Quickie: London, bristling with infrastructure projects

Yesterday marked the start of the 2014 edition of Bentley’s Year In Infrastructure conference. COO Malcolm Walter told us that he counted over 100 cranes while looking out the window at Bentley’s London offices –and I can see something like 20 from my hotel room window– so it’s clearly the place to hold a conference on all things building/civil/mining/plant/offshore.

4929822231_4451a30d6c_mMy day started early, as the plant/process/offshore jury revisited the finalist projects in our categories and got ready for the presentation sessions today. Once again, I’m so impressed with how seriously everyone takes this process: the entrants work so hard on their projects and on getting their submissions together. The juries try hard to understand the projects and what makes them unique and creative. Bentley shepherds us all along, trying to keep the process on track. Today, it all comes together as the finalists get one last chance to impress, then we hand over our decisions and wait for tomorrow night’s banquet. It’s a big deal to make it this far, and all finalists are to be congratulated.

Bentley also held a press/analyst briefing yesterday afternoon. You can track it as it happened by checking my Twitter feed (@monica_schnitge) or searching for the #YII2014 hashtag. Highlights included

  • a refresh of the Bentley product portfolio under the CONNECT Edition badge that’s a hybrid desktop/cloud/on-premise/mobile computing environment and a cleaner UI, while still supporting the MicroStation V8i DGN file format
  • tighter integration with Trimble for construction modeling –temporary works, sequencing, fabrication detailing, workface planning, construction work packaging and so on– to make the design to construction hand-off more efficient
  • integration of Bentley’s point-cloud technology with Siemens’ Tecnomatix for realistic simulation of industrial manufacturing plants
  • the introduction of MineCycle, new products to help the mining industry with mine planning. Not my area of expertise, but I had breakfast with some of the team today and learned that MineCycle Designer, Survey and Material Handling helps mining engineers figure out how to exploit the natural resource while taking into account all sorts of real and anticipated conditions. The way the product was developed is also interesting: Bentley worked with a syndicate of industry players to direct the project, giving them direct input into the what, how and when of the software’s definition

Lots more to come, but now I’m off to a lot of gnarly project presentations. Good luck to all!

Image courtesy of flickr user DJ Leekee /Lee Smith.

Quickies: AEC earnings show upswing in construction

EarningsTime to catch up! Nearly 15 companies reported September quarter earnings while I was away, so to get a the general sense of what they’re reporting I’m going to be summarizing them all over the next few weeks. Today, we’re looking at AEC, the world of Architecture, Engineering and Construction.

In general, the news was good but not stellar. Mid- to high-single digit revenue growth over the third quarter of 2012 but sequential flatness or slight declines for a typically weak quarter. Each company said that their end-verticals were looking more positive and that 2014 should see even further improvement.

We covered Hexagon‘s Q3 a couple of weeks ago. The big AEC-related headline for Hexagon‘s third quarter was that construction is up in many parts of the world, leading to increasing demand for its surveying, laser scanning and other sensing solutions — and, of course, interest in Intergraph PP&M’s solutions never really waned. But by far the most conversation was around Shell’s plan to shake up the world of oil & gas projects by creating a central data store for its assets and to require EPCs to use Intergraph’s SmartPlant Cloud as the delivery vehicle. Back to Q3, 2013, though, for AEC-related results: Geosystems revenue was up nearly 10% as reported and Intergraph PP&M revenue was up 7% year/year (y/y).

Nemetschek‘s holding company management keeps changing, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing down the brand teams that are developing and selling its AEC brands, including Allplan, Graphisoft ArchiCAD, VectorWorks, and the new bim+ platform. Interim CEO Dr. Tobias Wagner, member of the Executive Board and head of the Allplan business, announced Q3 results that show Nemetschek’s total revenue was up 5% y/y to €46 million, led by growth in maintenance revenue of 9%. The vast majority of Nemetschek’s revenue comes from Europe (40% from Germany alone), but the company sees strong potential for expansion, acquiring a Graphisoft distributor to form a Mexican subsidiary that will focus on the Central and Latin American markets. The Design segment is by far its largest, reporting revenue of €107 million for the first 9 months of the year, up 4% y/y. Dr. Wagner told investors that he sees robust growth in construction that should boost Nemetschek to total revenue growth of about 6% y/y in 2013, with the potential to return to the higher levels of growth seen in prior years.

