Digital signatures streamline engineering processes

January 2009 » Feature Articles
Civil engineering firms increasingly use electronic documents. However, without an electronic signing capability, civil engineers are often forced to reintroduce paper into the workflow, extending project schedules and increasing costs. A secure and durable electronic approval is vital for adhering to regulatory requirements and realizing all of the benefits of an electronic workflow.
Gadi Aharoni, Ph.D.
Saving time, money, and the wrists of civil engineers throughout the world

To reduce time-consuming and expensive paper-based processes, electronic documents are increasingly used by engineering firms for business procedures that range from bidding and design through project completion. However, without an electronic signing capability, civil engineers preparing to sign this documentation are often forced to reintroduce paper into the workflow, extending project schedules and increasing costs.

Companies have invested a tremendous amount of money in creating electronic documents such as CAD drawings, forms, and reports. However, the key benefits of an electronic document are lost if the signing process requires printing a hard copy of an electronic document, routing it for signatures across multiple office locations, and returning it to be scanned for archiving. Storing and maintaining both a signed paper copy and an unsigned electronic copy doubles the archiving needs and fails to capitalize on the ease with which an electronic document can be stored and accessed. Moreover, the costs associated with archiving and auditing paper documentation significantly increase an organization’s overhead, affecting a firm’s ability to efficiently manage and scale operations.

A secure and durable electronic approval is vital for adhering to regulatory requirements and realizing all of the benefits of an electronic workflow.

A growing number of civil engineering firms have found that digital signatures (standard electronic signatures) are the ideal way to break the cycle of reintroducing paper into an electronic workflow. Digital signatures take the concept of traditional paper-based signing and turn it into an electronic "fingerprint." This fingerprint is unique to both the document and the signer. Any changes made to the document after signing invalidate the signature, thereby protecting against information tampering. As such, digital signatures help organizations sustain proof of the signer’s identity, intent, and the integrity of electronic documents.

The ideal digital signature solution allows for a graphical signature, and transforms signed documents into non-proprietary, portable, and sustainable electronic records. Digitally signed files created in this format not only protect against forgery by providing proof of the signer’s identity and intent, but also ensure document integrity. Digital signatures can do all of this within multiple document types and without limitation on the file’s shelf life. This last aspect guarantees the document will be readable for decades into the future.

Recent advances in digital signature technology free the organization that created the file, and the company’s customers and partners, from being locked into a specific vendor’s proprietary software. These advances enable recipients to verify the digital signature with any commonly used application, including Adobe, MS-Office, AutoCAD, MicroStation, and numerous others.

Digital signatures allow for seamless embedding of professional engineering stamps within documentation.


Digital signature deployment
With new approaches and technologies available for digital signature implementation, even small engineering firms can afford to implement and maintain what was once a costly and cumbersome signing alternative. From an investment perspective, the cost of digital signature products is as much as 90 percent less today than similar technologies were only five years ago.

These new solutions are designed to support existing technical infrastructure, policies, and procedures, resulting in minimal disruption during deployment. With these advances, and improvements in product packaging and implementation strategies provided by vendors, it is quite common for digital signature deployments to be in place and producing results in a matter of days or even hours.

The benefits
Civil engineering firms can capitalize on a range of enterprise-wide benefits when implementing a digital signature solution. The marquee benefits of digital signature deployments include the following:

Reduced approval cycle times—A non-proprietary digital signature allows for easy and rapid document routing (both internal and external of an organization), completely eliminating the need for manual routing of physical documentation. As such, engineering documents ranging from engineering change notices and site analysis reports to CAD drawings can all be approved and signed in minutes—with a P.E. stamp where applicable.

Lower costs—Using a digital signature enables civil engineering firms to eliminate the costs associated with authorizing and signing paper-based documentation—paper, printing/plotting, stamping, signing, scanning, faxing, expedited shipping, postage, and processing time. In smaller engineering firms, these costs can amount to thousands of dollars a month. In larger organizations, the costs related to physically signing documentation can total hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

By implementing a digital signature solution, engineering firms realize a quick return on investment and the cost benefits of faster workflows. Additionally, maintaining an electronic workflow from document creation through signing authorization allows for easy management via a document management system, further reducing the costs associated with physically archiving paper documents.

