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Drawing up a code Barcodes are finding their way out of the supermarket and into the design office and on to site.

The paperless office is still some way ahead, and anyone involved in construction still has to contend with mountains of drawings arriving in their offices - often closely followed by a whole host of revisions. Scott Wilson (Hong Kong) is working on a project to cut the time and error involved in registering drawings. Barcodes are the secret, but not the simple linear ones you find on a can of baked beans. Instead the firm is using two dimensional versions, which can carry much more information.

Scott Wilson has worked with the Association of Consulting Engineers of Hong Kong and obtained sponsorship from the Services Support Fund of the Hong Kong Government's Industry Department. With this backing, Scott Wilson hopes the system will be accepted as standard practice in the engineeering professions.

The firm is always looking for opportunities to use new IT technologies in the engineering industry, explains director Martin Kwong. As well as its work on major construction projects, Scott Wilson has carried out many IT-based developments in Hong Kong, including an information system to help the Government's Geotechnical Eng- ineering Office to manage the landslip preventive measures programme, and a slope record management system for the Housing Authority.

With the recent development of 2-dimensional barcode technology in the IT industry, the firm has come up with an in-house timesheet processing system using scanning so that data input is fast, efficient and free of human error.

These 2D barcodes are similar to the barcodes on retail goods, but are in the form of dot patterns instead of parallel lines (see left). In addition, they have much higher data-carrying capacities. For example, a common format of 2D barcode PDF417 has a typical data density of 2,000 characters/mm2. Moreover, 2D barcodes could have several degrees of data security by incorporating error correction data. With the provision of these data redundancies, a 2-dimensional barcode could be read without loss of information even when it is damaged. A 2D barcode scanner is used for capturing and decoding the data.

Scott Wilson spotted the potential benefits for the engineering profession in registration of paper drawings. The number of drawings transmitted among offices is considerable, and a reliable and efficient registration system is essential.

Traditionally this would be by manual means, whether using register books or keyboard inputting into computer databases. Neither is satisfactory, being slow and vulnerable to human mistakes, says principal engineer Leung Wai Kit.

Under Scott Wilson's project, barcodes carry drawing title block information. Work started two months ago, with completion due at the end of September 1999. Paper drawings could be registered by scanning the barcode data into the drawing registration system.

In doing so, registration would be much faster and free from human mistakes, Kwong says. Moreover, the system would help organisations meet ISO quality assurance requirements through the establishment of a structured and reliable drawing management system.

Scott Wilson is developing software modules for encoding the title block information on AutoCAD and Microstation draw- ing files into 2-dimensional barcodes (PDF417) and printing the codes when the drawings are plotted.

Clearly, receiving organisations need to be able to read data, and the firm is formulating a standard format for the encoded data to enable standardised decoding. Further modules being developed will decode the data captured in the scanning process and make them available to the drawing management database of the receiving organisations.

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