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i-Collaboration—State of the Industry

31 Aug, 2001 By: Steven Weisberg Cadalyst

In this article...

Bentley Systems


Framework Technology





Designing and producing anything requires several people working together in a joint intellectual effort. Technologies such as the telephone, fax, computer applications, and the Internet enhance this collaboration by allowing us to leverage specialization in labor across ever-larger geographic areas. Collaboration that embraces the Internet promises to help synchronize design and build activities around the world to provide better quality and shorter time-to-market.

Existing and startup companies created hundreds of new applications and services during the past few years to leverage the Internet for design/build activities alone. Each company invested a tremendous amount of money, but many of the business plans proved to be unfeasible. The worst excesses of the dot-com phenomenon have finally imploded, and we can discern some valuable lessons. One such lesson is that with so many applications to choose from, building your own doesn't make sense.

To assess the state of i-collaboration today, I interviewed a select cross-section of collaborative software vendors that cover the AEC and manufacturing fields.

Collaboration—what you make it
Internet collaboration does not imply a particular type of implementation method or application. Applications may be implemented as externally hosted ASPs, self-hosted ASPs, or networked applications that connect via Internet technology as clients and servers or as equal peers. In this article, I focus on applications that work with data from other applications and keep the big picture in perspective. For information on more-granular applications, see previous CADALYST articles such as "Web Sites to Watch: CAD Companies Online" (September 2000), "Control and Track Documents Online" (January 2001), "AEC Project Management Online" (July 2001), and any of CADALYST's i-collaboration columns.

AEC vs. manufacturing
These two fields operate very differently, and most of the numerous Internet vendors serve one or the other. Nevertheless, a few, such as Framework Technologies (figures 1 and 2) and Bricsnet, cover both areas. Autodesk hedged its bets by investing in both the AEC-focused Buzzsaw and the manufacturing-focused RedSpark.

Figure 1. Using Framework's Active-Project and a simple drag and drop, you can view and discuss your Microsoft Project schedules, native CAD assemblies, and Visio diagrams. ActiveProject automatically notifies your team of changes and additions.

Figure 2. View your personal deliverables, due dates, and action items through ActiveProject's My Page.

Several people, including industry observer Dr. Joel Orr and Framework's marketing manager David Wheeler, summarized the situation for AEC and manufacturing in identical fashion.

In manufacturing, the same people are involved in the process repeatedly, and they produce multiple copies of their product. They have developed sophisticated back-office operations that they can leverage further with computer technologies. Manufacturers can justify major technology investments in one area if major benefits accrue because they profit at the corporate level. Expanding from the corporate network to the Internet is a natural extension of existing processes.

In contrast, AEC firms tend to be involved in just a portion of the building process.They also team up in different combinations for different projects. AEC firms typically have far less optimized work processes, and they have invested far less in computer technology. However, the final product (a building or plant) requires ongoing management that is affected by the quality of the information provided to run it. Compared with that for an airliner, this information is frequently dismal. Internet collaboration tools can effect a significant paradigm shift in AEC by unifying the disparate project teams of architecture, construction, and owner/operator for the first time ever, says Orr.

Figure 3. Collaborative data for both the building team and the owner. Bricsnet's Project|Center is also incorporated into Building|Center, which integrates data from design/construction and commercial property management.

"Extranets, or collaboration tools, can act as a breeding ground for true integration between discrete processes of all major participants in the industry," explains Yoav Etiel, executive vice-president of Bricsnet (figure 3). "By themselves, they may save only a small portion of efficiency throughout the entire lifecycle of a building, but they are a critical first step for our industry to begin truly integrating data such as ERP, legacy, and in-house applications and systems."

The overall collaboration goals of faster time-to-market and higher product quality are similar between the two fields, as is much of the fundamental technology that leverages the Internet. However, one application does not fit all. A broad platform requires vertical application niches to succeed. UGS is working to provide a common visualization format (EXT) that spans processes such as design reviews, visual procurement, and sales via an API.

Joint visualization between mechanical and AEC is a growing requirement, according to industry analyst and researcher Dr. Ken Versprille at D.H. Brown Associates. Visualization products for the two fields are frequently separate, but "many users want to design their production machines and tooling in mechanical software and view them in the context of the manufacturing assembly line and work cells designed in AEC software," he says.

The plethora of visualization applications now allow marketing and sales to share in the intellectual property of design, but those products are usually incapable of generating photorealistic renderings. Versprille concludes that most companies have not moved visualization into true production.

