Ehab pioneering AEC blockchain

It might be something of an over-hyped industry buzzword, but blockchain is exciting academic and investor interest, with London-based Ehab an early beneficiary.

CBC homepageWhen I wrote recently about blockchain for construction contracts, I was also reading a little more widely about blockchain in preparation for a technology lecture I gave to students at Middlesex University. This included some discussion of  ‘smart contracts’ versus ‘Ricardian contracts’, and underlined that blockchain has far wider potential than cryptocurrency systems.

Researchers at University College London are looking at how blockchain can be applied in the construction sector. UCL is also home to the Construction Blockchain Consortium (CBC), a joint industry/academic initiative looking to support knowledge transfer, drive research and development and support education and training on blockchain-related technologies. The CBC’s themes show considerable diversity in how blockchain might be applied – under culture and change, for example, it talks about collaborative behaviours:

“The construction industry has become notoriously litigious as projects have larger sums at stake, and as a consequence of being a buyers’ market where contractors and sub-contractors are forced to price their services more competitively.  Blockchain has the potential to reverse the current trends by creating a ‘Panoptican effect’, where all parties’ behaviour is moderated as they known that there is the possibility that their conduct will be properly observed at a later date.”

… enter Ehab

ehab logoBlockchain R&D is also being funded by investors. In London, for example, the world’s first dedicated blockchain accelerator, StateZero Labs, announced its first, seven-strong, cohort of potential disruptors in February 2019. One of the applicants (receiving £50,000 in the form of an equity-free grant, cost-free office space in Kings Cross, mentoring and one-to-one technical support) is Ehab.

According to StateZero Labs, Ehab: “aims to disrupt the construction sector by building a data and process management tool that ensures sustainable and efficient operation of projects; from inception, to completion and post-lifecycle.” The startup was recently profiled on StateZero Labs’ website, where its founders (Josh Graham, Filipe Moura and Matheus Salvia) explained why distributed ledger technology, DLT, is applicable to construction industry processes:

“DLT is used to enable a variety of organisations to more fluidly and transparently work with each other. It is the much greater flexibility in permissions, data access and transferability which makes DLT useful for what we are trying to do. It is also very relevant to construction in general as having exact traceability of when tasks happened or products delivered is crucial for optimising the completion of projects.

Clearly, the construction industry is a vast sector, so – as the company’s name suggests (Ehab is short for Ehabitation) – its initial focus is on housing. It aims to “empower people to come together to collaboratively create affordable, sustainable and customisable housing projects, and share in the profits from these developments.”

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/03/ehab-aec-blockchain/

PMWeb opens London office, targeting Europe

Already a busy market with numerous cloud-based information technology suppliers, Europe construction and real estate sector is now being marketed by another US-based business, PMWeb.

PMWeb-LogoFounded by Marc Jaude (now president of the company) in 2006 and based in Wakefield, Massachusetts (just north of Boston), PMWeb describes itself as provider of “the world’s leading Construction Program Management software”, and is mainly aimed at the owner-operator sector and the supply chains delivering these customers’ projects.

The solution portfolio covers: CapEx planning and management, project portfolio management, facilities management and real estate management. As the name suggests, its solutions are 100% web-based. Core product modules cover planning, engineering forms, cost management, scheduling, asset/facility management, and visual workflow. ‘Toolbox products’ extend functionality to include document management, custom forms, timesheets, a BIM 3D viewer and an integration manager.

PMWeb European partners

HKA logoPMWeb is strengthening its European presence with its partner, HKA-Tech, opening a London Office. PMWeb’s other European partner, Primaned, who operates out of The Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland, will work with HKA-Tech on new client cases in the UK and European markets. PMWeb announced that Europe would become an important target market for 2019.

HKA-Tech, founded as PCI Group in 1996, has long experience in construction industry software, including Meridian Prolog (acquired by Trimble in late 2006) and Primavera. PCI was acquired by Hill in 2008, and, as Hill PCI became a PMWEb dealer in 2011. Since 2013, HKA-Tech has been PMWeb’s largest implementing reseller with 39 offices in 19 countries.

HKA-Tech and Primaned launched their new partnership at an event in the City of London on 5 March (this event, held at the Brewers’ Hall, followed a Glimpses of BIM event).*  European clients Art-Invest and NHS Property Services told the audience about how they digitised their construction management and how they benefited from using PMWeb. Alasdair White, head of construction at NHS Property Services said: “PMWeb has really enabled us to increase efficiency, to the point that we now spend almost 100% of our budget”.

PMWeb early adopters in Europe also include United Nations (Switzerland), APM Terminals (Denmark), Philips (Netherlands), and the European Investment Bank (Luxembourg).

PMWeb London launchPMWeb president, Marc Jaude (centre), speaking at the formal launch in London, said:

“I am extremely happy with the commitment shown by both HKA-Tech Partner Gino Wideen and Primaned Managing Director Mark Schenk in the months prior to the event. I’m confident our European partners will deliver the highest quality of services to the UK and European market.”

[* I delivered a keynote at the BIM Glimpses event, organised by Phil Shatz. Client commitments prevented me attending PMWeb’s launch.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/03/pmweb-opens-london-office-targeting-europe/

think project! acquires BIM vendor Ceapoint

Germany’s think project! deepens its BIM portfolio by buying fellow German company Ceapoint.

