Buildots: site visual data capture

Tel Aviv-based Buildots uses 360-degree wearable cameras and AI for “automated detection of schedule and design discrepancies.”

At October’s Digital Construction Week 2019 trade show in London, I spotted Israeli startup Buildots among the exhibitors. I didn’t have chance to learn more then, but the company presented at December’s COMIT community day (held in IFS‘s impressive new offices by the River Thames in Staines, west of London).

buildots-logoFounded in Tel Aviv and now with an office in London, Buildots was founded in early 2018 by Roy Danon (CEO), Yakir Sudry (CTO) and Aviv Leibovici (CPO) – who presented at the COMIT ‘wearables’ event. The three have backgrounds in computer science and electrical engineering, and all have worked for the Israeli government or  its defence force. Buildots investors include Innogy and TLV Partners.

Automated detection of schedule and design discrepancies

Aviv Leibovici - BuildotsLeibovici (right) described Buildots’ solution as “automated detection of schedule and design discrepancies.” It aims to help contractors more effectively manage the plan, execute, measure and optimise cycle – especially the measure and optimise steps. The  toolset combines data collected by 360-degree cameras worn by employees with data from project schedules and uses artificial intelligence, AI, to compare captured visual data with what is scheduled in the project programme and what has been designed. It gives “precise control of the last 5%”, Leibovici said, and enables “continuous flow assurance” – which is vital in the high density residential projects where Buildots has hitherto been focused.

Buildots data and analysis from projects undertaken in Israel was shared (I understand the firm is also working with UK contractor Balfour Beatty in London). Leibovici said wearable devices enable seamless collection of highly detailed information (visual evidence). In one walk around a single floor of a residential development, data on 2500 elements was captured. Moreover, once the data had been collected, uploaded, processed and analysed, Buildots could also help to identify missing elements  (missing power sockets, for example) or errors (eg: wall apertures that had been closed – on one project, 812 walls and 515 door openings were being created, and the toolset identified two doors had been omitted).

buildots error demoSnapshots from the visual evidence could then be used to notify contractors about defects or omissions, while also providing a visual as-built record of how and where services had been installed prior to floor, wall or ceiling finishes being applied. The Buildots Software-as-a-Service solution also provides dashboards showing percentage completion of work packages, work logs, and can be used to help schedule payments.

The quality of visual data is, of course dependent upon the quality of the 360-degree camera used. At the COMIT event, Liebovici responded to questions about the weight of the devices and battery packs, the frequency of surveys, and lighting levels. Accurate image capture is apparently easier in sunny Tel Aviv than cloudy London!

The Extranet Evolution view

HoloBuilder LogoUsing wearable or mobile devices to capture visual site data is being trialled by several contractors, alongside more conventional capture using static laser-scanning and photogrammetry equipment and techniques. Perhaps the most notable competitors to Buildots in this space are the US-based OpenSpace and Holobuilder solutions.

OpenSpace hit the headlines in August 2019 after raising US$14m in Series A funding (read Forbes article), and has integrations with Procore (OpenSpace news) and Autodesk’s BIM 360 (ditto). The technology has also been deployed in the UK: St Albans-based Lindford Consulting offers OpenSpace project recording as one of its services, for example (Update [22 January 2020] – read this BIM+ interview with Lindford’s Edward Carolan).

HoloBuilder SpotWalkHolobuilder launched its 360 Construction Documentation Solution in July 2017, for example, and has expanded in Europe and progressively extended the platform’s functionality, adding SiteAI (December 2018), a JobWalk Planner (April 2019), and – launched at Autodesk University in November 2019 – SpotWalk, the first robotic construction 360° capture solution. SpotWalk equips Boston Dynamic’s Spot robot with autonomous 360° image capturing technology, allowing customers to let Spot remotely walk around a project site and create a 360° digital record of their construction projects. US Holobuilder customer Hensel Phelps is already testing SpotWalk on its $1.2 Billion San Francisco Harvey Milk Terminal 1 Airport project.

eviFile logoIn December 2018, COMIT also hosted a demonstration of a German-built Panono 360-degree camera (post), and 3D photography and scanning by firms such as Matterport have also featured. Away from 360-degree photography, smartphone or tablet apps for progress documentation – geo-located progressive assurance – are provided by Leeds, UK-based eviFile* (May 2017 post), which has been successfully winning work on civil engineering infrastructure and utilities projects. In July 2019, eviFile announced a project with Yorkshire’s Drax power station where its technology could potentially save the generator £1m a year (read Yorkshire Post report).

[* Disclosure: I am a non-executive advisor to eviFile.]

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Newforma acquires EleVia

Newforma logo 2015Newforma, the US-based provider of hybrid (on-premise and cloud) project information management technology backed since mid 2017 by Battery Ventures, has announced the acquisition of Minneapolis-based EleVia, a financial software company for the architecture and engineering vertical market (no deal value given).

Elevia logoFounded in 2016, EleVia delivers and supports software that facilitates key financial and operational processes for the architectural and engineering markets with software modules for electronic invoicing, payables approval and tracking, A/R management and collections, forecasting, and more. These modules improve cash flow, automate tasks, improve productivity, reduce operating costs, and provide valuable insight into project performance and profitability. It prides itself on its “deep knowledge of Deltek Vision” (and VantagePoint), and claims 250 professional services customers in North America, Europe, Asia and South America.

Newforma says the acquisition widens its Project Center footprint in the AECO market with connectors  to additional industry applications, enabling a more complete offering for architecture and engineering design organisations.

Brock Philp, CEO of Newforma, says:

“EleVia’s technical prowess strengthens our commitment to solve the AECO vertical market’s unique challenges and remain at the center of all things project related with the addition of deeper solutions. We are pleased to welcome EleVia employees and customers to Newforma.  EleVia will continue its operations as they are today and continue to serve customers and partners well.

