Future Plans

With new technologies springing up seemingly almost every day, manufacturers of reprographic online plan rooms are facing ever-increasing competition. Another hurdle to overcome is that some reprographers do not use the technology to its full potential.

Wide-Format Imaging asked several manufacturers to discuss their plan room upgrades, how best to use their plan room, and what lies ahead.

How have you upgraded your online plan rooms?

Jay Magenheim, president, Ideal Scanners and Systems, Rockville, MD: We’ve made it easier and more economical than ever before for reprographers to set up and maintain an IDEAL PlanRoom. We now offer fast, remote installation (no need for a tech to come on site) and annual software maintenance agreements that include software updates.

Getting a digital solution up and running quickly and economically is important for reprographers who are looking for ways to replace printing income lost with the downturn in the economy. The recession has forced the construction industry to find ways to reduce printing costs like never before.

The biggest competitors to the reprographic industry these days are FTP sites used by general contractors to download drawing files to subs. The files are then printed locally on wide-format inkjet printers. In some cases, online takeoffs are performed. Unfortunately, with FTP sites, general contractors (GCs) lose control of who has downloaded drawings, so they have no way to ensure that their best subcontractors obtained the drawings. With FTP there is no control that disallows competitors of the GC to download a project.

By offering construction customers a low-cost digital plan room that offers permission-based digital downloads, maintains logs of who downloaded, and enables bid management and quick delivery of bid notifications and revisions, reprographers can recoup lost revenue while enabling their construction clients to save money on printing and maintain control of their bid process. Thus, a low-cost IDEAL PlanRoom becomes a win-win for both reprographers and their construction customers.

Kevin Rowe, CIO, MySmartPlans, Kansas City, MO: We built MySmartPlans from a radically different perspective. MySmartPlans isn’t an online plan room; it is a project-specific application that incorporates many tools, including project repositories that replace the online plan room functionality. With MySmartPlans we ensure that everyone on the project is looking at the same information at the same time, from their desktop not an online plan room. If I’m a project manager, that is huge.

Most plan rooms haven’t changed much at all—upload, download and send to the print department. In fact, there are many that development has been stopped, including several very large systems with a large install base. MySmartPlans currently is running a $40-million dollar project. The information has changed 44 times and we have 511 concurrent users. The information is instantly usable from our dashboard—no downloading file after file, no having to organize it on their desktops, etc. MySmartPlans becomes the projects' communication technology. We also have five other print companies listed from which dashboard users can order the paper. We want to print for them, but we don’t have to.

David Stickney, vice president corporate communications, American Reprographics Company, Walnut Creek, CA: The logistics capabilities of plan rooms are starting to take a lead role in the list of benefits that flow to our customers. We’ve added several complementary technology applications to our portfolio that allow our customers to move documents around their offices, around their companies and around the world.

Amanda Schoonover, account manager, Lynn Imaging, Louisville KY: Online plan rooms are becoming a more significant resource to the architectural and construction industry.

At this point, the online plan room has become more than just accessing information online to the average user. In addition to posting project information and details, digital services have been developed with advanced communication tools, reporting logs and security features that enable a customer to track plan-room activity such as users’ interests, orders and profiles. Also, customizing the services to the individual user preferences, providing more specific permissions-based accessible user rights, and managing, controlling and searching project documents are all being developed with more robust options that can be administered at the reprographer level as well as the user level.

While the online plan room for the reprographer began largely as a means of information dissemination, it is now a tool that affects the entire project life cycle for each project team member, thus involving a more intricate role of the reprographer than ever before.

Are print providers using plan rooms to the best of their capabilities? If not, how can they be used better?

Magenheim: Most reprographers are using the plan rooms to maintain an old-school business model of print-for-pay. Most in the repro industry are not training their customers to pay for the value of digital documents combined with the related services that a plan room can provide. One solution is a subscription-based plan room with a monthly charge based on the number of drawings and a ceiling on the number of downloads. I’ve found that once a contractor understands the benefits associated with an online plan room, he’s more than willing to pay the monthly subscription fee. 

Rowe: Print providers will not be successful until they quit trying to protect the printing! Customers don’t like it and it’s the wrong way to keep business. We saw the color labs try the same tactic years ago—provide the best solution, control the information because you have the best solution. With today’s pricing being so brutal, the profit derived from printing is marginal. Without digital fees, our companies will become extinct. There are pockets of success, but they are the exception not the rule.

