In the second part of this now three-part Extranet Evolution interview with Aconex CEO Leigh Jasper (read part one), we talk about building information modelling, FM, mobile and other product development ideas.
Conject’s merger with BIW was a prolonged process, with key developments in areas such as mobile technology and BIM delayed at a time when, particularly in the UK, rival vendors were investing heavily in research and development activities. As a result, Conject lagged behind SaaS collaboration competitors such as Viewpoint (formerly 4Projects), Aconex and Asite in adding mobile applications to its portfolio (buying France’s Wapp6 in January 2014), while the same rivals were also pushing ahead with support for BIM (Conject finally entered the BIM race in March 2015, some three years after 4Projects had already started two BIM R&D projects, and a full eight years after Asite BIM was launched).
Aconex Connected BIM was launched in October 2014, and is marketed as part of the core platform, not a module for which customers have to pay extra. Jasper explained this was part of a wider digital operating system strategy:
“As it’s part of the platform, in a sense everybody uses it, but obviously to varying degrees. Some companies will use it very heavily and put lots of models into the system. Others might use it at a more shallow level. But BIM is a critical part of what we do – it wasn’t going to be something that was optional. We are putting digital building blocks together enabling us to create a collaborative operating system for the construction industry, and BIM is part of that operating system, as is mobility, how we handle documentation, workflows, cost – all these interlink…. Everything needs to be able to link to everything else.”
Jasper said he has seen growing use of Aconex for BIM, bolstered by an approach embracing open BIM standards, such as COBie, IFC and BCF (Aconex’s website features a video about BIM Collaboration Format showing how its platform can be used to share model ‘viewpoints’ generated in Solibri Model Viewer, and to manage the underlying workflows). Involved with BuildingSmart, Aconex’s open philosophy also extends to open APIs:
“The more open companies are on the market the better it will be for adoption of technology. Everything we build we put an API around it, and then our customers can look at what degree they want to integrate with internal systems or even other providers in the market.”
Aconex’s Australian domestic market is not as far advanced as the UK in BIM adoption, Jasper said, partly because the UK had benefitted from the collective incentive of a government mandate:
“Certainly there is a level of BIM adoption in Australia which compared to the US is much higher, but behind the UK and one or two European countries. In the US, BIM became really topical about three or four years ago and we need to get that back. One of the challenges in the US is that people only look at it from their point of view. BIM is one of those things that, the more that owners and contractors work together the better the results for the project team.”
BIM for FM?
We touched on asset information management (“That’s probably the next step for the industry,” Jasper said, “Owners need to be specifying early what they need and then moving towards full asset life cycle and the operations phase”). However, Aconex’s investor pitch currently stops at information handover; Jasper hadn’t detected any huge demand from customers for Aconex to develop an FM solution:
“We see FM as part of that entire story but the reality is that … in our development stack there is still a lot to do in the design and construction phase. In five years, we will have a SaaS FM product as part of the suite, but we are not actively building that at the moment. Conject had such a product, but whether that’s the tool we end up taking forward we are reviewing at the moment. It’s a bit separate to other parts of the business.”
By contrast, the functionality of Conject’s mobile tools would be retained: “We are pulling it all into one platform. Any functionality that we don’t have in Aconex Field we are pulling into our solution,” Jasper said. The company’s product development approach is not based on trying to cover every possible requirement: “We are not one for being a mile wide but an inch deep. If we are going to add a function or a module, we want to make sure it’s really good.”
Jasper summarised Aconex’s four functional priority areas as:
- deepening the collaboration tools (developments include currently extending configuration to manage packages of work)
- expanding field and mobility
- extending BIM capabilities, and
- Connected Cost (he talked about “making cost more collaborative”)
Aconex also wants to stay ahead of the game on security (in March 2017, Aconex announced it was seeking certification under the US Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, FedRAMP – something that will enable Aconex customers to win US federal government projects with advanced security compliance requirements; in the UK, it is already registered on the government’s digital marketplace, GCloud, and we briefly discussed PAS1192-5 – post). Jasper also talked about incorporating scheduling information (currently dominated by Oracle’s Primavera and MS Project) and geolocation services into the platform.
However, this isn’t all about adding functionality to attract new customers. Jasper said the business also needed to keep reminding long-standing customers and existing end-users that the once-familiar Aconex product set was constantly evolving and expanding.
(Coming soon: in the final part of this interview, Leigh Jasper talks about the growth opportunities if construction embraces digital transformation.)