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Document woes flow away for Lower Colorado River Authority

This article appears in the issue September 2001 [Volume 10, Issue 8]

User stories from the knowledge front

What do you do if you have a Texas-sized problem on your hands? You apply a Texas-sized solution to it.

The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)--which provides electricity, water and other services to 58 counties in central and southeast Texas--realized that while big is good, unmanageable is bad. Its handling of technical planning, engineering and construction documents had become inefficient, and the problem was compounded by the hundreds of miles over which the agency was spread.

LCRA, a conservation and reclamation district, was formed in 1934 by the Texas Legislature to manage water supplies and flooding on the lower Colorado River, supply electricity, help develop rural communities, and protect the area’s natural resources. Its facilities generate and transmit electricity, and provide water for communities and agriculture, partly through a series of dams and reservoirs.

“For the last 60 years, the people here were managing their drawings, redlines and other documents the old-fashioned way: with paper, pencil and great document-tracking skills,” says Wes Miller, senior computer design analyst with LCRA. “But over time, no paper-based system could keep up. We used to lose track of versions and even lose originals. And the engineering design change process at the power plants was incredible. It could take weeks to mail drafts between different locations.

“Even after I streamlined the system a bit, it was a two-month process to create, edit and finalize an engineering design change project drawing, and we had to either mail the documents to engineers or have everyone meet at the same location to finalize details.”

The agency tried developing its own computer system to deal with CAD documents. But while it allowed some computerized access to documents, it was the equivalent of trying to balance the federal budget using a spreadsheet.

“Instead of paper copies of documents, we had digital copies that could be accidentally and easily deleted, and changes to a document could not easily be tracked,” Miller says. “We standardized our naming system, which helped with version control, but we had very little security control over who could access a document.”

Plus, time delays were still a problem, he adds.In trying to solve the problem in-house, LCRA officials gained a good grasp of what they needed: a solution that would allow them to keep track of any document through every stage of its life, provide access to people in different locations, and have the capacity to work well into the future. Another goal was to find a system that could handle multiple document types.

“Few people understood how important it would be for our system to handle CAD documents,” Miller says. “A ‘document’ can really be a packet of documents, including drawings, scanned drawings, bid packets, redlines--all with multiple versions being accessed and changed by users in five locations. It was critical that the system handle compound documents.”

The product also had to be able to accommodate in-house users at multiple sites, plus external users like contractors and vendors. And it had to be compatible with applications like Excel, Word, AutoCAD, MicroStation, as well as with the Web browser.

LCRA eventually chose EDGE from Green Pasture Software.

“[The software] lets you control access to documents so only the right people can change them. And it keeps track of all revisions so there’s no confusion,” says Miller. “One of the biggest benefits of the software is the ability to track and handle hybrid CAD drawings. These are compound CAD drawings and scanned images that travel together through their life cycle, and it was almost impossible to keep them together. This software let us bundle them into a single document.”Although the system was a good fit from the start, there were challenges, according to Miller. “Our plant data was scattered everywhere,” he says. “The software did a great job of organizing scanned originals and versions of plant drawings. [But] it’s a huge job capturing the documents of an entire enterprise library.”

Another challenge was the switch to digital. “Going digital can be tough,” Miller says. “Some people are just always going to like the feel of the drawing. They like to roll it out on the hood of a truck. Luckily, there was a scanning function, so users could make notations on paper drawings and scan the document into a digital format. We could scan the entire document, updating the newest version with hand-drawn changes.”

LCRA recently upgraded to a newer, Web-based version of the Green Pasture application called W/EDGE.

“We manage our project drawings much better now,” Miller says. “Once a project is created, we add a drawing to the system and assign it a status. Then only certain work groups have access to review and change it while it’s in the ‘in progress’ state. We might have five or six different groups who have to look at that drawing to make sure it’s right. As each of them changes or approves it, [the software] moves it into a different folder and notifies everyone by e-mail that it’s been approved or revised. It eventually goes through all the steps and ends up in the ‘as-built’ state, and we’ve controlled who sees it and who works on it at each point.”

Web-based access has made Miller’s life a lot easier, too.

“The fact that it’s centrally administered is a huge plus,” he explains. “I used to have to drive 100 miles to spend 15 minutes fixing a software problem, or else spend days in another town installing software. Now my administrators--and my family--are thrilled that we’re using Web-based software. Remote users can access the software on the Internet, and I can answer troubleshooting questions over the phone while I’m working in real time on the same software.


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