AEC Software by the Clock (AEC Insight Column)

31 Oct, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

As time progresses, applications emerge, companies merge, and software gets better.

The technological history of software has been an inexorable march from lower-level functions operationally close to the underlying computer hardware toward higher functions that have become closer to human interaction. Viewed from a business perspective, the history of software development exhibits a similar march from general-purpose tools for horizontal applications such as drafting, word processing, and bookkeeping/accounting to vertical-market, or industry-specific functions, such as architectural CAD, specifications writing, and integrated AEC job-cost and project management.

At the same time, it is a business imperative for software companies to expand and enhance their product offerings for sustained corporate sales growth. This goal often results in mergers between companies that have adjacent or complementary applications or in the emergence of new companies offering previously unavailable mix-and-match functionality.

In this article
In this article

Syncopated Clock

To understand how these trends produced the current market landscape for AEC software, envision a diagram like the face of a clock with distinct AEC business functions occupying the spots for each of the twelve hours (figure 1).Collectively, these software functions correspond to the principal business applications used by most design firms. Progression around the metaphorical clock also represents progression of information in a typical project lifecycle.

Figure 1. The AEC software market is like a clock, with different product functions representing each hour.
Figure 1. The AEC software market is like a clock, with different product functions representing each hour.

At one o'clock is a time-and-expense program, because most design firms account for employee time as a primary project resource even if the firm does not bill by the hour. In the two o'clock position is a financial-management system (FMS), which is similar to a black box that turns time sheets into invoices and project reports. Three o'clock holds a program for managing project histories and costs. The four o'clock slot contains a contact-management program that records past, present, and future client data. Down at five o'clock, a business-development program helps combine project history data, contact information, and images of past and present projects to generate proposals. Some five o'clock images are photos of completed projects, and others come from CAD software at seven o'clock; various graphics processing and illustration software programs bridge the gap at six o'clock. Beyond CAD are specifications and building product information at eight o'clock, followed at nine o'clock by software for codes, standards, and contracts. Managing project information during construction administration is the role of software at the ten o'clock position, which leads to resource-based scheduling at eleven o'clock. True project management holds the twelve o'clock position, bridging resource management at eleven and timekeeping at one.

Many of the programs around the perimeter of this clockface share — or should share — data with each other; for example, the same client information will appear in financial software, project histories, contact database, past proposals, CAD drawing title blocks, specifications files, contracts, and the voluminous documentation generated by construction administration. Thus, the center of the clock diagram is occupied by one or more databases that record and, ideally, coordinate this data. Progressive firms may have an intranet or web-like internal network as a ring or buffer between the various user-facing software applications and the central data store. Nearly all firms today are metaphorically surrounded by the Internet, e-mail, and other messaging media, which is how design firms and their software communicate with the outside world of clients, consultants, and contractors.

Buyouts and Rollups

Applying the principles of ever-higher software functionality and ever-greater software integration to the metaphor of the software clock diagram helps explain the recent history of AEC software. Starting in the late 1990s, for example, Deltek Systems acquired a string of related applications in FMS, project management, and customer relationship management. After rolling up the former Harper and Shuman, Sema4, Wind2, A/E Award, and A/E Management Services, Deltek introduced Vision, a product for professional services automation (PSA) that spans software clock functions from one (time and expense) to five (proposals and business development).

Other contenders in this new multifunction PSA segment include BST Enterprise (an expansion of BST Global's previous accounting/project software) and Axium's Ajera PORTFOLIO. Axium previously developed Protrax and acquired the former MarketEdge. Unlike prior point solutions for FMS, project management, and customer relationship management, these integrated PSA programs support comprehensive, firm-wide planning and management across multiple projects looking forward as well as back in time.

Big BIM Boom

Moving around the software clock, industry software trends toward higher functionality and greater integration have played out in the emergence of building information modeling (BIM), which spans formerly stand-alone applications from six o'clock (graphics/visualization) to nine o'clock (codes and standards). The acquisitions have occurred across design discipline boundaries. For example, Autodesk acquired Softdesk in the late 1990s and developed Architectural Desktop (now AutoCAD Architecture), followed by the 2002 acquisition of Revit, followed more recently by engineering-discipline applications such as Green Building Studio, Ecotect, and Robobat. Autodesk even has encroached on Adobe's traditional graphics spot at six o'clock through its DWF file-sharing format (versus Adobe's PDF) and Autodesk Impression (versus Adobe Illustrator).

At Bentley Systems, the BIM consolidation trend saw TriForma emerge from Bentley's late 1990s acquisition of code from BrixWorks and architecture/engineering vertical tools from Ideagraphics. Lately, this trend has been complemented by a flurry of structural BIM acquisitions, such as STAAD Pro, RAM, and Struc-Soft, plus an exclusive distribution agreement with Environmental Design Solutions' Tas Software.

Elsewhere in the BIM market, Germany's Nemetschek Group, maker of Allplan BIM tools, acquired the former Diehl Graphsoft (MiniCAD, then VectorWorks), which now operates as Nemetschek North America. Recently, Nemetschek acquired Maxon (Cinema 4D modeling and visualization), BIM maker Graphisoft (ArchiCAD), and structural BIM vendor Scia.

A PIM by Any Other Name

The remainder of the AEC software clock is consolidating under project information management or practice information modeling (PIM). By either definition, PIM combines everything from contracts to construction administration and resource scheduling, often with an added dose of data management, e-mail management, and project collaboration. The leading proponent of this approach is Newforma (see review in Cadalyst's November 2007 issue, Other contenders in the PIM sector include Arsitus practice-pro and Orange Loft's ArchiOffice. Some PSA solutions, such as Deltek Vision, tend to integrate with and complement PIM programs such as Newforma. However, a product called ArchAdministrator from PS Software Solutions carries integration a step further by combining the accounting, contact, and proposal capabilities of a PSA program with a wide range of PIM functionality.

Among PIM programs, Newforma also offers integration with BIM through model markup and drawing management. In addition, most Windows-based PSA, PIM, and BIM software relies on or is compatible with Microsoft SharePoint for centralized data consolidation and document management. Architecture and engineering firms that once faced a dozen or more mostly incompatible point solution programs, plus home-brewed and custom-written software, now enjoy the much simpler and better integrated option of selecting one each from the PSA, PIM, and BIM categories — all wrapped around a core of Microsoft Windows and Office with a graphics spot reserved for the seemingly inevitable Adobe Creative Suite.

Thus, typical design firms of the future will use a smaller number of separate programs, each representing more integrated functions or encompassing more positions on the software clockface. These programs will be smarter and have greater AEC specificity, thereby helping firms save enough time to figuratively beat the clock.

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!