The Extranet Evolution view

In an information-centric and cost-conscious industry such as construction, adding some financial management capabilities to project information management may make sense. However, while PIM is a fairly generic function, financial management is less international, being subject to national accounting regulations and to historical industrial practices and processes that are often quite specific to local and/or vertical markets. Assuming Newforma plans to integrate EleVia capabilities into its PIM platform or does some cross-selling, in the UK, for example, it faces strong competition from well-established UK-based rivals such as COINS, Redsky IT, Causeway and Eque2.

Prior to Battery Ventures’ involvement, Newforma was strongly pushing a connections strategy (see September 2016 post: Newforma gets connected). This latest deal seemingly overlaps Newforma more with Deltek, another US-based AEC ERP business, which in July 2016 acquired a Newforma competitor, the UK-based Union Square.  Deltek could perhaps be wondering if Newforma is now going to be targeting its combined ERP/PIM customers. Interesting times.

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AI in construction: chatbots for marketing and training

Applying artificial intelligence and machine learning in construction might involve using chatbots for lead generation on building trade websites, as well as for training.

I have been talking about artificial intelligence and construction sporadically for some time, and a news release about a new UK service for lead generation in the building trade reminded me about both recent and past conversations about chatbots and natural language processing.


Leadoo logoLeadoo, a 40-strong Finnish lead generation martech company based in Helsinki, has launched its interactive chatbot in the UK (a chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate an intelligent conversation with one or more human users via auditory or textual methods).

In uncertain times (Brexit, anyone?), Leadoo believes the chatbot will generate an average of between 30 – 100% increase on lead conversions for businesses in the building trade (targeting a similar market to two other startups recently covered in Extranet Evolution, Buildiro—post and Snaffle—post); Leadoo chatbots are generating leads for a Nordic roofing company, and you can talk to one to download the case study. It advocates using chatbots to take better care of website visitors, turning them into leads and potentially increasing online sales (average website conversion rates vary between zero and 1%).

Leadoo founder and CEO Mikael da Costa says:

Mikael da Costa - Leadoo CEO“Leadoo brings website content alive! Our chatbots activate passive website visitors, who represent over 90% of all traffic, by providing a two-way conversation between the visitor and the site which converts them into leads. In our experience in other markets in Europe, we find that all aspects of the building trade – including tradespeople, suppliers and merchants – can benefit from our bots.”

“We believe it’s the perfect time for us to enter the UK and achieve a return on the investment that businesses have already made in their websites.  The building trade spends an enormous amount of time, money and energy attracting visitors to their sites only for them to lose interest – for every 100 visitors, less than one would typically convert.  We are going to help UK businesses overcome this challenge.”

Leadoo believes it can help any company so long as they have enough website visitors to make it worthwhile.  It’s then a matter of ensuring that the interactive help matches with a visitor’s thoughts and expectations, which makes it twice as likely they will convert into a lead.

Leadoo inpagebotDepending on a company’s requirements, Leadoo can implement different bots including ModalBots, VideoBots and InpageBots, the latter being hugely successful. Leadoo says InpageBots sit as a natural part of website content, do not distract or interrupt the visitor, and have a 6x higher engagement rate than traditional chatbots as they ask just the right questions at the right place and time.

Leadoo aims to keep its processes and customer service as simple and responsive as possible and aims to have a client signed up and working in two weeks. There are three packages starting from £399 per month (annual contract) for use of one of the Leadoo bots (Modal, Chat or Video for example).


Daden logoConversations about chatbots reminds me of Birmingham, UK-based Daden (who still send me their newsletters). Almost a decade ago (see March 2010 post), when BIM was still at an early stage in its UK roll-out, they were pushing the boundaries of Second Life, a web-accessed virtual reality application, for a variety of construction industry scenarios. In March 2011, Daden felt virtual worlds could be used in planning, in consultation, for project collaboration, for building user feedback, to model use by wheelchair users, to model services for future maintenance needs, to show different environmental conditions, to test security strategies, to identify building navigation issues, for simulation and training purposes, etc. Many of these scenarios were also being tested on real projects, supporting design activities relating to the new Library of Birmingham, for example.

Daden imageIn addition to immersive learning and ‘Trainingscapes‘,  Chatbots were then an early part of their online toolset and over the past decade Daden has been exploring how such tools might be used internally for employee coaching, knowledge management, virtual tutors and customer service. This latter application is therefore similar to Leadoo. Meanwhile, last week at the LondonBuild show, I also talked to Botmore’s Aydin Ozcekic, CEO of Botmore Technology, who has been developing a ‘construction digital assistant’ combining project data, sensor-derived data (the ‘internet of things’) and interactive chatbot technologies, using natural language processing techniques (see February 2019 post: AI, Machine Learning, construction and bots) – also being exploited by HiveMap (post), whose co-founder Torsten Wolter was also at LondonBuild.

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Is contech a subset of proptech (or vice-versa)?

Some writers seem to regard contech as a small subset of proptech, but data created during asset delivery will be a foundation for many future proptech transactions.

I recently subscribed to a proptech newsletter from James Dearsley’s online community Unissu, wanting to understand a little more about how the real estate world is developing, using and potentially being disrupted by new technologies.

JLL State of ConstructionMy interest was partly stimulated by realisation that the UK architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is increasingly being exhorted to think about the whole life value of the built assets it creates (see the 2018 UK Government Construction Deal, for example, and the Construction Leadership Council’s 2018 Procuring for Value report). And recent UK attention on the potential of ‘digital twins’ also underlines the connection to be made (literally!) between the digital delivery of built assets and their design, construction, operation, maintenance and use in real life (read post). I subsequently had an interesting conversation with James Dearsley about my views of proptech versus contech – and I was reminded of this recently by a Unissu newsletter link to a blog post by US writer Logan Nagel: PropTech and ConTech Aren’t So Far Apart (stimulated by a US State of Construction Technology report from Jones Lang LaSalle).

