By Doug Rubingh, P.E.

On any mining project, good management of the flow of information between organizations is crucial. One of the processes that involves the most amount of information changing hands, and is vital to keeping a project on schedule, is vendor document management—the collection and expediting of the contractually-binding documentation from firms engaged in the supply of equipment packages and components.

During a project, the number of vendors required to submit reports, drawings, datasheets, warranties and specifications may reach into the hundreds, and this can result in the generation of thousands of items relating to either installation or ongoing maintenance.

For the engineering contractor, EPC, or any firm procuring complex components on a project, managing, tracking and reporting on these items has traditionally been a time-consuming process, involving spreadsheets, databases,
e-mail, internal document control software and many man hours.

Why Companies Struggle
Although companies have made the best of these tools, the manual input required makes the process arduous and resource-intensive. The result for EPCs and contractors is often an inefficient capture of documentation, time lost expediting supplier responses and difficulty providing timely and accurate reports. At the same time, asset owners can find it difficult to track the progress of packages. Finally, it can be difficult for asset owners to easily receive a complete set of documentation at handover, often this is a time-consuming hunt through disparate systems and an “after the fact” document control effort.

These are challenges that organizations can ill-afford to ignore, as the impact on projects can be delays, crucial deadlines or contractual obligations not being met, and increased risk during operation.

Contractors challenges can be:
1.    Receiving the documentation on time;
2.    Getting documents reviewed and approved on time;
3.    Ensuring documentation is complete; and
4.    Ensuring the client is kept informed of progress.

The volume of documentation created combined with the limitations of existing tools and processes can make this extremely difficult.

When taking a step back, and quantifying the impacts from not confronting these challenges effectively, the implications and costs can be striking. The following example of a multi-billion dollar expansion of an iron ore mine shows just how much documentation can be generated. The project involved the construction of a 275-km railway track and the expansion of a port harbor. More than 5,500 project members were engaged on the development.

Over the first two years of the project, more than 140 vendors submitted 2,300 work packages for approximately $1 billion worth of equipment. Processing often took 40 minutes per package.

This example is of a particularly large project: however, on any project the task of managing vendor documentation is made all the more difficult by the limitations of existing tools. Companies often invest heavily in implementing document tracking software, with dedicated personnel to keep the review and approval processes running to schedule. The most commonly used solutions tend to be internal systems created by engineering contractors that are often database-driven and heavily customized—on Microsoft Access or similar.

A typical process with these systems is the document control team logs the arrival of information, captures it electronically in a central database and then disseminates it to the relevant engineering disciplines. Accompanying this is a multi-step review process with the asset owner, and back-and-forth with the package vendors. Conventionally, a matrix is kept of personnel names against document type, and document controllers use this to decide who receives a document, before notifying them by e-mail.

On larger projects in particular, this manual involvement soon becomes unscalable, inefficient and prone to human error. The result is that managing vendor documentation is often a difficult, protracted, resource-draining process that can add to project costs and adversely impact schedule.

Creating Challenges
For EPCs and contractors, the challenges can include:
•    Handling the large volume of documents and data entry when the project ramps up;
•    Receiving complete documentation on time and expediting review and delivery;
•    Reducing delays by being able to quickly issue documents for internal review;
•    Tracking the progress of packages and identifying documents that are overdue or behind schedule; and
•    Providing timely and accurate status reports to the asset owner.

For asset owners, challenges can include:
•    Tracking the status of packages that the contractor is managing;
•    Obtaining all necessary data from suppliers at handover, ready for the operations; and
•    Transferring project information from the contractor’s system into plant operations software.

Ultimately these challenges create risks to both the cost and schedule of the project, and can substantially impact successful delivery and execution.

Streamlining the Process with Web-Based Collaboration
Widely used in the construction industry, an increasing number of engineering contractors and EPCs are using Web-based project collaboration systems to manage vendor documentation. The systems allow all the organizations engaged on a project to manage their documents and correspondence using a single, project-based platform. This enables internal and external team members to instantly access, review, distribute and archive their data at any time. These Web-based systems circumvent the limitations of internal document management systems by providing a neutral, third-party space for collaboration and review to occur.

Collaboration technology provider Aconex recently released a product, Supplier Documents, that has been built specifically for managing vendor documentation. Integrated within the Aconex collaboration system, the product provides a set of tools that automate the submission and review of documents from vendors.

For example, processing a vendor document package can often take up to an hour; however, with Supplier Documents, much of this processing becomes unnecessary. To reduce data entry, Due In and Due Out dates are automated, so that both contractor and supplier can view a real-time record of when items are due. A real-time view of who documents are with and what the next steps are is available, again eliminating the need to manually enter this data into spreadsheets or other systems. Distribution templates ensure that, at each step of a review, documentation is automatically submitted to the correct people for action.

The core benefit of using a Web-based collaboration tool is that the same system is used across the project team, making tracking and reporting easier. At any time, the owner, contractor or suppliers can log into the system to manage their vendor documentation. Function-
ality within Supplier Documents such as a graphical package progress indicator allows companies to easily track the progress of packages and their individual documents. Documents that are overdue or behind schedule are highlighted to identify suppliers that are failing to submit documents on time.

More Efficient Document Management
To summarize, particularly on larger projects, the vendor document management process can involve the submission, review and approval of many thousands of items from hundreds of suppliers.

The contractor’s task is not helped by the limitations of commonly used tools for managing this process, which tend to require multiple stages of manual input and weren’t designed for the collaborative project environment.

By ensuring all organizations on a project are using the same system to manage information, web-based collaboration systems provide a solution to this. The technology enables contractors to handle large volumes of documentation and quickly identifying overdue items. It also gives asset owners better visibility of progress and, at handover, a complete archive of project data that can be exported into internal systems such as Documentum and Primavera. The result is improved information capture, better management of complex projects, and greater control for all parties.

Doug Rubingh is vice president, mining and energy at Aconex, a provider of Web-based collaboration to the engineering and construction industries. He is a registered professional engineer and has managed large mining and oil and gas projects.