Thinkproject-logoMunich, Germany-based SaaS construction collaboration vendor think project! has acquired the German building information modelling (BIM) specialist ceapoint aec technologies GmbH (no transaction value given; news release).

Ceapoint logoThink project! says ceapoint’s product line DESITE will be positioned as an integrated and open solution within the think project! portfolio, and its cloud functionality will be expanded and distributed internationally in future.

DESITE from CeapointWith its product line DESITE, the Essen-based ceapoint has offered solutions for BIM since 2010, specialising in BIM management and BIM coordination, and supported customers in implementing and using BIM in planning offices, construction companies and with clients. Customers include construction companies such as STRABAG and Max Bögl, planning offices such as Schüßler Plan and clients such as German Rail and DEGES. Further, DESITE is the BIM technology for the BRZ Group, the European specialist for organisation and information technology for medium-sized companies in the construction sector.

think project! and DESITE are said to be highly complementary BIM solutions and provide perfect cross-selling potential for international distribution. With DESITE, additional BIM functionality such as collision (clash) and model checking, 4D simulation and analysis for users will become available in the common data environments, CDEs, of think project! and EPLASS.

Thomas Bachmaier“With DESITE we can make our solutions for BIM Collaboration even more powerful. Plus, we gain an experienced and competent team of BIM specialists within our group. We will become an even stronger partner for our customers in the increasing digitalisation of the construction sector” says Thomas Bachmaier, founder and CEO of think project! (right).

“We are now part of the European-wide think project! Group and therefore have a stronger position in the dynamic BIM market. We want to take this as an opportunity to expand our product line DESITE, and especially expand our cloud functionality and for its international distribution” says Dr. Jochen Hanff, CEO of ceapoint.

Through its own research and development activities, think project! has been expanding its BIM capabilities for some years. It signalled its BIM intentions in early 2015, and launched its BIM toolset in July 2015. Interviewed in January 2019, Bachmaier said the company was set to continue growth, both organically and by acquisition, with investment in mobile solutions and BIM likely. The ceapoint deal ticks both boxes, and once integrated into think project!’s portfolio and internationalised may be offered to English-speaking customers. In 2018, think project! acquired UK-based contract change mangement specialist CEMAR, giving it a platform to target its customers in the UK and other regions including the Asia-Pacific region.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/03/think-project-acquires-bim-vendor-ceapoint/

Buildiro launches tradesman app

Start-up Buildiro is launching a mobile application aimed at independent construction contractors, and helping offline merchants get online, but faces significant marketing challenges.

Buildiro logoAccording to Lukas Polach, founder and CEO of London-based startup Buildiro, the average tradesman spends a significant portion of every job in their van, traveling to the hardware store in search of supplies and tools. In traffic-snarled cities like London, time spent sourcing materials can account for as much as 30% of builders’ billable hours. Buildiro’s new mobile application for iPhone and Android users, launching this week in London, aims to expedite the procurement process, saving independent contractors time and money.

Make sourcing and procurement easier

The Buildiro app has, Polach claims, been designed, built, and tested by builders, for builders – inspired, in part, by the simplicity of other e-commerce mobile apps (“JustEast makes finding and ordering food quick and easy – we want to do the same for construction materials and products“). Polach leads a team of five, and has largely self-funded the business to date, though a Czech start-up accelerator is also providing some support.

Available in the Google Play and Apple App stores, the application locates building supplies near any job site, and will eventually give builders real-time access to merchants’ inventories. With more than 500,000 products in its menu, Buildiro is essentially a free professional procurement specialist. In line with its social media inspirations, the app is being launched via a Facebook Live event at 10 a.m. UTC on 2 March 2019.

Buildiro also helping merchants get online

Polach says:

Lukas Polach (Buildiro CEO)“We created Buildiro to reduce the time that builders spend searching for supplies, and to help smaller, offline merchants get online. Many of the smaller building-supply stores in London – as elsewhere – don’t have an online shop, and contractors cannot see what these sellers offer without visiting. Buildiro was designed to give local merchants better online visibility, and in the process, improve the efficiency of independent contractors.”

For any builder, three factors affect the materials supply chain: availability, distance from the job site, and price. Large contractors often have teams to navigate the supply hurdles, but most small and medium-sized firms do not. That’s where Buildiro comes in. Using the app, an independent tradesman can create a list of needed supplies and search for the closest merchant stocking all of the items – viewing multiple merchants in one app is more efficient than separate website searches or using multiple vendor apps (where available), Polach says.

A graduate in civil engineering from Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic,* Polach conceived the app two years ago when he managed a small construction firm in North London. During one job, Polach needed materials and he used his phone to search for a local merchant. According to Google Maps, the closest store was six miles away. But while stuck in traffic, Polach spotted a smaller merchant just a mile from the job site. Not only did this local supplier have everything Polach needed, the products were actually cheaper than the larger retailer. The idea for Buildiro was born.