Proptech v contech

As a technology consultant and analyst, I have watched the AEC sector shift from being a largely paper-based analogue world in the late 1980s to one where digital transformation is now widely discussed. Suffering from decades of under-investment in ICT, construction currently has low levels of digitisation – as repeated analyses from the McKinsey Global Institute have shown – with other market sectors far more advanced. MGI’s European study puts construction bottom of the table.

Industry digitisation in EuropeReal estate, by contrast, sits mid-table. However, it is one of the worse sectors in terms of its “digital asset stock” (basically, the extent to which its assets incorporate digital technologies and are digitally connected, and how far its firms are data-enabled). This is perhaps to be expected: the real estate market operates with buildings that may have been built decades, even centuries ago, and retrofitting legacy buildings with new digital technologies is a relatively slow and expensive process. MGI’s assessment of European real estate sector, though, also says that while it is relatively under-digitised, it has some digital disruptors. These operate in the proptech space.

Common definitions of proptech describe it as digitising property management using a variety of smart technologies to enable financial and information transactions, to manage properties and related documentation, and to provide research and analytics. There has been significant investment in tools to digitise the sale, purchase or rental of residential or commercial properties, for example, and also in managing the associated financing, insurances and contracts – areas where proptech overlaps with professional services and with financial technologies, fintech.

In terms of size, the global real estate market – in 2016, the residential market was worth some US$170 trillion, while the commercial real estate market was worth over US$32 trillion – dwarfs global construction output: US$10.8 trillion. Similarly, investment in proptech has outstripped investment in contech. It is perhaps understandable, then, that some commentators see contech as a much smaller subset of proptech.

Proptech push/pull

However, perhaps we should regard the two areas as complementary: one pushing data, the other pulling it? Construction is, after all, more than just buildings, and it is an activity that precedes real estate occupation and use.

First, if we remove the ‘real estate blinkers’ and look at the bigger picture, we can see that construction is not just about buildings. It also includes extensive developments in infrastructure including transportation and utilities. Investment in such infrastructure, often with longer life-spans, is critical to the success and continued value of real estate projects. So, if we regard infrastructure as the necessary foundation for successful buildings, perhaps we should be adopting a more holistic view of the built environment than one which is mainly focused on ‘property’.

Second, increasingly digitised planning, design, construction, commissioning and handover processes involve capturing, creating and developing rich data about our built assets – data which will often find itself being reused for post-construction activities. For example, cloud-based collaboration platforms, reality capture tools, building information modelling (BIM) processes, geospatial data, and embedded sensor technologies are now being used to create the digital foundations for future owner-operator or end-user interactions with their surrounding built environment.

In the aftermath of London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, creating a digital “golden thread” of information about our built assets from planning through to occupation and eventual demolition may well become obligatory. And looking ahead, strategic decision-making about future built asset investments will be informed by economic, social and environmental insights made possible by securely connected ‘Digital Twin’ capabilities.

Third (and following on from the previous point), efficient planning, design and construction of built assets will have a direct bearing on how rapidly they deliver a return on investment and on how well they perform as (data-rich) assets. With asset owner-operators able to ascertain the energy efficiency and space utilisation of their buildings, the productivity of their people, and the real-time costs of maintenance activities (among and other metrics) – in short, the value created – they will be in a better position to define their future asset needs (and associated information requirements), while also providing a feedback loop to designers and constructors about how well they contributed to the asset’s value.

This enables a virtuous circle in which data – initially created by designers and constructors, then expanded and extended by owner-operators – evidences the opportunities to continuously improve asset delivery processes. By moving from digitisation – the replacement of analogue processes by digital approaches – to digitalisation – “changing the business model and providing new revenue and value-producing opportunities” (to paraphrase Gartner’s definition) – asset owners and their asset delivery teams will use technology to enable new forms of digital business, while eroding the distinction currently made between ‘contech’ and ‘proptech’.

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Hivemap startup pins hopes on cloud analytics

London-based startup Hivemap launched in early 2019, and is trying to disrupt the construction collaboration market by a focus on business data analytics.

New Civil Engineer’s TechFest event in September 2019 featured a ‘Dragons’ Den’ style contest between five early stage technology businesses. Alongside the relatively mature EviFile* (see post) was a London-based company which only launched its solution in early 2019, and which is trying to disrupt the collaboration market by its focus on analytics and business intelligence.

Hivemap logoHivemap was incorporated in 2018 by Matt Hobby, a former healthcare analytics specialist, and Torsten Wolter, a former product and business leader at Amazon, who felt they could apply insights gained from trying to solve problems for software teams to other industry sectors. And with insights from advisors including former Bechtel executives with experience of launching AEC software products in the US (Rhumbix – November 2017 post – was mentioned), construction was selected as Hivemap’s initial target industry in late 2018.

Hivemap’s target market

Matt HobbyTorsten WolterHivemap is targeting medium-sized projects in the £5m to £50m bracket – schemes, Hobby (left) said, often undertaken by SME main contractors run by ambitious 30-something construction professionals. These are often frustrated by the sheer volume of reports, spreadsheets, emails and other communications – Wolter (right) says “Hivemap helps project leaders focus on the crunch points.  No need to read lengthy reports and emails. This means better and faster actions“.

They believe many managers are not helped by cumbersome document management platforms, by new “voodoo” technologies (drones, AR/VR, etc) or by the Luddite attitudes of many SME business owners in an ageing industry. Some ten years on from the first wave of mobile-first application developers (SmartBuilder, Woobius – post), Hobby says a younger generation of entrepreneurs want to set up their own businesses and apply the kinds of agile, intuitive mobile and social media tools they have grown up with. He sees construction as being at an inflection point – “45% of the industry is aged under 35” – and believes the time is right to launch a new generation of project management and coordination services underpinned by rich analytics.

A prototype minimum viable product was launched in January 2019 to elicit feedback from use on a residential development in Yorkshire. This prompted a major overhaul of the user interface, and Hivemap is now at what Hobby described as a Beta test stage, looking for new users to road-test the latest version of the system.

