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Building a Paperless Office using Low Cost Technology

by Stanley Fong

2004 DIGITAL 21 STRATEGY

To sustain the momentum created in the last five years the HKSAR Government has conducted a review of the 2001 Digital 21 Strategy and intends to issue an updated Strategy in early 2004. Public comments on the draft 2004 Digital 21 Strategy are invited (see http://www.info.gov.hk/digital21/eng/strategy2004/strategy_main.html). I have been in Engineering since 1981 and have personally experienced PC evolution from the Apple II. Below I want to share with readers my personal experience in an attempt to paperless office using low cost IT technology and know-how.

PaperLess Office, A Practical Need

The idea of paperless office, an idealistic dream invented by a technology marketer, is hardly new. It is a matter of degree and how practical, more importantly cost effective, one can implement such an idea into the working environment for better work collaboration, information sharing and use less paper.

During the course of a contract in recent years we received 1,250 hardcopy drawings from the Engineer, produced 7,800 ACAD drawings ourselves, received 3,950 ACAD drawings from vendors, and handled 120,000 incoming and outgoing mails. On top of these we have 30Mb of databases tracking drawing/document submissions and mail register (in Excel and Access files) to satisfy ISO requirements. The infrastructure is there, i.e. a computer network connecting 65 members of the project team. The question is how to implement a system, at reasonable costs, which would enable access to information stored in network servers and share scanned documentation by all members of the team?

What Products Are Available?

My client has experience with Enterprise level content management solution such that those from Documentum (http://www.documentum.com). Of course they have done even more paper-centric engineering project such as nuclear power station. I had looked at a small scale demonstration of a similar document retrieval system but when I was told about cost of it in HK$ of 7 digits I said "No Thank You!". Other document management systems I have looked at include LaserFiche (http://www.laserfiche.com) and those available from NETsolutions Asia (http://www.nsasia.com) back in 1998. In the end, my client, my client's client, and our company failed to agree on a common platform.

A Low Cost Approach

There are few low cost approaches possible.

  1. Desktop application even if this could do it, I'll have to distribute upgrades and patches from time to time to 60+ members of my team which could be a tedious job. Although the same OS (Operating System) is used, i.e. Microsoft Windows, throughout in the team but I will have to design something that will suit multiple versions of OS due to natural phasing out of old PC's. Note that I'm not programmer by profession.
  2. Plain HTML webpage this is not helping at all as users can't query databases/spreadsheets.
  3. Server-side application, such as ASP, PHP, CGI etc.

The answer lies with server-side application using Internet Explorer as client. This costs nothing additional as the browser comes with the OS and everyone is on Windows. For dynamic HTML webpage running server application there are few choices but obviously a Microsoft product would be best, and it's free. Active Server Page 3.0 was chosen and it comes free with Windows 98 Second Edition via Personal Web Server (PWS).

A brief shopping list to build the Intranet is as follows.

Web server Any PC running on Windows 98SE
Client Internet Explorer, comes free with the OS
Network server NT4.0 existing
Scanner HP - $4,388 (year 1999 price)
Programming tool Code-Genie, http://www.code-genie.com, shareware or Notepad that comes free with the OS
Databases Excel, Access existing

What The Intranet Can Do?

The home/default page of the Intranet consists of usual greetings and a hit counter. There are various links to sub-pages. Functions of the sub-pages are described below.

Sub-page Functions
Submission This enables user to query the submission database, which is an Excel file, stored in the web server. User can search by our submission reference, client's reference or by the title of the submission.
Purchase This enables user to query the purchase order database, which is an Excel file containing details such as Vendors name, date, order amount etc. Vendors are first sorted by alphabetical order for easy picking.
Mail Register This enables user to query the incoming and outgoing mail register, which is an Excel file containing reference of the correspondence, subject, date etc. Dropdown box is available for easy selection of document type and company names etc.
Outgoing Mail to client This enables user to download (or open within browser or Word subject to user's setting) soft copy of correspondence sent to our client. User has to enter reference of the document.
Incoming Mail from client All incoming mail from our client is scanned and saved as Acrobat pdf files. User can search by document reference and then download or view within the browser.
FDS (Working Files) FDS stands for Functional Design Specification, a design document useful to all disciplines of the team. This page will display links to files (in pdf format) available at a specific folder in a PC connected in the network which is storing the most current version available for viewing or downloading.
Frequently Used Document Says it all by the name of the page. Save everyone time for flipping through contract document/specification for something that needs to be referred to frequently.
Photo Gallery As the name suggests this makes site photo available for viewing by all staff and user can copy the photos from the browser for other uses.
VB Calculator This is a calculator with some simple scientific functions and paper roll built-in, handy when someone has stolen your desktop calculator.
Operation & Maintenance Manual This provides links, by way of tree style folders, to draft of Operation & Maintenance Manual.
Hit Record Listing This is really for me to find out number of hits and who visited the Intranet site.

Content Management

The contents don't get changed automatically and clerical support is required to make it happen and keep it updated. Below is a brief account of what has to be done, as a routine by the clerical team which is considered available by default even without the Intranet implemented.

Content Task Required
Mail register database Data entry of all mail references, date, title etc into excel file
Purchase Order register Data entry of all purchase order information into excel file
Submission database Data entry of submission details into excel file
FDS, frequently used document, draft O&M Manual Originator of the working files to make copy to designated location of the web server
Photo Gallery Web master, that's me, to copy image files into designated location of the web server
Software maintenance Just for fun, my pleasure!