Stickney: There are huge portions of our customer base that still don’t use online plan rooms at all, or certainly not to their full capacity. Repro firms need to be doing a better job marketing the benefits of these tools to their customers to help increase adoption. In some ways, the recessionary environment is the ideal time to do so—our clients need to do more with less, and that’s the foundational value of any digital app.

Schoonover: Not all print providers are using online plan rooms. For those who are, there are certainly varied levels of knowledge and skill sets to implement this type of technology, due to the varied complexity of online plan rooms available. One of the most important attributes to optimizing plan room resources and revenue streams is to assess the needs of the customer and the market trends accurately. However, in every market, key opportunities exist to simply reduce your customer’s headaches resulting from the daily administrative tasks of maintaining and distributing hard copy and electronic information. Maintaining, or providing the tools to maintain, digital address books, plan holders and bidders lists, current plan sets, and user activity, at a minimum, reduces the customer’s liability, stress, clerical needs and overhead costs, and time spent answering questions.

Can you provide a specific example of someone using a plan room to the best of its ability?

Magenheim: As contractors begin to understand what capabilities are available they begin to broaden its use. For instance, they and their subs can view drawings anyplace that they have access to a web browser. They can use tablet PCs to email red-lines and edits to work crews. In this way, the plan room becomes more than just a substitute for a paper drawing. It becomes integrated into the daily workflow of the construction team.

On-site tablet PCs are the biggest growth opportunity. Our plan room—with its thin client viewer—is uniquely suited as a companion product to ruggedized tablet PCs together with cheap cellular data plans. With modern-day demands for green construction, an IDEAL PlanRoom can help contractors meet their green requirements.

Rowe: I can provide about 102 clients who routinely use our technology to mange project information. McDonald’s, Turner Construction, HCA Hospitals, Skanska, and JE Dunn have found great value in our solution, and we proudly charge for our solutions. We currently have one project in house that will generate double six-figures upon completion. Why? Because we handle a myriad of pieces of document information that is required on a project, not just plans and specs. In fact, those pieces are the easiest to handle. MySmartPlans currently has over 6,000 users nationwide.

Stickney: If reprographers are looking to make the argument for plan rooms in the most compelling way, they simply need to point to the bid process and how customers can leverage the document repository function into the communication and logistics process. Our best customers regularly use the ability of PlanWell or Sub-Hub to not only store the documents and keep them up to date, but to cut bid times by at least 50 percent if not more. They do so by using the ITB broadcast functions, direct-plan ordering capabilities, digital downloads and distribution of plans, and tracking responses to ITB’s. The bid phase is where plan rooms can most explicitly and dramatically prove their mettle.

Schoonover: The use of a plan room and its range of available functionality can be applied in all phases of the project life cycle. An example of a plan room being used to the best of its ability, arguably, is in a traditional bid phase utilized by the construction manager or architect. The bid phase typically involves a relatively brief window of time for contractors to review, prepare and submit their bid. The reprographer is charged with managing the dissemination of thousands of documents and files in a time-sensitive environment, ensuring 100 percent consistency and accuracy of all information to all bidders. In this example, the online plan room is a fundamental approach to communicate project scope, addenda releases, bid date changes, up-to-date bidders list and status, and 24/7 online viewing and ordering capabilities for those who work in the field all day.

What can we expect next with plan room technology?

Magenheim: As plan rooms become more integrated in the day-to-day operations of the construction process, a natural outgrowth will be to use the plan rooms to archive drawings throughout the life cycles of buildings and properties, thus extending the digital convenience and green consciousness well into the future. A well-designed digital plan room can become the sustainable business model for the next generation of reprographers.

Rowe: I believe there will be a migration to a different set of tools and technologies other than straight online repositories. Plan rooms have been around 10 years and are still eclipsed by paper and FTP sites. There are technologies that provide a whole different experience level for the users. The distribution of the information isn’t about it being easy for the reprographer; it’s about being easy for the end user. Clients don’t want to pay you to organize your shop, they need results.

Stickney: Plan room evolution is going to have to embrace the increasing use of 3D information in BIM, match the needs for integrated project delivery workflows, and incorporate features that leverage document use into project management, project scheduling and project costing.

Schoonover: Plan room technology will become more and more popular as the reprographics industry slowly transitions from paper to digital services, as a response to the industry it serves. The technology will naturally become more user-friendly, intuitive and customizable for its users.

Online plan rooms will become an integral part of the project life cycle providing customers with more project management tools, static contact management features, external software plug-ins for workflow integration, and in-office print-on-demand solutions, ultimately increasing the prevalence and acceptance of digital information and digital file distribution achieved through the online plan room.