Last week, Nemetschek acquired the Norwegian firm Data Design System (DDD), to extend its offerings into MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing), heating, ventilation, air conditioning and photovoltaic engineering. In 2012 DDS had sales of about €8.7 million; Nemetschek said that the purchase price was “in the low two-digit million euro range”. Finally, Viktor Varkonyi, the CEO of Graphisoft and Sean Flaherty CEO of Vectorworks were named to the Nemetschek Executive Board but will continue in their divisional responsibilities as well. The company continues its search for a new Financial and Operational Executive Manager.

Trimble is rapidly turning itself from a GPS/hardware shop to a full-fledged provider of everything needed to design and build infrastructure assets. The company recently announced that Q3 revenue was up 10% y/y to $557 million as strengthening construction markets in the US and elsewhere outweighed concerns about US government spending. Trimble’s largest business, Engineering & Construction, reported a y/y revenue increase of 8% to $311 million due to acquisitions, and higher sales of survey and heavy civil building construction products. On Tuesday, Trimble added yet another offering to its menu: Building Information Modeling consulting services for MEP contractors, helping them with 3D modeling, laser scanning and creating 3D models from point cloud.

On Thursday we find out how the big daddy of AEC did in the most recent period, when Autodesk reports its results for the October quarter. As a quick reminder, its AEC business did really well in FQ2, when revenue rose 9% y/y to $177 million. Autodesk has been on a buying binge lately, snapping up Delcam and VSR — maybe there’ll be something AEC-related to be thankful for?


Bentley Inspired by Infrastructure

Bentley Systems’ Be Inspired awards felt different this year. It’s always a showcase of tough, complex infrastructure problems like righting the Costa Concordia, bringing clean water to underserved populations, or building a massive rail structure under a vibrant city that cannot stop. New this year was the idea that these project stakeholders could learn more from one another than the project presentations would put forward; that there were process innovations, IT solutions and other ideas out there worth exploring. Bentley called these “Summits” and, if the Project Execution Summit was anything to go by, ideas flowed fast and furious as customers, Bentley staff and industry experts shared their findings and experiences.

Greg Bentley keynote

Let’s back up a bit, though. Jurors and the media reported to London for sessions that started last Monday; Tuesday was devoted to Be Inspired Finalist presentations and Wednesday saw company keynotes (and a dynamite presentation by Sir John Armitt, Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority & Chairman of National Express, on how London planned for, put on and deals with the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics) and then progressed to the Summits.

Bentley made a number of announcements at Be Inspired, though no acquisitions this time. Most interesting, to me, are these three:

  1. ProjectWise Construction Work Package Server (coming in early 2014 but in customer previews now) helps users collect and put a clean, “fresh” user interface to the information needed on the construction site. Correctly managing data created in engineering or the field, propagating changes as a project proceeds and ensuring that the right people and materials are on the site at the right time (obviously) leads to significant savings and increases job-site safety. What’s been missing until now are standard processes and tools to make this happen. I didn’t speak with any of the users trying this out, but will keep you posted as I learn more.
  2. SpecWave Composer, built on the acquisition announced last year, enables users to create, manage and reference engineering specifications, codes, standards, and other structured documents. Specs sound simple and are definitely not sexy, but ensuring that the thousands of components on a project are compliant is no small task. Automating code checks saves time, money, and rework and can forestall litigation
  3. Bentley is one of the more innovative engineering software companies when it comes to business models. For years, Bentley has offered its largest accounts the option to buy a pool of software licenses that are good for any of its products, to be accessed as, when (and by whom) needed. That enables the buyer to use the right software as project workloads change: architecture during design, then detailing, then construction planning, for example. With SELECT Open Access, any size buyer is able to opt-in for this level of access and can also choose to true-up on a quarterly basis. That’s big, since smaller firms can really use this flexibility to manage the software and training to stay on top of their project load.