Most of the above tasks are considered routine and within the capability of a competent secretary/clerk.

Automated Updating

There is a bit more to do in order to support the Intranet. When a secretary/clerk is doing data entry to a file she opens the Excel file which is located in the network server (not the web server). By design Excel file can not simultaneously be queried by ISAM (Indexed Sequential Access Method) driver when it is opened. The Excel files in the web server are therefore "static" which has to be updated from time to time. This is done by VBScript running on Windows Scripting Host (again free from Microsoft, a tool normally used by network administrator) to perform this automatic updating of the "static" files in the web server from the network server.

This operation is made unattended by Windows Scheduler (or "Scheduled Task" in XP, which is also free) executing a DOS batch file, on daily basis, containing commands to execute the VBScript.

Zero Costs, Almost

You will tell by now it's not really zero costs. It'll at least cost someone some time to learn the programming skills such as HTML authoring, ASP, VBScript, SQL, VBA for Excel etc. plus other supporting costs such as clerical time and scanning etc. What you get in return is fast retrieval of information, files, and scanned document in seconds instead of going through hard copy files which may be misplaced, deteriorated, if not properly stored. The costs of properly storing hardcopy files at site, especially for a large engineering project, can not be overlooked. For a project that spans few years I am sure the costs of printing, filing hours, storage containers, air conditioners, electricity, cleaning may easily surpass the cost of a scanner.

What Lies Ahead

You may say by now the little Project described above is not really about Paperless office. You are right. By comparison, this is not even the first mile of a Marathon. The hard fact in life is that I didn't even ask for help from IT department when I first had this dream because the answer would have been "...is this specified in your Contract, was there a budget for it?", if I had asked.

In less than 6 years we have consumed 8,200,000 sheets (A4 equivalent) of paper. We have spent nearly a million dollars on hardcopy drawing printing. The amount of paper used in just one contract may have surprised you. However that is only the tip of an iceberg in actual fact. My client would have used at least double this amount without the system outlined above, not to mention the amount used by Engineer of the Contract for design and administration.

Full Electronic Delivery

I have a dream that is beyond my capability alone to realize. One day the Employer, Engineer, Main Contractor and key subcontractors are required under the Contract to submit only 1 certified hardcopy of everything to a CDDC (Contract Document Distribution Centre). This CDDC shall turn the paper copies (drawings to be submitted as softcopy with 1 hardcopy for archive) into electronic files for transmission to the order of the submitting party. Key contracting parties (Employer, main contractor, nominated subcontractors etc) will subscribe to an Intranet site designed and maintained by the CDDC who will only provide a link of the submission via email to the receiving party who can then browse the Intranet for viewing and downloading. Comments on submissions, annotation on drawings, inspection forms etc can be done by annotation/redlining technique now commonly available for Acrobat, ACAD files (Viewers are free!). Key players in any Contract shall allow a sum (corresponding to contract sum?) payable to the CDDC as subscription. Other minor subcontractors or vendors may subscribe at a fee depending on usage. Other scope which might be considered for the CDDC (become e-CA, electronic Contract Administrator) will be electronic submission/certification of interim application, database for quality control measures such as non-conformances and defects, online Operating Manuals etc.

Sharing of Experience

Any reader who may be interested in launching similar project just for fun may find some of the titles useful. I can be contacted at sfong15@yahoo.com for any advice and to share experience with others who may have done similar low cost attempt.


Editor's Note: I don't usually do this, but I'm including the email that accompanied this article as some background and to help explain why there is no code attached and why it was written in classic ASP instead of .NET


Hi John,

I finally have it done but it may not be in the format/style that you normally receive from contributors, see attached.

I haven't got screen shots, code snapshots, etc as I think the code for my project are very specific to my case, e.g. I have a script resolving letter reference numbers to speed up searching of file name within folders. Techniques used are commonly found in dummies books for asp and vbscript.

I am however keen to know (expecting feedback from readers) if there are in fact products in the market doing similar things as I have done, e.g. I would expect such software to do things like:

  1. integrating scanning, converting into pdf file, and uploading to a dedicated document server running IIS. A standalone application to be installed on a PC for a document controller (a clerk) to do just that.
  2. integration with exchange server such that automated mail is sent enclosing a link to the new document uploaded to the outlook inbox of the head of office
  3. the head of office will then view the incoming mail pdf file (using IE as client either in new window or within outlook), distribute the link, add a few lines marking "for action" and/or "for information" to his subordinates via outlook.
  4. "add-in" could be designed for outlook such that the user can customize the UI (e.g. tick boxes) for easy selection of frequently used names. Additional info can also be displayed to show whether each subordinates under his team is online, offline or on leave etc. Also features of outlook can be incorporated in the UI, such as setting task, alarm, follow up etc.

My project was started some 2 years ago and I did it in asp 3.0. I would certainly consider buying a commercial product as described above written in asp.net. As I'm hardly a "pro" maybe you or your readers can tell me if in fact there are products available in the market already.

If my article gets published I don't mind giving away my code, however I don't have the time now to do a write up explaining features in the code which are specific for the document system in my company.

Any comments?
Stanley


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