Benefits of PDF’s for Construction Industry

The PDF (portable document format) was invented by Abode Systems in 1993.  It was a propriety file format until recently when it was released as an open standard last July.

In my experience working as a general Contractor and Subcontractor, I have noticed a substantial increase in the use of PDF’s for transfer of 8.5”x11” documentation (in lieu of mailing and faxes).  However, I have only experienced a slight increase in shop drawing transfer via PDF.  Since I am part of the digital generation, I am a big supporter of paperless documentation for the following reasons:


This one is fairly simple – email is much faster than mail.  An Auto CAD detailer will take several minutes to convert a DWG file into PDF and email it to the appropriate parties.  With a click of the button, the Contractor can forward the submittal to the Architect/Engineer.  Now that the software has the ability to digitally “mark up” drawings, I have noticed that some Structural Engineers and Contractors encourage digital drawing transfer.  The Engineer can return the reviewed submittal to the Contractor who forwards it to the Subcontractor in a matter of minutes.  Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by President Clinton, emails are equivalent to paper (i.e. transmittals) for legal matters.  One potential downside is the digital files can be large at times.  Hopefully with increased broadband/DSL/T1 speeds, this will be non-issue in a few years.

By contrast, traditional mail can involve many time-consuming steps.  1) Printing the drawings.  Assuming the Subcontractor has a plotter in house, this step will take several minutes.  Subcontractors without plotters will have to email files to a printing company which costs more money and takes more time.  2) Making several copies for all parties.  Assuming the Subcontractor has a fast large-scale copier in house, this step will take several more minutes.  Subcontractors without copiers will have to rely on the printing company.  3) Packaging and Mailing the drawings by car/truck/airplane.  This step may take 1-2 hours for local work or 1-5 days for out-of-town work.  Another issue is that mail can get lost, misplaced or remain unopened more easily than an email.  4) Review Process.  The contractor reviews the submittal and mails it to the Architect/Engineer (more time wasted).  After the review, the Architect/Engineer must mail it back to the Contractor (more time wasted).  Finally, the Contractor mails it to the Subcontractor (more time wasted).  This process gets aggravated for work done in foreign countries.

Construction schedules and deadlines are tighter than in the past.  The traditional mail process wastes money and time in transit whereas digital transfer is relatively free and instant.  The extra time can be used for other purposes:  coordination, management and incorporation of redesigns/RFIs.  With all that said, it is still a good idea to keep a paper copy of the drawings for your records.  Technology is great but not perfect.

2. SAVE THE TREES:  The PDF is environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

The typical construction drawing (the Architect E1 size) is 30″x42″ in size.  The area of the E1 is equivalent to 13.5 sheets of 8.5″x11″ copy paper.  Estimates are that 1 tree will make 9000 sheets of copy paper (or 667 sheets of E1).

Many Subcontractors have probably experienced receiving a huge roll of 667 design drawings…only to end up using 30 structural sheets.  The reason that Contractors send EVERY drawing is to ensure that their Subcontractors do not miss any information (and CYA).  Contractors can reduce their paper costs by sending PDFs (either via CD or downloadable online) instead of hardcopies.

One potential downside is that printing costs will be shifted from Contractors towards Subcontractors.  This negative can be offset by having Subcontractors submit PDF versions of shop drawings to Contractors (in lieu of sending 3-10 copies of the submittal).  Another downside is that the Subcontractor will have to spend time sorting through PDFs to figure out which sheets are worth printing.  Time is money but the goal is to reduce the total sheets printed and save the environment.

On a disheartening side note, I find it ironic that we strive to get construction projects LEED certified but we neglect the forest of trees killed in the process.

3. MORE ORGANIZED FILING: Folders are our friends.

I won’t get into detail about the computer software, but I find it easier and quicker to retrieve digital documents off a computer rather than sort through paper file systems.  One caveat is that both systems take time to set up and discipline to maintain them.

When one of my customers calls, I can access the necessary digital drawings within a few seconds and (hopefully) answer their question(s) immediately.  There is nothing better than closing an issue quickly and reducing the phone bills.  Granted, basic questions can be answered over email but the complex questions require more communication.

Conversely, when a customer calls me in “non-digital-land,” I would have to put the customer on hold, go to the print room, pray that I find the drawings quickly, go back to my room, open the drawings up, and then address the customer.  If I couldn’t find the drawings, then I’d have to call the customer back.

While critics will find flaws with digital transfer of drawings versus mail, I strongly believe that digital is the way of the future.  Down the road, mobile phone technology will allow the field workers to project installation drawings onto surfaces.  An entire construction crew can be coordinated through their mobile phones rather carry outdated and dirty drawings in their Jobox.

– Neel Khosa, AMSYSCO Inc

Copyright © 2009 by AMSYSCO, Inc. All rights reserved.

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