Dr. Paperless or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPad

Let me start by describing our in office review process.  Typically we do 30%, 60%, and 100% review sets.  These are the “official” sets that we send over to the Architect.  Between these design iterations there are any number of intermediate reviews.  My boss would ask:  “Louis, print me off a ceiling plan.”  “Louis, print me off the ductwork plan.”  “Louis, print me off a boiler room plan.”  “Louis, print me off a piping plan.”  It was unbelievable how much paper we went through. And not just 8.5×11 printer paper.  This was 30″ and 36″ wide format paper on our laser plotter.  The paper is expensive and the plotter is not cheap to maintain.  Also, I should mention that we save many of the mark-ups.  If the mark-ups include minor revisions, those would get recycled.  However, major design decisions would get saved.  We have a large room in the back of the office filled with these mark-ups in addition to the final plan sets.

It started with my boss doing a demo of BlueBeam’s PDF Revu software. A few days later I got a set of marked up plans…as a PDF!  So, I had to download the BlueBeam demo and try it out.  His mark-ups didn’t look pretty.  He actually used a mouse to free hand his notes.  However, over the year, he has gotten much better marking up the plans and using the text tools.  Now he uses marked-up PDF’s for everything: review sets for projects, schematic “napkin” plans to clients, spec reviews, etc.  It is nice because now we no longer have stacks of bed sheet sized pieces of paper lying around.  Instead we have project directories on the network with PDF records of plan mark-ups, “print-outs” of load calculations, selections from vendors, etc.  PDF’s have streamlined the construction side of the projects as well.  We now get many of the equipment submittals from contractors as PDF’s.  Instead of marking up six hard copies and overnighting a large (heavy) box of submittals back to the architect, we now mark up one PDF and e-mail it back.

Then came the iPad.  I had never wanted one.  I had never needed one.  They looked like, well, a toy.  An expensive toy that I could never justify ever getting unless the price was drastically lower.  That was the view of pretty much everyone within the office.  I did not like Apple’s proprietaryness.  I’m a big fan of open design.  One early adopter from the electrical side got an Android tablet.  He was less than impressed.  When the iPads first arrived in the office, they sat, for the most part, collecting dust.  The people who did use them used them for checking e-mail, updating Facebook, playing games, and nothing productivity enhancing.  The first thing I started using was Evernote.  I found this nice for personal notes and some general knowlege documentation.   But with our PDF archives already on the network directory, I didn’t find using the iPad for this incredibly useful.  One time I tried using Autodesk’s AutocadWS app to mark up actual CAD drawings while out in the field.  This was crude and did not work very well.  Overall, the iPad as a productivity tool had been a bust.

After a few months Joe, my coworker, bought a stylus.  “Why would I need THAT?” I had originally asked myself, they are expensive and there is no handwriting recognition (ah, remember the Newton?).  He came back from a field visit with a marked-up set of field notes that he had used the stylus with.  It was brilliant.  Not only did he save the trouble of carrying around a stack of full size plans, he also now had an electronic record of his field visit.  The field notes were no longer a crudely marked-up, dust smudged 11×17 or 36×48 sheet of paper that was worth more than it’s weight in gold.   They could be saved to our PDF archive and anyone could look at them whenever they wanted to (instead of having to frantically look for them two days before a project was due).   That was the dawn of a new age for us in our office.

For us, the use of the iPad for productivity came down to 4 essential ingredients:

  1. Dropbox – This has been essential for transferring files back and forth between our desktop computers and the iPads.  As a side benefit it has aided with making work more portable in general.  Gotta work on a file at home? Drop it in the Dropbox folder.  Not that I like taking work home all the time, but hey, sick kids happen.  Box is a similar app.  At the time when I used it, it did not have the desktop syncing folder like Dropbox.
  2. GoodReader – Originally I was looking for a free way to mark up PDF’s on the iPad.  AutocadWS is a way, but it doesn’t work every well.  At $4.99, GoodReader is worth EVERY penny.  The key is that it handles large drawings with ease.  This seems to be the general consensus in other reviews.  PDF Expert is another app people mention, but I haven not played with this one given it’s $9.99 price.
  3. Notability – This is another app ($0.99) that allows you to mark up PDF’s.  This app is more suited for taking hand written notes such as a call log, project notes, sermon notes, etc.   I essentially use it as a note pad.  This app is nice because it has a magnifier and wrist rest. These features were added to GoodReader later; I’m just used to using Notability.  Note Taker HD is a similar app with similar features for $4.99.  My coworker Joe uses Note Taker.
  4. Stylus – Without the stylus marking up PDF’s does not work very well.  I’m a cheap Dutchman, so, I really balked at spending $15 to $20 for something I could do with my finger.  The iPad was designed with fingers in mind after all, right?  Anyway, Joe bought the stylus, I saw how it worked out for him, tried his out, then went out and bought one the next day.   (Bonus, I found mine on sale!)  If you’re still on the fence about a stylus, I just saw some very inexpensive ones at Walgreens the other day.  Try it out, then go get something of a little better quality.  Don’t bother trying to make the ones on Instructables.

Once these ingredients were in place, the iPad has become indispensable as a tool here at work.

Please share your own experiences using a tablet computer.  Has anyone had this sort of success with an Android tablet?

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