Coordination and insight

Hobby says Hivemap seeks to resolve a trio of strongly connected problems arising from disjointed project information common in fragmented multi-disciplinary, multi-company project delivery teams:

  • Poor and/or slow decision-making: most projects generate huge volumes of documents – daily reports, quality assurance documentation, health and safety reviews, plans and programmes, etc – and, for many projects, email is a poor way of connecting people to this data
  • Opaque logistics: The supply and delivery of materials, components, plant and equipment to sites is poorly managed
  • Legal disputes: Owners, consultants, contractors and suppliers can sometimes find themselves embroiled in time-consuming arbitration processes relating to project time and schedule overruns or quality issues (many small contractors, Hobby said, stand a more than even chance of becoming involved in at least one arbitration if they work on a typical projects over a five-year period).

Of course, there are SaaS/mobile solutions that solve one, or sometimes more than one of these problems, but, after talking to 100s of businesses, Hobby said he had yet to find one using a solution that could manage all three. Moreover, he said the commercial delivery models of existing solutions does not reflect where the value is added (collaboration platform license fees calculated on a small percentage – say 0.8% – of project capital value are commonly deployed on UK projects, he said).


Hivemap issuesThe basic project management features of Hivemap are provided free of charge. Documents, drawings and forms can be uploaded to the system and accessed by authorised team members via a standard web browser (native mobile applications are in development, applying a WhatsApp style interface to encourage near real-time conversations, while retaining records of who did – and said – what and when). A mindmap-style interface is easy to navigate; users can define shared team and private spaces, populate these spaces with project-related content, manage a range of common industry workflows (including progress on ordering and taking delivery of materials, etc), and rapidly create reports via a drag-and-drop report builder.

And as well as standard tabular reports and barcharts, Hivemap can present analysis in other formats: network diagrams and word-clouds, for example, showing clusters of issues arising in, say, design, procurement or project communication. If a business encounters a problem, the core system does more than provide the documentary background. Hivemap’s selling point is its analytics toolset that can be used to identify the root causes of changes, delays, budget overruns, defects, health and safety problems, etc. Particularly where these might cause legal disputes, Hobby says its customers are happy to pay for the analytical insights; using natural language processing (NLP) to search through ingested information, the core platform’s algorithm is constantly learning from 1000s of exchanges, searches and queries run by previous and current users. Wolter says there are lots of tools that are good at quantitative analysis, but few make sense of the language used in projects to identify the critical pain points.

The Extranet Evolution view

In some respects, Hivemap shares similarities with the kind of business intelligence (BI) generated by Autodesk’s Construction IQ platform (see BIM is not Big Data). However, Hivemap is making that kind of insight available to SMEs, not just large Tier One contractors (who might pay for it as an additional paid-for service on top of their common data environment, CDE). In the currently highly fragmented construction market (one in five of the UK’s SMEs work in construction – over 300,000 UK businesses), that means there is a lot of untapped potential, and many share Hobby’s frustration with spreadsheets and email (as, for example, did the founders of another London startup, Aphex – post)

Hivemap is at a very early stage in its development, and while it was unsuccessful in its bid to win at the NCE TechFest, Hobby said the experience confirmed the cloud analytics capability set it apart from other solutions.

The pricing model is potentially disruptive. Collaborative information management via the web is a mature market with a lot of UK and overseas suppliers of both generic and AEC-specific solutions. There were at least a dozen at Digital Construction Week in London, 16-17 October 2019 – I noted Asite, Atvero, Autodesk (and Plangrid), Bentley, BuilderStorm, Clearbox, Dalux, Glider, GroupBC, iBinder, Kreo, LetsBuild, Procore, RIB and Viewpoint, to name just a few). SaaS/mobile document management is therefore something of a commodity (Wolter used the phrase “red ocean”: cut-throat competition in existing industries turning the ocean bloody red) and, in an enormously price-sensitive target segment like SME contractors, a ‘freemium’ model could be very appealing (it’s a route also taken by Kreo – see November 2019 post).

[* Disclosure: I am a non-executive advisor to eviFile.]

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Plangrid: Slow digital adoption hampers productivity

Slow adoption of digital technology on the construction site continues to hamper the productivity of UK construction firms says a PlanGrid report, while another UK report suggests digital transformation is well advanced. The industry’s digital maturity needs to be more rigorously assessed.

A recent survey of UK construction professionals suggests productivity is being held back by the same challenges as 12 months ago, with slow adoption of onsite digital technology a key challenge. Sixty per cent of businesses say that a lack of trust between contractors and subcontractors often impacts their performance.

Conducted in partnership with Construction Manager magazine, the Autodesk report is based on an August 2019 online survey of 251 UK construction professionals, and follows a similar survey undertaken by PlanGrid (prior to its November 2018 US$875m acquisition by Autodesk) in May 2018 (read: Plangrid report highlights industry inertia).

Plangrid Digital Groundwork report coverAccording to Digital Groundwork: Closing the Productivity Gap, half of businesses say that dealing with mistakes remains the most unnecessary resource drain on the business. As in 2018, issues with information-sharing onsite are causing delays and wider operational challenges. Survey responses revealed three in ten firms (28%) are being hindered by a lack of accurate and timely information, with half (55%) of professionals pointing to inefficient processes across the business. Misinformation leads to businesses spending time and money fixing mistakes; half of the firms surveyed day that rework is the single biggest time-waster in the organisation, with errors alone costing the UK industry an estimated £22bn a year (according to the UK’s Get it Right Initiative; see also May 2019 post: PlanGrid tech targets Brexit delays).

Construction firms are still struggling to collaborate effectively, without a source of shared and reliable information; 60% of businesses say that a lack of trust between contractors and subcontractors often impacts their performance. All of this comes at a time when using labour productively has never been more important, as professionals highlight that a lack of skills (40%) and talent shortages (39%) are major barriers to their organisation.