Simplified compliance—Digital signatures allow engineers a simple process for signing off on work instructions and project-specific documentation supporting best practices and legal requirements. They also allow for seamless embedding of professional engineering stamps within documentation.

Secure document exchange, collaboration, and e-submissions—With today’s digital signatures, electronic documents can be trusted and exchanged with external parties that need access to the records entirely independent of the vendor and organization that created them. The ability to bridge the geographic, technical, and corporate boundaries with outside parties makes document collaboration seamless. Global organizations can immediately access documents created throughout the enterprise from any computer in order to support a business process. External parties can verify PDF, AutoCAD, and other popular application files without installing additional plug-ins or software.

 
Digital signatures help organizations sustain proof of a signer’s identity, intent, and the integrity of electronic documents.


What to look for
The benefits of digital signatures are significant, and a solution can pay for itself in as few as three months. However, because of growing popularity, many companies have saturated the marketplace with unclear offers and confusing terminology. So when selecting a digital signature technology, consider the following:

  • What is the supplier’s experience and track record in the engineering industry? Does the supplier have a history of successful deployments at engineering firms? Have their solutions been deployed at similar-sized companies?
  • Installations and support systems are key. Ask the supplier to describe the steps involved in going into production and to identify all third-party products. Make sure the supplier is providing a complete solution.
  • The product’s solution should be obvious. How is the system administered and maintained? What innovations do the vendor and the technology provide that ensure your organization will be able to sign digitally as you see necessary?
  • What is the required investment in helpdesk and IT resources? A way to avoid a significant investment is to choose a digital signature solution that supports integration with Microsoft Active Directory and other LDAP structures for automatic user key generation, management, and revocation. Verify that this is an option with the product you are considering.
  • The technology should support all of your signing requirements, including multiple signing of PDFs using native Adobe support, all Microsoft Office applications and versions, and easy integration with business systems such as document management and workflow.
  • Full verification is provided. Ask the potential supplier to forward some signed documents to determine whether full verification of the signer’s identity, intent, and data integrity is provided without any proprietary software or access to the system that created the electronic record.
  • Evaluate the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the systems being considered. Older digital signature solutions are based on complex Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), leveraging third-party-supplied digital certificate and smart cards that are expensive and difficult to deploy and support. For the most accurate assessment, the TCO analysis should be projected for a three-year period at a minimum.

Today, civil engineering firms can realize significant benefits by deploying digital signatures. By integrating digital signatures, engineering and environmental consulting/testing firm Braun Intertec can now send secure reports quickly to clients directly from the field. Prior to implementing digital signatures, the company’s process was cumbersome. Each test result was converted to a Microsoft Word document, printed, then forwarded to the appropriate engineer for verification and signing, a process that could take longer than a day. Since implementation of digital signatures, it takes just seconds to digitally and graphically sign and send an entire batch of test reports.

"With an all-inclusive PKI digital signature system that met our security and technical requirements right out of the box, we can now generate reports that are globally valid and verifiable for integrity and authenticity by any client," said Brian Hase, Braun Intertec’s information systems director.

Digital signature technology is no longer something that only large or extremely well-informed organizations benefit from. In fact, it is an industry standard accepted around the world. With the right tools, digital signatures will minimize risk and safeguard an engineer’s professional signature and seal, while tamper-proofing signed drawings and documents.


Gadi Aharoni, Ph.D., has served as CEO of Algorithmic Research (ARX) since 2001. Previously, Aharoni spent three years in various senior management posts at Cylink’s Santa Clara Calif., headquarters. He holds a MEng degree in computing from Imperial College of Science and Technology, United Kingdom; and a Ph.D. in computer science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

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