London roll-out

The first phase of the Buildiro app release will be for builders and merchants in Greater London postcodes, where Buildiro staff will be working with merchants to help them connect inventories to the app’s database. By mid-2019, Buildiro will be rolled out in other cities across the United Kingdom, and eventually, worldwide. Polach adds:

“We are very excited to release the Buildiro app to builders in London, the first of many digital solutions we hope to bring to the construction industry. Globally, the building trades are among the last sectors of the economy to digitize. Our vision is to build workflow and management systems that enable the independent tradesman to improve their job-site efficiency.”

Version 2 of the application is scheduled for the second half of 2019 and will allow buyers to order materials online. Polach envisages also connecting Buildiro to the builder’s accounting system so that purchases can be easily associated with projects for invoicing purposes.

The Extranet Evolution test

Buildiro screengrabExtranet Evolution tested the early stage Buildiro app on an Android smartphone. Upon opening, users are immediately prompted to search for items (cement, screws, etc) – I entered “hammer” – and a drop-down menu is quickly populated with choices.

I could then seek merchants within a mile of my southeast London location (or enter a postcode). The search then identified five merchants (Screwfix, Wickes, Topps Tiles, Selco and Travis Perkins), along with closing times, and starting prices. Clicking on a merchant – Wickes, for example – then opened up a page allowing me to call the store, plus a navigate button to guide me to its location, plus a swipe-able listing band. This start with the lowest priced “hammer” and I could quickly swipe across numerous other inventory items found in the search. I could then select an item, enter a quantity, and a priced list started. Compiling a list of, say, four different items involved entering them one by one in the field at the top of the screen – I then got a four bands of products that I could swipe to find my selections.

Encouragingly, closing the app did not mean I lost my list, but I could not see a way to manage multiple lists (if I was buying for more than one job, for example) or to keep some favourites. The application’s user profile feature is shown as “coming soon”, so perhaps this is something that will be possible “soon”. Buildiro says it will “eventually” give real-time access to merchants’ inventories; at the moment, the app accesses merchants’ catalogues – I would need to call my local store (using the app’s call button) to ensure my required items are in stock. “Click and collect is part of our vision for Version 2,” Polach told me.

If I simply wanted to find nearby merchants, I still had to enter at least one item in the search tool – though looking at some mockups shared by Buildiro (see below right), I am guessing this function might also be “coming soon”.

The Extranet Evolution analysis

Buildiro mockupBuildiro is targeting a large but very fragmented market, much of it focused on small-scale extension, refurbishment, repair and maintenance activities. This comprises about a third of all UK construction orders – worth around £53bn in 2017).

Out of around 5.5 million small businesses employing under 50 people in the UK, almost a fifth – just over a million – are construction businesses, collectively turning over around £185bn a year. But within this figure there is also a high level of self-employment. Out of 2.4 million UK construction industry workers well over a third – 37% (or nearly 900,000) are self-employed, compared to the average for the whole economy of 13%.

While many of these individuals will be working for specialist subcontractors on a wide range of new build, commercial, industrial and infrastructure projects, the domestic home improvement and alteration market across Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) is worth around £30bn (see this Barbour overview), and Buildiro’s initial focus – Greater London – is the biggest single regional market in terms of value, at around £7.5bn.

So, the market opportunity is huge, but the sector’s fragmentation makes marketing a new mobile application a huge challenge. Multiple trade associations cover both general builders and the myriad of  different specialist trades, but none have saturation coverage, so marketing partnerships will only reach a fraction of the potential builder market. Buildiro has recruited someone to onboard builders’ merchants to the platform, so perhaps outlet ‘point of sale’ promotion of the app will work alongside Buildiro’s Facebook activities and a Google Adwords campaign it is running.

‘Word of mouth’ is likely to be critical in promoting Buildiro adoption, just as personal recommendations of tradespeople are often most effective for them in winning new work. SME and self-employed workers in this sector are heavy users of mobile phones, but continuing skills shortages, particularly among younger workers (and likely to be made worse if Brexit goes ahead), may limit Buildiro’s exposure to some of its ‘digital native’ targets.

Incidentally, talking about the Buildiro business model, Polach used the words “free forever” in respect of the costs to its builder users. This immediately reminded me of Copenhagen, Denmark-based GenieBelt and its 2015 launch (the company recently merged with Belgium’s Aproplan to become LetsBuild). Maybe Buildiro’s procurement technologies complement the on-site communication and scheduling specialisms of the newly merged business – particularly if day-to-day task management is constrained by delays in acquiring basic tools or materials.

[* Polach was introduced to Extranet Evolution by Ondrej Piska, co-founder of PCS – see September 2019 post.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/buildiro-launches-tradesman-app/

Bentley and Trimble launch new Hololens 2 products

Microsoft’s new Hololens 2 mixed reality headset was launched at the Mobile World Congress alongside solutions from Bentley and Trimble.

The launch of Microsoft’s latest Hololens 2 mixed reality product, showcased at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona yesterday (25 February 2019), has prompted the immediate announcements of two related products by Bentley Systems and by Trimble.

The Hololens 2 will cost US$3500 and ship later this year exclusively to businesses, which will also have the option to rent the devices from US$125 a month. As well as being lighter and more comfortable to wear for longer periods, the HoloLens 2 features a much broader field of view, eye-tracking, better gesture recognition, and a heavy emphasis on cloud integration (ZDnet article).

