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Getting your net working

Your career Understanding extranets

Everyone is talking about project extranets, but what are they, and why do you need to know?

It would be hard for even the least technically minded of us not to have noticed the impact of the Internet on the construction industry. Many clients and contractors have now started on the first rung of Internet based business by using project extranets and collaboration systems.

Project extranets have been around for a while, and pioneering firms such as Laing and Bovis started using private ISDN networks some years ago for private, web-based collaboration and document exchange. But the increased availability of cheaper and higher performance systems, along with better quality software and a change of attitude in the industry, has boosted the market.

The latest wave of tools from vendors such as BIW Technologies, Bidcom and Buzzsaw allow extranets - essentially private project networks - to be set up very quickly.

It is a concept that is alien to the normal corporate IT department response to the dynamic project environment. The systems now on offer allow for the exchange of drawing and document information and the management of information requests and queries, as well as other project information such as photographs and webcam images.

This is the easy part. The real work begins once you have spent your money and set up your system. You then need to ensure the information exchanged is useful to the business at the receiving end.

For this to happen, you need to make sure files and drawings are in a form that can be interpreted by the recipient. If you want to improve productivity and reduce errors, as well as enabling spatial co-ordination, you need to ensure that the project team shares common data such as origins, offsets and formats. You need to know that fonts used by business A can be printed by business B, and you can co-ordinate information on the various layers of drawings.

This may all seem a little complex to the beginner, but with careful management within the project team, it is possible to negotiate a common set of standards, methods and protocols.

Once you have your extranet and project information flowing in a managed regime, you are ready to commence the real collaboration process. Team members can reuse information, in a controlled audited manner, tolerances can be managed by sharing and overlaying information and a spatially co-ordinated design can be delivered for construction.

What is more, the exchange of information is not limited to twodimemsional CAD drawings.

Any information can be exchanged including 3D models and commercial and general correspondence.

It is claimed that there are around 1,500 projects being managed using extranets, with a combined value of some £20bn.

These projects are serviced by around 20 organisations in the UK offering solutions with varying levels of functionality. The services are hosted by the vendors in the main and costs are in the range of £200-£2,000 per month, depending on functionality, performance and project value.

Most extranet companies are now working on the next wave of services, including bid management, procurement and, in the case of BIW Technologies, an application to manage the design phase.

The system is based on a methodology that allows activities to iterate rather than follow a sequential series of activities.

This functionality is, of course, of vital importance to us in the construction industry as the design process follows this pattern.

Over the coming months and years it is from these technology companies that we will procure services and systems, as information and the management of information holds the key to real end to end project delivery benefits.

Costain uses a number of extranet tools including Bidcom, Cadweb and Buzzsaw, and is in the process of identifying a strategic business tool to fit the future shape of the business.

The company believes this strategic approach, together with consistent best business practice, will mark out the business of the future.

Mark Bew is a project manager for Costain with responsibility for best practice.

INFOPLUS

To find out more about project extranet products and vendors, visit Construction Plus at http: //www. nceplus. co. uk/ proj_collaboration/ Project extranets conference A one day conference will take place on December 6, at the ICE headquarters in London. Organised by Construction Plus and New Civil Engineer publisher Emap, it will outline the very latest in extranet application, with first hand experiences from high level construction industry professionals.

Contact Natalie Rubinstein on 020 7505 8614, or natalie. rubinstein@construct.

emap. com for more details.

Key points

Extranets are private project networks with very specific functions

These systems allow information and documents to be circulated within the project team

More and more services are being added to project extranets

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