Want to spend more than $20,000 each year on paper alone?

Such was the amount which BN Electrical (BN), a Melbourne based electrical contractor for the science, health and education sector, spent on paper, printing, binding, laminating and stationery throughout 2018. This excludes staff time in preparing and managing paper based documents.

Courtesy of a ‘Paperless by 2019’ initiative undertaken last year, however, the company has now almost entirely eliminated paper from its operations.

In a presentation at a conference hosted by 3D engineering and design software provider Autodesk in Sydney on August 7, BN Electrical Managing Director Matthew Bien-Izowski described his firm’s transformation from a paper based document management system to an efficient operation using technology.

Whilst the case is specific to BN, it serves as an example from which contractors and subcontractors generally can learn.

At the outset, Bien-Izowski says contractors and subcontractors should avoid complacency and embrace new ways of working. Whilst much of how we build has remained unchanged for thousands of years, he says prefabrication, 3D design and smart construction technologies mean that client expectations in terms of timeframes, budgets and quality are growing.

Speaking of his own firm, Bien-Izowski says BN’s processes prior to its paperless transformation were lacking. Hard copy drawings were marked up on site and transported to the office to be digitised. This not only created double handling but meant that neither forepersons nor field staff had reliable access to up-to-date drawings. In one case, Bien-Izowski himself left his office and drove to pick up new drawings on the way to site to meet with his team. Upon arriving on site, an email with yet newer drawings came through. Bien-Izowski ’s time in picking up previous drawings had been rendered useless.

When going paperless, BN looked at both office and site operations.

At its own headquarters, the company emptied volumes of paperwork from cupboards, desks and filing cabinets into the middle of the office. Critical documents such as financial information, customer contracts and warranties were scanned and filed into a SharePoint Cloud. Other documents made for a bonfire with marshmallows.

As well, the firm requests new documents be provided in soft copy. Where this is not possible, BN scans and digitises the documents themselves.

Advantages are significant. Required documents can be located with the touch of a few keys. Clauses within a 500 page contract can be found in less than five seconds.

On site, BN used Autodesk’s construction management and document management software platform PlanGrid to upload drawings, specifications, addendums and specialised locations and provided access to these for every team member across all projects and sites.

To demonstrate the benefits, Bien-Izowski uses the example of a project on which his firm was engaged as part of a redevelopment of Melbourne’s iconic Capital Theatre on Swanston Street.

Upon commencing, the company uncovered numerous discrepancies between the documentation and actual on-site conditions. By rolling out iPads and providing PlanGrid access to all relevant project team members, more than 100 architectural service drawings were captured and uploaded throughout the course of the project. This ensured that all team members were notified of changes and were equipped with the latest drawings on their iPad at all times.

This delivered important benefits. A key project task involved installation of more than 5,000 individual cables. These included everything from mains cables to power, wired communications, audio-visual and lighting control.

In the past, tracking these would have involved numerous sheets of printed paper containing the data for each install. With each one-by-one install, cables would get pulled in, installed and ticked off the list before the list would get filed away. This process was fraught with potential for error.

Using PlanGrid, the team prepared editable task reports which were digitally embedded into drawings at installation locations. These contained the cable’s technical data, cable schedules, labelling requirements and wiring regulations which were needed to complete each installation. Each cable was identified and allocated to a task for an individual to install. Client changes in cable locations or cable types were updated in real-time. All tasks were attached with sign-off test inspection sheets with attached photographs.

Whilst this was somewhat involved, Bien-Izowski says it provided greater assurance that the right cables had been installed in the correct locations in the safest possible manner. As well, better progress tracking enabled easier identification of tasks which were complete or which remained.

The outcome? The job was finished in twelve percent less than the budgeted hours with zero rework – an achievement the team says would not have been possible without up-to-date information on their iPad.

Beyond the paperless initiative, Bien-Izowski says several strategies are necessary for contractors to unlock better practices generally. In BN’s case, he says technology is being implemented across the business along with targeted training programs for staff. New ways of working and tested and trialled regularly. Staff are provided with brainstorming opportunities. Time is allocated to share and discuss new technologies and potential benefits. Small achievements are celebrated. Open learning and sharing of experience is encouraged.

For many construction contractors, paper documentation systems are inefficient and prone to error where plans or schedules change.

As the above example shows, going paperless is not only possible but can yeild significant benefits.