SKYSITE: Cloud-Based Document Management for Construction AECbytes Review (July 7, 2015)

Remember the pre-BIM era of the AEC industry when drawings were king? I recall taking a hard-hat tour about 15 years ago of the new International Terminal at the San Francisco International Airport when it was still under construction, and one of my most vivid memories was of the document room, which was stacked with shelves filled with binders of the drawings that were being used in the construction of the project. Multiply this by the number of active construction projects in every region, and it’s not difficult to see why we had an entire industry—in addition to those creating and using the drawings on projects—focused on printing, copying, distributing, storing, and archiving drawings. This was the golden age of “reprographics” and one of the leading companies in the field was ARC Document Solutions, so successful that it actually went public in 2005.

While drawings are still at the center of construction processes today, there is an undeniable shift away from CAD towards BIM, where 3D data-rich models of the project can be used for design as well as construction, reducing the reliance on drawings. Just as CAD was a lot more efficient than hand drawings, BIM is similarly a lot more efficient than CAD and represents a natural evolution in the AEC industry that will become ubiquitous at some point. However, until that transition happens—which could take several years, if not decades, especially world-wide—drawings will continue to remain the mainstay of construction, and companies like ARC can be assured of still providing a useful and relevant service. However, the company still has to cater to the growing shift from hard copy printing to electronic copies of drawings and this is where its newly launched SKYSITE comes in.


Figure 1. Drawings are still the norm in construction, as in this project for the San Diego Community College District.

Overview of SKYSITE

SKYSITE is a cloud-based drawing management and distribution application specifically for the construction industry that was developed from the ground up by ARC. The concept is similar to other popular cloud storage solutions like Dropbox, Box.net, and Google Drive, except that SKYSITE is specific to construction and comes with functionality relevant to it such as the ability to view and mark up drawings, organize them into project folders, and share them with project team members. From that perspective, SKYSITE has a similar value proposition to other AEC project management and collaboration solutions such as Autodesk A360, Newforma Project Center, Aconex, Bentley ProjectWise, Asite, and others, except that SKYSITE is entirely focused on the “document management” piece of project management, and specifically, on the construction phase of the project. Essentially, it is a central repository for all the drawings and other documents that would be needed by all those involved in the construction of a project—the general contractors, sub-contractors, and construction managers—enabling them to access the information they need from anywhere and on any device.

The “cloud” has become commonplace by now, and SKYSITE is no exception in using it as a central repository for all the documents related to a project. (In fact, it’s probably difficult to find any software now that is NOT cloud-based or cloud-enabled!) It provides all the familiar benefits of a centralized web-accessible store, such as anytime, anywhere accessibility including on the jobsite with a companion mobile app; ensuring that everyone is working with the latest version of a document; elimination of duplication; and the ability to see who accessed what and when, enabling a clear audit trail to be generated. Let’s look at some of these capabilities in more detail.

How It Works

SKYSITE has a simple and intuitive user interface that is quite self-explanatory and easy to navigate with reference to a user manual. Once you create an account and log in—there are different pricing models firms can choose from based on the number of users—you can create different projects, specifying some basic information for each of them, and subsequently upload the corresponding construction documents for each project, organizing them in folders if required. Figure 2 shows the interface for a project with all its folders as well as the individual files within one of these folders. In addition to the folders that you create, an additional “Latest Documents” folder is automatically created to provide quick access to the most frequently accessed files.


Figure 2. The SKYSITE interface showing the folders that have been created for a project and the files that have been uploaded to a folder.

If a file in SKYSITE is in the PDF format, clicking on it opens it in a viewer with navigation and markup capability, as shown in Figure 3. Files that are not in the PDF format cannot currently be opened in the viewer; however, SKYSITE recognizes the file type and looks for a corresponding application on the computer that can be used to open it. In future releases, there are plans to expand the viewer to support more file types, starting with image formats and Office documents.  