Of course, no vendor event would be complete without offering glimpses into new, cool technology in the company’s research (and maybe development) pipeline. Asset Painter, a Bentley/Crossrail project, links asset tag information with the relevant 3D models to offer visual help in decision-making across Crossrail’s very large and diverse project ecosystem. Bentley also demoed more of its augmented and virtual reality prototypes and showed how sensor technology on bridge structures can give feedback to continually assess the structure’s health. There’s also more on point cloud streaming and management, as well as product-specific enhancements in just about every category.

Finally, CEO Greg Bentley’s keynote. Mr. Bentley is, at heart, a quant. He likes numbers and data and again showed the utilization data his servers accumulate as customers check out and use licenses for his company’s products. I’m still poring over the data, but at first glance, it’s both heartening and worrisome: His customers log an average of 10 million hours per week on Bentley products. On a global basis, that’s been trending up 7% year/year during 2013, with slightly higher growth in EMEA but peaks and valleys in Asia and the Americas. Of concern is that utilization in the building and plant disciplines started strong in 2013 but growth has declined in the second and third quarters to about 5% — still growth, but definitely moderating — as civil and geospatial skyrocketed to over 10%. Utilization growth among its largest customers, too, has slowed dramatically as year/year growth fell from 7% early in 2013 to 3% or so by Q3. What does this mean? I’m not sure yet but will let you know as I ponder it more and speak with some of my user contacts.

But The Year in Infrastructure 2013 really was all about the awards. I was on the Building, Construction, Offshore and Structures jury and, I’ve got to say, we were deadlocked in a couple of cases because there was no clear and obvious winner — they were that good! But a choice had to be made and I urge you to check out the list of entrants and winners here and watch the finalists’ presentations when Bentley posts them. Some amazing stuff. Fellow jurors, it was an honor to work with you!

More to come …

Image credit: Monica Schnitger

Note: Bentley Systems graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation at the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

Autodesk’s Dynamo changes conceptual design

Autodesk DynamoHave you ever sat though a 4+ hour meeting? You get kinda dozey, right? That happened to me a few weeks ago as I was listening to Autodesk’s investor day presentations. It was long, there were interesting bits, but …. Then SVP Amar Hanspal showed a little video of Autodesk’s Dynamo product and my jaw dropped. The video (which I think was similar to this YouTube video) showed a designer manipulate a widget slider that changed the curvature of the roof of a sports stadium. The whole design changed in response to a little slide. Mr. Hanspal didn’t really talk about it so I asked Autodesk for a demo and, I’ve got to say, it’s seriously cool stuff.

Dynamo is a visual programming interface that currently sits on top of Revit (Autodesk’s BIM) and Vasari (Autodesk’s building concept modeling) solutions — but, as Autodesk’s Zach Kron showed, it could relatively easily be extended to many other domains. At its simplest, Dynamo lets users create computation-driven workflows to automate some of their modeling tasks.

Matt Jezyk, Product Line Manager for Conceptual Design Products, says that Dynamo lets users create easy-to-use ways of manipulating key aspects of their designs by building workflows of connected computational nodes. Users create relationships between nodes that may be variable-driven (“put a beam every x feet”) and specific to the project, to the type of construction or to extract data for a cost or energy analysis. Since it’s a tool, it’s up to the imagination of the designer to determine what inputs make sense in a context to drive the desired outputs.

In the sports stadium case, for example, the designer might manipulate the roof curvature to examine sunlight and shade, add and subtract rows of seats, adjust the angle of the seating bowl, and any number of other factors to look at and perfect the design.

It’s also possible that these workflows will serve to standardize processes across project participants — there are so many potential use cases that it’s hard to even start a list. Too, Autodesk sees users exchanging workflows to automate common tasks (or show off specialist knowledge).

