Live from GroupBC user conference 2017

GroupBC #GBCconf17Today, I am at the user conference of GroupBC, previously Business Collaborator, at the Coin Street Conference Centre in London’s South Bank – and will be updating during the day. As well as an overview of recent company and software developments, the day will see presentations from customers Thames Water, Sainsbury’s and Balfour Beatty, plus partners CEMAR and PCSG.

10:15am BST – CEO Sanjeev Shah has welcomed people to the day, and he updated delegates about progress since the November 2014 management buy-out. As previously posted, GroupBC revenues are growing – up 72% since the MBO – with 21 new named customers added (including Sainsbury’s, Kier and WSP). The latest release of the core software platform, BC 7.0 (“a common data environment for engineering collaboration on documents, data and geometry – that’s it! A pre-requisite to BIM Level 2 and essential for ‘Better Information Management”), is the result of over 22 man-years of development, and new sofware release cycles are down to three months.

Sales and marketing director Stuart Bell highlighted the integration potential of the core product – showing how it can be the glue between numerous different products throughout the built asset life-cycle. He talked about changing technologies (PropTech, the Internet of Things), but admitted the reality for many people is still focused around documents, while GDPR and cyber-security are posing new organisational challenges. “The power of location” is a new opportunity, he said, talking about moving from chaos to control (control of documents, data and spatial information), and showed elements of an ongoing rebranding process within the company. GroupBC remains committed to open standards and interoperability, integrations, accessibility and mobility, usability and security, Bell said.

10:25am BST – Head of account management Gavin O’Neill followed Stuart (having also followed Stuart from Union Square to GroupBC). He explained why he felt passionate about collaboration and digital construction, drawing on past project experiences (in one, a helicopter, rather than a crane, had to be used to lift ventilation equipment onto a building as an unanticipated result of design changes). What’s changed? He says we have better hardware and software, sensors, cloud hosting, AR/VR, etc – but we are generating even larger volumes of information, and not always collaborating better. This is where GroupBC can help, he says, talking about GDPR (the company has established a special interest group on this), but inviting suggestions of other areas customers are concerned about.

The BC 7.0 developments

11:20am BST – CTO Stephen Crompton presented BC 7.0, a step-change since BC 6.1 was launched in December 2011, he said. Web services integrations (with Sharepoint and Unit4’s ERP system, for example) were being developed by December 2013 (before the MBO), and then from 2014 onwards, GroupBC began intense development of its platform’s BIM capabilities – with clash detection within a browser delivered in 2015. As customer demands for new functionality grew, the business decided to do “a new shiny update, absolutely packed with tools, to help you do your jobs better” and, after two years, “BC 7.0 is finally here”.

Head of user experience, Paul Houghton looked back to the “pre-Google” days of Business Collaborator, when it was full of buttons, and the “Graphite” interface introduced with version 6.1 in 2011. This was never designed for mobile devices, so a separate, simpler interface had to be developed. Today, he introduced BC 7.0 or “Quartz” – a new “crystal clear” user experience that is less cluttered and more intuitive – “on any device, anywhere and by anyone (from novices to expert users)”. Neat enhancements include thumbnail previews of photos that show the file-size so users are warned about items that are slow to download. The full power of BC has also been refined for tablet and smartphone use, optimised for touch, and allowing users to create and send workflows. Workflows are now much more like emails when sending documents – Beta testing feedback elicited a customer comment: “we don’t need to use email for project documents anymore”. Before finishing, Houghton also mused about the future user experience potential for voice activation, NFC, wearables, VR and AR, and machine learning.

Crompton did a live demo of BC 7.0, which “starts with the end in mind,” he said. “Being able to cut through to the key information you need is really important,” and in 15 minutes showed a lot of new features. He quickly navigated to a page about a project set up for the conference venue in Coin Street, created a new project, added suppliers, dragged and dropped (BS1192-compliant filenamed) documents into the project, imported metadata, then created a workflow (issue for comment), and added placeholders for requested drawings, before then reviewing and marking up the drawings, and comparing different versions in the browser.

