Come with me to a ballroom in Amsterdam. Candelabras, fancy place settings, soft lighting. The Bentley Systems team is all dressed up while the rest of us look pretty darned good, too. There’s a glittering stage  and a buzz in the air — this is the gala dinner at which the winners of Bentley Systems’ 2012 Be Inspired Awards and Be Inspired Special Recognition Awards are announced.

It’s been a grueling couple of days. The Bentley team shepherded 58 finalists through the awards process and hosted events for customers and more than 80 jurors, journalists and industry analysts from around the world. The jurors started evaluating submissions over the summer, narrowing down dozens of entries to 3 finalists in each of 20 categories. Over two days, each finalist presented to a room filled with co-workers, partners, competitors, journalists and jurors –a nerve-wracking experience for many of the presenters– and now, with much fanfare, we’ll find out who won.

Bentley first brings up the Special Recognition Award winners. These are hand-picked by Bentley’s senior management as embodying “return on innovation”, “sustaining the professions” and so on. These are all impressive but already known to be winners, so their announcement serves mostly to prolong the suspense for the rest of the audience. The excitement builds as several hundred people anxiously wait to hear if their project has won the award for innovation in mining and metals or roads or one of the other categories. It’s hard to describe the buzz. Of course teams are rooting for themselves and for their colleagues, but nations and continents are also cheering for their own. An announcer describes each category’s projects, a picture is shown and then …. THE WINNER IS ANNOUNCED. Whooping, hollering, hopping up and down. This is not a bunch of blasé diners; these people worked hard to represent the team back home to their best ability, give a great presentation, and explain how they overcame obstacles in completing their projects. Each winner poses for a formal photo but the best pictures happen back at the tables when the winners, grinning from ear to ear, hold their trophies as they are surrounded by well-wishers. Some winners are mobbed by journalists (there’s even a TV crew). It’s quite an evening and we just can’t tear ourselves away until the last winner is announced.

What’s so cool about these awards is that they aren’t necessarily won by the biggest, most complicated projects (although, to be honest, many are). The point is innovation: who found the most creative solution to their problem? What was the business impact? The effect on the employees, environment and users of the infrastructure asset? How unique was their use of technology? I was a juror for the plant track and can say that it was very difficult picking winners because many projects were of such a high quality.

Congratulations to all finalists and award recipients, listed here.

Like all good things, Be Inspired 2012 eventually must end. It was a packed couple of days with many highlights in addition to the awards. During the media sessions and again, briefly, for the assembled users, CEO Greg Bentley and vice president of Bentley Software Bhupinder Singh ran through a dizzying array of product announcements and introduced couple of acquisitions. Following is what I found most intriguing:

  • Bentley CONNECT is a new hybrid cloud/desktop offering that syncs data across mobile and desktop applications. Mr. Bentley likened it to a more secure, controlled Dropbox. He is on a mission to move the AEC world from what he calls “data mortality” to “data mobility” to ensure that, on the one hand, accurate data in the correct format at the right time gets to whoever needs it; and, on the other, that this data, wherever logical, is reused. The Bentley CONNECT offering will include Bentley Connection Space (the Dropbox-like service), Bentley Simulation Services (AEC simulation in the cloud), and extensions to ProjectWise collaboration services and AssetWise asset lifecycle information management services, among other things. [I was not able to attend the Simulation Services session but hope to learn much more about that part of the offer and will blog again when I know more. –Ed.]
  • Mr. Bentley announced two acquisitions intended to extend existing offerings. EuResearch was acquired for its Microprotol solution for the design and analysis of pressure vessels and heat exchangers. Microprotol is a natural addition to the AutoPIPE family and enables Bentley to offer a more complete analysis suite. Bentley plans to integrate Microprotol with its existing structural analysis and design suite (RAM, STAAD, ProSteel and Structural Modeler), providing cross-discipline workflows that improve the overall design process.
  • SpecWave, the second acquisition, helps architects and engineers author and configure structured text content, such as engineering specifications (“specs”) and related codes and standards. Specs define pipes and fittings that meet the requirements of a chemical process, or structural members designed to withstand earthquakes. Designers are supposed to use only components in the specs but that’s not always possible, so specs are usually living documents with comments and changes. Specs are difficult to digitally parse at the level of individual text objects so it was not always clear which one of possibly thousands of items in the spec had changed. SpecWave manages documents at a very detailed level so that individual items can be managed and controlled. SpecWave + Bentley CONNECT means that specs and similar documents can more easily be shared, tracked and maintained across all project participants.
  • Just a year ago, at Be Together in Philadelphia, Bentley demonstrated its first iPad app. Last week, the company demoed 6 apps on 3 devices including the iPad, an Android tablet and the Microsoft Surface. The apps are cool — the audience especially loved the motion detection component that uses the device’s sensors to move the viewer through an on-screen model for comparisons between designed and as-built. What I found most interesting is that, for the first time, I heard a software vendor talking about enabling customers to build their own apps. Mr. Singh told the audience that he realizes that Bentley can’t do everything, so is making it possible via APIs and toolkits for users to create their own, specialized apps. It’ll be interesting to see what actually happens with this — many users were thinking about creating apps but we’ll see how many actually do. I can, however, see a lot of third parties creating (and selling) apps for specific functions.

Not announced until this week is an agreement with Siemens Industry Automation Division under which Bentley’s facilities design, ProjectWise and AssetWise will work with Siemens PLM’s Teamcenter to lay out and operate automotive and discrete manufacturing facilities. The companies say that, over the longer term, they will “explore opportunities for jointly developed technology to expand industry-centric solutions and further collaboration interoperability between Siemens’ Teamcenter and Bentley’s ProjectWise software”. It’s a great idea, and perfectly reflects what Bentley is trying to do across all of the industries it supports: optimize the entire lifecycle of an asset (whether an assembly line or bridge) to maximize returns. “Returns” are measured on many axes: total cost of ownership, profit, environmental compliance and so on. Optimizing the whole lifecycle starts all the way in the beginning, when concept design looks at maintenance cost as part of design trade-offs, for example. It’s early days yet for this, but the real potential is leveraging Ivara (Bentley’s recent acquisition) to capture and act on equipment performance data at the earliest design stage. Important things to note here: Siemens has NOT acquired Bentley, this agreement comes at the Divisional level within Siemens (so above the Siemens PLM entry point), and it is an extension of existing agreements. Nonetheless, pretty cool.

Blizzards of press releases aside, Bentley is not a marketing juggernaut. Their portfolio is so broad (and they chose to talk about every single piece of it) that the important stuff tended to get lost. Go back and reread the bit above about Bentley CONNECT — that’s big. Every Bentley user will be able to have a Bentley CONNECT space for their own stuff; projects teams will maintain a Bentley CONNECT workspace to extend ProjectWise and AssetWise environments outside their firewalls to involve suppliers, partners and owners. All of it under control, with security. Big.

Some of Bentley’s recent announcements may be a bit ahead of its users –many owners, for example, are not yet in a position to tie asset operations or performance data into early-stage design– but they will get there. The focus on construction (and constructability) is also prescient, as more and more projects require tighter coordination between design and construction. The continued push to ease bottlenecks (like in spec management) keeps customers engaged right now. There’s a bit of sizzle with the mobile device apps. Bentley is on the right track, helping its customers make short-, mid- and long-term strategic improvements to their processes.

By far the best part of any Be Inspired is watching the winners’ faces when their hard work pays off with the recognition of their peers. Thanks to the Bentley team for making that possible.

Note: Bentley Systems graciously covered expenses and registration for the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.