Bentley Synchro XR

Bentley logo 2017Bentley Systems presented Synchro XR, its app for immersively visualising 4D construction digital twins with the new Microsoft HoloLens 2. As a Microsoft mixed reality partner representing the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, Bentley demonstrated how users can interact collaboratively with digital construction models using intuitive gestures to plan, visualise, and experience construction sequencing.

Bentley Synchro XR and Hololens 2

Synchro logoBentley acquired 4D pioneer Synchro Systems in June 2018, and in October 2018 positioned the Synchro deal as a key step in expanding its construction-oriented toolset, and mentioned integration with Microsoft Hololens was part of the development roadmap.

Project digital twin data is visualized with the HoloLens 2 via Bentley’s ‘connected data environment,’ powered by Microsoft Azure. With the mixed reality solution, construction managers, project schedulers, owner operators, and other project stakeholders can gain insights through immersive visualisation into planned work, construction progress, potential site risks, and safety requirements. Additionally, users can interact with the model together and collaboratively experience 4D objects in space and time, as opposed to traditional interaction with a 2D screen depicting 3D objects.

Noah Eckhouse - BentleyNoah Eckhouse, senior vice president, project delivery for Bentley Systems, said:

“Our SYNCHRO XR app for HoloLens 2 provides a totally new way to interact with digital twins for infrastructure projects. Users benefit from a new perspective on the design and a deeper, more immediate understanding of the work and project schedule. Instead of using a 2D screen with a mouse and keyboard, the user can now walk around the model with their body and reach out and grab digital objects that appear to co-occupy physical reality. This is a powerful way to review work that is completed and to prepare for upcoming work at the jobsite.”

Menno de Jonge, director of digital construction for the Royal BAM Group, said:

“We are currently using SYNCHRO and HoloLens 2 mixed reality solution for the construction site for a large museum project in the city of Rotterdam. The real need for a digital transformation in our industry is about avoiding rework at our construction site. Using this technology, we can easily visualize the construction schedule. Then, we can see if we are behind in schedule, we can flag any potential problems or issues, look into the problems, and get back on track.”

Alex Kipman, technical fellow, AI and mixed reality at Microsoft, said:

“The newly announced Microsoft HoloLens 2 is a self-contained holographic computer that enables hands-free, heads-up interaction with digital models. It builds on the breakthrough innovation of HoloLens and is even more immersive, more comfortable and delivers industry-leading value right out of the box with partners like Bentley. We’re excited to work with Bentley, a mixed reality partner, to provide the opportunity for customers to take advantage of the HoloLens 2 and SYNCHRO XR technology to experience a new dimension of creativity and teamwork for their AEC projects.”

Trimble XR10

Trimble logoTrimble announced a new wearable hard hat compatible device that enables workers in safety-controlled environments to access holographic information on the worksite: the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2. In addition, an expanded set of Trimble software and services will be available to provide field-oriented workflows that leverage constructible 3D models and mixed reality to solve daily work tasks.

The Trimble XR10 is the first device created with the Microsoft HoloLens Customization Program and integrates the latest spatial computing technology into a certified solution for use with a hard hat for worker safety. With a wider field-of-view, improved usability and a unique, flip-up viewscreen, the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 combines state-of-the-art mixed reality and safe operation in restricted access work areas.

The full solution provides even greater accessibility to 3D models by front-line workers. Field-oriented workflows enable broad adoption of mixed-reality for jobsite activities to improve efficiency, productivity and quality of work. Continued development of the cloud-based collaboration platform, Trimble Connect™ for HoloLens, is enabling workers in the field to get more value from constructible 3D models and transform daily work such as assembly and inspections.

In early 2018, Trimble acquired, first, Florida, USA-based e-Builder (February 2018) and then Viewpoint (April 2018), incorporating the former UK-based 4Projects and MCS Priority1 businesses, adding them to a collaboration portfolio that already included the Meridian toolset, SketchUp, Trimble Connect and a mobile-oriented platform, Trimble ProjectSight.

Aviad Almagor, director of Trimble’s Mixed-Reality Program, said:

“Microsoft has provided both the vision and execution needed to stay at the forefront of the mixed-reality evolution. We’re excited to extend our collaboration with Microsoft in producing a safety-first mixed-reality solution that can be used in production environments such as construction, where workers are building, monitoring and inspecting products and services that deliver tangible value every day.”

Microsoft’s Kipman said:

“The ability to access and interact with holographic content has inspired new visualization, collaboration, and production workflows in enterprise markets. For people that spend their days on the work site, the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 and Trimble’s portfolio of software unlocks the power of mixed-reality to help them get more work done.”

Update (28 February 2019) – Bentley Systems has announced the call for entries for its 2019 Year in Infrastructure Awards, which will be decided at the YII2019 event in Singapore in October, when the theme will be ‘Advancing BIM through Digital Twins‘.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/bentley-trimble-hololens-2-products/

Heathrow CDE built on GroupBC and Autodesk technologies

A seven-year framework agreement to deliver London Heathrow Airport Limited’s chosen Common Data Environment (CDE) solution combines technologies from Autodesk and GroupBC.

