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From CAD User Mechanical Magazine Vol 16 No 08 - AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2003
Oasys, the computing company for Arup, discovered that utilising established standards and practices was a far more cost-effective - and ultimately successful - solution, than buying in external applications.
The most successful applications, amongst all of those that are designed to improve the efficiency of the way we work, are those that pay some attention to the way we have always worked. That means looking at the way we expect things to happen - the way the process is laid out. After all, some elements of common sense and logical thinking have been applied over many years of experience to our working practices. We will feel more comfortable, moreover, and adapt more readily to software that enhances those processes, bringing on board those improvements that would have been impossible without the added power of the computer.
This applies to administrative software as it does to modelling software, and is exemplified in the document navigation and viewing software package, Columbus, which has been developed by Oasys, the software arm of Arup, the well-known design and construction company.
Columbus is well known throughout the civil engineering and construction markets. It was developed in-house by Oasys - or, as they were then known, Arup Computing - around 1999. As the central purchasing department for Ove Arup & Partners, and providers of configuration and support services, Arup Computing were heavily involved in developing the administrative and document management systems for the parent company. This went as far back as 1981, when the company developed a mainframe based document and cost control system. In 1986 they produced REG, a standalone drawings register system using dbaseII, which is still being used by some people today.
As document management needs increased dramatically, an EDMS working party was set up inside Arup to investigate and select an EDMS solution for the whole company, to provide a single co-ordinated and integrated approach to the problem. Arup Computing was invited to tender along with external vendors.
A number of companies were shortlisted, but the solutions that they provided were felt to be inimical to Arup's preferred way of working. In particular, the software was geared towards storing data files in vaults and copying to users on request, which, with multiple servers, could cause problems. Additionally, imposed Check in/Check out procedures based on file name encryption created problems working with CAD reference files, interfered with web browser access and meant users were dependent on the EDM system to access their data. In short, the systems were needlessly complex, inhibited home working and were characterised by the imposition of inflexible change and records management regimes.
Although Arup felt that this presented major problems, the biggest issue was not technology, but the people's acceptance of a new system. The decision was taken, therefore, to allow Arup Computing to develop the kernels lying around from their earlier efforts, knowing that the end result would be based on systems that the company were already familiar with, and which would incorporate the Codes of Good Practice that existed within the organisation. There was also a significant financial benefit as well, the in-house solution costing a fraction of the others.
NOT A DATABASE!
Columbus organises data the way that users would like to perceive it - gathering, for instance, all of the files that you may wish to use for a project, under one roof - wherever they may be from, either spread across the world, held on multiple servers, in many different formats, and accessible using a variety of methods. But, above all, it is always simple and accessible.
Simple and fast, as well! One of the main advantages of Columbus is its
speed of access. There's no database involved! The software sits on top
of your file system and works in exactly the same way that Microsoft Explorer
does. It even extracts document properties from some files, for example
MS Office, whilst you are browsing, making them instantly available at
the click of a button. The software is written in C++ and allows users
to view and organise documents and files in logical hierarchies rather
than the directory structures in which they are stored on servers.
Documents are categorised in a tree structure defined by an editable CDS file, and contains predefined filters that point to the correct subset of documents (e.g., plottable drawings). As the filter is known before querying the file system access is very fast. Besides storing file properties, other information, such as title, revision, status, dependencies and derived documents are listed for each document - and general info on each can be viewed by clicking on the description tab, which brings up a preview image, revision levels and other data.
Navigation systems based on Databases have to process multiple queries to provide what you want - not only slowing the search and retrieve functions down considerably, but requiring specialist staff to set up and administer. Meta-data normally kept in the database is extracted directly from the document properties or stored in text files one sub-folder down from where your documents are. The software even utilises existing security arrangements, adopting the security level assigned through user accounts and folder permission settings. And to simplify the creation and operation of projects, a Wizard is provided that guides users through the process using standard templates. A major advantage of this is that, from day one, any member of the project has a secure location in which to post his work - instead of logging on and having to make arbitrary decisions, or even create new folders.
The end result is that anyone in an organisation can easily find and print any documented associated with a particular project without having to load and run native applications. It incorporates viewing technology from Stellent and Rasterex, providing over 300 different file formats, including Microsoft Office, AutoCAD and Microstation. Both packages are encapsulated into a single viewing window, automatically selecting the best viewer for each file selected.
Users can open multiple windows, print any view, or add their own comments on them by redlining the content. Additional features specifically designed for CAD users enable title-block information to be mapped and automatically extracted, and for Xref paths to be set up as the user moves from project to project. Issuing documents is very straightforward as well, as Columbus allows users to issue selections to FTP/Extranet sites, notify intended recipients by email, and keep a dated copy on their own servers.
Two versions of Columbus are available. The basic version is a free viewer, handling the 300+file formats through the two professional viewers. The Full Monty comes with Columbus Pro, adding features such as scanning, compare drawings, file conversion, printing, plotting, measurement and many other functions.
Oasys has recently released a new version of Columbus Pro, enhancing the features already available. One of the first you will come across is the Enterprise deployment tool that will either install, or update, Columbus Pro remotely on any networked PC, ensuring that all users are provided rapidly, and simply, with the same level of capability.
Metadata support for Microsoft office documents has been upgraded, and now includes custom field metadata. Scanning has improved support, enabling scans to be made directly to PDF or TIFF. Users can also create multi-page documents using a single page scanner. Viewing has been enhanced, providing support for MS Office XP, and a Bird's Eye viewer is available to create an overview of files, so that users can pan around and select areas to zoom in on.
Other enhancements include improved printing and plotting functions, additional measure features, and Compare drawings. This function allows users to identify unrecorded changes in 3rd party drawings, or to identify updates in files. Documents can be issued using passive firewalls, and, as an alternative to sending files by email, complete sets of files can be compiled ready for burning to CD/DVD.
There are many Columbus users throughout the world. Some of this may be down to the fact that the original software was supplied to users free of charge. Although that is not now the case, there is no doubt that an application that has as its genesis the experience of one of the major construction companies has found many sympathisers throughout the industry. The simplicity of the software will also appeal, Oasys believes, to mechanical design engineers. CU
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