The SP-SSA International Terminal in South Vietnam presents all the civil engineering challenges that go with constructing a modern container terminal over an intertidal salt marsh. One such challenge for consulting firm BergerABAM is managing the flood of project information generated by team members in Panama, Mexico, Vietnam, and the United States.
We’re currently about a quarter-way through the project, yet we’ve already generated more than 10,000 e-mails and 600 submittals. To give some perspective, on a project a few years ago, we thought we were doing well to manage 250 submittals during the course of the entire job.
Managing e-mail is important. In addition to providing a record of decisions for the project, engineers often need to refer to past e-mail exchanges to clarify present actions. For example, I recently had to pull up an old e-mail to resolve a disagreement. I said, “I think I have some backup on that,” and sure enough, I had an e-mail from June 2007 that cleared up the confusion. And I found it while we were on the phone!
I’d like to credit my great memory and filing skills for finding a three-year-old e-mail in about one minute, but truth be told, we’re managing e-mail, requests for information (RFIs) , submittals, transmittals, markups, record copies, and more using software for project information management (PIM). It’s a huge improvement compared with the spreadsheet-managed lists of years past.
We used to maintain manual logs of transmittals, submittals, action items, and other categories of project information. Now, using software designed for architecture, engineering, and construction processes, those entries have become as easy as a few clicks on an e-mail. (Our PIM software integrates with our e-mail client — in this case, Microsoft Office Outlook.)
Reports and updates are a cinch, and we’re entirely paperless. Ten years ago I would have had two file cabinets full of papers at this point of the project. Instead, I have drawings from Vietnam and Panama that I mark up using my PIM software, then file on our firm’s project servers.
(IT people will be interested to know that the PIM software we’re using does not replicate or move anything on the firm’s network; all files, including filed e-mails, are stored on the project server, which the PIM software indexes for quick retrieval of project data.)
Digital submittals management
Submittals management is complicated on this project by the fact that we have multiple contracts to track. We have a marine contract because we’re building a wharf; we have an upland contract doing the civil work on the land side; and we have building contractors doing the buildings.
With all this activity, it’s important to keep track of submittals — which submittals are expected, when they come in, how they get logged — making sure we look at them on a timely basis and send them back to the correct contractors. Our PIM software makes it easy to log, forward for review, capture reviewer response, and respond to submittals electronically, without paper. We can even mark up and stamp submittals electronically.
One project nucleus
With the geographic separation of team members comes a separation in time, too. Vietnam is 14 hours ahead of our team here in Washington state. Fortunately, our PIM solution keeps us all centered around one project nucleus.
Our PIM software includes a file-sharing component called Info Exchange that provides a central point to upload files, view milestones, and download submittals. Our contractors use it to keep track of submittal registries and RFIs. They can see a directory of project team members so they know whom to go to with a given question.
Although the contractors on this project have never worked with anything like Info Exchange, they’ve had no problems navigating the interface.
A few BergerABAM employees in Vietnam log into our PIM server via the virtual private network, allowing them to look at submittals in the field. They could use Info Exchange like our contractors, but accessing the server directly offers them more information and functionality, and the information is always available. By contrast, we set files on Info Exchange to expire automatically after 15 days. Otherwise, the file bloat would get out of control quickly.
If someone fails to download a submittal in time, I get an alert notification and he or she gets a reminder. Then all I have to do is hit the resend button and he or she receives an e-mail with a link to click to download the file. Having records of who has downloaded what, and when, makes tracking easy and ensures that everyone remains accountable.
Integrated functions provide a seamless work process
Other functions in our PIM solution being applied to this project include a project timeline that I use to keep track of key deliveries and milestones, whether it’s a parcel of land or a component for the terminal.
We also use our PIM solution to keep record copies of all project information. We have almost 1,500 record copies to show us where the project stood at a given point in time. For example, my team will mark up a submittal and keep it as a record copy. Or they’ll have a test report on concrete strength that they mark up and file as a record copy.
Because all of our PIM solution’s functions are fully integrated, our workflows are much more fluid. For example, we may need to modify pile caps because of problems in the field. Our engineers will mark up a drawing or specification using the PIM software’s markup function, then send it to the contractor using Info Exchange, and file a record copy of the drawing in the project directory using the Record Copy function of the software.
The PIM solution that BergerABAM uses is called Newforma Project Center. We were already a few years into the SP-SSA International Terminal project when we implemented Newforma Project Center in the firm, but the software was easy enough to implement that we started using it mid-project with no hitches. In fact, having Newforma index all of the existing project data to make it fully searchable quickly proved invaluable, such as in the case of the three-year-old e-mail described above.
If managing and sharing information is the ground upon which projects are successfully delivered, I’m glad to be working on solid ground.
Newforma’s PIM solution has streamlined BergerABAM’s management of e-mail, submittals (whether outgoing or incoming), transmittals, RFIs, markups, and action items. Newforma Info Exchange frees us from the shortcomings of sharing files via e-mail or FTP. These benefits, combined with functions to manage the project timeline, project team, project files, and record copies, all contribute to a firmer, more solid information footing.
By managing project information using software dedicated to the task, my team is focusing more attention on better engineering, more attentive construction oversight, and greater client satisfaction.
Chris Cornell, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, is a senior project manager with BergerABAM, a six-office consulting firm headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, offering services in civil and structural engineering, as well as land use planning, natural resources, public involvement, construction management and support, and underwater inspection (dive). For apaper on the background, planning, design, and construction challenges involved in creating and implementing a master plan for the SP-SSA International Terminal, click here. http://cedb.asce.org/cgi/WWWdisplay.cgi?263416