New technologies that significantly change how people work do not come about often. In this industry, CAD soft- ware, spreadsheets and e-mail have clearly had a significant impact on how design and construction professionals approach their jobs. At A-E-C Automation Newsletter, we believe that the use of Web-based project management tools will have as substantial an impact on the design, construc- tion and operation of buildings, plants and infrastructure projects as any of these earlier technologies.
Apparently the founders of Blueline Online, led by Jas Dhillon, the company’s President and CEO, agreed with this observation when they established the business. According to Dhillon, they saw a major opportunity in providing a solu- tion that would facilitate the management of large projects. Typically, major construction projects involve large virtual organizations that come together for a relatively brief period of time, work together and then go their separate ways. Firms that are competitors on one project may very well be partners on another.
With over fifteen years of management consulting expe- rience in the high technology, telecommunications, and engi- neering industries, Dhillon and his team’s vision was to create an Internet portal for the AEC industry where profes- sionals could manage projects and transact business on a daily basis. The first step they took was to do a market survey which indicated that there was indeed a need for a hosted Internet project management service, but that it had to be very secure.
The next step was to set up an industry advisory group with participants from companies such as Bechtel, Webcor, WAT&G, Gensler and others. The advisory group helped the company define the details of an effective project-oriented Web service. Blueline Online was subsequently launched as a “Project Portal Company” with ProjectNet as its featured product.
Blueline Online is a well financed Silicon Valley Internet Application Service Provider. Its first major venture investor was Bechtel, which also happens to be a large user. Subsequently the company has raised additional funding from more traditional venture capital sources. To date, Blueline Online has raised $15M in venture and strategic equity funding since its founding in 1997.
Changing the Way Project Data is Managed
ProjectNet handles the information needs of an entire project team from initial pre-planning through design and engi- neering, construction and closeout and commissioning. To a certain extent, this means that the firm using the technology needs executive commitment to change their operating prac- tices. Our experience has been that the middle-level managers who typically are responsible for computer technology do not have the clout needed to make substantive changes in their organizations’ business practices.
Blueline Online recognizes the need to obtain buy-in from the top levels of the companies they deal with. According to Dhillon, they often deal directly with the CEOs, CIOs and managing directors of the firms using ProjectNet. When dealing with companies such as Bechtel and Gensler, being able to work with the CEO to articulate the strategic advantages of this new technology and obtain buy-in is key to successful utilization. Dhillon feels that one of the advan- tages his company has is their experience in working with senior executives and assisting them in envisioning and implementing technology strategies that leverage the global reach of the Internet. Additionally, it is Blueline Online’s experience that its competitors tend to deal too low in the user organizations.
The company believes that the first 100 days a customer is using ProjectNet is crucial to its eventual acceptance and effective utilization. Blueline Online pulls all the stops to make this period a positive experience. The company has a growing staff of “relationship managers” who have 8 to 10 years of design and/or construction experience as well as a strong technical experience.
Their role is to work with customers to help them under- stand how they can best use project Web sites to manage documentation and workflow. Since they have credible industry experience, their advice is undoubtedly more readily accepted than if they were just computer hotshots. There is a fee for this service, but one that most customers seem to be willing to pay.
In the past, we have been disappointed when we have seen project web sites used for limited pilot projects but never become part of the mainstream of the business. That does not seem to be a problem at Blueline Online. Bechtel currently is using ProjectNet on 14 projects and has another 40 ready to go online. Other major clients such as Gensler, WAT&G, and HOK have 20 or more active projects. In addition, Fortune 1000 corporate owners like 3COM, BASF and others have multiple projects online and plan to extent the service to hundreds of additional projects over the next 12 months.
For the most part, Blueline Online’s customers tend to be design, engineering and construction firms along with progressive owners associated with major projects. Facility owners, whom we believe can actually be the major beneficiaries, seem to be slow to recognize the life cycle benefits of these tools. In an interview with Dhillon, he pointed out that A&E firms are finding that they are saving direct costs associated with their design efforts, irrespective of the additional benefits that accrue to the contractors and owners. We believe that many facility owners are missing the point that this informa- tion is also valuable during the operational phase of the completed building or plant.
Choice of Solutions
ProjectNet is an out-sourced Internet-based project information and workflow management service for the design, engineering and construction industry. It provides specialized tools for all the individuals involved in the building process and enables construction projects to be completed under budget and ahead of schedule. The company sometimes refers to this as their Premium service to distinguish it from ProjectNet LT which is a lower priced version intended for smaller projects and department-level collaboration. A major release of this software, version 3.0, was announced at A/E/C SYSTEMS ’99 this past May. A minor update, 3.2, went online in mid September.
