While sharing drawings over the Internet is not yet as prevalent as sharing text-based documents, just wait.

Sharing CAD drawings, as well as other documents, over the Internet saves time by dramatically reducing review cycles. It also saves communication costs for telephone, fax, overnight deliveries and real-time site visits, and improves efficiency, overall. Given the proliferation of recently introduced Internet- and Web-based portals (solutions) that include CAD viewing capability among their offerings, it is clear that the pace of design management will never be the same.

Whether project members are across town or across the country, or merely across the corridor, when it comes to viewing, approving, or improving drawings for construction projects, time has always been of the essence. Electronic collaboration, such as the Internet has made possible, is an increasingly viable option not only for CAD-enabled project members but also for project members who here-to-fore were shut out of the electronic picture because they didn't have CAD.

The latest edition of Autodesk's AutoCAD (2000) (www.autodesk.com) supports all this virtual togetherness by providing Web access from within AutoCAD, the ability to integrate live AutoCAD DWG, DXF and DWF (Drawing Web Format) files into Web sites, and the ability to create an ePlot in the DWF file format. (An open file format, DWF was developed by Autodesk specifically for the transfer of drawings over networks, including the Internet.)

So, front and center is the idea of Internet access in AutoCAD, whereby you can actually move between the Internet and the program with just a click and can even elect to see both windows on one screen. And, if you have e-mail already set up on your PC, you can send an AutoCAD drawing file directly from AutoCAD.

AutoCAD 2000 also includes a new "SAVE DRAWING AS" dialog box that lets users set DWG, DWF, or DXF as the default file format.

Because not every office runs CAD and because even in CAD-enabled offices not everyone runs CAD on their PCs, most offices would benefit from solutions that increase visibility and circulation of CAD drawings.

Autodesk's free plug-in Whip! 4.0 (downloadable at www.autodesk.com/whip) supports AutoCAD 2000 and allows access to DWF drawings over e-mail, on a local area network (LAN), a floppy, or the Internet without using CAD. Whip! 4.0 permits viewing, panning, zooming, and printing of DWF drawings, all without the recipient needing to open (or even receive) the original DWG drawing.

The solution saves the time, effort, and expense of reproducing and shipping drawings to interested project members. Whip! works not only in a Web browser, but also in numerous stand-alone applications, including spreadsheets and presentation programs, so you can incorporate CAD drawings into bid documents as well as other printouts.

Volo View Express, also downloadable free from Autodesk (this time at www.autodesk.com/volo), enables users who neither have AutoCAD on their PCs nor have access to it across an intranet or the Internet to view and print not only DWF drawing files but also AutoCAD DWG and DXF files. The application sports a generous complement of CAD-like viewing capabilities, including real-time pan and zoom, shaded 3D orbit, the ability to view layers and turn them on and off, and the ability to restore saved views. Volo View Express also supports lightweight sketch markup and text markup, as well as Object Enablers for full viewing support of AutoCAD Architectural Desktop and Mechanical Desktop files.

Sharing nicely

Electrical contractors are increasingly likely to encounter virtual collaboration environments when working on large projects. The impetus for getting involved with Internet and Web-based solutions often comes through either the general contractor or the architectural or engineering firm.

Extranets, for example, allow project participants (perhaps regulated by owner- or management-designated levels of access) to view CAD drawings and other documents without needing the native applications, both locally and remotely. Hosted extranets, such as those discussed below, often require no special hardware or software beyond a standard Web browser. Operational costs to participants, if any, is usually minimal compared to the return on investment (ROI). All this empowered communication speeds and bolsters decision-making, improves response time to critical issues, and helps assure that accurate information is dispersed throughout.

Up-and-coming Internet portals you may soon be party to, one way or another, include ReviewIt AEC 2, ProjectPoint, ProjectCenter, ProjectWise and Brava!

The Web-based ReviewIt AEC 2 Internet collaboration software and service by Cubus Corporation (www.cubus.net, (877) 44-CUBUS) provides a single point of access for project team members to share, communicate, manage and track projects in a secure environment over the Internet. Members can display and view as well as mark up CAD drawings or any other project document including graphics and images, and demonstrate suggestions in real time. Users can also utilize built-in features to notify one another of any revisions and changes. According to Cubus, usually the project owner pays the project fee for the solution. Many contractors or subcontractors cover the cost by billing clients for it as an out-of-pocket expense.

Another Extranet offering you might come across is Buzzsaw.com's project hosting service, ProjectPoint, which allows viewing and lightweight redlining of CAD drawings through Volo View Express and then goes on to offer even more functionality for managing projects. The service, offered by Buzzsaw.com (www.buzzsaw.com, (415) 402-3400), offers password protected access to project files in a secure environment over the Internet. Users, subject to assigned tiered permission levels of access, can view AutoCAD files directly, even when they do not have AutoCAD on their PCs. (The application supports both DWG and DWF file formats.)

The solution detects any new version of a file automatically and prompts the user to update the file. However, users can also retrieve any earlier version (back through an administrator-designated number of previous versions) to compare with the latest one. It is possible to manage one or several projects on one site, which is accessible 24x7 from any Internet connection.

The originator of the project account is responsible for payment for the service. (The originator may, in fact, have multiple projects in one account.) If you are brought in as a project member, it won't cost you anything. As of this writing, ProjectPoint service is free to all for the first 100MB of storage.

Buzzsaw.com plans to expand its services to the construction industry by adding other capabilities to its site, including bid management and supplies procurement.

Bricsnet's ProjectCenter (www.bricsnet.com, (603) 436-6868) is another new project extranet service for the building industry, structured to facilitate communication among project members from all the way from pre-design and then design and construction up through post-occupancy facility management. With respect to graphics and other data, project members can view and redline CAD drawings (AutoCAD, MicroStation, CAD, and IntelliCAD drawings) and can also view construction photos, sketches, specifications, and field reports. AIA G-series documents are integrated within ProjectCenter for team use. All steps are automatically documented, creating a historical record for later verification, as well as a complete historical index of the project. To further expedite efficient communication, project members can e-mail one another directly from within the application.

Electrical contractors may also encounter ProjectWise (www.projectwise.bentley.com), Bentley Systems' engineering project extranet solution for engineering information management. Users of the solution can access and update a diversity of project information, including MicroStation drawings files (DGN files) or files created with Bentley's MicroStation-based applications, and AutoCAD files. The solution supports hybrid projects and will work over a LAN, a WAN (wide area network) or over an extranet. MicroStation users can view and redline AutoCAD drawings and other data, such as project schedules, site photographs, project renderings, and other correspondence, without having AutoCAD. Likewise, AutoCAD users can view and redline MicroStation data without having MicroStation, both locally and over the Web.

Here's yet another solution out there in the virtual world. Brava! 2.1, offered by Informative Graphics Corporation (www.infograph.com (800) 398-7005) is a Java-based Web collaboration opportunity for engineering documents that allows users to view documents, including AutoCAD drawing files, internally or externally. The solution allows users to interactively browse and load drawings and document files from the shared server, converting AutoCAD files for those who don't have AutoCAD. Costs are borne by the originator of the project site.

The FELDMANS write on trends and products, including computers and electronic commerce technologies, for the electrical and general contracting fields. Authors of Construction & Computers (McGraw-Hill), they can be reached at wfeldman@worldnet.att.net or at (914) 238-6272.