Digital Pen and Paper Accelerate GIS Projects

By Ken Schneider

Field data collection is vital to the work of the engineering and construction industries, driving significant decisions that ultimately affect the bottom line. Many of the current methods and technologies are inconvenient, error-prone and time-consuming. For example, in many situations field staff collect data on paper forms or maps and those data are re-keyed in, adding not only more time and cost, but the possibility of errors. Thiess Construction has begun using digital pen and paper technology to speed up GIS-based work plans.

Established in 1933, Thiess has grown to become one of the largest construction, mining and service providers in Australia, South East Asia and the near Pacific. Thiess currently has $10.3 billion in work underway across the building, civil, mining, environmental services, utilities services, facilities operations and maintenance sectors. Thiess manages over 20,000 employees and subcontractors across more than 180 projects with operations in Australia, the near Pacific and Asia.
Capturx can speed up a range of paper-based workflows, including inspections, service requests, change order and more.

Regional project offices rely on consistent information
Thiess' workflow processes are like many others in the GIS, surveying and CAD industries. Thiess project engineers work in separate regional offices, building preliminary project maps and environmental, traffic and management plans for large-scale civil engineering projects. The regional offices have to get consistent and accurate data back to the project office where those data can be quickly assimilated to support decision cycles and improve development schedules. To ensure accuracy, the field engineer previously had to accompany a GIS analyst or drafter to work through collected data and manually enter them into the database. Projects leaders often have segmented workflows, with a "bucket brigade" of players, and there was an increasing demand for streamlined solutions to improve efficiency.

Digital pen technology and ArcGIS
The Capturx hardware and software, a paper and pen solution, was chosen to build-out preliminary project maps and environmental, traffic and management plans within ArcGIS for Airport Link, Northern Busway (Windsor to Kedron) and Airport Drive Connection projects. These three projects are part of Australia's regional transportation plan and form one of Australia's largest road and bus-way networks. Ten thousand people will work on the design, construction and delivery of this integrated transport solution. Over one million new plants and 5,400 new trees will be planted within the corridor.
Teams get immediate access to digital data without the extra cost or time required to send, scan, or re-type data by hand.

The Capturx software product suite is a practical solution that improves data collection and project schedules in both GIS and CAD environments. Theiss staff members use the pen to mark up base plans and drawings produced from within ArcGIS on site environmental plans, traffic management plans, community consultation plans and site establishment plans. The staff print out ArcGIS maps on standard paper and then make changes and annotations directly on the paper map using the digital pen. The handwriting is converted into digital ink, which imports into ArcGIS. From here the information may be edited and the updated version is uploaded to the geodatabase. The field personnel use the tool just as they would traditional pen and paper.

Capturx software generates a unique geo-referenced digital watermark which is printed along with the map data on ordinary paper. When the user touches the digital pen to a symbol on the legend, it, in effect, sets the target layer to be edited. As the digital pen writes with normal ink, its sensor tracks its position with the watermark and digitizes the ink strokes into the feature type that was touched in the legend. Touching another legend icon changes the target layer. Any number of points, lines or polygon features, as well as Capturx redline data, can be added to the map. When the pen is connected to a PC through USB, it uploads the data into ArcGIS, ready to be imported through the Capturx toolbar. On import, an edit session is started and all the features that were created by marking on the map are instantly loaded into their corresponding geodatabase feature class or shapefile.

New technology provides operational efficiencies
"Capturx is the perfect solution for Thiess," said Jason Clark, GIS manager with Thiess. "During the planning and design phase the digital pen accelerates the flow of spatial data and ideas project-wide." During the operational phase the digital pen will aid in the preparation of maps and plans, often numbering in the thousands over the duration of a project. Once the data have been collected on the paper maps, the data are transferred into the geodatabase and cleaned for excessive vertices. The data are then made available for the project via ArcGIS Server and plans are reproduced and circulated to stakeholders.

Thiess also looks forward to using the digital pen for the preparation of as-built plans. The redline markup process will streamline and automate the recording of site instructions and design construction notes. The software syncs up with ArcGIS, allowing teams to share the data across multiple offices. Project engineers are not distracted by the technology of, say, a PDA and can stay focused on their job collecting up-to-date operational, design and planning data on maps with the simple action of using digital pen and paper. Duplication of work is avoided because data are uploaded directly from digital pen to database. Now, the data are available faster and are more accurate than before; data can be updated into the geodatabase and then shared in real-time. Thiess can accelerate its planning, constructing, decision time and processes.

Following the implementation of Capturx, there has been a spike in demand from various project teams for more Capturx digital pens. Since deployment, the company describes significantly increased operational efficiencies and forecasted cost savings. By eliminating the need for transcription of data, the geospatial information seems not only to be more accurate, it is also reported to be disseminated faster and more frequently, leading to a better informed decision making process.

Published Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Written by Ken Schneider

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