A BIM boom for SaaS collaboration vendors?

Will there be a BIM benefit for the SaaS collaboration vendors? Yes, but it will happen gradually both in the UK and internationally, and then grow bigger as more owners require ILM services.

Within UK construction IT, building information modelling (BIM) is the hot topic. Even construction software businesses that previously thought it was irrelevant (I’ve talked to a few!) are waking up to the fact that BIM will have a big impact way beyond design and construction processes. As BIM begins to change how we procure projects, appoint supply chain members, specify materials and products, and link design to scheduling (4D), to cost control (5D) and to future asset management (6D), then it becomes clear that the impacts will be way more profound than the move from manual drafting to CAD 20-25 years ago.

BIM is part of a wider industry shift

As I have pointed out many times, it is not just a technology shift. BIM is also going to involve major changes in industry structures and processes and in the roles and skills required of the people involved. There will not be a return to traditional business practices afterwards; if anything, the initial changes due to BIM will seem modest compared to some of the shake-outs that will occur as wider industry trends take effect.

constructing excellenceFor example, responding to the UK Government’s Construction 2025 strategy, Constructing Excellence‘s vision for the industry sees even more radical shifts.* It believes transactional lowest price Capex-based procurement will increasingly be ditched by the industry’s major clients in favour of best value Totex (Capex plus Opex) approaches, with the objective not just to deliver built assets but to deliver the best business outcomes for the client. Such objectives can only truly be met by building closer, more long-term working relationships, and by innovating throughout the supply chain. Collaborative working through BIM and lean thinking will be enablers for such change, says Constructing Excellence, with the industry changed forever by the constant flows of data through and between all of our businesses.

The wider trends include:

  • economic pressures (it is clear that economic deficits and austerity measures will continue to constrain capital investments for many years beyond the Global Financial Crisis)
  • social and demographic changes (ageing populations put pressure on our welfare services, and we have an emerging cohort of more mobile, web-savvy people looking for work)
  • political changes (population growth, increased literacy, and resource shortages are creating new national and international tensions)
  • environmental shifts (climate change, declining fossil fuel and other natural resources, etc)
  • technological changes (even if we just look at IT ‘disruptions’, in addition to BIM, I would pick out cloud computing, mobile telecommunications, social media and ‘Big Data’ as key trends that are changing, and will continue to change, construction)

BIM as a competitive opportunity

Nonetheless, in the more immediate future, the BIM disruption in the UK may also deliver some competitive advantages to those businesses that successfully grapple with the challenges. It will support export opportunities for many UK clients, contractors, consultants, suppliers and manufacturers – and technology providers – as we take our BIM skills, expertise and experience and turn them into services and products for new markets.

The UK BIM IT opportunity

To gauge the potential immediate impact of BIM on the UK construction industry you only need to look at the volume of projects that are required by the UK government – the primary driver of the UK BIM programme. Centrally procured projects in the UK government’s current pipeline reflect 1,886 programmes and projects covering 16 sectors with a total estimated value of £116 billion.

If we then add the private sector, repair and maintenance use, asset and facility management, and use of BIM in real estate transactions, it has been estimated by Richard Saxon (see his 2013 Construction Industry Council Growth through BIM report) that BIM-related services will impact directly on nearly 15% of UK GDP.

Of course, the BIM products market will only account for a much smaller slice of this activity, as construction has, according to Gartner, historically only invested a very modest 1.35% of revenues in IT. Past industry surveys have suggested this equates to around £1 billion per annum in the UK, but the pan-industry BIM initiative may see this increase (the shortage of BIM expertise already means professionals with appropriate skills and experience are commanding above-average salaries).

