Halfway to Paperless

February 14th, 2012

More than 20 years ago, we were convinced that with the development of computer systems, offices in the future would be environments where paper was not only unwelcome, but also not required. Every office in the world would be emptied of the nuisance that paper was fast becoming. Taking its place? A grand envi-ronment where you could store millions of documents and a nearly unlimited amount of information. More importantly you could share, publish, and digest this information paperlessly.

Theories aside, we still use paper. At the same time, we have this grand digital environment for document creation, storage, and management. It seems we are stuck in the transitional period that should have lasted, at most, a few months. 

Most places I have worked claim to be paperless and everything is electronic. What I usually find is that, yes, they are potentially paperless in that they have the appropriate systems in place. Still, everything that is stored electronically continues to be printed on paper and then stored in ring binders and file cabinets. Paper copies also have to be printed in triplicate so they can be stored by various third parties. While everyone did have access to everything electronically, paper copies were still produced.

How do we get out of this transitional state that we are in now? The only way forward is to stop printing; stop wanting to file and retain paper. Simply realize that you don’t need the paper copy, that everything you need is on the computer taking up less physical space.

I think predictions of the paperless office were off the mark in terms of the time scale. They were right with the digital aspect, but they were wrong about paper fading away. I don’t think the early prognosticators rea-lized just how much people love paper. Perhaps as the older generation retires and today’s students are in the workforce we will see a paperless office. Until then we will be stuck at the point we are today—halfway to paperless.

Most of my work is in highway design offices, where there is a high demand for very detailed drawings showing small sections of a large road. This, by default, means hundreds of drawings from the start and most of the time everyone, from the front desk to the project director, wants a printout of everything. In one of my most recent jobs, we had an online electronic document management system that was supposed to be the central hub for all documents. The process, as follows, was simple.

  • Drawing created.
  • Drawing uploaded to the electronic document management system for review.
  • Drawing approved (or comments for amendments).
  • Drawing issued for construction.

The fact that three A0 plotters were running 12 hours a day should be enough to prove this system did not work. I found that most of my billable time was used printing, marking up, folding, and filing drawings. Looking back now, I remember having to fill out paperwork in order to access this paperless system. I should have realized then what I was getting into.

I once quizzed an older colleague about why he did not like the paperless system. He responded honestly by saying he never had the chance to look at it. He fully understood the concept and was more than comfortable using a computer for email and word processing. I decided to get him to take a look at a drawing that I had produced on the screen using Autodesk® Design Review software. It was an interesting moment for both of us as he opened the drawing. He asked only one question: “How do I move?” After I showed him how to use the scroll wheel for zooming and panning, he was off and running.

A few years later I received an email from him that contained a DWF loaded with comments and highlighted suggestions! This man had been the stereotypical older engineer with stacks, rolls, and piles of paper on and around his desk. I haven’t seen him in a while, but I have this image of him sitting next to a computer with only a few pens and a notepad on his desk.

Autodesk has gone out of its way to make the paperless process as easy as possible for us. With most designers and engineers working on computers, you’ll find Autodesk Design Review installed on most computers. However, I think that only a handful of staff members know it’s there, fewer know what it is used for, and even fewer know how to use it.

Digital documents are slowly being accepted as original copies and there has been some recent progress with digital signatures in the UK. While digitally signed documents are now being used and accepted in the UK court system, some UK governing bodies will still only accept an original, printed, hand-signed docu-ment, usually required in triplicate.

In my opinion, the digital “switchover” should have and could have happened years ago. It will be an easy and painless process as all the infrastructure is in place. But will it happen anytime soon? A project I recent-ly worked on left behind a necessary 18km of new motorway and an unnecessary 145m³ of old signed docu-ments that are required to be stored for 30 years in a heated, secure data vault, so let’s hope so!

Bryan Thompson started out on AutoCAD around seven years ago working in a highway design section for a multi-disciplinary worldwide company. Since then, he has worked for various parties mostly designing for highways and in particular traffic management for roadwork’s schemes for which he is now renowned in Scotland. Bryan runs Bryan Thompson Design Services (www.bryan-thompson.co.uk) and currently lives in Motherwell, Scotland, with his lovely wife, cat and two ferrets. Reach by email at bryan@bryan-thompson.co.uk

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