More than digital paper

February 2012 » Features » SOFTWARE
Why PDF has become the solution for project communication
James Chambers

Every structural engineer knows the weight of his or her decisions. Entrusted with analyzing and verifying the integrity of our buildings and infrastructure, precision and timeliness are an absolute must. Even one misinterpreted comment on a drawing can throw a schedule off track, and possibly jeopardize the success of a project.

Unfortunately, the industry's traditionally paper-based communication processes are prone to producing the exact errors, delays and confusion that structural engineers work so hard to prevent. Large format shop drawings that are checked out for review are easily misfiled or lost, redlines on photocopied or scanned documents can be illegible, and shipping documents back and forth between project partners and job sites all too often means that the answers one needs today are delayed until tomorrow.

It is clear that the old, paper and pen method of project communication must go and that information must be digitized. There are so many impressive and useful solutions being used in structural engineering, and throughout the AEC industry, such as building information modeling. While these tools help engineers in many aspects, they unfortunately do not solve the most common and detrimental problems that plague projects – communication with project partners upstream and downstream. Even the most meticulously detailed model is only useful to those engineers who view and interact with it onscreen. It is not a true project communication tool, much less a collaboration solution, if the barrier to entry is expensive software that requires extensive training.

For rebar manufacturers in the shop, contractors on the job site, engineers of record, clients and everyone in between, information needs to be just as accurate and detailed, but far more easily consumed. To bridge the gap between these two needs, many are turning to the Portable Document Format (PDF) and PDF editing solutions like Bluebeam PDF Revu, which is designed specifically to digitize communication in the architecture, engineering and construction industry.

Why PDF?
PDF gets the job done effectively and efficiently. As an ISO standard, PDF ensures the integrity required when communicating important structural information. PDFs can be viewed on virtually any computing device – desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. PDF also allows one to share information freely, while simultaneously protecting it from inadvertent changes. However, just like paper can be annotated with pens and pencils, PDFs can be redlined electronically and further, embedded with rich content for downstream consumption. PDF is not just a publishing format, but a true medium for digitizing project communication and collaboration.

Solutions such as Revu can convert complex CAD files into accurate PDFs, display large format PDF drawings with ease, apply industry-standard markups and stamps, and perform advanced functions that take digital workflows to the next level. Below is a discussion of the must-have PDF features and capabilities found in Revu that benefit structural engineering workflows.

Not all PDFs are created equal
While it is common for one to receive PDF copies of shop drawings and other project documents, sometimes converting files is required, too. Revu's plugins into AutoCAD, Revit and MS Office allow for high quality PDF creation. Tightly integrated into these applications, the software creates PDFs that maintain scale, DPI, line merge, plot styles, and can be created from chosen layouts and model space. Furthermore, the software makes smart PDFs that not only embed metadata, but also transfer hyperlinks and bookmarks, adding more value to the file as it is reviewed and later consumed downstream. For those using other CAD and Windows applications, there's a PDF printer driver with presets for optimal file conversion.

Get the best view
The thought of downsizing one's view from a 36-by-24-inch piece of paper to even a larger end 22-inch monitor can be daunting. This is handled in three ways. First, the software has tabbed PDF viewing, allowing users to quickly switch between open PDF files by selecting the document tab at the top of the interface. Second, it enables side-by-side PDF viewing. These views can be synched, which is beneficial when comparing one version to another. They can also be extended to display up to 16 views of the same or different PDFs and on one or multiple monitors. This essentially gives structural engineers a cockpit view of project PDFs so that shop drawings, details, ECOs and other documents can be viewed simultaneously. Finally, a three-button mouse navigation mimics CAD navigation, making finding one's way through PDFs second nature.

Structural engineers have several advanced PDF viewing options with Revu

Replicating pen and paper workflows and then some
The PDF's ability to be redlined with a layer of annotations is what makes it a perfect solution for project-wide digital communication. For structural engineers, Revu's variety of industry-standard markups, measurements and text stamps allow one to smoothly transition to digital shop drawing reviews.

The software offers markups as simple as text boxes, pen markups, highlights, lines and arrows, and as industry-specific as revision clouds, callouts, arcs and dimensions. All property settings can be adjusted, including line width, line style, line color, fill color and opacity. As one redlines a PDF with these various, customizable markups, the application remembers. All markups per session are stored in an exclusive Tool Chest, from which they can be recreated with just one click. Commonly used markups can be stored in permanent tool sets, which can be stored on a network or exported so that other users may utilize them as well. The Tool Chest comes pre-populated with a variety of CAD symbols and other common AEC tools.

Revu's Tool Chest allows users to quickly place frequently made comments onto PDFs.

An added benefit of redlining drawings digitally versus with pen and paper is that markups can become interactive, providing a whole new level of detail and clarity to project communication. Right-clicking on a markup enables one to add an action to the annotation, including the ability to jump to a specific page in the document, jump to a snapshot view, open a website hyperlink, or open a file. The possibilities are endless.

Metadata is associated with each annotation, including the markup's author, the date and time the markup was placed, and its page number. All of this information is tracked in the integrated Markups list, from which users can reply to markups, set statuses that change property settings such as colors and text, and summarize all comments on a drawing into a PDF, CSV or XML report.

All markups can be summarized into a list to provide further clarity of questions or required engineering changes.

A full set of measurement tools is provided as well, ensuring that accurate dimensions can always be found. Because PDFs created from native applications maintain scale, the measurement tool is able to precisely calibrate to the drawing. Once calibrated, length, area, perimeter, diameter, radius, angles, and volumes can be measured. Materials and parts can also be tracked through the counter tool. Just like the standard redlining markups, measurement annotations are also tracked in the Markups list. Users can add custom columns to total up dimensions, and even calculate material costs.

Revu also supports text stamping through an integrated tool. A variety of included text stamps dynamically update with date, time and file data when placed on the PDF. A stamp editor is included for creating unique stamps, and users also often create their own by importing images and signatures into the application, grouping them, and saving them into the Tool Chest.

Users can customize text stamps in Bluebeam, and save them for reuse.

In addition, PDFs provide for digital assembly, so that booklets of drawings, reports, quotes and other project data can be assembled. Superseded drawings can be easily replaced, and Bluebeam even allows one to replace page content only so that markups, hyperlinks and bookmarks are not lost when new drawing sets are issued.

Beyond the functionality of paper
One example found in Revu is the ability to automatically compare drawing revisions. While this would traditionally be a painstakingly manual process prone to human error, it accurately compares drawings and places a cloud markup on the differences between two PDF drawings. Those who prefer seeing differences in the same fashion as stacking vellum-printed copies of revision A and revision B can use the overlay pages feature instead, which assigns a separate color to each revision, then lays them on top of each other so that differences are easily spotted.

Finally, the software extends the benefits of digital workflows so that structural engineers can meet with project partners around the globe and review PDFs simultaneously. Revu's integrated collaboration feature, Studio, allows users to upload PDFs into the cloud for review by multiple project partners, either together in real time or separately at any time. All markups are tracked on a single copy of the PDF, so users can always see who said what, and when.

James Chambers is a technical specialist at Bluebeam Software and was previously a production technology engineer at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin. Contact him at james@bluebeamsoftware.com.


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