This service is focused on providing project teams with rapid, secure, and easy access to project information. It promotes the concept of “partnering” – enabling project owners, planners and architects to collaborate and to jointly determine how best to fulfill the goals of the project. To implement effective partnering it is critical that all project players remain in regular contact with each other and have access to the same data. To insure effective coordination of the numerous partners that make up the project team, it is critical to get everyone communicating as quickly and effi- ciently as possible.
Some companies are not ready to have their project data hosted by an Internet service provider, but want similar capabilities installed on their own computer systems. Blueline Online meets this need with ProjectNet EPS. With the EPS version, these users can tailor the package to meet their specific needs. Currently about 70% of the company’s customers use the out-sourced version of ProjectNet and 30% use the internal enterprise version. The company is seeing this shift as customers recognize the additional bene- fits of outsourcing, and expects to see a 90%/10% ratio within 18 months.
A few firms are actually buying the enterprise version but have retained Blueline Online to host the service for them. This way they benefit from having a service company worry about managing the technology while they can still integrate it with legacy software such as SAP’s R3.
ProjectNet in Action
The ProjectNet service delivers secure, on-demand project information management over the Internet for 24- hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week access to project information. ProjectNet encompasses secure document management, team messaging, discussion forums, conferencing, and work- flow automation that help facilitate productive decision- making and the management of costs and schedules.
The software provides a mechanism for partners to communicate throughout the life of the project and to exchange schedules, drawings, photos, specifications etc. as well as manage complex construction workflows like RFI’s, Transmittals, Meeting Minutes, Issue Logs etc. Documents are stored in their native format whether they are AutoCAD or MicroStation drawings, text files, spreadsheets or photographs. No special software is required for authorized users to access these documents. This avoids the need to download and install browser plug-ins – a key differentiation factor.
When a user selects a particular document to work with, it is converted to a high fidelity, view only Java image. The first time a user accesses the project database, the system downloads a small Java applet, but this is a nearly trans- parent process. The download operation also occurs when- ever a new viewing applet becomes available. Until recently, document access required a browser such as Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer.
ProjectNet Release 3.0 has extended this capability so that documents can be accessed directly from within a Windows application using the Windows Explorer function. This eliminates the need to switch applications and enables users to directly utilize Windows functions such as Cut, Paste, Copy and Delete to manipulate these files. Documents can be uploaded or downloaded using a simple drag-and- drop approach. One way this might be used would be to copy a section of an AutoCAD drawing and paste it into a report being prepared in Word.
Blueline Online has not tried to create ProjectNet’s entire collaboration environment by itself. The company uses Oracle for database management and Pilot Network Services Inc., which hosts some of the most secure sites in the world, to provide firewall technology for secure project databases. Pilot uses optimized HTTP software and oper- ating systems on Sun Ultra servers designed for the secure hosting of project information. Pilot also provides ProjectNet users with extensive virus protection.
Security is a critical issue when dealing with project Web sites. Two companies that are partnering on one project may well be competitors on another. Before executives of these firms will commit to using an external hosting service to manage proprietary informa- tion, they need to be convinced that this information will not end up in the wrong hands. Web security is a technical specialty and Blueline Online is smart in using a well-respected outside firm to handle the task.
Broad Range of Additional
ProjectNet provides its users with a broad range of additional document management and collaboration capabili- ties including:
Access profiles – Users are assigned personalized profiles that authorize them to access specific sets of data for specific projects. As an example, an architect might be required to redline certain classes of drawings for a specific set of projects. Individuals without a need to know would not be able to view the drawings, perhaps until a later stage in the project. Another way of looking at this type of access control, is that you typically want just a few people to have access to design concepts while the project is evolving but once the drawings are released and construction starts, a larger group of individuals need to work with these docu- ments. In addition to managing access to documents, the system also ensures that the latest version of each document is available.
File Conversion and Viewing – The latest image viewer can work with over 200 different file formats including HPGL, TIFF and WIN Fax images. The viewer provides features such as thumbnail images, measurements and takeoffs with the ability to export counts to spreadsheets. This latter capa- bility can significantly improve the accuracy and speed with which contractors can generate estimates for entire projects or changes in a project already underway.
Document Markup – The embedded markup tools in the image viewer enable users to markup AutoCAD, MicroStation and TIFF drawings and to distribute the markup information to the appropriate personnel. As mentioned earlier, only the originator of a document can actually change that document.
Reference Documents – One of the more significant document management problems associated with CAD drawings is that these drawings often are not stand-alone documents. The typical CAD drawing refers to other draw- ings called Xrefs. ProjectNet manages these related docu- ments in a consistent manner together with the drawing the user is interested in.
