In 1996, Ove Arup Partnership began exploring the uncharted waters of document management systems. The team was unimpressed by what it found. Then an expert from its own computer arm rang. The result is a gift to the industry.
This Christmas, Ove Arup Partnership plans to give the construction industry a present. The group, one of the world’s largest consultants, will hand out Columbus, its in-house document management system, to any firm that wants it – for nothing. Having spent the past four years developing and testing the software, why is it now giving it away?

In 1995, the firm’s consultants and designers decided they needed a document management system that would enable collaborative working practices. Ove Arup has offices around the world and is involved in many major international projects. The group wanted a standard system that could handle all the 400-odd software applications in use in its offices worldwide. The product also had to be quick and easy to set up because some of Ove Arup’s offices are so small that an engineer has to double as systems manager.

In 1996, the Birmingham office of the engineering arm, Ove Arup & Partners, set up a working party to find a product that suited the group’s needs. Representatives from throughout the group, including consulting engineers and acoustic specialists, were in the working party.

The right tool for the job

The working party looked at several systems and by April 1997 had made its selection. But the package chosen was the best of a bad bunch. It did not meet all the needs of such a diverse business and would require six dedicated staff to look after it. More important, it would cost £2m for 2000 user licences, plus a 15% annual maintenance charge. The board rejected the proposal because it was too expensive.

Meanwhile, experts in Arup Computing, the computing division of Ove Arup & Partners, were hard at work on another problem. “We were developing a tool for CAD people to use to solve a problem with AutoCAD,” says Alec Milton, an Ove Arup associate director based at Arup Computing in London. It was then that they realised their system had the potential to solve the group’s document management problems. “We made a few changes to the tool, gave it a name and said to the committee, ‘Is this what you were after?’,” beams Milton.

In fact, Columbus was precisely what the Ove Arup partners were after. Obviously, it does everything that most collaborative systems do. It allows an architect in Sydney to communicate with a structural engineer in Los Angeles. When a user posts a document to the project extranet site, the system automatically puts a copy in the user’s records and notifies the recipient that a document is waiting. It keeps copies of issues of all the amendments to drawings, and users can only tap into areas they are authorised to use.

Unlike other systems, Columbus is a datastore, rather than a database. This means that all the files and drawings are kept in directories, so that users do not have to wait for the system to wend its way through a database to get to the required document. The documents are kept in a series of files that are only one directory away from the drawing. The simplicity of the system delights Milton. “It’s really noddy,” he says.

The other significant difference is that Columbus is compatible with an array of administrative and technical software packages. It can deal with the obscure applications used in the acoustics division, for example. It will run on any operating system, and, says Milton: “You can even take it home and use it.” The viewing engine will also allow users to view more than 200 file formats. So, if you don’t have Powerpoint on your system, you can still view a Powerpoint file with Columbus.

Columbus is now in use on the prestigious Manchester Commonwealth Stadium scheme, for which Ove Arup & Partners is structural engineer.

What’s in it for you?

So, why is Ove Arup giving Columbus away? In the long run, says Milton, giving other firms the software will save us money. “We are fed up with the situation where lots of different companies are developing extranet tools and trying to make money out of it,” he explains. He cites one current project on which the firm had to contribute £38 000 to the document management system. On another, the firm is still paying £27 000 in monthly instalments for the application in use. So, although Columbus cost £120 000 a year to develop, if it is widely adopted by other firms, Ove Arup will be able to claw back the cost because it will not have to pay for different systems. It will also charge users that call its telephone helpline.

A dedicated Columbus web site will go on-line in December. The site will carry a user support forum for queries that will be monitored by Ove Arup. Anybody interested in trialling Columbus will be able to download it from the web site. Milton intends to produce a CD-ROM for those who cannot download the system. This will be available for a small fee.

Milton hopes the IT departments of many construction firms will take advantage of Ove Arup’s Christmas gift. He also hopes that his system encourages the construction sector to come up with some sort of industry standard for document management systems.

Do you want it?

  • Free of charge
  • Copes with even the most obscure software
  • Lots of competition with other systems
  • Firms are beginning to have preferred systems