Project Information Management (PIM) systems are often seen as a necessary evil. But many firms still struggle to associate project emails with simple ‘folder’ systems. Newforma is a non-obtrusive management system that works, writes Martyn Day.
There is a general perception in the AEC industry that document management products hinder as much as they solve common business pains.
Fitting like a straight-jacket, they lock all data, processes and workflows into a rigid system. Newforma is an application that offers many of the benefits of a large system but without the inflexibility.
Founded in 2003 by a team that included some ex-Autodesk developers, Newforma’s core product is Newforma Project Center. Now in its 8th release, the software was primarily sold in the USA but the company has since expanded to Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.
Key features include: filing email alongside project information, fast searching for information, packaging transmittals and general management of data allowing the tracking and monitoring of project progress. By saving time in the fast location and reuse of data and keeping track of important documents, Newforma Project Center offers the chance to improve responsiveness, reduce errors, giving more time to focus on the act of designing. The other fundamental benefit is that the technology does not take over the workflow infrastructure but works with standard Windows folders and email systems.
There are three components to the Newforma system: an internal server, a desktop application and an external ‘Info Exchange’ server. The system architecture resides on a server inside the firewall, alongside any existing project or mail servers. The Newforma Project Center client is installed on each workstation and hooks into the Outlook mail client. On first install the system indexes existing project files and folders, making historical or existing projects easy to add. Once indexed, Newforma knows where all the files reside and powerful searches can be performed and relational links established.
The third component, Newforma Info Exchange server, resides on the network but outside the firewall to enable external browser-based access. While this may sound complicated it is very straight forward and does not negatively impact the configuration, meaning if you want to remove the Newforma system, it can be unplugged without impacting company data.
Once installed, users access their work through a Newforma Project Center dashboard, which provides a clear interface for the various all-encompassing workflow elements that Newforma manages: project files, viewer, markup, project timeline, action items, documents sets, submittals, RFIs and meeting minutes.
The ‘Document Control activity centre’ handles the issuing, permissions and revision management of PDF drawing files. With the optional Revit add-on, BIM models and documents can also be synchronised. RFIs, markups and change orders are integrated into the module and reports exported to Excel.
Newforma works with commonly-used systems such as Outlook, Exchange server, Lotus notes and Gmail. Users can simply drag and drop project emails into their related project folders, which are stored on the central server, and keep all relevant data together. At the same time the system stops duplication of emails should multiple users all file the same email. The email activity centre displays a list of all the emails submitted to the project but a permissions system controls who can see what documents. There are some really powerful search and filters on offer here to help speedily track down the right email or attachment. Newforma Info Exchange, a web-based client, allows remote access to these emails, together with the optional Newforma Mobile, which provides a mobile optimised website.
No management system is complete without some way to communicate design changes. Newforma Project Center offers a range of tools to capture, markup and send change instructions to project teams. Using an innovative snapshot screen capture, BIM models can be easily marked-up and any associated action items indicated — without sending huge files around. It is also possible to compare document versions to quickly identify what has changed.
Meetings are made in the email system such as Outlook. The meeting is logged by Newforma when added to the project record. In the dashboard the agenda can be added and shared, referencing in any required documents in the system. There is a tab to add notes, attendees, start and end times. Action items from the meetings (RFIs etc) can also be tracked, with items indicating when they have been completed. This is a really well thought out feature, worthy of further investigation.
Info Exchange is a really useful capability of Newforma and is like your own FTP server but better. Files can be scheduled, cued for download, expired, logged, automatic send notifications. Great to know the ‘who, what and when’ files leave the company. The system also acts as a portal for external team members to access ‘published’ documents, such as RFIs. The system also supports mobile smart phones. This is indeed powerful stuff for the extended multi-site project team.
The most recent version supports an optional plug-in enabler for Autodesk’s Revit BIM modeller, supporting all three variants: Revit Architecture, Structure and MEP down to the element level. Space planning spreadsheets can be used to create live Revit models, punchlist locations can be extracted, markups can be linked to building model elements, together with creating a discoverable audit trail linking emails and documents to elements. Perhaps most importantly, worksheets and models can also be ‘connected’ to manage the revision and coordination of 2D and 3D when edits are made.
Newforma Contract Management supports contract and document change management during the construction phase and adds the ability to manage change orders, addenda, supplemental instructions, bulletins, punch lists and more.
Newforma Project Analyzer provides project planning, resource management and reporting for managers. It pulls live project data directly from financial systems to aid decision making on budgets and staffing across the entire firm.
Newforma is easy to use, ensures documents don’t get lost and helps combine related documents with management of project teams. While there is some need for server infrastructure, it’s not a dedicated resource hungry system and works with existing folder structures and mail systems. It’s also one of the few systems that integrates with Autodesk Revit at an element level. Worthy of a consideration for linking emails to drawings and keeping track of documents sent out of the company.