Software-as-a-Service approaches to design in the AEC market can learn a lot from how SaaS has been deployed to provide construction collaborative platforms since the late 1990s, but the marketing challenges still tend to require more than just an online presence.
CAD in the cloud
Thanks, once again, to Roopinder Tara’s, CAD CAM CAE TenLinks Daily, I found an interesting article, Design forecast: CAD in the cloud, by Martyn Day at Develop3D.com. While this is a site about “technology for the product lifecycle”, this article also talks briefly about how CAD might be delivered on a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) basis in the architecture, engineering and construction, AEC, sector – a topic which I have dubbed CADaaS (and latterly BIMaaS) in several blog posts over the past couple of years.
For his target audience, Martyn gives a good overview of the pros (for both customer and vendor) and cons of SaaS-based design tools, and he describes how several of the leading players in the PLM market are developing capabilities in this field (eg: Autodesk, SolidWorks).
I have commented on the Develop3D article, offering some perspectives from 10 years of construction collaboration experience, but I wonder: are the existing software giants properly structured and equipped to move into the CADaaS space? Thinking about the businesses that have been successful in the AEC collaboration space since 2000, the headlines and dominant market positions tend to have been grabbed by SaaS start-ups (eg: 4Projects, Aconex, BIW).
As SaaS pure-plays, they were able to launch their businesses with products that carried no ‘baggage’ from existing products; there was no need to emulate existing product functionality in a browser-based environment; the platforms were developed from scratch as web-native tools. As start-ups, the businesses themselves were also not hampered by concerns about cannibalising revenues from existing on-premise solutions, their sales and marketing and their accounting processes were geared towards achieving revenues delivered through recurring subscriptions and managing ‘churn’.
Dassault to launch AEC CADaaS?
In the final part of Martyn’s article, he talks about Dassault Systèmes, which has apparently been looking at opportunities in the web-connected world for a couple of years. Today:
“…reading between the lines, it seems that Enovia – the company’s collaborative PLM database – has been built-into the core of its applications and through a cloud-based service can connect multiple users to a single model. Here, a lightweight user-interface of Catia (and even SolidWorks) could be downloaded with the CAD data kept on the web. Access to the multitude of powerful engineering analysis applications could also be hosted and delivered on-demand.”
Martyn then quotes Dassault Systèmes’ Bernard Charlès remarks from 2008:
“The next big thing for AEC … will be a new type of on-line application for 3D design in architecture. The 3D processes in that industry are far behind and I believe it will change and it will happen online.”
The implication is clear, says Martyn: “Dassault is gunning for Autodesk” and its AEC market dominance; “For Dassault, the cloud levels the playing field and gives potential access to its competitor’s customers via a web browser”.
Marketing challenges remain
However, I am not so sure that going online bypasses the AEC sales channel in quite the way that Martyn imagines. Again, experience in the SaaS construction collaboration field suggests that delivering solutions via the web does not remove the need for conventional sales and marketing techniques. All the leading SaaS providers have sales teams and consultants whose job it is to identify opportunities and then secure the deal – often a complex and time-consuming process due to the geographically-dispersed, multi-company, multi-disciplinary nature of most project teams. In some respects, Dassault might find it easier if their targets are individual companies, but, even then, SaaS collaboration experience suggests that significant software investment decisions tend to require detailed presentations regarding the software’s capabilities, plus considerable reassurance and back-up information regarding the hosting regime, the vendor’s financial and management stability, its experience and track-record, its product roadmap, etc.
Small businesses might make a decision to invest in, say, a SaaS-based CRM or accounting system without going through a complex procurement process, so online marketing of a CADaaS solution may work at the SME level. Pricing is, of course, a critical issue here; UK-based Woobius is making a concerted online marketing push targeting buyers of simple, low-cost construction collaboration (see Woobius pushing the self-service SaaS offer), but its self-service SaaS approach may not work when dealing with a multi-company project team demanding more sophisticated – and therefore more expensive – functionality and support.
So looking at the specifics of a SaaS-based CAD solution for a still very conservative and risk-averse sector like construction, I suspect most substantial architect, engineer or contracting businesses will want a lot more information than can be gleaned through a website before they choose to replace their existing design tools with a CADaaS solution. But one advantage of CADaaS, particularly if it could be purchased on a pay-as-you-design basis, is that businesses can try the tools out without a substantial upfront payment, perhaps on a pilot project; we might therefore see firms augmenting their in-house tools with cloud-hosted applications until they feel confident in making the switch more permanent.