Under Viewpoint ownership, UK construction SaaS collaboration vendor 4Projects is already recruiting to expand, and has strong BIM credentials to take to new markets.
I was recently invited to visit the Sunderland, UK office of construction collaboration technology provider 4Projects to meet both existing contacts within the company and representatives of its parent company, Viewpoint Construction Software. Viewpoint began looking at the collaboration market over a year ago, and acquired 4Projects last month, so this was an ideal opportunity to learn more about the company and its aspirations for its new venture. It was also an opportunity to get an update on 4Projects’ 4BIM developments.
Viewpoint eyeing international ERP and collaboration markets
Giving an overview of Coaxis and Viewpoint, Matt Harris, Sr, VP Strategy & Corporate Development, described the depth of experience among the senior management of the Portland-based company, which includes executives with backgrounds in companies such as IBM, General Electric, Xerox and Sage, and others who have worked at Viewpoint for over 30 years. The group now employs over 400, and is growing at around 50% per annum, and, according to Matt, prides itself on providing a stimulating culture for all employees, while remaining focused on its construction industry software specialism.
In recent years it has extended its capabilities beyond financial software (ERP), acquiring complementary content management and mobile solutions providers and then 4Projects, with targets carefully chosen not just for their ‘fit’ and functionality but also with an eye to their rapid integration with sister applications to maximise the opportunities for providing integrated solutions for contractors and cross-selling other portfolio solutions.
Viewpoint operates mainly in North America and Australasia, so the 4Projects acquisition has given it an additional footprint in the UK, mainland Europe, Middle East. Viewpoint is already investing in expanding 4Projects, with the UK software development team first to benefit (the company’s vacancies page currently lists five .Net web developer posts, a systems administrator, plus marketing and business development roles), though it will also be expanding its US team, and establishing a north America data centre – as it looks to capitalise upon Viewpoint’s growing reach, now 14%, into the ENR600 top contractors in the US (I was shown a graph of recent ERP wins in the US, underlining Viewpoint’s success in winning customers away from rivals such as Sage).
Matt (right) told me about the extensive research the company had undertaken among its ERP user base during 2012. Starting with its main user conference (a four-day event attracting well over 800 attendees the majority of whom were customers and users of Viewpoint software) and including a series of focus groups, Viewpoint had explored contractors’ collaboration requirements, which helped it identify that 4Projects was the ideal acquisition for a largely still untapped US market. Over the next year or so, Viewpoint will be promoting 4Projects (locally backed by dedicated sales, marketing, professional services and support staff) to its existing customers as well as offering it as part of its solutions portfolio to prospective customers.
Looking slightly further into the future, Viewpoint may use 4Projects’ footprint in the UK, Europe and the Middle East to market its construction software solutions to contractors in these regions. By 2017 the company’s CEO, Jay Haladay, has a vision to become a global company with over 700 employees serving some 15,000 customers.
At Ecobuild last year, 4Projects’ CTO Andy Ward showed me a prototype of the company’s BIM viewer. With the UK construction industry moving inexorably towards adoption of building information modelling for all public sector projects (and, more than likely, a significant proportion of private sector projects), there has been growing interest in how collaboration platforms might provide the common data environment, CDE, required to support the UK government’s ‘Level 2’ BIM requirement. There are a profusion of BIM-related solutions on the market, but few of them provide easy access to detailed BIM data via a standard web-browser.
Introducing the latest iteration of 4BIM (post; the project is now half-way through its two-year duration), Andy loosely segmented the BIM solutions market into five broad and sometimes overlapping areas:
- design authoring tools
- model viewing and coordination tools
- model serving applications
- IFC and COBie services and tools
- asset and facilities management tools
4Projects BIM strategy is to complement design authoring tools and place model server applications at the heart of collaboration, using open standards-based tools to enable controlled openness and transparency of model viewing, etc, in a web browser, without the need for plugins or additional software – in short, what I once dubbed BIM-as-a-Service (2008 BIMaaS post).
We discussed different model viewing tools (eg: Tekla BIMsight, Jotne, Asite’s cBIM, the now-defunct Octaga), most of which rely on installing software locally, or using ActiveX controls, and Andy highlighted the inputs they had received from the BIM “hotbed” of north-east England. Its partners in the TSB-funded 4BIM project include Northumbria University, home to the BIM Academy, and promoters of the open xBIM toolkit (I saw Northumbria’s Professor Steve Lockley mention xBIM during a BIM presentation at Ecobuild last week). Having spent a year working with xBIM, 4Projects has a strong understanding of its capabilities and has integrated it into its model serving environment.