These challenges reflect the slow adoption of digital technology by UK firms. The majority of construction businesses continue to use paper drawings and documentation, as only 13% use digital technology for three quarters of their projects or more. A fifth (19%) say all of their projects are entirely paper-based – a figure that has barely improved since 2018 (22%).

PlanGrid says there has been progress in adopting some technologies, such as file-sharing tools like Dropbox to access drawings (74%; the two graphics below show the survey results for 2018 (top) and 2019 (bottom), albeit from two different samples). However, the tools don’t appear to be making it into the hands of people onsite.

Plangrid productivity report graphic 2018

2018 survey results

Plangrid Digital Groundwork 2019 graphic

2019 survey results

A growing digital divide

Matt Keen, a construction industry strategist with Autodesk Construction Solutions, says:

“Twelve months ago, we saw that sharing key project information on paper was leading to delays, costly mistakes and even conflict at UK construction firms. Unfortunately, these issues continue to hamper productivity. Construction businesses are slow to adopt digital technology where the work is actually done, on live projects. At a time when talent is scarce it’s more important than ever to ensure time – and people – are used productively, not addressing issues or looking for project data.”

There are even signs of a growing digital divide between those construction firms who invest strategically in technology and those who buy technology on an ad hoc basis, if they do so at all. A quarter of businesses (26%) admit to having a complete absence of technology strategy, while most businesses (36%) simply buy tools on an impromptu basis. Meanwhile, only 50% of professionals say that improving digital skills will be a focus for the business over the next three years. Keen continues:

“For our customers, adopting technology across their business can improve productivity on every project – but it can also improve the long-term competitiveness of each UK construction firm. Businesses can deliver thorough, as-built digital handovers with ease, improve how they work with other stakeholders and even use data in their operations to improve profitability. The global construction industry is being transformed by technology. UK firms can reap the benefits, if they look beyond short-term challenges, address their productivity gaps and lay a digital groundwork for the future.”

Bricks, Mortar and Digital Transformation

Such surveys will confirm many industry insiders’ anecdotal views on technology adoption, and this latest PlanGrid report paints a somewhat gloomy view of the construction sector’s digital transformation.

How would you define digital transformationNot all surveys do this though. In August 2019, for example, I received a copy of Rochdale, UK-based IT services provider Zen‘s survey, Bricks, Mortar and Digital Transformation (read blog post). It polled 100 IT decision makers across the UK construction sector (“a spectrum of construction professionals from engineers to house builders and architects to sub-contractors” – again one might query how representative such a survey sample might be). It found four in five (83%) of construction companies had either completed a digital transformation project or had one currently underway, but identified a stark difference between the approaches of SMEs and larger companies, with the latter well ahead on their digital journey (94% vs 72%). It said “almost one in 10 (8%) SMEs are at risk of being left behind”. Two fifths (44%) of construction companies claimed to have completed their digital transformation (how ever that is defined – see right) while 87% believed it will be completed in under five years – as Zen point out, this suggests a short-sighted approach to digitalisation rather than seeing it as a constantly evolving part of business strategy.

The Zen research also polled its sample’s larger businesses about the technologies currently being deployed and those likely to be adopted in the next five years. Cloud computing figures in both the 2019 and 2024 lists, while AI and IoT are already in 2019’s top three, with blockchain not far behind (really?!) – findings which may suggest a certain disconnect between the “IT decision-makers” in larger companies (often career IT people rather than construction professionals) and those working on project sites.

Zen research - tech trends

The Extranet Evolution perspective

As previously argued in relation to the NBS Annual BIM Reports and its Technology Report (see Construction Technology Report 2019: the designers’ view), such surveys often stimulate more questions than they answer.

Small and/or unrepresentative samples can wildly skew results in strange directions, and they can rarely be seen as a definitive picture of the current state of an industry comprising 100s of thousands of businesses engaged across a wide range of architecture, engineering, construction and operational activities. Technology adoption also varies within different construction markets (housebuilding is often seen as the least technologically advanced) and at different levels of the supply chain (the Zen report highlights differences between larger firms and SMEs, for example). Attitudes to technology will vary depending upon the company, age, experience and role of the survey respondent; understanding of key terms can vary widely; and it can be difficult to distinguish between answers reflecting current realities and those relating to future aspirations or a desire not to be seen as ‘laggards’.

Moreover, one also has to consider the motivations of the construction technology survey sponsors. They are not engaged in academic research demanding rigorous approaches to sampling, etc; they are usually mainly concerned with achieving enough responses to generate some headlines and maybe to persuade current or prospective customers to invest more in the applications and services they provide (onsite mobile apps, for instance). Successful adoption of digital technologies is not just about the hard/software – it is overwhelmingly influenced by cultural factors: people and process issues are more important (the PlanGrid research rightly highlights trust factors).

More measured approaches are needed to understand the industry’s digital maturity. At the September 2019 National Digital Twin Day at the Institution of Civil Engineers, for example, Mott MacDonald presented findings from its Smart Infrastructure Index toolset presented in a report entitled Common Challenges, Shared Response (read more about the findings and their implications in this October 2019 Infrastructure Intelligence article: A workforce fit for the future?). Mott MacDonald said 70% of respondents believed digital skills gaps were poorly understood. Wider use of such tools to ascertain the digital competency of an organisation’s people and of the industry at large is needed – take the survey here.

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RIB continues M&A programme

Germany’s RIB Software has invested in another India-based software business, bought a German business intelligence specialist, and acquired an Australian reseller.

RIB software logoStuttgart, Germany-based RIB Software, provider of enterprise software for the building, construction and real estate industries, has made a flurry of recent announcements, including another investment in an India-based software business, the purchase of a German business intelligence specialist, and a new reseller acquisition in Australasia. RIB says it is on target to complete 14 M&A deals in 2019.