Everyone must participate
Vendors consistently emphasize that everyone in a design process must participate in the chosen system(s) to achieve significant benefits. That requires clear knowledge of what drives today's business, says George Church, a senior executive at AEC software vendor Bentley Systems (figure 4).

"Successful online collaboration (requires) that all project team members— including clients—understand how to use the technology, are comfortable with it, and actually use it to manage proj ects," explained CADALYST author Bill Burchard.For this to happen, top management must support it, according to Dominic Gallello, the senior executive at RedSpark (figure 5). "In order for collaboration to work, you are involving multiple groups and departments inside and outside the company (engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, and vendors). . . . When an executive is committed to making it happen, it happens. The best example is a large industrial conglomerate that created the title of ‘engineering e-business manager' for its divisions. Normally, e-business is thought of as customer-facing. In this company, the e-business champion figures out ways to put engineering on the Web."

Figure 4. Viecon Project Hosting Services from Bentley Systems is the online collaboration component of an integrated suite of engineering Information management solutions.

Figure 5. In the course of product development, RedSpark's RAPIDteam tracks all design changes and instantly notifies the entire project team, including purchasing managers and suppliers, to ensure that everyone works off the latest design.

Early adoption
Many CAD vendors provide collaborative solutions, as do independent software companies that have little or nothing to do with CAD. This entire industy is still in the early adopter phase. Only one vendor I spoke with thought that anyone had crossed the proverbial chasm into mainstream use. That doesn't mean you shouldn't look into these solutions now. There are plenty available in both fields. Numerous design companies have completed pilot programs and implemented the technology. They've discovered, but not always mastered, nitty-gritty implementation details.

Some notable users have already achieved several significant successes. A given vendor's solution may or may not fit your needs, so you must investigate to see which solution best fits your requirements and budget.

Key features
What are major features of these solutions? "Profit." I chuckled at this response from Bentley's George Church because it breaks from other answers. It illuminates a critical element about the solution providers, namely their viability. Joel Orr cautioned readers in his Extra-netnews. com e-zine more than a year ago that viability is more important than features— especially if you access a service on the Internet. He warned about the system damaging data and the obligation, or lack thereof, of a solution provider to a customer who uses a free service. In contrast, Church noted that currently those paying the least often get the most benefit in this early phase of the industry.

Browser-based interfaces with minimal training are the norm for technical and nontechnical users. Integration with existing applications is essential. Application integration routinely involves e-mail systems for change notification, unifying calendars and task lists, and visualizing numerous native-format CAD models for various purposes in and beyond design. CAD, procurement, and expediting system integrations abound as well.

Figure 6. UGS' e-Vis visual collaboration solution helps manufacturers and their supply-chain partners collaborate on complex product data via an easy-to-use Web browser interface.

Integrating knowledge management elements of Lotus Notes is rare, if it happens at all. Overlapping functionality between applications is common—every vendor is adjusting to the reality of competing and working together with other vendors. A properly configured solution provides a virtual dashboard-like summary of what you need to know without deluging you with e-mails. The key integration for larger user organizations is with their ERP systems, such as those from SAP, Oracle, and J. D. Edwards, according to David Weisberg, an industry analyst and consultant to both AEC and manufacturing solution vendors.

Applications use XML to affordably integrate data, according to UGS' Mike Sayen, although UGS' implementation is still in the early phases (figure 6). Framework's ActiveProject uses XML to store data it culls unilaterally from the native files of other systems. Bentley and Bricsnet use XML to convey information bi-directionally between applications. In Bentley's case, this occurs just within the Viecon product suite.

Figure 7. Plans and specifications shown at

Everyone expects that XML will emerge to provide contextual data communication between different vendor applications in the future. The aecXML initiative should provide a great standard method to convey material definitions for CAD applications, although AEC information about other operations is not included, according to Buzzsaw executive Jason Pratt (figure 7).

AEC successes and failures
The ability to mine data across all phases of an AEC project is a proven success. Security has increased as users post files to Web sites and then e-mail links to the files that in turn require a login. Bricsnet brags that Hilton and Nissan now use its technology in significant ways and that it has a wide user base. Other vendors have similar types of claims.

One twist particular to AEC is the emergence of reprographic firms as central data repositories. Buzzsaw's Pratt noted that AEC has two main flows, one for information and another for material and labor. He noted that among the existing players in the AEC industry, there is no logical place to host all data, as there is with manufacturing, although some reprographic houses have taken a leadership position in data management.