Excitech logoUK-based Excitech construction technology and services provider recently announced that it had been awarded a seven-year framework agreement to lead a consortium to deliver Heathrow Airport Limited’s chosen Common Data Environment (CDE) solution. Interestingly, it combines technologies from two firms who otherwise both compete in the CDE sector. The platform will combine Autodesk’s BIM 360 visualisation and design tools integrated and underpinned with management and governance from GroupBC’s Enterprise CDE.

Excitech is Autodesk’s largest Platinum Partner in the UK. It provides software, consultancy, training and support, and a range of IT, document management and facilities management solutions.

According to the company, the CDE will be at the heart of Heathrow’s Information Management strategy. It will be its primary common information repository and allow controlled sharing of information with suppliers and across Heathrow departments. It will provide information and asset management in line with emerging industry standards, ensuring the efficient whole-life management of Heathrow’s critical assets.

Dave HughesMarket-leading technologies

David Hughes, Excitech’s managing director, right, said: “Having worked on the Terminal 5 construction project we are excited to be involved in this latest strategic project at Heathrow. The Autodesk and GroupBC technologies being deployed are market-leading and will enable Heathrow to trust the data they hold and have the confidence to make decisions based on ‘one version of the truth”.

The project is already underway and is expected to be complete by December 2020.

Jo Ellman Brown, PMO Director at Heathrow said: “We are aiming to be the first airport operator in the world who can leverage value from our digital assets, allowing our people to work in a safe environment, design and plan in a collaborative way, and operate a fully integrated asset system. With a long-established relationship with Excitech, we’re delighted they were the successful bidder on this project. We anticipate that the solution they have proposed will significantly improve the management of our critical assets.”

As well as enabling Heathrow to have accurate and up to date information readily available in the CDE, the new solution will result in fewer surveys and reduced costs as a result of earlier and greater collaboration across all parties. In addition, maintenance costs will reduce through better, earlier clash detection and more accurate maintenance information being readily available.

GroupBC

GroupBCReading, UK-based GroupBC has been developing document and information management solutions for construction related projects and asset owners since 1998, and in recent years has been pushing the boundaries of technology, linking project and asset data with external datasets in order to provide rich and valuable insights which enable more timely and better decision making. Customers include Balfour Beatty, Costain, Nationwide Building Society, Sainsbury’s and Thames Water (post).

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/excitech-cde-built-groupbc-autodesk-technologies/

AI, Machine Learning, construction and bots

Construction is waking up to the opportunities posed by artificial intelligence and machine learning to mine rich data and deliver powerful business insights and predictions.

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and data analytics have been mentioned sporadically in Extranet Evolution since 2013, when I looked at software tools used by India’s Transbit Technologies to automate some construction document control processes. There was then a gap of about three years before the next EE mention of AI, in September 2016 (France’s Finalcad was using AI for object recognition) and one more in 2017 (Unearth using AI for site surveys). The frequency of mentions has since accelerated, with six EE articles touching on AI in 2018. EE covered:

  • ShapeDo’s visual comparison technology (April 2018)
  • Salesforce’s growing technology stack (June 2018)
  • Concord Project Technologies’ T-Con advanced work packaging platform (July 2018)
  • Kreo’s efforts to revolutionise BIM with AI (August 2018)
  • Bricsys’s incorporation of AI into its design and collaboration tools (October 2018), and
  • HoloBuilder adding “SiteAI”, to automate  progress control (December 2018).

UK government policy on AI and construction

In the UK, AI is set to become increasingly important and prominent in the UK architecture, engineering and construction market.

AI sector dealThe tone for this development was set in February 2015 when the UK government’s Digital Built Britain post-Level 2 BIM strategy was first unveiled (post), talking extensively about open data and big data. And over the past four years, successive government and industry reports have increasingly sought to move the industry debate beyond its (over-)obsession with BIM and embrace wider digital thinking. In November 2017, “AI and Big Data” was one of four Grand Challenge areas in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, with AI and both construction highlighted as subjects of forthcoming sector deals. The AI sector deal was published in April 2018 (link) and the Construction Sector Deal followed in July 2018 (link). In the meantime, the National Infrastructure Commission published its Data for the Public Good report in November 2017 (link) setting out a roadmap towards a ‘national digital twin’ for the UK’s national infrastructure enabled by secure sharing of high quality, standardised data (incidentally, Neil Thompson wrote a fascinating article [£] about connecting data for Building magazine recently).

Joined-up thinking across Whitehall departments and agencies, and across industry and academia, is evident in recent announcements about these areas. In November 2018, for example, the Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain published the Gemini Principles intended to underpin the UK’s digital twin strategy (link). And there have been two moves this month:

  • nPlan - logoOn 5 February 2019, UK Research and Innovation announced £18m funding through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for research, development and innovation projects to support the construction industry. The use of AI to predict and plan construction projects and avoid possible delays was one idea to win funding. The project, by nPlan, Kier and the University of Cambridge, will use AI and algorithms to better predict, plan and schedule construction projects (nPlan featured in this Building magazine article [£] last month). Another project will look at integrating voice-activated AI and augmented reality in the assembly of components to speed up construction and increase productivity.
  • On 21 February, the government announced it would investing in growing the UK’s skills in the AI sector, creating a nationwide programme of industry-funded AI Masters courses coupled with work-based placements, and funding research at 16 AI centres for doctoral training.

