economics of the market and that is that there has not been enough of a perceived marketplace to support the creation of software like this. The fact is that we as engineers, technicians, technologists do not have good design software.

ZLOTKOWSKI : I agree with respect to document production. I think there’s been some strides in the area of software relative to energy models or the CFD programs that have been spun off of other industries like the aeronautics industry. It was developed for someone else who had bigger bucks than we did.

WALLER : I think CAD will eventually come around, but it has certainly not come around to date.

MAGLIANO : I believe the contracting business has better software than the engineering design business.

CSE : Has anyone heard of a software called Revit? It really is a radically different type of design. Architects I know that have been using it are saying, finally, we have a tool that we have been asking for. It’s a parametric-modeling tool that is also unified system. In other words, with CAD right now, even though you update a drawing, everybody else’s changes must still be inputted. But with this program, once someone makes a change and someone else opens it, it’s automatically updated. I know the next phase is to move it over to the mechanical side, but they are not there yet.

STEPHENS : It builds a model of the project in the computer rather than doing a whole series of drawings. It also cuts down on errors very nicely. I know a number of architects are using it as a trial run and there’s been a lot of success. But before we leave technology, I also wanted to say that we certainly believe in investing in technology because as everybody said, it’s part of doing the business these days. I think the human factor is still incredibly important when we find that we’re working more and more in terms of large groups of teams, sometimes in different places. We need to make sure everyone who is talking to one another understands they can’t let the computer be the only communications. That’s vitally important, that’s something we have to keep watching all the times—misunderstandings can happen if you don’t take in the human factor as well.

MAGLIANO : We’ve added video conferencing to most of our offices in the past year and a half or so. What started out initially as limited use has now grown tremendously and we’re adding the document projection technology in the offices as we go because it’s always a matter of budget as to how much you can afford. That’s a great way, it’s also a terrific way to collaborate on everything: matters of design, technology, knowledge sharing and management.

STEPHENS : And save travel money and time.

MAGLIANO : It not only saves, but it encourages you to get together with other people. It’s a proactive way of encouraging people to collaborate.

DERECTOR : We have compiled a library of videotapes and people can draw them out of the library and review them at home, if needed.

ZWEIG : I think one of the biggest barriers to technology improvement is that administrative assistants many times insulate the top level of management. If I have all the owners of the com-pany and they don’t return their own e-mails, those guys don’t understand why they need to spend money on things that improve