Bidding Farewell to Paper

If you think compact discs are just for music lovers, think again. Since the Army Corps of Engineers began putting contract bid documents on compact discs with read-only memory devices (CD-ROM) last year, they haven't stopped counting the savings. What began as a simple process to convert paper documents into electronic format has turned into a major money-saver.

With the first pilot project estimated to save $20,000 in document reproduction and mailing costs, and four more pilot projects in the works, the savings to the Corps could prove enormous over time.

While many federal agencies have been making use of electronic commerce and electronic data interchange (EDI) technology in contracting, the Corps has faced unique challenges. The documents soliciting bids for a typical Corps construction contract include several volumes of contract documents and specifications and as many as 250 detailed drawings, and there's no practical way to distribute all of this using EDI.

The documents and drawings that comprise the "bid set" are originally produced electronically, but the Corps converts them to paper to solicit bids from contractors. The text documents and the drawings, which are produced on 30-by-40-inch paper, cost anywhere from $500 to $700 to produce per set and another $16 or so to mail. "We transfer those (paper documents) to each and every contractor that wants to bid on a project," says J. Justin Taylor, program manager for the Electronic Bid Sets Project.

"We can now take the same amount of documentation and put it on a CD-ROM and mail it out for 55 to 80 cents," Taylor says. Among the benefits:

  • The Corps estimates it will save 75 percent on reproduction costs per bid.
  • Contractors no longer have to scan paper documents to use documentation with their computer aided design machines.
  • Document integrity is maintained by the "read only" format of the CD.
  • Search and print capabilities enable contractors to use the documents more efficiently and cost effectively.
"Overwhelmingly the feedback has been good," Taylor says. Out of 65 contractors consulted by the Corps before the first pilot project was launched, only three, one of whom didn't have a computer, voiced concerns about the process.

Gradual Transition

The Corps has tried to make the new electronic bid sets more convenient for contractors as well as for the Corps, he said. The vast majority of contractors already have the equipment necessary to receive bids electronically. Speed and performance will depend on the processing power and amount of random access memory (RAM) contractors have available. Ideally contractors will have a personal computer with Windows 3.1, Windows NT or Windows 95 software, 486/33Mhz with 16 MB RAM or better, and a Super VGA monitor (800x600 resolution). The minimum hardware requirement is 386/40Mkz with 8MB RAM and a VGA monitor (640x480 resolution). Drawings can be printed using a laser printer.

The transition to electronic bid sets needs to be gradual, Taylor says. In addition to distributing bid sets on CD-ROM, the Corps eventually will also provide the same documentation electronically through the Internet.

"When we started out, we were just converting paper documents to electronic documents. But after looking at the technology and looking into what the capabilities are, we decided we could do a lot more," says Taylor. "We can now make them available on the Internet, where we have a wider audience."

Corps officials anticipate making bid sets available through the Internet soon after the pilot projects are completed, which probably will be in a year or longer, says Jean McGinn, an architect in the Engineering Management Branch at Corps headquarters.

Until the Corps can maintain document integrity on the Internet, contractors still will have to obtain a copy of the bid set on CD-ROM, McGinn says. "We're looking into at some point going totally to the Internet but we'll have to solve that (maintaining document integrity) first."

Distributing bid sets over the Internet will result in a wider dissemination of information and increase competitiveness, Corps officials believe. Currently, new projects for which the Corps seeks bids are announced in Commerce Business Daily. Interested contractors order bid sets over the phone or by walking into a Corps office where bids are distributed. In the future, announcements will go out on the Internet as well as in Commerce Business Daily and documents can be downloaded or ordered from the Internet.

Eventually, using a Web browser, contractors will be able to query a database of all advertised contracts. Each advertisement will be linked to a Web site where contractors can view contract descriptions, specifications and drawings. From the Web site, a contractor will be able to both order the CD-ROM and download all associated files. As technology advances enabling the Corps to maintain document integrity and contractors become comfortable with the Internet, the Corps may phase out the distribution of CDs.

To encourage contractors to move toward electronic bid sets, the Corps determined that contractors should be able to view, search and reproduce documentation without purchasing a special viewing program, and the reproduction of drawings should require little technical expertise when printing or plotting.

Because there are no universal text and graphics standards, the Corps selected the most popular file formats: PDF for text and CALS for graphics. PDF is a neutral file format currently used by many within the computer industry as a standard for distributing electronic documents. Engineering documents will be distributed in CALS format, which is consistent with Defense Department drawing standards. As viewer technology develops, other formats may be included.

In evaluating royalty-free viewers for PDF and CALS file formats, the Corps selected Adobe's Acrobat Reader and Dataware's SourceView, respectively. Acrobat Reader was chosen because it provides users with zooming capability, bookmarks, links and text searches for PDF files. The SourceView reader was chosen because it enables users to quickly view CALS images and use zooming, measuring and linking features.

Currently, the Corps' contracting office is not set up to handle contractor bids submitted electronically, but that will change, McGinn says. "We eventually will get to that point too."

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