BIM, SaaS and mobile driving Newforma developments

Once scathing of the attractions of Software-as-a-Service, Newforma is now actively embracing the cloud, SaaS, BIM and mobile, and eyeing potential social media ideas for future product development.

Last week I learned more about Newforma, developer of the enterprise-based Newforma Project Center application and now a recent entrant to the Software-as-a-Service collaboration space with its August acquisition of US-based Attolist, formerly provider of the AEC-Sync platform (post) – now re-branded Newforma Project Cloud. Having met Tim Bates, EMEA director, in late August, I was invited to a Newforma briefing at London’s Building Centre on Wednesday, and then got chance for a one-to-one chat with Newforma CEO Ian Howell the following day.

“Google for projects”

The core enterprise product Newforma Project Center is targeted primarily towards architectural and engineering firms, and its UK adopters include some well-known companies, including HOK, BDP (once a user of QA’s Teambinder, I recall), Aedas, Fosters, Scott Brownrigg, Steffian Bradley, Make and PRP. Outside design consultancies, adoption has been more limited, with about 50 construction firms using the on-premise solution. However, Ian explained that some US-based contractors such as Turner Construction preferred to use the system on some individual projects but not universally, “partly because many contractors prefer to adopt a project cost centre approach to data management.”

Newforma Today (image courtesy of Tuomas Holma, Cadfaster)

Tim Bates describes the on-premise system as a solution to “messy desk syndrome”, helping medium-to-large sized firms to index and manage the thousands of project-related communications they handle internally every day (note: ‘projects’ here usually include many non-construction projects – many internal exchanges can concern a wide variety of internal subjects). The company LAN-based Newforma Indexing Server can manage large volumes of unstructured information, including emails and PDFs, and provides powerful search tools to help people look across numerous folders and find, view and make use of documents, drawings, and associated email  correspondence and process forms (“Google for projects,” he called it). It also helps create the all-important audit trails that can be useful in avoiding or at least mitigating litigation. Both Tim and Ian quote the tweet from a user (Carl Davis, President and CEO of Array Healthcare Facilities Solutions) who saved $150,000 from finding one key email, among 36,000 others on a project.

(Newforma Project Center’s focus on design firms and on managing in-house projects and management of email and other documentation reminds me of Nottingham, UK-based Union Square’s Workspace which has a similar approach.)

Embracing cloud and mobile

With its Newforma-to-Newforma technology, shared folders can be securely synchronised with collaborators in other firms who are also using Newforma on a common project.

Newforma-to-Newforma (photo courtesy of Tuomas Holma at Cadfaster)

The Attolist acquisition has given the company the option to offer a complementary cloud-based sharing capability. A hosted project can also leverage Newforma-to-Newforma, thus avoiding the overhead of exchanging files by others who are also using Newforma Project Center. Another August 2012 addition – of the Maine-based mobile application developer TapTapas – has resulted in the launch of the first of a series of mobile apps to support Newforma out in the field. Snagging app Newforma Punch List came out last October, for example, and will be followed soon by a Field Notes app (again, I see trends: global SaaS vendor Aconex has recently launched apps in both these areas too – post); further Newforma apps – Plans (mobile mark-up), RFIs, Submittals, Action items – are in the pipeline, and Ian stressed these will be integrated with each other.

Another key development for Newforma has been its announcement that it has licensed M-SIX’s VEO platform, which enables either an Autodesk 3D or Autodesk Revit model to be viewed within Newforma Project Center. This was showcased at last week’s Building Centre event, with much attention focused on the ability to roll-back through process data such as RFIs and, for each RFI, to see the relevant views of the associated building information model (with file differences managed using delta “diff” files). In their announcement, Newforma highlighted:

“VEO’s use of cloud technology provides the scalable processing power and accessible-from-anywhere availability to stream the model views necessary for successful PIM-BIM integration and model coordination across dispersed project teams.”

(The VEO functionality isn’t yet supported via Newforma Project Cloud, but it is part of the road map going forward, Ian told me, and cloud-based BIM viewing was flagged as “coming soon” in his event presentation.)

Ian HowellAs is probably clear already, integration of project information management (PIM) with BIM, mobile apps and cloud hosting are all seen as key trends by Newforma in the development of the AEC industry’s software needs, but Ian (right) also asked the event audience about social computing: “What are your offices doing about enterprise social networks, rather than email?” He didn’t offer any answers himself and when we spoke about this the next day, he said they’d floated the idea to customers of Facebook-style ‘wall’ type discussions, but most were resistant, preferring the “analogue and asychronous” nature of email-type exchanges coupled with centralised file storage. But he was open to suggestions of areas where social collaboration might be implemented to support what he described as “software design for disconnected data-sets”.

Document control

We talked briefly about international differences in software adoption for construction document management, and both Tim and Ian highlighted how the UK differed from the US in its approach to document control. UK document control puts a document register at the heart, and the spreadsheet-type view of the process wasn’t initially easily replicated in Newforma, but the company quickly established that it already had about 80% of the information requirements available via configuration (rather than software customisation). To support its UK-based customers, it filled the remaining gaps, which also had the eventual benefit of making the more exacting and innovative functionality available to other international users.

Subscription-based approach

Newforma differs from many conventional vendors of on-premise software in that it licenses its product on an annual subscription basis, allowing firms to buy only as many seats as they need. During the worst of the recession, for instance, AEC firms which had had to reduce their workforce could easily adjust their subscription renewals to match current employee levels (external users are not charged for their access to customers’ hosted systems). However, Newforma also entertains other subscription-based licensing models within its portfolio: the SaaS-based Newforma Project Cloud is licensed on a per-project basis (similar to the approach of most UK vendors), helping encourage wider adoption – and therefore collaboration – among supply chain users within a project.

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