I have had a love-hate relationship with the portable document format (PDF) over the years. For a long time, while appreciating its growing ubiquity for many office-based purposes, I still found it less then perfect when we were talking about sharing and, more importantly, collaborating upon documents in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector. In the early 2000s, Adobe’s PDF was a less than perfect format for sharing construction drawings compared to the web-formats (typically, DWF) that were commonly supported by many browser-based plug-ins (Active-X controls) used by SaaS construction collaboration technology platforms. These allowed project team members to access and view drawings, to make detailed mark-ups and add comments, and then share these with project team colleagues.
PDF then, by comparison, was clunky and proprietary. For example, it wasn’t until 2003 that the format first supported common AEC drawing conventions such as layering; PDF production often required the Adobe Acrobat authoring application or a CAD-to-PDF conversion programme; and creation was often slow – converting an Autodesk DWG to DWF was 20 times faster than creating a PDF of the same drawing, for example. Exchanging information using PDF was therefore often inefficient compared to other file formats, so, unsurprisingly, it was some years before SaaS vendors felt comfortable in offering detailed workflow support via PDF to their end users….
An open standard
Roll forward to 2012, and PDF is much more collaborative. It helps, of course, that since July 2008 PDF has been an open standard, which has helped encourage an explosion in its use (up some 350% in the past two years, I was told). And over the years, it has also become increasingly powerful as a 3D platform allowing users to extract the details of individual components. This functionality was launched, I think, with Adobe Acrobat 9 (2008) which also saw the addition of support for the industry foundation classes, IFC, file format, supporting building information modelling (BIM) workflows and enabling both visualisation and access to associated object property data. As BIM has grown in importance in the UK (and other markets), more data suppliers are offering 3D PDF as an option – for example, NBS’s National BIM Library offers object models in this format as well as IFC and various BIM formats – and Adobe Acrobat allows users to zoom into the detail and do comment and mark-up activities on these files.
Adobe Acrobat XI
With Adobe Acrobat XI, you can edit text and images in PDFs (it’s not as swift as editing in the native file format, but for modest changes it’s fine); MS Office and SharePoint users now have improved integration with PowerPoint (useful as I often see PowerPoint used within AEC project teams); electronic signature capability has been improved by the addition of Adobe EchoSign; and you can also create forms, elicit responses and collate and analyse data from users via Adobe FormsCentral. These areas potentially present new opportunities for construction collaboration vendors who may want to offer secure contract signature or related options in relation to contract change management workflows.
I have been test-driving Acrobat XI over the past month and have been surprised at some of the functionality compared to the older version I was using. Particularly welcome are the abilities to create single PDFs from multiple MS Office documents (or parts of documents), to combine multiple PDFs into a single PDF, or to reuse either parts or entire PDFs and save them as MS Office files or web pages without reformatting or retyping.
The new product is also accompanied by a new touch-friendly Adobe Reader for tablets and smartphones which makes it easy to open, view, annotate and add comments to files, and to complete, sign and save forms (always welcome in a mobile and heavily process-oriented industry like construction).
Acrobat.com cloud storage
I also got a demonstration of the toolset and related services (on a wet Friday afternoon in a central London Starbucks). Working off wifi or a dongle, I saw how Adobe could be used to invite people to view a PDF via a cloud-based workspace at Acrobat.com – a PowerPoint slide was edited, then uploaded and an email notification sent for my attention. When I clicked the link, I could open the slide and see the edits, and, if necessary, add any comments of my own. Simultaneously, the sender is notified if and when a recipient downloads the file, and can view its latest status on any device.
From a construction collaboration viewpoint, this is perhaps the most significant development from Adobe: the launch of its Acrobat.com cloud-based storage (offered with 2GB space for the free version, and more if users upgrade). In a world in which we are increasingly likely to want to access, view, edit and – importantly – to synchronise files across several different devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone) and/or share these capabilities with fellow team members, this potentially puts Adobe in competition with some of the SaaS vendors in this sector – just as HP’s launch of its own increasingly mobile-friendly ePrint&Share service did two years ago (post).