Software company Autodesk has a grand vision for Building Information Modelling. Its chief executive officer Carl Bass tells Mark Hansford how cloud computing and a different approach to marketing its products will change the way contractors do business.
“This is what we do. We try to listen to what our customers want to do and at the same time keep our foot in the technology”
Carl Bass, Autodesk
Last November software giant Autodesk’s chief executive Carl Bass told 8,000 delegates at its annual jamboree in Las Vegas that 2013 would see a step change in infrastructure design.
“Cloud architecture is the biggest thing to happen to computing since the personal computer,” he said (NCE 6 December 2012).
“We are the first company to bring you a full set of professional tools in the cloud that spans the entire design process; a single point of connection, a single source of truth.
It’s bold stuff; and just the sort of hyperbole you’d expect from the CEO of a Californian software giant given a stage and a captive audience of converts. But in the calmer confines of a backstage briefing room, Bass is no less enthused.
“For the first time we are in a place in which the computer is starting to help,” he says.
The belief in Autodesk circles is that, in the last year or so, the speed and reliability of cloud computing - where processing is done by a remote server with the desktop PC, laptop, tablet or mobile merely a way of accessing the output - has reached a point where it genuinely can take over from the humble desktop, unleashing a raft of opportunities to do design and construction better, faster and more efficiently.
This can simply be by providing site workers with better, more up-to-date data via tablets or mobile phones - and the opportunities here are vast, Autodesk believes - or something all-together more complex.
Much is being made of its Infrastructure Modeler software, which is used by designers at concept stage to optimise infrastructure such road or rail alignments. Using the power of the cloud, whole sections of road, for example, can now be analysed in real time, making it a hugely powerful tool.
“In the past, simulation was too expensive to implement and use. What if simulation did not require a large upfront investment?” was the question he posed on stage. “What if you could run simulations anywhere, from any device? What if you could think about designing miles of highway, not just a short section? With Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler, you can do that. You can experience the design before it is real.”
But back in the cold light of the briefing room is there actually a demand for it? “Look, no-one has said to us that we want to design miles of highway in one go, in real time, rather than in quarter of a mile chunks,” he says. “But we are saying this is what our customers would really like to do.
“This is what we do. We try to listen to what our customers want to do and at the same time keep our foot in the technology. And out in the future they’re going to meet. But above all it is asking them what they really want to do in their businesses,” he explains. “We are getting to the heart of their businesses.”
“Above all it is asking them what they really want to do in their businesses. We are getting to the heart of their businesses.”
Carl Bass, Autodesk
This cuts to the core of the modern Autodesk: perhaps once a simple software vendor with one product to sell; now it is working much closer with its customers to provide them with the combinations of technology they need.
OK, the smaller firms (or the bigger firms but with a limited need for Autodesk’s products) that make up roughly 30% of Autodesk’s revenue are still happy buying single products and single licences off the shelf, probably from a reseller.
But the relationship with medium are larger sized firms is now much more mature. Last year was significant in that Autodesk bundled up all its infrastructure-related products - Infrastructure Modeler, Civil 3D, BIM 360 to name the main ones - into one package, Autodesk for Infrastructure. It’s proved a popular move: around 40% of Autodesk’s revenue comes from customers buying suites such as this. “Our products were getting complicated,” says Bass, explaining that the suite approach has meant its midrange customers getting access to software solutions they did not previously have.
And for the larger firms, the relationship is stronger still. “You have to bear in mind that none of our big customers buy in suites. They have enterprise licences,” explains Bass. Enterprise licences gives firms access to all the software their staff need at a competitive rate, but more importantly Autodesk can then bespoke their technology set-up. Britain’s two biggest civils contractors Balfour Beatty and Bam both have such deals with Autodesk, and they are far from alone.
“We’ve done a huge number of enterprise licences. Around 30% of our revenue comes from our top 1% of customers,” says Bass. And they are typically using the relationship to make fundamental changes to their IT approach.
“In the beginning they think they are going to save money by consolidating licences. There is also some interest in centralisation of IT buying and in standardisation across the business. These are the issues that they usually come in with,” explains Bass.
“But what’s really motivating them is the growing recognition that they have under invested in IT,” he notes. “They see that the manufacturing industry is more efficient than them; their margins are going down; and because the traditional geographic protection of the market is eroding with foreign competition coming in, they are moving into an ever more competitive world,” he adds. “And the projects are getting ever more complex.
“They are asking ‘how do we retool?’,” says Bass. “So what starts out as a fairly pedestrian conversation quickly turns into a one about ‘what are the options for my business?’; it has changed into a much more interesting, strategic conversation.”
Invariably, given the current drive to hit the UK government’s 2016 target for Level 2 BIM adoption, the conversation is focused around BIM and Autodesk’s BIM 360 offering.