Andy demonstrated live exploration of a 41MB model file in a browser window, flying through the building, stripping out elements to show different views of the building’s components, and then inviting another team member to share the same view in real-time, with COBie data also readily displayed and updateable via the model view, via a database table, or via ‘tree’ navigation, with any changes immediately echoed in the other views (“tri-directional”). Andy highlighted they could work with much larger models than this, and were developing strategies for handling even the very largest models. He also showed off collaborative communication around a model, where a user could send RFIs or Change Orders to another team member, with links to the components in the model. 4Projects is also developing various model query and reporting tools, plugins for design tool, as well as looking at delta “diff file” model updating, and planning further integrations with FM and estate management tools. It was an impressive demonstration of pure web-based BIM collaboration, quite the most powerful I’ve seen.
Update (14.30pm, 18 March 2013) – just seen that 4Projects has been shortlisted as a finalist in the BIM Initiative of the Year category of the 2013 Construction News Awards.
4Projects recent enhancements and key features
The company’s BIM push was one of the things that attracted Viewpoint, and it has also proved attractive to customers for its core collaboration system. Even though it is still at the development stage, I understand that customers are reassured that 4Projects has a strong BIM roadmap which encourages them, in the meantime, to adopt the SaaS platform for conventional collaboration purposes. However, this does not mean that the core system has not also been improved. Sales director Steve Spark quickly cantered through some of the recent enhancements and key 4Projects features:
- Single log-in – for example, a subcontractor working on numerous client projects, can log-in to 4Projects and immediately view all notifications relevant to him across all projects.
- 4Projects widgets – home page can be configured with widgets to display, for example, a summary view and boxes displaying specific types of content notifications (eg: RFIs)
- User interface – a document management user-interface that in places strongly resembles Windows Explorer, with the ability to create containers for specific types of content, including receipt of email (so information and attachments can be emailed to 4Projects and directed immediately to that container). Steve also described the platform’s use ‘virtual containers’ to help compile health and safety and operation and maintenance manuals
- Strong workflow controls – 4Projects includes a simple-to-use workflow creation tool which can be used to configure and customise task processes (eg: RFIs, architects’ instructions, site instructions, technical queries, etc), including – and bearing in mind future potential Viewpoint integration – nodes that might link to ERP systems.
During the meeting and over dinner and a few drinks later, I learned more about Viewpoint, its culture and people and we discussed the potential synergies between its core ERP business and its collaboration business. Inevitably, we also talked about various competitors, their relative strengths and weaknesses and why nobody yet dominates the construction SaaS collaboration sector. Matt and his team had analysed the potential collaboration market in the US (including data from Construction Financial Management Association, CFMA IT surveys) and identified it as a real opportunity. The lack of a dominant global player, however, is not just a characteristic of the collaboration space, it is common to most, if not all, construction software disciplines, and we debated some of the reasons for this (fragmented customer bases, strongly localised or silo solutions, status quo marketing strategies, etc).
Construction document collaboration has become a commoditised product; there are numerous products on the market and the barriers to entry are relatively low. In recent years, some vendors have begun to add new functionality – Conject‘s project cost control is a good example – that was difficult for others to quickly emulate and which differentiated them from competitors, but the ‘killer’ app has yet to emerge. However, the combination of pure web-based collaboration with leading-edge BIM functionality, plus ERP, could be a game-changer, particularly for businesses focused on the construction delivery cycle (alternative strategies include lifecycle management to support post-construction asset management). ERP systems generally require a more long-term investment for construction businesses than project-focused solutions, and an integrated collaboration capability could lock more customers into its long-term adoption and use. At the same time, of course, 4Projects is also an increasingly powerful and flexible platform in its own right.
The Viewpoint/4Projects relationship is officially only about 5 weeks old but the early signs are promising. The parent company has set about building a portfolio of complementary solutions (its M&A activities may not yet be finished) so that it can offer an integrated portfolio of services that meet a wider set of customer needs and which require different software architectures. 4Projects boosts its SaaS credentials – attractive to investors, currently – and builds its understanding of end-users’ BIM needs. BIM adoption will, almost inevitably, result in greater sharing of scheduling and cost data during construction delivery, so the ability to exchange data between project environments and corporate back-office finance systems will be attractive to customers.
[Disclosure: 4Projects paid my travel and accommodation expenses to meet with the team.]