Botmore looking for partners and pilot projects

BotmoreAgainst this backdrop, both established technology businesses and startups are targetting AI opportunities in UK construction, and looking to increase R&D work in these fields.

In addition to those already mentioned, Extranet Evolution recently spoke to Aydin Ozcekic, CEO of Botmore Technology.

Bringing together AI and machine learning experts at Istanbul Technical University with counterparts in the UK, Ozcekic said Botmore is developing a ‘digital assistant’ capable of analysing data from existing applications (he mentioned Oracle’s Primavera, Autodesk’s BIM 360, and Tekla BIMsight as examples) and then helping engineers make informed predictions (Ozcekic has written about deploying AI in construction, and about data sources in construction, and spoke at Digital Construction Week in London in October 2018).

ConBot is a prototype application helping teams combine conventional project data, sensor-derived data (the ‘internet of things’) and interactive chatbot technologies, using natural language processing techniques. Ozcekic is interested in talking to potential technology partners, and also to construction businesses that might want to pilot test the technologies on construction projects.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/ai-machine-learning-construction/

Aphex advances short-term planning app

Almost a year since soft-launching its SaaS and mobile Planner application, London-based Aphex has continued to develop the platform, winning new customers on major infrastructure projects.

Aphex logoNine months after launching its collaborative short-term planning application Planner (see May 2018 post), London, UK-based Aphex has taken its Software-as-a-Service and mobile platform to a new level. With some new funding in the pipeline, it is also set to expand its marketing and take the solution beyond the UK and Europe.

Carlos Adams (Aphex)CEO and co-founder Carlos Adams said 2018 had been good for Aphex (“we are on a ton of projects, including some in Europe, and major schemes such as Tideway, CrossRail, HS2 and Hinkley Point”). The application’s development has also continued:

“We’ve been working closely with our users to introduce a load of new features: Baseline Snapshots, Milestones, Resource Management, Quants, Smart Status and Corporate Dashboards to name a few. We’ve also made improvements to reporting outputs and how Planner communicates with Master schedules.”

Lean, short-term planning through the collaborative production and real-time sharing of look-ahead programmes remains Aphex’s focus, and there are also new features which make the application more attractive to corporate users.

SmartStatus

Aphex status-plannerOne of the new elements is a ‘snapshots’ feature which allows users to compare latest iterations of programmes and project progress against previous baselines. Project milestones have been enhanced, as has support for ‘resources’ – whether these are construction plant and equipment or personnel. The interface, reporting outputs and updated site plans can also be ‘white-labelled’ with the logo of the company concerned.

The key Gantt chart depiction of project programmes has also been enriched. Activities, resources and materials can be associated with a bar, and their current status (including percentage complete or ahead/on/behind schedule) can be displayed in the browser view or via the mobile application. Productivity indicators also extend to metrics for use of associated raw materials (bricks, concrete, etc).

The application makes extensive user of red-amber-green reporting to make it easy for users to focus on areas of concern – useful when typical project schedules may incorporate over 500 separate activities. And the application updates data in real-time (watching a live project with multiple uses, I saw bars move and colours change as activity or resource statuses were updated). This eliminates waiting for revised programmes to be uploaded or synchronised (though Aphex, of course, retains the ability to import from and/or export to master scheduling tools such as Primavera P6 or Microsoft Project).

Aphex interface upgrade

Aphex dashboard-plannerAdams has always placed a high priority on the user interface and user experience. Planner’s overall ‘look and feel’ is cleaner and faster – the dashboard view still provides an at-a-glance bar-chart view of the user’s core project, incorporating weather feeds for the immediate near-term future. Key information can also be filtered to provide different views. For example, users can drill into the performance of particular subcontractors, review particular tasks, or focus on certain locations within a site. (“Being able to quickly review unresolved clashes is a huge time-saver.”) This is often an areas where clashes (between different trades, for example) might be identified, so Planner enables the team to agree which site activities take priority and then automatically produce a logical revised programme sequence, complete with activity dependencies, so that the subcontractor resources can be reallocated accordingly.

Aphex sequence plannerAdams draws on his own past experience of working on infrastructure projects. “Every week we would review concurrent activities on site, and spend 2-3 hours producing Powerpoint presentations showing how we proposed to move people and plant around the site.” By providing interactive site plans, Planner lets teams quickly review and update forthcoming programmes, complete with detailed call-outs and an automatically generated legend.

Sometimes these are developed at meetings using interactive whiteboards, Adams said, with the outputs produced and shared in 2-3 minutes – rather than hours – and updated frequently. Subcontractors can immediately see the latest programme in Aphex Planner, or by sharing a PDF (still widely demanded across project teams). “This also means big health and safety benefits,” Adams says. “The right plant, materials and personnel are allocated to the right place at the right time.”

Pan-project reporting

Where Aphex Planner is used across multiple projects, corporate users can also aggregate data to produce summary dashboards – useful for providing an overview of project statuses. Data can also be exported into business intelligence solutions such as Microsoft’s PowerBI.

While still focused on lean processes, the Aphex business itself also remains lean, marketing has been low-key to date with referrals being the main driver or the company’s success (though Adams did present at Phil Shatz’s Project Controls event – see 28 November 2018 live blog).* However, new funding is in the pipeline and Adams is planning to expand Aphex’s reach into new geographies and begin work on their procurement and commercial focussed tools.