I don’t think BIM expenditure will sky-rocket though; more likely it will grow gradually:

  • BIM investment will be staggered to match the replacement cycles of existing CAD and related software and hardware, and to match the rate of use on clients’ projects. In many organisations, early adopters are trialling BIM on just a few initial test projects, with roll-out expected to grow gradually as BIM skills and capacity extends (I talked to two client organisations yesterday who were sceptical about the BIM capabilities beyond their Tier 1 contractors and consultants).
  • BIM authoring is not a universal requirement – The cost of BIM authoring applications (and associated implementation, training and familiarisation costs) to replace CAD is a major expense for many with design responsibilities, but not everyone will need to create models. As with the pre-BIM world, many supply chain partners will simply need to collaborate (access, view, comment, mark-up) upon the BIM outputs – this is where the Common Data Environment, CDE, will be key.
  • SaaS adoption lowers hardware requirements – Processing power will remain a high priority for BIM authoring, analysis and rendering applications (which may partially be met by cloud-based services rented by the hour for as long as intensive processing is required), But BIM viewing, mark-up and commenting can and will increasingly be managed through web-based tools and ‘light’ apps that can accessed on internet-connected mobile and other low-cost devices.
  • BIM in the cloudAccelerating adoption of SaaS – While there is a large installed base of conventional client/server software, SaaS solutions (and similar subscription-based approaches) spread software costs over a longer period and reduce internal IT management overheads. Existing trends away from internal electronic document management systems (EDMSs) towards externally hosted platforms will continue. Similarly, use of document-centric collaboration will, over time, shift towards owner-operator adoption of model- and data-centric SaaS ILM platforms (first CDEs, and later Level 3 or iBIM) – but there won’t be a sudden UK “BIM boom” for the SaaS vendors in 2016. More likely, there will be a gradual ramp up as centrally-procured public sector (and some early adopter private sector clients) projects start to require CDEs.
  • Whole-life data management – Owner/operator organisations are beginning to appreciate that the BIM process can provide them with asset information that they can then exploit as part of their operation and maintenance regimes, and integrate more closely with their business activities. Updating of information about these assets will become a key business requirement. However, while some organisations do have whole-life information management (aka infrastructure lifecycle management, ILM) strategies, few – if any – will yet be drawing upon data created through BIM. Only as projects pass beyond completion and handover will this BIM-based information management opportunity begin to blossom.

Exporting BIMaaS capabilities

The UK construction market, however, will also be a ‘springboard’ market. As Richard Saxon pointed out, contractors, consultants and other service providers, including software houses, with BIM capabilities, expertise and experience will have strong export potential, taking the lessons learned, best practices and tested protocols, procedures and standards to international markets keen to develop their BIM capabilities.

In mainland Europe, for example, France and Germany are following the UK BIM initiative with great interest and are likely to adopt similar processes, including making BIM mandatory for public sector projects. Further afield, in the USA, south-east Asia and Australasia, industry clients, contractors and consultants see a big opportunity to apply UK BIM learning and adapt it to their regional market requirements.

As for the UK-based SaaS collaboration vendors, approaches vary. 4Projects and Asite have been marketing their BIM capabilities for some years, and have moved beyond simple model sharing and viewing, and integration with Revit, to create sophisticated model data serving platforms. Unit4 Business Collaborator also has a strong BIM roadmap that looks beyond Level 2 BIM (I recall them talking about the semantic web and linked open data in March 2013). Others (eg: Conject, McLaren) have been slower to play their cards and demonstrate competitive BIM offerings, but as the final parts of the Level 2 jigsaw drop into place (NBS is expected to deliver its ‘BIM toolkit’ (digital Plan of Works and classification system in early 2015), they should deliver capabilities required by their BIM adopter customers. Then there are some vendors who are seemingly content to focus on 2D file-based collaboration, increasingly a commoditised product sector (with two notable recent casualties – see posts on Woobius and Cadweb).

How the BIM-savvy UK SaaS collaboration vendors successfully exploit their BIM capabilities internationally will depend on the pace of BIM adoption beyond the UK. It will depend on how different countries define their BIM requirements (hopefully the emergence of British/ISO standards will limit the scope for ‘reinventing the wheel’) and how quickly those requirements are demanded. Just as I don’t think there will be a sudden BIM bonanza arising from the UK BIM programme, I believe the international BIMaaS opportunity will also take some years to develop.

But as it grows, it will also create a new market for businesses able to support owner/operator’s long-term asset information requirements. Post-delivery and then throughout the operational life of their assets, owner/operators will need constant access to data, and will increasingly entrust the storage and management of that data, and its integration with other systems, to SaaS ILM specialists.

[* I am a member of the steering group of Constructing Excellence, and a CE collaborative working champion. Part of this post was edited during CE’s member forum yesterday in London. Conject recently (re)joined CE – it was a member in its former BIW days.]


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