Indian AI investment

RIB has invested up to US$2m in a convertible loan agreement with SoftTech Engineers, an Indian publicly listed software company, with the right to convert into shares within the next 18 months. This investment comes just weeks after RIB Group’s investment to take a 15% stake in Indian IoT and AI specialist Winjit (post).

SoftTech logoSoftTech is a global leader for building permit automation software. Its AutodDCR product provides an automated building plan approval management system as a precursor to BIM, its products reduce the cost and time required by architects and government authorities in mapping building codes and delivering approvals for construction. Its proprietary suite of software solutions read 2D or 3D CAD drawings, as well as BIM files, and automatically map them onto government building regulations.

SoftTech has offices in the US (Virginia) and Finland (Helsinki), and over 550 employees in India (its HQ is in Pune). Apart from its core offerings, SoftTech also sells PWIMS (Public Works Information Management System) – an enterprise resource planning (ERP) application  for government-run municipal corporations, which also features as OPTICON for the private sector (ERP for general contractors and developers/project owners). SoftTech is currently working on “Rule Buddy” – an algorithmic engine for mapping building codes based on machine learning and deep learning approach (AI).

In the last five years, SoftTech has consistently achieved EBITDA margins exceeding 20% on double-digit compounded annual revenue growth. It plans to enhance its existing 20,000 user base through new products and rapid international expansion. At the same time, RIB gains superior competitive advantage by incorporating a unique product into its MTWO/iTWO portfolio globally.

Vijay Gupta, Chairman and CEO – SoftTech Engineers Limited: “Ever since the foundation of SoftTech, more than 20 years ago, we have been working on the transformation of AEC industry. With RIB, we are aligning ourselves with a larger organization that can help us achieve our strategic goal of international expansion and growing our user base. Our existing and next generation products are intelligent, cloud-based and collaborative and fit perfectly into RIB’s MTWO platform strategy.”

Tom Wolf, CEO – RIB Software SE: “The automation and digitalization of building permits represents a huge opportunity for the AEC industry to increase efficiency and speed of execution. With our iTWO technology, we look at the construction process holistically and we are proud to have found in SoftTech a cutting-edge innovator for transferring 2D or 3D CAD based drawings digitally into building approvals. SoftTech’s solutions are key building blocks in our MTWO platform strategy to offer innovate SaaS solutions to our clients.”

RIB buys datapine BI developer

Datapine laptop imageRIB Software has acquired 75.05% of Berlin, Germany-based datapine.  Founded in 2012, datapine is a successful and profitable business intelligence (BI) start-up serving over 200 clients and 5,000 users in 25 countries. By adding the datapine BI solution to the RIB MTWO Platform, RIB says its iTWO users can quickly integrate multiple systems of data for analysis purposes: “The target is that the user can digest all relevant information in one minute over the dashboard, which comes from a single source of truth database.” In 2019, RIB Group plans to establish a worldwide, leading business intelligence solution center for the building industry in Berlin.

Datapine logoJakob Rehermann, founder and management shareholder of datapine: “The focus of RIB on re-platforming the building industry vertical in using artificial intelligence (AI) fits perfectly into the datapine strategy and philosophy. The RIB investment in datapine marks a milestone for our leading international team of data scientists, data analysts, and IT experts in our young company history and confirms our strong market position, emphasizing our technology leadership in innovative BI solutions. The future focus on 100,000 RIB clients worldwide and on the building vertical which represents 10 trillion USD annual revenue opens up a once in a lifetime opportunity because the demand is now stemming a high growth phase in this industry vertical.”

Michael Sauer, executive board member of RIB Group: “We are excited to be ‘running together’ with the BI champions from datapine. Our global teams will build together in 2019 an advanced, intelligent, and intuitive iTWO Data Visualization creating interactive, easy to use, management boards. This will give customers the ability to build data-based business solutions to improve productivity. Everybody can become a data expert. Building together with datapine will increase RIB’s competence in Business Intelligence in the building vertical to the highest level and empower RIB clients with value added MTWO Platform and iTWO Technology.”

Australasian reseller deal

Following investments in software resellers in the UK (CadlineApril 2019 post – and CCS UKJuly 2019 post), India (CapricotAugust 2019 post), and the US (U.S. CADJune 2019 post) to grow the market for RIB’s MTWO software platform and other products in the growing RIB portfolio, RIB has announced the AU$2.764m (c. US$1.91m, £1.48m or €1.72m) purchase of Redstack to expand its position in the Australasian market.

Redstack logoHeadquartered in Adelaide, South Australia with another office in Melbourne, Redstack is a well-established reseller of Autodesk and other software to building, construction and manufacturing markets in Australia with over 21 years’ experience. MD Michael Lachs says: “There is a great many synergies between the two businesses, and it made a lot of sense to bring the two together.” The business will roll into RIB’s majority-owned A2K brand.

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Kreo freemium model grows user base

London-based Kreo has adopted a Freemium model to grow early adoption of its SaaS BIM software.

Kreo logoJust over a year since launching (post), London-based startup Kreo‘s cloud-based software platform supporting building information modelling (BIM) using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning has started to grow a strong user base. One factor has been its adoption of a “freemium” model to access the software, with 100 new users starting to use the software in one month.

The company had a small stand at Digital Construction Week in October 2019. It has also been nominated for several construction innovation awards in 2019, including the NCE TechFest awards, the BIMToday building innovation awards, the London Construction Awards (part of London Build), and Germany’s Tech Start-Up.

Kreo ‘freemium’ model

Kreo View screengrabKreo has decided that ‘freemium’ is the way forward: making the Kreo platforms completely free for a limited number of projects. This allows professionals to test the technology without having to commit to any payment. Within a month it says it signed up over 100 new active users across Kreo Plan, Takeoff and Design. Kreo Design is attracting particular interest, with users drawn by its cost estimation, integration with Autodesk’s Revit, and architectural reporting features, the company says

Most users are UK-based (to be expected for a UK-based company) but the second highest geographical location registered was from the US (without any active promotion) – a contractor and a developer are apparently in discussions with Kreo, and the company is planning a US presence at Autodesk University 2020. In the meantime, it is also planning to exhibit at the Homes UK show, 27-28 November 2019, in London.