[* Shatz will be running a ‘Glimpse of the Future’ event focused on BIM in London on 5 March 2019: details.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/aphex-advances-short-term-planning-app/

think project! set to expand

Munich, Germany-based think project! group grew revenues 20% in 2018 and regards itself as Europe’s market leader in the SaaS construction collaboration market.

Thinkproject-logoThomas Bachmaier, founder and CEO of Munich, Germany-based SaaS construction technology provider think project!, believes the business is set to grow even more strongly. Speaking during the first day of the group’s internal kick-off conference in Munich on 23 January 2019, when the company shared its vision, mission and strategy with around 230 of its now almost-300 employees, he said the company was now set for growth, both organically and by acquisition.

Thomas BachmaierIn an exclusive on-the-record briefing during the conference,* Bachmaier said the change had started in early 2017 when private equity investor TA Associates took a strategic stake in the business. It was looking, in Bachmaier’s words, to “unlock the potential” and “to take it to a new level”. He said TA had helped the company benchmark itself against other businesses in the sector and in TA’s portfolio, and had also helped identify when the timing might be right for the group to grow a UK presence.

(For context, TA had previously invested in the US software vendor Viewpoint in 2012, who acquired the UK’s 4Projects in February 2013. This investment was short-lived – being bought out by Bain Capital in April 2014.)

TA’s investment in think project! instigated some changes among the non-executive team. It brought in SaaS veteran Peter Prestele in November 2017 and Laing O’Rourke CIO Gareth Burton in February 2018, for example. Among the executive team, Ralf Grüßhaber joined as managing director and the group’s new chief financial officer in October 2017. With Bachmaier, he helped lead conference sessions alongside other recent appointments including chief sales officer Anton Hofmeier and chief product officer Frank Felten.

“Digitisation in the industry is both a big opportunity for us and at the same time a big challenge. Customers know more exactly what they want from a project point of view but as we move to enterprise solutions, new people come wanting to make new decisions. This event is about making the company ready to meet those new requirements – and benefit from it”

Think project! revenue growth

The think project! group grew revenue by over 20% during the financial year ending 31 December 2018 (news release). Revenue for think project!, both in Germany and internationally, grew across all target segments (public and private asset owners, general contractors and project managers). This has stimulated an expansion of staff in development, sales and customer services, resulting in an overall 15% increase to approximately 300 people across the entire group. The year’s saw numerous wins of strong customers including Bayer AG, Siemens RE, CG Group AG (release), DEKA, Gerchgroup AG, Arkema, and Femern Link Contractors.

It is now arguably the biggest Europe-based vendor, particularly following recent merger/ acquisition activity among other providers. The aggregation of BIW, Conject and Aconex finally became part of the US giant Oracle in March 2018, while the former 4Projects/Viewpoint business became part of the US-based Trimble group the following month (April 2018).

Ben Walker2018 also saw think project! group complete a major UK acquisition. It bought the Gloucester-based SaaS contract change management software developer CEMAR (post; CEMAR’s Ben Walker speaking at the conference, right), and it, too, enjoyed a successful year of growth. The conference also heard updates from various specialist and regional businesses. The group’s Eplass and PlanConnect product businesses, the former LASCOM business in France (post), and the former ProjectCentre business in Spain (post) all reported strong growth.

International ambitions

While retaining a strong presence across its traditional central European stronghold, Bachmaier says think project! is now looking to gradually expand. The Group will initially be using CEMAR as a springboard to grow think project! adoption in the UK, in the Asia-Pacific market, and potentially South Africa, where CEMAR has been building on adoption of NEC contracts in those territories. CEMAR might also expand into Europe to exploit FIDIC opportunities, he said, and think project! would also be offered in the UK and in France (as announced in October 2018).

“We will also launch a new user interface (UI/UX) with Version 10 of think project!, as well as further accelerate our investment in mobile solutions and BIM.”

[* Disclosure: I attended the think project! kick off event at the company’s invitation and under a non-disclosure agreement (briefly relaxed for my conversation with Thomas Bachmaier). Think project! paid my hotel and travel expenses and a speaker’s fee for participation in a discussion forum at the conference.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/tthink-project-set-to-expand/

Construction Technology Report 2019: the designers’ view

A recently published ‘Construction Technology Report’ from Newcastle-based NBS presents a view of digital adoption, but is flawed by its narrow focus on building design businesses.

In May 2018, the 2018 (8th) annual BIM survey from NBS presented some data on adoption of common data environment (CDE) platforms by UK-based construction businesses. The data suggested a wide continuum: from 21% of firms using a CDE for all projects, to 28% not using any CDE at all.

Survey responses suggested that Viewpoint’s platform (now part of Trimble’s portfolio) was the most widely used, but I had reservations about how representative the sample was. It over-represented architects (hardly surprising, perhaps, given NBS’s RIBA Enterprises history), and swayed towards building design. This mean those working on the UK’s civil engineering infrastructure (highways, rail, utilities, etc) were under-represented. I felt it potentially downplayed the adoption of tools such as Bentley ProjectWise and GroupBC’s CDE, and overplayed the adoption of generic file-sharing applications such as DropBox, Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Google Drive.