I asked if scripting like this was part of a normal designer’s tool kit or if Autodesk was aiming for a new demographic; Mr. Jezyk said that many younger designers think in terms of workflows and are comfortable with the relatively small level of programming (really, diagramming) that this type of interface requires — and that the benefits outweigh any additional skill development required. For some kinds of processes, it might actually be easier to script using Python or Autodesk’s DesignScript language; Dynamo supports both of these, too.

Mr. Kron pointed me to a user’s blog to highlight how Dynamo can be used in many different ways. Here, Daniel Gijsbers uses an Excel spreadsheet to work out the design of a bridge. It’s worth a look, both for the bridge and for some customer experience commentary about BIM, Dynamo and the world in general. I’ll be at Autodesk University next month and plan to look for more user experiences.

One important point: Dynamo works in Revit and Vasari right now, so all results are native Revit files. When a design leaves the conceptual stage, anything created can be promoted forward to the detail design process.

BTW, Autodesk isn’t the only vendor exploring this type of workflow. Bentley’s Generative Components and Rhino’s Grasshopper also play in generative design. [If you know of others, please leave a comment. — Ed.]

What fascinates me about generative design is that, in some ways, it harkens back to the old days of trying to automate the design process. Remember when we were all panicking because we were going to be replaced by artificial intelligences that would follow rules and do our jobs better than we (inconsistent humans) could? That didn’t work because the rules were usually too complex. These generative design solutions apply rules that foster imagination, help create unique and interesting design alternatives for humans to make decisions about — based on analyses that theses structures are safe, efficient, economical and buildable.

It’s exciting technology but a very new approach. Talk back: is generative design something you use? Could use? Is it in your skill set to try to design something from an Excel file, as Mr. Gijsberg did? Would you use this type of process to automate your job, even if it is created by an outside party?

Image courtesy of Autodesk.

Bentley expands offshore offering with MOSES

BP '© BP p.l.c' Plutonio FPSO_in_field_at_sea_375x216Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on how the offshore industry does design and analysis (more about that soon, I hope) and have a deep appreciation for what goes into the design, fabrication, transportation and installation of these mammoth structures. Bentley Systems’ SACS is the industry standard for many of these projects (and certainly in the Gulf of Mexico) but MOSES came up often as the analysis tool of choice for specific situations. Today, Bentley announced that it has acquired MOSES from Ultramarine, Inc., to round out its offshore offering.

Bentley has been very focused on expanding its footprint in offshore the last couple of years, acquiring SACS in March 2011 and expanding into floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs) and other floating structures with the addition of FormSys’ naval architecture capability in November 2011.

Ray Nachlinger, the founder of Ultramarine and creator of MOSES, will help integrate SACS and MOSES in a consulting capacity. Phil Christensen, Bentley’s vice president, offshore, said that Bentley will now leverage its technology platform to “enhance MOSES’ modeling and graphical visualization capabilities, as well as its ease of use … [F]ull integration between SACS and MOSES will allow a cohesive model to be used for all structural and naval architectural analyses.”

To give you some idea of the impact this type of integration has, take a look at the picture above. This is an FPSO, the Greater Plutonio. It may be the largest FPSO ever built; according to reports, it is 310 meters long and stores over 1.5 million barrels of oil. In addition, it processes up to 240,000 barrels of oil and up to 400 million standard cubic feet of gas per day. The FPSO is held in position by 12 mooring lines and connects to over 20 producing wells in water depths from 1200 to 1450 meters.

It’s one thing to design a process plant on land; it’s another to create safe operating conditions on a platform that’s subjected to wind and waves, tethering, marine growth and dealing with chemicals that are prone to explosions. Designers must take into account all of the possible loading conditions for the FPSO and the forces created by taking on and offloading oil and gas in all sorts of configurations. Anything that streamlines this process, makes it more reliable and repeatable, is very valuable to asset operators and owners.

I’ll be at Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure 2013 Conference (formerly known as Be Inspired) later this month and hope to get more details on MOSE and the planned integration. In the meantime, you can learn more here.

Details of the acquisition were not announced, but it appears to be a done deal.

Image courtesy of BP, © BP p.l.c.