Geo Week News

February 27, 2008

Technology Preview: Bentley Innovates Field Drawing Markup

Despite the prevalence of PDAs and laptop computers, paper is still the dominant medium for taking information out to the plant or construction site to check things out. If your job involves finding, plotting and marking up those pieces of paper, then laboring to get those markups back into some kind of digital form, you may want to look at a new technology called dynamic plotting being evaluated by Bentley Systems for its plant, civil, building and geospatial users.

The core technologies are “digital paper”, a digital pen, new plotting software and data management software. “Digital paper” is ordinary white paper with a microdot pattern plotted onto it that uniquely defines the page and every location on the page. John Simmons, director of ProjectWise Content Publishing with Bentley, explains this is possible because the plotted pattern is continuously varied across a vast area. “If you were to spread that pattern geographically across the earth, it would not repeat over an area the size of Europe and Asia together.” The digital-paper technology comes from Anoto Group AB, Lund, Sweden. The Anoto pattern, made up of dots spaced about 0.3mm apart, contains 669,845,157,115,773,458,169 dots – thus it can cover an area greater than 4.6 million sq km before repeating. The pattern can be printed onto almost any paper using a standard printing process of at least 600 dpi resolution and carbon-based black ink – in other words, the same technology used to plot drawings onto the paper.

The next piece, the digital pen, is used to mark up the paper document like a regular pen. The pen contains a miniature camera that records both the marks being made, and the dot pattern already on the paper. The pen can be linked via mobile communications (such as a cell phone or wireless network) back to the document management servers, or can work standalone, storing the data in the pen to then be extracted once you return to the office and dock the pen with a computer. Digital pens are available from manufacturers such as Maxell, using core technologies provided by Anoto.

The third component is a data management repository to store and serve the data, and to track the associations between plotted drawings and pen markup data. This role is filled by Bentley’s ProjectWise Integration Server and InterPlot Server, which can support a two-way communication with the technician in the field, enabling the system to flag to the user that, for example, he is trying to mark up an out-of-date drawing. “When you produce a drawing initially, we associate the drawing with the dot pattern,” Simmons explains. “When the pen touches the paper, a simple text signal can go back to ProjectWise to verify the drawing version. The pen then marks it up, and the pen marks are associated with the pattern and the drawing version.” He adds that ProjectWise can associate not only a single person’s markups with a drawing, but those of many people. “In a heads-up environment, you can view some or all of those markups, turn layers on and off, and use that data. Imagine how useful this could be – as you come to mark up that particular drawing, you get a text message on your cell phone warning you that the drawing is out of date and to go print off the most up-to-date version to mark up.”

What are the alternatives today? Says Anne-Marie Walters, Bentley Plant marketing director, “The competition is redlining on a handheld PDA, then downloading to a document management system. Or else people mark up paper drawings, then scan them with OCR technology into a document management system.” By contrast, with dynamic plotting, the data is intelligent and live from the beginning, and has a connection to the base drawing immediately – no extraction or post-processing in the form of scanning or OCR is needed. Says Simmons, “You have all the skills needed to use this technology by your kindergarten years.”

Simmons sketches Bentley’s vision for this technology. “Going forward, you could use it to associate a forms capability with your drawings. For example, if you’re in the field and you see that a piece of equipment needs follow-up maintenance, you could check that box on your form, and then, back in the office, pull that markup into your maintenance database. You could even extend these markups to symbol recognition – by introducing a forms capability, we can go from simple markup to an intelligent markup capability. If you’re marking up DGN or DWG data or, in future, marking up a Word or PDF document, this technology can register not only where the original data resides, but also in which format, so we can update the original, native document.”

Digital pens cost around $300 today. A typical plotter capable of generating digital paper is about $3500. Pricing for a total offering has yet to be set.

Bentley wants your input as it further develops its dynamic plotting offering. Walters tells us, “We’re looking at use cases to be sure we build a product out of the gate that solves real-world problems,” adding that the technology is applicable “any place where pen touches paper.”

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