Construction Technology Report 2019

NBS Construction Technology Report 2019For the first time, NBS has undertaken a separate survey looking at the technologies. Recently published, the NBS Construction Technology Report 2019 (available here) is based on quantitative research undertaken in late 2018 to which over 500 people contributed. Little further information about the sample is given though a question (p.13) about internal collaboration is broken down into just two groups: architectural practices and multi-disciplinary practices. Unfortunately, this suggests the survey did not extend to, say, non-architecture design firms, contractors, specialist subcontractors, project managers, manufacturers, clients, etc. Again, NBS results therefore reflect the views of a relatively narrow and building-focused segment of the construction industry.

The sample appears largely positive about the benefits of ‘digitisation’, recognising that a failure to adopt digital technologies could put companies out of business, and accepting that construction lags other sectors in its digital technology adoption (p.11). Clear majorities believed that both internal and external collaboration had changed as a result of technology adoption. Design activities still involve considerable work with documents and spreadsheets (lots of paper on the desk shown on the report’s cover!), referencing standards and specification writing; 2D design (72%)  was still slightly more common than 3D work (67%), but use of ‘project extranets’ or CDEs was only part of the work of 45% of respondents.

The NBS survey then dives deeper into the data for each of these design activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, its sample are prominent users of NBS for specification writing, and the NBS National BIM Library is the most widely used BIM object library (60%), ahead of BIMobject (37%) and BIMstore (36%; post).

NBS Technology Report 2019 graphsThe findings regarding extranets and CDEs were presented in two bar charts. The ‘extranet’ solutions were essentially generic file-sharing platforms: Dropbox (62%), Microsoft’s OneDrive (27%) and Sharepoint (26%), and Google Drive (22%) were all a long way ahead of Huddle and Documentum.

A skewed view of CDE adoption

The most frequently selected construction-specific CDEs came from Viewpoint/4Projects (41%), Autodesk’s 360 range (23%), Asite (22%), Aconex/Conject (18%), and Bentley Projectwise (8%). The high figure for Autodesk may well reflect the popularity of Autodesk design tools among this building-led sample – 69% were users of Autodesk CAD and modelling applications (an industry source told Extranet Evolution: “whilst [360] may be licensed, is it used in anger?”). Similarly, the low figure for Bentley Projectwise follows naturally from the under-representation of infrastructure design in the NBS’s sample.

Next was Deltek/Union Square at 7%. This perhaps further confirms the design-led nature of the sample, as Union Square, acquired by Deltek in 2016, grew largely through adoption by SME design firms of its locally-hosted practice management platform, Workspace, and only gradually extended to ‘extranet’ type functionality as a response to a minority of contractor customers. (A competitor commented: “An internal information management system with drawing register/issuing capabilities doesn’t really constitute a CDE.”)

The NBS’s CDE barchart is completed by Procore (5%) Clearbox’s BIMxtra (3%), GroupBC (2%) and Causeway LiveLink (1%). Heavily backed by investors, US-based Procore has only recently started to market itself in the UK; Clearbox is strongly associated with the UK Tier 1 contractor Kier (post); while GroupBC is another solution extensively used on civil engineering infrastructure projects, and is often ‘white labelled’ by its customers – who include the UK’s biggest contractor Balfour Beatty, fellow Tier 1 players Costain and BAM, retailer Sainbury’s, and Thames Water, among others (see October 2017 post).

It’s now about ‘digitalisation’

‘Digitisation’ is the process of converting information into a digital format, and many of the design firm activities described in the NBS Construction Technology Report are clearly in transition from analog practices to being digitally enabled. In his punchy and readable introduction, Stephen Hamil looks to a future where the ‘BIM conversation’ has moved on from a focus solely on the 3D model to “a rich cloud platform of connected technology from multiple providers.” NBS also includes some interesting practice profiles looking at the technology stacks being developed by some design firms. NBS technology offerings such as its cloud-based specification product Chorus (launched in August 2018) are strongly promoted in the document (which ultimately has to be seen for what it is: marketing collateral targeted at NBS’s architecture-led design market).

Digital Built Britain diagramPedantically, perhaps we should be talking more about ‘digitalisation‘: “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities – the process of moving to a digital business” (to use Gartner’s definition). I have been speaking to audiences recently* about how businesses need to do more than just adopt new technologies – they need to take on the challenge posed in “Digital Built Britain” in February 2015 and start thinking about new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, new business models.

Mark Farmer, author of the October 2016 industry report “Modernise or Die”, spoke at the Irish Embassy in London earlier this week, and was clear about the need for construction businesses to change. If they didn’t, he warned, they could find themselves replaced or bypassed (“be substituted or disintermediated“) by more digitally adept and more integrated organisations. Design businesses like those targeted by NBS will not be immune from these changes – the ongoing shift towards more manufacturing-led approaches to construction will require them to rethink their key business relationships and their supporting processes and information practices.

[* For example, I have been talking at designer-oriented events organised by Specifi; the next of these will be in Leeds on 19 March 2019, followed by Birmingham on 2 April and Nottingham on 30 April.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2019/02/nbs-construction-technology-report-designers-view/

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