Thames Water customer story

12:30pm BST – Paul Meredith of Thames Water talked about use since 2005 of BC at the utility, which manages around £1bn of capital investment work annually, with an alliance, “eight2O” of eight businesses delivering the current AMP6 five year programme. In Thames, BC is TWEXnet and is the contractual common data environment for eight2O.

The Graphite version of TWEXnet was “quite scary” to new users at Thames Water, Meredith said (also showing the company’s BC Assure module). When Quartz was initially discussed with him, he wanted to be sure that it didn’t deter existing users, so first impressions were important, as well as improving the whole user experience. Reducing support and training costs was an objective, as well as providing a new platform for new functionality and eventual PAS 1192 compliance, and providing a common interface across all devices.

Thames has three options to roll-out Quartz: soft (leaving Graphite as default with Quartz as an option), transitional (change the default at a future date) and hard. Meredith showed the Thames implementation of Quartz, where the configurable landing screen features a number of icons including: getting started, news, an Eight2O ‘common room’, programmes, projects (usually the most widely used), sites (drawing data from internal Thames systems), functions, map, BC Assure, and a solutions hub. The default TWEXnet interface will be changed to Quartz in about a month’s time.

Meredith then talked further about the map function – aka GeoLink or GeoConnect+ – helping Thames identify risks such as where its projects might be adjacent to listed buildings or sites of special scientific interest – presenting lots of geographical data (legal, administrative, natural and environmental risks, plus information about other projects). GeoLink presents rich sources of GIS data in one coherent, easily searchable interface; GIS data sources include internal databases, licensed third parties, and publicly available open data. So far, about 80% of Thames projects are loaded into the system, all represented by coloured dots (depending on their type) in the application, and can be displayed in the context of a wide assortment of other data (listed buildings, ancient woodland, nature reserves, areas of outstanding natural beauty, flood plains, heritage, local authority boundaries, etc). Users can quickly navigate to particular projects and then drill into the Quartz app.

14:30pm BST – After lunch, CTO Steve Crompton talked “all about the future” (and modules and integrations). He stressed that BC is about providing a configurable, extensible platform., highlighting its process compliance and viewing tools. BC Assure is one of the modules that can be used to extend core BC capability, but it is easily adaptable, recognising real-life challenges: people don’t like change, people don’t like being told what to do, “our project is different”, etc. The BC model viewer “allows the entire supply chain to navigate, check and contribute to the Digital Twin” – and a new BIM viewer (v1.2.1) has just been released.

Modules and integration

Paid-for additional modules include the market-leading Adobe Sign, avoiding the need for wet signatures as manual steps in otherwise digital processes. SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language – an open standard for exchanging authentication and authorisation data between parties) enables users to work with a single set of login credentials (eg: Office365), while two-factor authentication provides an additional layer of security for sensitive information stored in a CDE.

Nick Woodrow, COO of CEMAR, then described how this secure SaaS contract management solution could be used to complement BC and manage NEC contract processs (see this blog post). It is currently being used to manage over £100bn worth of major projects, he said. Integration makes sense, with single sign-on, better audit trails, less double-handling of information, connecting to relevant associated data, driving actions between applications (eg: payment applications in CEMAR driving payment processes in SAP), and sharing reporting analytics. A BC-CEMAR Connector is now available as an optional module for the platform.

‘Coming soon’

Crompton talked repeatedly about connecting data in the future. Increasingly, the application will be developed to be mobile, device-independent and interoperable, and new capabilities will be added to BC in regular quarterly releases. BC 7.1 is now in testing, with enhanced security compliance (BC is moving from Unit4 facilities to Secura) and lower process overheads. Mass geolocation services are also being developed, and the reporting capabilities will be enhanced in BC 7.2.