But it’s not all about BIM, says Bass. “Civil 3D has become a quite capable product,” he notes. “And Infrastructure Modeler will be rolled out on massive projects around the world,” he says. “A lot of clients got palpably excited when they saw that.”
“I am perfectly happy for people to use whatever tools they want. Our job is to make them work together”
Carl Bass, Autodesk
And it’s also not all about Autodesk. “The forces that drive companies to be homogenous with their computer aided design tools are weaker than those that drive them to be heterogeneous,” he says.
“The homogenous argument is perhaps saving through bulk buying, consistency of approach and the simplicity of training. But the heterogeneous argument is that you get access to the best of all available; no one vendor provides all the tools you want. So I am perfectly happy for people to use whatever tools they want. Our job is to make them work together.
“The idea that you are going to have a single vendor CAD environment is a flawed idea,” he says.
“The world in which our customers work is going to be heterogeneous.”
Whether that world is going to be in the cloud is perhaps a little less clear right now with concerns over data security, reliability and download speed persisting. “This is a typical technology adoption issue,” says Bass. “It will resolve itself in time. But truthfully, it’s why we have been clear that we are not telling customers that they have to move to the cloud, or even that they will eventually have to move to the cloud. It’s still an open question in the engineering community.
“But we’re going to continue to develop cloud-based solutions and they have a choice as to whether to go there,” he says.
Bam on BIM
Bam Nuttall is one such company that, in partnership with Autodesk, is looking to use BIM to fundamentally change the way it works as a business.
“BIM for Bam Nuttall is a technological and cultural evolution,” states Bam Nuttall head of BIM Ivor Barbrook. “It is about more than the modelling technology. It is about embracing the increased collaboration through information sharing which the technology makes possible.”
In essence, he explains, it is about moving away from the targeted use of software to resolve technically difficult problems to using it in a structured core management process to its own benefit and the benefit of the supply chain and its clients.
“Rather than just using technology in areas of perceived risk, such as clash detection on complex piling jobs we are moving to use it as a way of running a business,” he says.
In short, this means empowering speedy, accurate and informed decision making by making information accessible in one place, and then delivering efficiencies by virtually verifying the buildability and functionality of a project in a shared virtual world, before then putting theory into practice by delivering the project through the project 3D model.
But to do that it was clearly going to need outside help. “We recognised that it would be far better to have an expert on board with us,” he says. That expert turned out to be Autodesk, and Bam Nuttall and its sister company Bam Construction are together investing £2.7M with the software firm to get a bespoke BIM solution embedded in its business.
Barbrook’s opposite number at Autodesk Paul Fleming is enthused by the opportunity. “Our intention is to become strategic partners with the key players. So, here we want a business relationship rather than a supplier relationship. It is different to just turning up with boxes of software,” he says.
Granted, the enterprise deal does come with rather a lot of boxes of software in form of flexible licences but more importantly, says Fleming, two Autodesk customer success managers are seconded in to Bam to work with Barbrook to develop the programme. The deal also gives Bam Autodesk resources to tackle key agenda items thrown up during the work.
A BIM steering committee representing all the company’s departments and business units was set up at the outset to identify the information flows and processes that go on in the company. The Autodesk duo sit on the committee and play a key role in mapping those information flows and processes with the software tools needed to support and improve project delivery.
Embedding the new way of working throughout the company is now the challenge.
“There is a culture change that has to go on,” says Barbrook. “We do have to engage in this software and everyone has to be working together in the same environment. The idea of passing on the baton is not going to work,” he says.
Efforts to get this engagement have started with the firm’s central technical services team and training and software will be rolled out next to the project teams.
This kicks off in earnest this month when Bam Nuttall will use a relatively small £7M project to construct a ramp at King’s Cross in London for developer Argent as its first full BIM project.
“Some project teams are fully up for it,” explains Barbrook. “We’re investing in these people initially.
“At King’s Cross we’ve got a team there that is very proficient in 2D who want to go to 3D,” explains Barbrook. “We’ve got a usable model from the consultant so we’ll do 3D and even some 4D.”
A training programme for around half the site team will take place in January before the project goes live in February.
“It’s a fairly straightforward job so it’s a good test bed,” says Barbrook. “But it’s about generating the impetus within the company. We’ve got to get people going with it,” he says.
There is also work to do beyond Bam’s own people. “We are going to have to put our arms around some of our suppliers,” accepts Barbrook. “They are working to tight margins and we are going to have to provide a facility for them to provide the information we need in the format we need it.”
Plenty still to do then, but Barbrook is encouraged by progress so far. “I think in the last six months in Bam Nuttall, if you look at where we were, and where we are now, it has significantly changed,” he says.