Update (17 December 2019) – Since going freemium, over 400 people have signed into Kreo. Magomed Galaev says the company gained two new customers since launching Kreo Takeoff in May. Kreo will be breaking down products into smaller, more immediate solutions to help customers get on board more quickly, and plans three new products in the first half of 2020, including a feasibility study tool, which it expects will turn cost estimation on its head (PBC article).

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thinkproject acquires German CDE specialist Conclude

Construction and engineering SaaS provider thinkproject has acquired fellow German CDE specialist Conclude, adding 5D BIM capability to the group’s portfolio.

thinkproject logoMunich-based Software-as-a-Service construction collaboration technology provider thinkproject has acquired 100% of fellow German common data environment (CDE) specialist Conclude GmbH (read announcement). No deal value has been disclosed.

Conclude logoBased in Wuppertal near Dusseldorf, Conclude has a strong asset-owner customer base, plus extensive expertise in project cost management . Thinkproject says the acquisition broadens its customer base, as well as offering additional capabilities to owner-operators and general contractors within the group’s product portfolio.

Conclude has specialised in SaaS applications and supporting services for major construction and engineering projects since 2002. It draws on expertise developed at Dortmund’s Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering. The Conclude platform currently has over 100,000 users working on over 2,000 projects, with a total capital value of more than €300 billion (c. £270bn or US$330bn) in 38 countries. Blue-chip customers include ABB, BMW, Continental, Mercedes, Roche, Siemens and UBS.

Conclude’s suite includes more than 25 application modules; e.g. tools for BIM, design and document management, common industry workflows and reporting functions, and importantly – cost management.

thinkproject Concludes deal

After succeeding founder Thomas Bachmaier in May 2019, thinkproject CEO Gareth Burton says:

Gareth Burton (think project! CEO)“We continue to execute our strategic plan to become the leading Construction Intelligence platform for asset owners and general contractors. thinkproject has leading BIM capabilities for both design (3D) and project schedules and sequencing (4D). By acquiring Conclude, we enhance our cost management with a leading cost management solution, offering further 5D capability to the group product set, while deepening our relationships with major international asset owner-operators delivering some of the world’s most demanding engineering and construction projects.”

Conclude cost controlConclude was founded by Drees & Sommer, Marco Lehmbach and Peter Kaul to offer innovative and practical software tools for demanding construction projects. Conclude founder and managing director Lehmbach says:

“Our clients will benefit from the strong international presence and broad product portfolio of thinkproject, including BIM, contract management and mobile technologies. Indeed, this product portfolio complements very well our platform. The combined 5D solution will be even more attractive to our existing customers, and an even more compelling offer to new customers, particularly owner-operators looking to optimise whole life asset value.”

Kaul adds:

“We are delighted to become integrated within thinkproject. Conclude will benefit from the experience and structures of thinkproject’s international business. Our joining forces has created a strong an even stronger solution for digital transformation which will further support our customers both in Germany and worldwide.”

Thinkproject says the two companies share a strong belief in SaaS and the virtues of ‘open BIM’: creating and maintaining interoperable software solutions where the data is not hindered in proprietary formats – an important capability when owners will need to reuse information throughout the life cycles of their built assets.

Steffen Szeidl, member of the management board of funding partner Drees & Sommer SE, said:

“Conclude was our first start-up where we turned our joint business ideas into IT solutions. To grow further in international markets and appeal to new customer segments, we decided to sell our share. We are delighted to join thinkproject, Europe’s leading construction and engineering SaaS provider. We will, of course, continue to champion the use of Conclude in our projects over the coming years.”

Burton continues:

“Following on from the March 2019 acquisition of ceapoint GmbH and its DESITE 4D BIM toolset, the thinkproject group has now been additionally strengthened by Conclude’s ca. 40-strong specialist team in Wuppertal, which brings even more best practices experience and resources to our teams. As BIM adoption continues to grow around the globe, we believe our expanded suite of open, integrated SaaS solutions will be increasingly attractive to a growing number of international customers across the built environment lifecycle.”

The Extranet Evolution view

In a building information modelling (BIM) context, this deal adds 5D capability to (freshly rebranded – news release) thinkproject’s SaaS product portfolio, complementing the UK-developed CEMAR contract management functionality added in May 2018 (post), and will make it more competitive against platforms already offering 5D functionality. The deal will also help fulfill thinkproject’s 2019 ambitions to grow both organically and by acquisition (see think project! set to expand).

Most notably in a German context, these competitors include RIB Software (which has been busy building its international reach, with 2019 deals in India, South Africa, the US and the UK, while aiming to grow its SaaS user base ten-fold in 2019) but also the US’s Oracle Aconex (see Connected Cost – Aconex’s game-changer?), Autodesk (see Autodesk BIM360 embracing 5D) and Trimble Viewpoint (see What next for Trimble’s SaaS platforms?) and Viewpoint launches ViewpointOne strategy).

Drees & Sommer employed Ralf Händl who in January 2014 took over as CEO of the Anglo-German SaaS construction collaboration technology provider Conject (see Ralf Händl takes over at Conject), in March 2016 acquired by Aconex (see Aconex acquires Conject). The thinkproject deal marks further consolidation in the European SaaS CDE market just as BIM becomes increasingly important as the foundation for digitalisation of the sector. The apparent adoption of Conclude by owner-operators is a another plus point in a still cost-conscious industry where leading players are increasingly talking about Industry 4.0 and digital twins (see Bentley pushes ‘Digital Twin’ into AEC mainstream).

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

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Bentley extends SaaS ProjectWise to SMEs

Bentley Systems has announced new capabilities in its ProjectWise collaboration platform, building on its integration with Microsoft 365, and attempting to reach potential users in small and mid-sized businesses. ProjectWise 365 is key to Bentley’s “project digital twin” approach.

