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Beyond Columbus

Ove Arup and Partners' software house Oasys releases its new project collaboration tool Integration this month.

Like other project collaboration tools, Integration uses the internet to provide a single communication hub to allow project teams to share and distribute information electronically - a process that Oasys says will increase efficiency and reduce time and cost.

The system is a development of the firm's document handling system Columbus, released at the end of last year free of charge over the internet. Columbus was developed inhouse to aid file handling in AutoCAD and works through a simple interface similar to Microsoft's Windows Explorer, allowing previews ofmost document formats.

It allows grouping of files for viewing and handling even if they are held in different locations, works on standard project structures, issues documents to the project website and notifies participants of issues via email.

Security is handled by the users' own operating systems.One advantage is that users' software does not have to be modified because Columbus uses an ordinary file system.

Integration works in similar way, employing web technology to allow users to view documents in a variety of file formats, without having to have the software installed on their machines. Project data is stored and viewed on CD-Rom, via an intranet or can be held on a secure server by Oasys.

The system creates a tailored virtual project environment within which all communication, design development, procurement and construction management takes place. If more than one project is being run using Integration, users are given access to a personal extranet that allows all of their projects to be viewed at once.

Because Integration is internet-based, team members can access the project website from wherever they are. Project messaging, memoranda, requests for information and discussion forum facilities ensure rapid and transparent communication, says Oasys.

This transparency means project reviews and reports including outstanding actions, progress against targets and programme status can be viewed at any time, increasing efficiency.

Workflow patterns agreed at the start of the project can also be built into Integration's functionality. Users choose the level of detail they need when viewing drawings, correspondence and scheduling.As the system stores all data transfers, users can trace document changes (for example updates of drawings) and communications. This enables automatic auditing for quality assurance purposes.

The immediate benefits for the construction industry are obvious. Electronic communication eliminates a lot unnecessary paperwork and by providing a single hub for exchange of information reduces the amount of document duplication - drawings, for example, only have to be drawn once. This increased efficiency and reduction in paperwork leads to cost savings. Research has shown that savings of up to 30% may be achieved using project collaboration tools.

For contractors, the system provides a full record of the design process, allowing a clearer understanding of how and why decisions were made and a full set of drawings that can be used for construction without the need for recreating them.

Instant access to up-to-date information reduces the chances of problems on site caused by poor communication or documentation.

Contractors can request information from the design team via a live link. There are also facilities for a remote webcam, allowing the design team to carry out virtual site visits to resolve problems during construction.

Oasys has found that a popular facility of the system is that it can be used to post tender information for letting both main contracts and for subcontract work as the project develops.

The site can also be used to provide information to planning authorities or for public inquiries from drawings and sketches to virtual reality models and fly-throughs.

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