Digital Plan Set Publishing with Digital Signatures

In this piece I’ll describe the road Snohomish County Public Works traveled to arrive at our current capabilities to sign PDF plan sets with digital signatures. The focus of this is on engineering record documents, but the reality is that digital signatures are useful at all levels in Washington State government for just about anything that now requires a wet signature.

Credit goes to ARX, Inc., which gave me permission to use some of their words and graphics.

In 1999 or so, Autodesk shipped a version of AutoCAD® that included a “digital signature” extension/tool, so one could affix a digital certificate to a DWG file, a tool that still exists in the product.

Embedded Autodesk Digital Signature Tools

This tool piqued my interest and I started researching the topic.  There were several agencies back east and in Canada that were early adopters of digital signatures. In 2002, I first pitched the idea to my management; also, I saw several ways to improve the tool:

The tool affixes only one digital signature per DWG, but most of our record construction documents require multiple signatures on several layouts per DWG.
At least for us, the DWG format is not useful as a final electronic publishing format. For many reasons, we’ve settled on PDF as our preferred publishing format and Autodesk doesn’t support multiple digital signatures in its PDF outputs.

Once I started to think about digital signatures the bigger picture started to emerge. I realized that if we could satisfy the signing/sealing requirements for our Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors to create a completely digital lifecycle for our construction documents, we would have satisfied, from a Washington State standpoint, the requirements for a typical county for signing almost all documents that now have to have a wet signature.  In a nutshell, a digital signature ensures that there have been no changes to a file after it has been signed—not a single bit has been changed—a required validation for record electronic documents.

In 1997, the State of Washington enacted the Electronic Authentication Act "to facilitate commerce by means of reliable electronic messages."  This is the basis of authority for our implementation, and our Secretary of State and State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors have repeatedly refined the language in the code to improve the environment for digital signing and sealing of construction contract documents in the public and private sectors.  Each state will have its own regulatory environment in this area. Some states may not have progressed to allowing publishing contract documents as files signed with digital signatures—one will have to do the research and get sponsorship from your legal folks.  Don’t believe it when “someone” says it can’t be done.  This bridge was built at the federal level in the 1990s and the technology has been in place for more than 10 years, so if you’re really interested, search your state’s Secretary of State’s website, and talk to your Board.

I characterized this project as a business improvement project with significant possibilities outside the scope of the project.  Given the limited scope of our initial project—to automate the elaborate signing ceremonies for construction documents—it was also important to bring our licensed professionals into the conversation early in the project. In fact, our County Engineer, County Surveyor and the Director of Engineering Services were project sponsors.  It is their signing ceremony workflow that we were aiming to simplify and automate, and so we had to be absolutely sure everybody understood the business case, ROI, and had an idea of what the digital signing process would look like.  In addition, it’s important to partner with your Information Services, since they provide the infrastructure and can take the message to the enterprise.   The project included many staffers in Engineering Services and Administrative Operations, several tiers in Information Services, and other interested departments.  Please understand that this is a transformational technology which should help automate each instance that we have to sign something.  I fully expect that within three years, every new hire at Snohomish County will be issued a digital signature so that each staffer can attest to their input to an electronic timekeeping system, as well as electronically sign whatever is the equivalent of their timesheets. Electronic leave requests and approvals will be another early use case.

For me, this was a “business improvement project” based on standard, generic business goals for projects like this.  We need to think in terms of:

  • Reducing our fixed costs
  • Reducing the costs per item (each construction plan in this case)
  • Reducing the time it takes to process an item (sometimes it would take two weeks to get a plan set signed with wet signatures)
  • Increase Throughput – (think about our County Engineer having to wet sign almost every page of a 300-page plan set, then routing to the Traffic Engineer, County Surveyor, Project Manager, and so on).
  • Reduce Errors
  • Continue to Strive for Business Improvement (think about embedding the signing ceremony in a SharePoint workflow)

These are all improved using digital signatures, and risk is mitigated. Each one of these items will reduce the burden on our taxpayers.