Figure 3. Double-clicking on a project file in PDF format opens it in a viewer with navigation and markup capabilities.

Now that these project documents are on the “cloud,” they can be accessed from any computer—using any web browser—or mobile device, using the same login credentials. A  SKYSITE mobile app is available for both Android and iOS devices, and as shown in Figure 4, it enables access to the same projects and documents that were created earlier from a computer. While new documents cannot be uploaded on the mobile device, the viewer does support annotations and markups, enabling drawings to not only be viewed but also marked up on the go.


Figure 4. Accessing the same project information on an iPad using the SKYSITE mobile app.

Since the main objective of SKYSITE is document management for the entire construction team, any project information that is created can be shared with other team members. This can be done for the entire project, where you can specify the level of permission (viewing, editing, and/or publishing) and an expiration date if required—it also takes into account a password that may have been assigned to the project when it was created. It is also possible to share only specific folders, or even simply to send the link to a specific folder or file by email. A Contacts directory is available to make it easier to select the recipients with whom the information is to be being shared. Anytime a new project document is published or a change made to an existing document, every team member with permission automatically gets that latest document, ensuring that everyone is working from the latest project set. This means that any mark-ups to the drawings can also be shared in real time, facilitating improved collaboration among the construction team members.

Additional related capabilities in SKYSITE include the ability to generate an Activity Report to provide oversight for document collaboration and sharing activities within a project (Figure 5); auto-indexing capability where each drawing is automatically indexed based on its sheet number; the ability to search using different filters to make it easier to find specific documents; and the ability to add hyperlinks to drawings for easier and faster navigation. These hyperlinks are created on a separate layer, which can be seen when the document is downloaded (Figure 6). There is also a Windows desktop sync application, which can be used to automatically synchronize specific documents or entire folders between the cloud and the local computer, ensuring that you are always working with the most current document. And given that SKYSITE is an ARC product, there is a tie-in to its reprographics services as well, where you can conveniently order hard copy prints of drawings and have them delivered to a specified address.


Figure 5. An Activity report for a project, showing who accessed what and when.


Figure 6. The hyperlinks added to a drawing are on a separate layer, as shown when it is downloaded.

Conclusions

Since SKYSITE was launched only a few months ago, it is still too early to gauge how successful it will become. There are no published case studies yet of its implementation in construction firms, of its customer list, and similar information that is available for most technology solutions. While the vast customer base of the publicly traded ARC Document Solutions, which it has built up over the last 20 years, might be open to trying out a new solution from a company to which they have entrusted all their document printing, copying, and distribution needs for so many years, many of them may have already adopted, and even standardized on, a more established project management and collaboration solution that is much broader in scope than SKYSITE.

On the other hand, the fact that SKYSITE addresses a very specific subset of project management—document management—and that it is exclusively targeted towards the construction phase of the project might make it a very compelling solution for construction firms to adopt, in addition to other broader solutions they might be using, or as an alternative to the use of generic document storage solutions like Dropbox and Box. The application is very easy and intuitive to use and is also relatively inexpensive, at least for a construction firm. Therefore, instead of the customary “Why?” when it comes to the question of adopting a new technology solution, for SKYSITE, it might just be “Why not?”

Going forward, it is not clear if SKYSITE will continue to confine itself to addressing document management only or if it has broader aspirations to become a project management solution for the AEC industry that can replace some of the more established solutions mentioned earlier.  Either way, it urgently needs to develop the capability to support more file formats in its viewer in addition to only the PDF option it currently provides. It is good to know that image formats and Office files are already in the pipeline, but common file formats for construction drawings such as DWG, DXF, and DGN are also a must.

Looking further ahead—especially as the use of BIM becomes increasingly common—support for viewing 3D models would also make the solution much more useful and compelling. The writing—that BIM is the undeniable future of the AEC industry—is on the wall, and SKYSITE needs to recognize this and respond appropriately by being a lot less drawing-centric than it is now.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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