Sign of the times

Paul Boughton

Ronan Lavelle shows how electronics and engineering designers can save time and money with digital signatures.

Electronics designers, engineers and managers' time gets sapped in all kinds of ways, some more obvious, but others less so. A good example of the latter is the time spent printing out and signing documents, drawings and diagrams, often as part of a project's approval process (internally, with contractors and customers).

Independent research has estimated that up to 40 per cent of engineering documents (of all kinds) need a signature or seal of some kind.

In engineering and design, wet signatures can approach $80 per drawing and if 5,000-15,000 drawings are produced on average per project, that is potentially tying up a lot of time, effort and money.

Research carried out by AIIM, the global industry organisation for information professionals, found that 58 per cent of organisations have processes for which signatures are considered essential, and 44 per cent interrupt at least half of their processes in order to collect signatures, adding up to an average delay of more than three days per process.

Fortyeightpercent of process documents are printed just for adding signatures and that number jumps to more than 80 per cent for a quarter of all organisations.

Paperless environment

Further, for any organisation attempting to establish a paperless environment with end-to-end workflows, printing documents just for signing is the weak link in the chain.

The challenge for many engineering organisations is that signatures have to adhere to security standards and compliance requirements, while standing up to legal scrutiny.

While paper-based signatures, which are arguably easy to forge, achieve this on the whole, basic scanned-in electronic signatures - such as bitmap images - do not, but there is an answer: digital signatures.

So what exactly are digital signatures, what is different about them, how do they work and what are their inherent benefits?

Defining digital signatures

Using digital certificates, PKI technology and the organisation's own authentication mechanisms, standards-based digital signatures (as opposed to simple electronic signatures that often offer nothing more than a JPEG image of a signature) create legally enforceable records. Not only are these fully secure, but they also provide long term proof of the identity and intent of the signer, as well as of the document's integrity, and ensure that these are easy to validate and verify using widely available tools such as Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office. These features, which are built into any reliable digital signature solution, provide compliance with a raft of international laws and regulations.

The main hard benefits cited by early adopters include faster and more cost-effective approval processes.

Anecdotes from users typically talk about signatures taking hours to collect instead of days for local projects or weeks for international projects, and significant paper-related cost reductions such as printing, filing, faxing and couriering.

Less easy to measure but arguably just as important (if not more so) are the improvements to business processes, which become more streamlined and efficient. Digital signature solutions can be integrated with workflow, BPM and ECM solutions such as SharePoint, OpenText and Oracle, as well as industry-specific solutions including Autodesk's AutoCAD and Bentley's Microstation. Taking that one step further and integrating with eDiscovery and records management systems, makes signatures easier to locate which is be important for audit trails and compliance requirements.


Several vendors offer a variety of signature automation solutions using various deployment options including on-premise, cloud, cloud service and hybrid-cloud (where the digital signature is generated in the cloud, but the document to be signed remains behind the corporate firewall).

Which option you choose depends very much on the individual company and its approach to IT, but implementing any type of digital signature solution can be fairly rapid, with users up-and-running in hours.

Aspects to consider include: how 'tamper-proof' does the system need to be; which applications are supported; whether signatures are easily viewable; do external parties need to download any software as well; is support for multiple signatures important; what regulatory, compliance and industry standards are supported; and ease-of-use (particularly if non-tech-savvy staff are involved). From a business-case perspective, another question is how rapid is return-on-investment - AIIM's research indicates it is reached in less than a year for more than 80 per cent of companies, but of course this will vary according to each vendor.

Security is likely to be high on the question list. Digital signatures are inherently secure as they are the result of a standards-based cryptographic operation that takes place on a highly secure hardware appliance, located either on premises or in the cloud. The operation creates a coded message that binds the document and the signer and is unique to both of them. Importantly, documents that are being digitally signed do not need to leave the secure corporate environment.

Digital signature solutions do vary, so it pays to carry out some basic homework. Industry associations and analyst firms such as AIIM and Forrester Research are a good starting point. Whatever system is chosen, digital signatures clearly have a lot to offer electronics design organisations: reduced costs, saved time, support for end-to-end workflows and paperless processes, securely and efficiently.

Ronan Lavelle is UK Country Manager, ARX, Wokingham, UK.