Bentley logo 2017According to an August 2019 report from ARC Advisory Group (news release), Bentley Systems’ ProjectWise is the number one platform for collaborative BIM, having successfully leveraged its relationship with Microsoft in recent years. Ralph Rio, vice president, Enterprise Software, ARC Advisory Group says:

“Bentley has a strong relationship with Microsoft and applies the chief technologies that bring together engineering and office information for improved project delivery. This has borne fruit in the EDT/BIM market as evidenced by their leading position in the BIM collaborative software category.”

In the US, Engineering News Record‘s 2019 Top Design Firms report says 43 of the top 50 firms rely upon ProjectWise for work sharing and design integration, and more than half of the top 640 firms are ProjectWise users.

Noah Eckhouse - BentleyAt Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure conference 2019 in Singapore, the company’s Noah Eckhouse, senior vice president, project delivery, said: “users of ProjectWise … have made Bentley one of the largest ISV users of Azure“. He also announced Bentley’s intention to spread the net still further by targeting potential ProjectWise users in small and mid-sized companies. Building on the 2018 general availability of ProjectWise 365, new cloud services, leveraging Microsoft 365 technology and office productivity tools, extend the reach, affordability, and accessibility of BIM and infrastructure design data for organisations of all sizes, he said: “We are expanding our instant-on, web-based ProjectWise 365 cloud services.”

“Instant-on, web-based services”

This is the latest shift towards a SaaS model for a platform that was originally created as a customer-hosted, on-premise solution – now over 20 years in development (see this 2017 short history of ProjectWise). The importance of integration with Microsoft technologies has been a recurring theme in recent years too. In May 2006, Bentley released an entry-level collaboration tool based on Microsoft Office SharePoint technologies, looking to reach new users and teams, and in 2013 it began to embrace Microsoft’s Azure cloud services. Attempts to woo customers with a Software-as-a-Service offering included the 2014 launch of  a SaaS-based edition, ProjectWise Essentials, aimed at SMEs, and the 2015 acquisition of US SaaS provider, EADOC (later rebranded as ProjectWise Construction Management – Update [4 November 2019] now being discontinued in favour of Bentley Synchro Field). At the 2017 edition of YII, also in Singapore, Bentley talked up the ProjectWise CONNECT Edition and Windows Azure, and the effort continues two years later.

Nicole Stephano (VP of product marketing, project delivery) says 2014’s ProjectWise Essentials helped extend the reach into mid-sized firms, and this accelerated with the 2015 ProjectWise CONNECT edition (post). The 2018 launch of ProjectWise 365 widened the scope for SMEs: “To be successful we have to work with the tools they are comfortable in – and most are using Microsoft Office 365.” Sharepoint remains a critical platform, she said, echoing colleague Phil Christensen’s view that “Microsoft are masters at evolving their products,” with Sharepoint transformed by its transition to a cloud-based platform (I heard similar views at the September 2019 London launch of Sharepoint-based Atvero). Sharepoint is widely used internally, even in major ProjectWise user firms such as GHD, with growing numbers of companies moving to the 365 edition, and its extensive range of templates.

Projectwise 365Purpose-built for design teams, Bentley describes ProjectWise 365 is an innovative, 100% SaaS-based offering enabling teams involved in design and engineering, from practitioner and design leads to stakeholders, to readily store and find designs, accelerate content sharing and collaborative workflows, and manage feedback, for maximum team productivity. The new ProjectWise 365 cloud services will be generally available by the end of 2019.

Stephano says ProjectWise 365 will be available pre-configured to support smaller contracting and engineering organisations:

“They can easily connect, then evolve any of their previously paper-based processes by easily configuring online workflows. They won’t need implementation support, and will simply pay for what they consume. As a lot of owners and larger firms have standardised on ProjectWise, our new cloud services enables their suppliers to connect easily to those iterations. Success will be predicated on delivering an instant-on service, making it as easy as possible and configurable based on their needs.”

The ‘project digital twin’

ProjectWise is a fundamental part of Bentley’s Digital Twin strategy, which is broadly divided into two phases: the “project digital twin”, used during design and construction, and the “performance digital twin”, used in asset operation (Bentley’s efforts to reshape industry terminology and abbreviations clearly continue). The latter is closest to the UK digital twin definition in the CDBB’s 2018 Gemini Principles (see August 2019 post: Bentley pushes ‘Digital Twin’ into AEC mainstream), but  Christensen (SVP, iTwins) says there is no international consensus on what constitutes a digital twin. He said:

“We are currently mainly focused on the design phase, which is where the highest levels of interest are because design firms have been through the BIM evolution, and are pre-primed for digital twin working. ProjectWise is a key brand in our digital twin thinking. Users are creating and sharing data to support evolution of the project digital twin, making that twin accessible by everyone on the project team. However, engineering companies also want to promote digital twin thinking as, rather than just selling engineering hours, it helps them build longer-term engagements with asset owners.

“But owners are not yet as engaged in the BIM process or in digital twins, and this is an area where we need better client education. Owners are often not as digitally literate as the engineering firms, particularly when it comes to whole life value thinking.”

The prospect of connecting multiple digital twins – the Gemini Principles were created as foundations for a ‘national digital twin’ – is still “a long way off”, Christensen said. He predicted Singapore, and then perhaps the UK, might be among the first to securely connect asset data to gain social, economic and environmental insights to inform decision-making. There are also challenges in the extent to which countries and cities encourage and adopt open data approaches, he said (“Scandinavia appears to be way ahead in understanding social obligations relating to their built assets”), and in validating information from design into construction and into operation (one ray of possible comfort: Bentley has joined BuildingSMART International, talking about a generic IFC bridge to Bentley’s iModels – news release).

[Disclosure: I am attending the Bentley Year in Infrastructure 2019 conference as a guest of Bentley Systems, who have paid my travel, hotel and some meal expenses. I am also a juror in YII Awards.]

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