Plan rooms, cloud computing, and BIM are playing a larger role in the architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) market than ever before. As they do, growing numbers of print service providers are availing themselves of the new technologies to create dynamic opportunities for profits and growth.
A plan room has traditionally been a repository to obtain documents, said K. Pramod Reddy, vice-president of BIM services for Walnut Creek, CA-based ARC, a document management company focused on the construction industry. In the wide-format market, the plan room has been the place where architects, engineers, and construction managers can go and determine which documents they want to have printed, he said.
But given the decline in printing on paper, for purposes of environmental sustainability and cost savings, plan rooms have evolved and are now workflow oriented. “They’re moving much more toward collaboration,” Reddy said. “Construction teams can see documents online in real time. Instead of the design team or architects designing in a vacuum, the designing can be far more collaborative. The construction team can weigh in on the design as it happens.”
The new systems are allowing architects to participate in the project not just in the design stage, but from design stage through the construction stage to facilities management and onward through the building’s entire lifecycle. In this way, architects can be part of the success of the economics of the building, and become stakeholders throughout the lifecycle of the building, Reddy said.
PSPs New Role: Educator
Wide-format imaging companies once played a more consultative role with their customer bases. But as technology went mainstream, the plan room became a commodity. The evolving market we are witnessing today allows print service providers to return to a far more profitable consultative role, Reddy said.
There exists what he calls “an ecosystem of team members with different levels of knowledge.” The architect may be knowledgeable about plan rooms, but that doesn’t mean the plumbing contractor is, he said.
So a project’s success often hangs on the level of sophistication or lack thereof of the partnership’s lowest common denominator. That means wide-format printers can become digital content managers, and more integral part of the team than ever before. “It’s up to them to make sure every member of the team gets the right information at the right place in the right format,” Reddy said.
The print service provider can also take on another role, that of educator.
The print provider may be able to give a subcontractor who doesn’t understand plan rooms training on the latest software technology. That technology may center on plan rooms. Or it may focus on BIM, a term referring to the digital representation of construction documents. BIM is a technology that allows the simulation of construction projects to determine viability and risk, Reddy said.
Many wide-format imaging companies have three- or four-decade relationships with architectural, engineering and construction clients. They are seen as the trusted partner in providing those clients with technology platforms.
Offering other services, among them BIM services, is another opportunity, Reddy said. “Not everyone can afford to have BIM expertise in house,” he said. “But a wide-format printing company can hire that person, and share that talent across a number of different clients. The plumbing contractor would not see the economic rationale in hiring BIM expertise himself, but he can access that BIM expertise through a member of the team, that being the wide-format printer.”
Another company leading the way in this evolution is eDevelopment, which consists of five established and successful reprographic firms boasting more than 280 years of combined industry experience. The companies created a corporation to develop software solutions for the architectural, engineering and construction industry. The web-based products eDevelopment has unveiled manage construction information and increase efficiency, cut printing and shipping costs, reduce contract administration costs and speed time frames.
With More Complex Projects, Cloud Computing Offers Advantages
The driving force behind this turn of events is hesitancy of architectural, engineering, and construction firms to invest in expensive, complex systems. They are looking to cloud computing and software-as-a-service solutions for bid and project information management, said Shelby Lynn Marshall, business development manager with Lexington, KY-based Lynn Imaging, one of the five firms comprising eDevelopment. The benefits of cloud computing dovetail nicely with the core competency of traditional reprographic firms, she reported.
“Though many of us thought we were in the printing business, we were really in the outsourcing business,” she explained. “We took work off the desks of construction professionals, so they could focus on designing and building. Cloud computing is outsourcing information technology infrastructure to a provider on the Internet. Even though the computer can be almost anywhere on the Internet, construction companies still prefer to deal with a local company. This is where the opportunity exists for traditional reprographics companies.”
Cloud computing is ideal for the integrated project team, and the technology of eDevelopment is built to fit their day-to-day processes.
“It’s not just about printing; for the last 50 years, it has always been about managing information,” Marshall noted. “While we still manage paper processes for some of our clients, we now have more digital solutions in place that manage information throughout the lifecycle of the project.
“We are playing a larger role because the information we manage is much more intelligent than it used to be. It once was just a two-dimensional blueprint. Now it’s not only dimensions readily available, but also light exposure, clash detection, and 3D presentation, to name just a few. The greater the sophistication of the information, the more complex it is going to be to manage. And eDevelopment offers online solutions to manage complex projects.”
Bid Process: Traditional vs. Modern
The traditional bid process versus a digital process can be summed up in the following way, Marshall said. Traditionally, a construction subcontractor printed eight copies of his submittal and shipped it to the construction manager. The construction manager approved the submittal and shipped it to the architect. The architect either approved it, or sometimes had to mark up all eight copies, then stamped them and shipped them to the corresponding party.
By contrast, when the process is digital, the subcontractor posts the submittal electronically, and the construction manager reviews it online, approves it digitally and sends it on to the architect. The architect either stamps it to approve or revises and resubmits. “It all happens digitally in a matter of an hour versus days or maybe weeks for the traditional paper process,” Marshall said.
EDevelopment’s clients do not have to pay huge upfront costs, and its online applications are user friendly and require little training. Applications eDistribution and eCommunication are both online applications, so clients are 100 percent “in the cloud,” Marshall said. They have nothing to download to make the applications run, resulting in the offerings being highly mobile.
One more expert excited about the potential of the emerging technology and the role print service providers will play in that new world is Jay Magenheim, president and CEO of Ideal Scanners and Systems in Rockville, MD.
Once plan rooms had become a commodity, wide-format imagers were giving away their plan rooms and other digital services in order to win orders to handle the printing, Magenheim said. As such, they weren’t getting fair return for offering those services. But when the recession hit, and industries started looking to cut costs like never before, the construction industry discovered the FTP site, allowing them to transfer larger files. Now they could send out files in digital form without having to have them printed, Magenheim said.
“It’s my intention to sell cloud computing through the reprographics industry,” he added. “The industry needs a new digital business model. Cloud computing is a way to make scanning the beginning of a revenue stream, not the end. The provider can plug his customer into cloud computing services offered by Ideal, and we provide a solution for document management and workflow.”
The excitement of cloud computing is its pricing model, Magenheim added. Cloud computing commoditizes IT infrastructure, in a sense putting very small construction companies on an equal footing with larger players. They don’t have to invest in software, hardware, servers, and IT people, because everything is done over the cloud. That means they can act as larger companies, and can expand and contract as the pace of their business dictates, he explained.
Reprographers' Role Evolves
Like Reddy and Marshall, Magenheim sees print service providers’ role changing. They can now act as middlemen to get their clients on to the cloud.
With cloud, as with a public utility, payment is based only on what is used. Cost is determined by the number of user seats sought, Magenheim said.
Instead of simply being able to charge for scanning their customers’ information, print service providers “can charge for each user seat,” he added. “They can charge an entry-level or viewing seat, or [a more costly] executive-level seat that allows the customer to look at everything...They can start with scanning, then move to HR, and move to more and more departments.”
Ideal assists its PSP clients in having their own clients complete questionnaires featuring a half dozen questions, then use the clients’ responses to produce a demo for each client, he said. “If he likes what he sees, we start a program that begins small in scale. It starts in one department and moves to others. We’re looking for reprographers to be our selling agents. If reprographers are interested in other digital models, we think they will be interested in this. The beauty is they’ll make residual revenue off this.”