Back in May, Trimble Navigation announced that it wanted to acquire Tekla Corporation to build out its vision of a connected construction site. Yesterday the company said that its Finnish subsidiary had acquired over 99% of Tekla’s outstanding shares, meaning that the deal is just about done and all that remains is to round up the stragglers. The aggregate equity consideration paid was about €319 million (about $454 million at €1=$1.4214).

We’re learning more about Trimble’s intentions with Tekla, and how its CAD solutions will fit into what has typically been viewed as a GPS offering. Last month, Trimble CEO Steve Berglund laid out his vision for  investors at a William Blair conference. Mr. Berglund said that the process of construction is much the same as it was 50 years ago and has yet to reap the benefit of technology that can move  information between the traditional silos of a construction project. He said (paraphrased) that Trimble today provides 

"survey instruments, whether GPS or optical, to go out and effectively build the three-dimensional model of what exists on a greenfield site. Our survey data seamlessly moves into the design package to allow the three-dimensional design to be built on that three-dimensional terrain model [created from survey data]. From there, it moves into an estimating realm — how many linear feet of dirt do I have to excavate to bring in utilities?"

Mr. Berglund then described how GPS devices are attached to construction equipment so that, for example, a

"bulldozer effectively knows where that blade is to centimeter-level accuracy. It compares it against the design that has been loaded onto the computer onboard the machine, knows where that bulldozer blade is versus where it should be and automatically moves the blade to where it should be. This eliminates the surveyors in the process [who typically laid out markers for bulldozer operators and surveyed the work periodically to make sure all was on track — causing delays and potential rework.] 

"Rework can probably in many cases account for 10% of the cost of a project. Through tools like this, you can reduce your rework dramatically and you can transform the economics of the construction site.” 

[Once the site is graded and foundations poured, you] "move on into the construction of the building. Since the very beginning we’ve provided tools that align ceilings and walls. We believe that a constructible BIM model [also] fits in here, being provided by Tekla, of an accurate 3D representation of the building. Every piece of the information is known in 3D. You change one element and everything else automatically changes. It’s an intelligent, adaptable model. But we see this interfacing with our capability on the construction site and a whole realm of intelligent tools.

"Last year, we established a joint venture with Hilti, probably the premier tools manufacturer such as drills. So the basic concept is that a 3D model feeds the tool: a magic light appears on the wall, or in the floor, or on the ceiling saying ‘drill here to apply the fastener’ or ‘do this HVAC run’. We see tight integration, a bridge between the design and the actual execution in the field through the Tekla acquisition.”

[This data also feeds into] "project management and ultimately onto the management of the facility after construction. So we view this entire process as continuity and we intend to play a role on each and every element here, but eliminating the vertical information silo as being a primary goal.

"On the front end, the traditional Trimble has got a role to play. We can do a laser scan of a building or room that needs to be renovated. We capture every aspect of the room in three-dimensional space to millimeter level accuracy. It feeds the three-dimensional model, the BIM model, which in turn interfaces at the back end to Trimble tools that actually are operative on the construction site. So we see this as being a continuum.

"It’s not a new concept for us as a company. The full results will depend to a certain extent on some kind of revival, any kind of revival in the commercial building space, which is pretty much dead in the US and Europe at this point in time. But this is a game changer for the general contractor and for the trades in terms of changing their economics." [End of paraphrasing.]

I think this is pretty cool: use the combined horsepower of 3D CAD and GPS to guide almost all of the construction process. Of course, a number of questions immediately spring to mind: what does this mean for integration and interoperation with non-Trimble technologies? Who is responsible for updating models with the inevitable changes that arise during a project? How well will the GPS-to-drill communication work inside structures with many metallic components or other interferences? Too, I wonder how well this sort of offer will sell to an industry that typically has very low margins, high employee turnover and limited appetite for non-revenue-producing activities (after all, this will require training).

Even so, I like the way Trimble is thinking about bringing construction into the 21st century. Walk onto any job site and see the number of people waiting for information, piles of waste materials and long punch lists and you’ll understand the problems Trimble aims to solve.

Final note: Trimble isn’t alone in trying to address inefficiencies in construction — just about all of the AEC software suppliers have offerings aimed at construction workflows. As far as I am aware, however, Trimble is the only one (so far) to try to combine software and hardware this way. Definitely the only one I’ve heard mention GPS and drill in the same breath.