In another live demo GroupBC showcased the incorporation of 3D viewing of information as part of the GeoConnect+ module, importing KML data from Google Earth – something developed by BC customer Mackley to manage coastal defence projects. Icons on map views were used as hyperlinks into the BC application for drawings and photographs. Sanjeev Shah showed how a 3D model could be placed into a map view so that users can then see it in context and access related information about the surrounding area.

Sainsbury’s customer story

15:00pm BST – Mike Barber, Sainsbury’s property information and systems development manager, talked about Sainsbury’s “digital estate” and its BIM adoption journey. The “Digital estate” is a digital enabler, letting people get information quickly, accurately and completely, he said – critical in a business which has expanded its number of outlets rapidly both through organic growth and through acquisition. The company’s technology stack was massive, but the demand for business insights was also growing. Construction consultancy PCSG helped Sainsbury’s on the journey, particularly in relation to BIM, but Sainsbury’s also faced challenges in (re)discovering legacy information.

Sainsbury’s has been working on the BC CDE platform for 18 months (after an 18 month selection process), looking to develop a consistent approach to managing and classifying its estate data, ensuring consistent BS1192 file naming, looking at processes, and – importantly – also looking at the company culture and considering engagement and communications. Data was cleansed and imported into the company’s StoreSpace toolset, validated, then consolidated into the BC CDE, branded in Sainsbury’s as OneProperty. Auditing and maintaining the integrity of this data is now an ongoing obligation.

Balfour Beatty’s Simon Fraser presented a powerful case study on the contractor group’s implementation of BC and its use of the platform’s database tools and integration with third-party platforms (as some of the content wasn’t for public sharing, I have not covered it here). The following session was a panel/Q&A discussion with the key speakers so far, plus Adrian Burgess, technical director of PCSG. Mandating use of particular technologies was discussed at some length – with the importance of senior sponsors driving adoption underlined by Fraser, while Sainsbury’s Barber said acceptance happens if you successfully address “what’s in it for me” from the users’ perspective.

Digital Built Britain

17:15pm BST – The day finished with a keynote from PCSG’s Adrian Burgess, providing some views on BIM Level 2 and Digital Built Britain. The latter is about moving from BIM to a digital economy in infrastructure and city programmes, he said. It is aligned with the Construction 2025 strategy and its stretch targets, but he stressed this wasn’t just about BIM – it involves procurement, contracts, design for manufacture and assembly, etc. For UK government, it potentially impacts on 43% of UK GDP (if you add CapEx, Opex and service provision based on the built environment), and improvements in the UK are vital, particularly as our productivity lags behind those of rival economies (France, US, etc).

Talking about BIM Level 2, Burgess said: “What we have done so far with BIM is an enormous improvement on where we were in 2011,” citing case studies from the MoJ, Building Schools for the Future, and Crossrail programmes (“bringing in a £14.8bn programme roughly on time and budget was helped by its BS1192 adoption”). In some businesses, BIM is now business as usual, he said, and UK experiences have been echoed by similar adoption approaches in other parts of the world.

BIM Level 2 and Smart City packages will be leveraged to enable information feed-forward and feedback loops, Burgess said, enabling even greater economic output. There won’t be radical changes in the next 2-3 years, but there will be beyond 2020, he predicted, as we shift from moving documents to moving data, and interacting with centralised databases and information models. This is part of a gradual industry transition from being output-focused to being outcome-focused.

PCSG has been collaborating with GroupBC on connecting data, and Burgess talked about the GeoConnect+ project, showing how laser scan data can be used in conjunction with mapping data and BIM IFC data.

As these integrations grow, they will involve huge volumes of data, so the next generation of viewing technologies will therefore need to stream data rather than download huge single models, CTO Steve Crompton added. City-scale models may incorporate millions of polygons compared to the tens of polygons in many model files.

[Disclosure: I have provided marketing consultancy services to GroupBC.]

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