Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's the future hold for A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper? (IPAD app eliminates the need to print?)

Yesterday evening, I received an e-mail from one of my reprographics industry friends (he’s a vendor to the industry), and here’s what he said ….. and asked:

“The article about the iPad app that replaces construction drawings in the field is depressing.”

“Do you have a guess as to how quickly paper prints are going to go away (or mostly go away?). Do think this is going to happen soon?”

Where he refers to “paper prints”, he is referring to “plans printed on paper”; b/w and color prints from CAD files and b/w and color copies from hard-copy plans. For convenience sake, hereafter I’m going to refer to that stuff as “A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper.”

While I don’t think that A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper are going to disappear anytime soon, Reprographers have, over the past 10 years (if not somewhat longer than that), observed the development of, and advances in, “digital technology”. We’ve not only “observed” developments and advances, we’ve had to learn to deal with them, to adapt to them, and, yes, to live with them.

To me, the term “digital technology” includes a lot of different things (at least it does to me) – including, but not necessarily limited to –

Digital files: when I first got into the reprographics business, back in 1970, digital files (at least with respect to A/E/C plans), did not exist. Plans were (literally speaking) hand-drawn on vellum or mylar. Today, who, other than an older design-architect who still sketches his/her thoughts on paper, hand-draws plans? No one that I’m aware of. So, digital files have become a fact of life.

Electronic take-off: when I first got into the reprographics business, and for most of my career in the business, our GC and sub-contractor customers did manual take-offs in order to estimate their costs to build and to come up with their bids to owners. Estimators would measure stuff using A/E scales (a ruler of sorts) and hand-record their measurements in an accounting spreadsheet. Later, they began to use Excel software (or alternatives to Excel) to record their measurements and costs. While some estimators still do manual take-offs, the trend is definitely moving, and, I think, moving quickly, to electronic take-off, using software programs that work directly with CAD files. Adaptation to electronic take-off software hasn’t moved as quickly as some might have though would have been the case, but I think the main reason for that has been (and may still be, for a few more years) a “generation” issue. Older people working as estimators in construction are not as computer-literate as the generation coming up behind them. Older people (my generation, now that I’m 65) are less comfortable using electronic software for take-offs; they are used to the way they’ve always done take-offs. But, what about a 25 year-old estimator, one who started using computers at the age of 6 or 7?

Electronic permitting: we’ve done several articles on this blog over the past couple of years about firms who’ve introduced software and processes that enable “electronic permitting”. Firms who develop this software have, and continue to, target government agencies. As government agencies adopt electronic permitting, fewer “sets” of A/E/C plans will be printed on paper for permit applications.

The Internet: Everyone knows that the Internet has changed our lives. Every Reprographer is aware that the Internet has had a huge, major, gigantic impact on the way reprographers, and our customers, do business. The Internet was in its infancy when I first got into the reprographics business. Even in the decade of the 80’s, it was still pretty much a new thing. But, since the beginning of the 90’s, the Internet has grown to be “the one thing than no one can live without.” It is everywhere. Did not the Internet enable Reprographers to develop e-planrooms? Today, e-planrooms make it possible for A/E/C teams to collaborate on project documents, without anything being printed on paper. Plan-prints on paper are “optional”.

Digital communication technology; smartphones, e-readers, tablet computers, the iPAD (and iPAD wannabees): Voice, Text and Data move at incredible speeds today. And, it’s getting faster and faster and faster! At this very moment, I’m at the Boston Public Library (beautiful, historic building, great café) and I’m in the café. Currently, there are 19 people in the café, and not a single person isn’t using some sort of electronic device! 3 iPADs, 10 laptops and 6 smartphones. (Okay, a person older than me just walked in and sat down with a real newspaper; but he probably has a cell phone in his pocket.) Can you remember when one used a phone line and modem to dial up and tie into a mini-computer that was located somewhere else, and what a pain in the neck it was when, for some unknown reason, the line disconnected? Can you remember how slow it was, back then, to transfer a CAD file from one location to another? How about if you had to transfer 300 CAD files over a modem? (Well, using T-1 lines was faster, but they were very expensive.) How many people now have laptops, tablet computers and iPADs (and devices that are iPAD alternatives), and is not that increasingly so? Younger people (both of the generations behind me) think of these devices as part of their daily lives. They would not know what to do without them.

Software for Project Management, Project Collaboration, Document Management, smartfiles (my term for stuff like BlueBeam PDF), Integrated Project Delivery (BIM included): Reprographers are not the only ones who’ve developed, promoted and pushed-out software to A/E/C Industry participants. There’s a huge amount of competition in this field, and Reprographers have had to deal with that, live with that. And, developments in this arena are not slowing down. Many software products promote “paperless” construction. Or, promote a “reduced need” to print plans on paper.

Well, so much for “digital technology” developments and advances – or, as some might say - the “digitalization” of the A/E/C Industry. These developments and advances have had an adverse impact on A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper, and I suspect that adverse impact will continue, if not grow even more onerous, in the future.

Then add to that the “Great Recession” that hit the A/E/C Industry. Less projects, less A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper. Fact of life.

But, the other fact of life is that the A/E/C Industry has always recovered from its recessions. Always! And, this time will be no different. There will, at some point, be a recovery in the A/E/C Industry (and I’ve already gone on record to say that 2012 will show evidence of a recovery in that industry.) And, at some point down the road, A/E/C Industry activity (project-activity, that is) will grow larger than the peak that Industry hit back in 2006/7. You can count on that happening.

But, what we – Reprographers – cannot count on is that the Reprographics Industry’s recovery will be directly proportionate to the A/E/C Industry’s recovery. We cannot count on that because of “digitalization”. But, no one has a crystal ball that works. As the A/E/C Industry climbs out of its depression, there’s always the chance that A/E/C customers will revert to printing lots of A/E/C plans-on-paper, just like they did before. I’d love to see that happen. But, I’m not going to bet the bank that that will happen. And, that’s because another generation – a very highly digitally-inclined generation - is getting ready to move into positions occupied by the only slightly less digitally-inclined generation behind my generation, as my generation, the baby-boom generation, retires. And, if the generation immediately behind me pushed for change, what might be reasonably expected from the generation behind them? A push for even greater change?

Back to the comment my friend made and the question he asked:

“The article about the iPad app that replaces construction drawings in the field is depressing.”

“Do you have a guess as to how quickly paper prints are going to go away (or mostly go away?). Do think this is going to happen soon?”

Personally, I don’t think that iPAD apps will replace A/E/C plans-printed-on-paper in a very meaningful way in the near-term future. But, long term, the story might be very different.

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