Among the drawbacks of several of these applications is the lack of support provided to users. Collaboration tools as a loss leader for e-market activity hasn't worked out. Vendor expectations for the rate of adoption soared beyond what was possible because of the previously noted dynamics of the AEC industry. This no doubt affected the service levels offered by the vendors.

There seems to be some disagreement about the levels of participation and interest by the three main groups comprising AEC: designers (architects and engineers), contractors, and owner operators. Some vendors found their initial success with the designers but now regard serving the owners as the proper point of emphasis. Another felt that designers were hesitant to adopt and that contractors and owners were pushing the use of online collaboration. Yet another pondered how to involve the contractors who frequently use phones, faxes, and pagers, but not computers connected to the Internet.

The design group is "nervous about handing over their drawing files and providing— in their minds—public access to their data," according to Bill Burchard. "Contractors and owners don't really need access to the raw data inside a drawing file, just a way of tracking and responding to administrative-type issues."

Bricsnet's Etiel sees the problem differently: "While design and construction firms may be adverse to process visibility and transparency, that is exactly what their clients, namely the owners who fund their work, are seeking. AEC software vendors have learned to listen to their clients' needs. It is about time to pay attention to the needs of their clients' clients."

Manufacturing successes and failures
Virtual workgroups that operate in different geographic locations have done very well regardless of company size, according to UGS. One small challenge is getting people used to automatic revisioning of documents so they don't keep uploading new versions with different names. Reduced or minimal application training has benefited the manufacturing sector, which is crowded with complex software that requires intensive training. RedSpark has seen contract times for new suppliers cut by 50%, and it expects bigger returns as shipped prototypes are reduced to a small fraction of what their customers build. Framework has seen 10% reductions in the development cycle.

Centralized public portals have given way to private portals. EAI's site was launched with great fanfare and expense, but when UGS acquired it, it revealed that customers were primarily interested in hosting sites themselves.

RedSpark's Gallello apparently agrees that private exchanges have become the preferred method for an OEM to integrate with its supplier using the Web. "The OEM gets its quotes responded to faster and parts are delivered in less time with less need for rework. Most importantly, the suppliers also win. They get a tool that can help them be more responsive, organize their work better, and have a better understanding much earlier of what their customers are really looking for.

"Internet collaboration products make the most impact in engineering and development when an estimated 80% of the cost gets built into the product. The value that collaboration brings to the table is the real time leverage and deployment of expertise in the team," he concludes.

Getting the entire organization to work in the efficient manner of geographically challenged workgroups is proving to be tough. In some cases, top management decides on applications that simply can't cover the design portion of the organization adequately. Odds are that these companies will have to live with two systems.

IndustryWeek (March 2001) interviewed 1,200 manufacturing executives and found the majority of them conducting business through "traditional means," despite the rapid adoption of IT solutions for internal communications. Manufacturers participating in the survey listed troubles associated with integrating their e-business activities with their manufacturing operations as the foremost hurdle. This suggests that the lack of smooth connection between e-procurement and the way work is actually accomplished is the missing link in the evolution of e-business for this industry.

The entire e-procurement field has turned out to be a massive disappointment. Companies use it, but nowhere near the number Wall Street expected. Brics-net's Etiel suggests that "building product manufacturers realize that before they can sell products online, products must be first searched, researched, configured, specified, estimated, bid on, and negotiated online with ease. Then procurement becomes a natural extension of the process. This is another key example of the need to integrate the AEC and manufacturing processes in order to gain value for both sides of the industry."

Figure 8. PTC's Windchill collaborative product commerce solution. The interface shown uses the visualization tools from ProductView, available as a free light version or as a standalone application for integration with Windchill.

Uneven solution maturity and penetration
Everyone agrees that front-end design solutions, back-office solutions, and pure manufacturing applications are fairly mature and widely deployed. Collaboration is just the opposite, but prepare yourself for a dizzying pace of improvement. PTC's Windchill system began with a clean foundation of Web technology five years ago, and the company has steadily progressed from toolkits to broad applications to off-the-shelf solutions (figure 8).

"It's interesting that with Web-based architecture, the amount of time and code necessary to achieve a tremendous amount value for customers is a fraction of what was in the client/server world," explained RedSpark's Gallello. "An example letting the extended enterprise, including subsidiaries, know that the OEM is buying the same or similar part from eight different suppliers at eight different prices. Rolling up and distributing this kind of information in the client/server world was very hard. With a Web-based architecture, it is inherent."

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