Workflow Management – ProjectNet incorporates a wide range of workflow management functions that can be tailored to the needs of a specific organization or project through user-defined business rules. Some of the workflow capabilities include:
• Requests for Information (RFIs) • Issue tracking
• Meeting minutes
• Submittals and transmittals
• Communication log
• Print work orders
• Daily construction reports
• Punch list tracking
• Change orders
• Contract document logs
Personal Digital Assistants – Palm Pilots and small
Window CE computers are increasingly being used by design and construction personnel. The latest release of ProjectNet enables users to download selected sets of data such as punch lists to these devices, update the data in the field and then upload that information in order to update the project database.
Calendar and Task Management – ProjectNet maintains project calendars and task lists including RFIs and action items extracted from meeting minutes. ProjectNet 3.0 is fully integrated with the calendar and task management features of Microsoft Outlook, Palm Pilot and Windows CE. All assigned tasks, agenda items and attendee lists can be carried over from one meeting to another, and a mechanism is provided for team members to comment on their assigned tasks.
Audit Trail – ProjectNet reduces risk and liability associ- ated with projects by capturing an audit trail of the entire design and build activity, thereby lowering the likelihood of disputes during and after the project. At the end of the project, this data can be provided to the building owner on a CD-ROM for subsequent management of the facility or the data can be retained on-line for a nominal fee.
On-Line Conferencing – Any document can be shared with up to 200 concurrent users in an online conference – including audio, chat or whiteboard.
ProjectNet LT Provides Useful Subset of Service
ProjectNet LT is an Internet-based subscription service for geographically dispersed workgroups involved in the execution of projects. In addition to construction projects, Blueline Online feels that ProjectNet LT is also applicable to software development, legal coordination, pharmaceutical approvals, product development, and even entertainment, sales and marketing projects. This is a good solution for project teams to start managing their information require- ments with a very low up-front investment.
Projects that get started with ProjectNet LT can seam- lessly upgrade to ProjectNet at any time during the project lifecycle and get the additional benefits of workflow manage- ment, calendaring, task management, and online conferencing.
Pricing and Marketing
The full ProjectNet on-line service is priced at $1,250 per month per project plus a one time $750 setup charge. This supports an unlimited number of users. The LT version is $500 per month per project with a $500 setup charge.
The on-site EPS version is priced based upon the number of named users utilizing the system. Prices start at $1,000 per user but quantity discounts are applicable. A 200 user system would cost about $100,000.
Blueline Online primarily markets ProjectNet through a direct sales force. The company is currently working with a limited number of AEC firms who not only use the service themselves but sell it to other firms they partner with, some of whom are in Europe and Asia. Some of the large interna- tional computer services and system integration firms might
also become distribution partners in the future. At this time, Blueline Online is not using traditional CAD industry resellers to market the service, but that could change at a later date.
Our View of Blueline Online
It is probably fairly obvious from the attention we have been paying this technology in recent months that we believe that project web sites are an effective solution for managing project documentation and information workflow. Blueline Online’s Web site sums up the benefits derived from its services quite well.
• ProjectNet enables faster time to market by elimi- nating delays caused by sequential project infor- mation flow and decision making. This is accomplished by providing instant access to the latest, validated project information.
• ProjectNet enhances control by providing security down to the document level, providing a perma- nent audit trail of document access and decision making through the project life-cycle.
• ProjectNet increases revenues by improving team productivity through streamlining administrative procedures, eliminative non-value added work, simplifying approval processes and automating workflow.
• ProjectNet eliminates geographic barriers to collaboration by creating an environment where all team members have the most current informa- tion at all times irrespective of where they are located.
• ProjectNet reduces costs by eliminating unneces- sary printing, copying and delivery of drawings, by facilitating real-time communications, and by controlling travel costs.
Blueline Online believes that Web services such as ProjectNet are just the tip of the iceberg. The company’s long range objective is to provide a broad range of services to the AEC community in what some industry analysts call a “vertical hub”. This hub includes providing the project portal, on-line content information that is currently dissemi- nated primarily in printed form, as well as e-commerce acting as the market/trading exchange vehicle to support actual Internet-based business transactions. This vertical hub model is currently being developed with potential part- ners. We will keep our readers informed on Blueline Online’s developments in this area.
There are a large number of companies offering services and products for managing projects using Web technology. Three to five years from now, it is highly likely that just a few will be left standing. We expect that Blueline Online will be one of the winners in this market. They have good tech- nology, excellent funding, aggressive management and an expanding list of premier users.