By the way, the return on investment (ROI) for this project was quite good.  A cost-benefit analysis showed the labor costs and consumables needed to publish a typical year’s worth of annual construction program plan sets are about $80,000 per year.  It cost us about $40,000 to purchase the system and licenses.  My initial ROI calculation yielded a net cash flow stream of about $312,000 through N+4.  Using a different algorithm, our Department of Information Services calculated an ROI of 407 percent. This didn’t include as-builts, specifications, reports, etc. 

There are many ways to describe what a digital signature is, and many of them are wrong—go to for the theory and practice.  Our shop chooses to capture each licensed professional’s graphical signature with a pad, and incorporate that bitmap into the PW and PLS seals.  Simply put, a digital signature has two parts.

What you can see:

What you don’t see:

The critical part of a digital signature is the digital certificate associated with the signer and embedded in the digital signature—this code is assigned to the signer and is unique, and the digital signature/digital certificate is based on PKI encryption. 

Each signer’s signature can appear in many different ways, for many different purposes.

And here is an example of how our PE stamp with graphical signature and date stamp looks when affixed to a construction plan (thanks to Matt Ojala, PE, for sharing this snip).

Typical PE stamp as affixed to a plan set

How easy is it to sign a document?  Pretty darn easy—we publish our plan sets to PDF, then using the CoSign OmniSign tool, each signer affixes his digital signature to the file with a few mouse clicks:

  1. Open the PDF in the OmniSign tool
  2. Choose the correct location for the signature in the document
  3. Choose the signature appropriate to the document
  4. Push the “sign” button

In our environment it is permissible to sign the entire multi-page file one time—to digitally sign each page in a large document is laborious and adds weight to the file.

One of the explicit goals for our project was to reduce the stress associated with the traditional signing ceremony for our construction record documents.  When we sign hard copy plans with wet signatures, our county engineer and each project manager has to sign almost every page in the plan set, which can be difficult to schedule and coordinate, plus there are usually four or five others who also sign or initial plan sets, specifications, reports, etc.  Wouldn’t it be nice if professionals could sign their documents at their desks and have a system that would notify each signer in the workflow in the correct sequence?  The system we purchased will allow for signing at individual desks and integrates well into SharePoint.

What led us to choosing the ARX CoSign system?  It was within our budget range, it is manufactured as an “appliance”—rack it up, turn the lights on, integrate with Active Directory, and capture and integrate graphical signatures. Most importantly, the system allows many staffers to sign a single file—a “must have” feature for construction plans.  As we use the system in more and more critical signing opportunities, we can easily add another appliance for high availability and automatic failover for continuity purposes.  It’s hard to know how many hundreds of forms my agency uses, but every time I’ve looked at a form and its suitability for a digital signature, there was no obstacle other than conversations needed to redesign the workflow from paper-based to electronic (in a shared workspace on the network) and the five-minute training required per person to affix one’s digital signature. 

For planning purposes, it might take 10 minutes to capture a person’s graphical signature and integrate it with their digital signature, 10 minutes for a SysEng to integrate a digital certificate with the person’s digital signature, and the individual training can take place as the user’s graphical signature is collected and tested with the digital signature.  Each enterprise will need a SysAdmin for occasional firmware and client upgrades, and there will be some system management required to track administrative tasks like renewing digital signatures.

This is a transformational, “disruptive” technology, especially in the context of local government and the “traditional” practices of civil engineering and surveying—my dad kept his architect’s rubber stamp and embossing tool under lock and key.  Some individuals will feel unease considering this change, but budget savings alone should carry the day, assuming the necessary laws and regulations are in place.  This is way outside the box for some folks, so be prepared for some resistance.  However, as more folks in management understand the massive potential savings in staff time, and the reduction in costs of storage of physical records coupled with much more transparent workflows as workplaces move to SharePoint for this kind of production work, the road to digital signatures should be self-evident.