Autodesk’s Remote Entry can be installed on any number of computers without cost just as long as you have at least a single license of Fabrication CAMduct (~$1000/yr). You can read about Remote Entry’s licensing details here. Remote Entry is only of value if you’re shop or your duct manufacturer uses Autodesk’s Fabrication CAMduct to drive fabrication.
Note, like most of Autodesk’s Fabrication software…this is a stagnant product. Works only on Windows (no Andriod or IoS). Unless you’re already using CAMduct in your shop, there’s littererly very little reason to ever implement this software.
BuildCentrix started out as Webduct. They’ve since expended beyond ductwork and gone as far as having capabilities to integrate with a number of ERP systems. This is likely the best “Enterprise Class” tool focusedon ductwork at this time.
One of the newer players in the market, it’s a project partnered with GTP. However you don’t need to be a GTP Stratus user to leverage FieldOrderZ. It can serve your needs even if you’re not a Stratus customer. It can also facilitate more than just Ductwork. Works best for Autodesk Fabrication users but I’d encourage you to reach out to them to see what they can do if you’re not an Autodesk Fabricatino customer. Likely one of the easiest tools for your Field staff to sketch what they need without being an AutocAD or Revit savvy detailer.
SiteTrace is another newcomer I’ve just become aware of. CAD Content agnostic, it’ll help digitize your field ordering of Duct and related accessories saving you time and errors from traditional processes. They don’t integrate with any CAM software or Machine tools at this time making it the perfect fit for those smaller shops that get overlooked by the larger software companies.
This is the old Vulcan software, one of the long timer CAM platforms for Duct fabricators. Their current platform has mobile capabilities that allow Field ordering of duct and processing within Trimble’s Shop Fabrication software.
Most pepole know Vicon as a builder of Duct fabrication machinery. But they also offer a varierty of software tools. One of which facilities ordering of ductwork from your field staff to the shop into their managment platform.
If you’re aware of other field ordering tools for Sheetmetal ductwork, drop me a note and I’ll get them added to the list.
Paraphrasing Country singer Johnny Paycheck, “Take this Modeland Shove It.”
Yes. You heard me correctly. But just to be sure, let me rephrase it another way….”F_ck the Model“.
There. That should do it.
That may seem a bit of an odd thing to say. Especially for someone like me. After all, I’ve spent most of my career working with technology in Manufacturing and Construction. It’s been good to my family and I. But like many things, it can go too far. And it has. It’s time someone stands up and says something.
Why Do You Oppose 3d Models?
Why am I opposed to 3d models? Simply put, I’m not.
I’m opposed to idealistic visions of a utopia where everything can be solved with a 3d model. That may be the case one day, but it won’t be in my lifetime. Technology moves fast. But we’re also a long way off from promises made even a mere decade ago. The value of creating many 3d models does not overcome the cost to generate them (or maintain them).
There’s a lot of reasons NOT to model things. I won’t elaborate too deeply here. You’ll either get it or you won’t. But to summarize, here’s some of the major reasons to NOT 3d model something…
No time / schedule
No resources / staff
Lacking tools / technology
Less efficient / takes longer
No value / creates waste
If you disagree and think we should 3d model everything…like right now today, consider you might be part of the problem.
The 3d Model Vision
There’s a lot of folks who tell you how things “should be”. Digital Twin this and that. Everything will have a perfectly pristine working digital clone. Identical in every detail.
For the most part, I agree with them. However there’s an economic ecosystem at play. It’s beyond the control of a mere few wishful thinkers and prognosticators. It takes a while to turn around an industrial complex the size of constructon. So until modeling everything adds value offsetting it’s cost, some things (many things) should never be modeled. Ever.
Some will say this is because the industry full of laggards. Those reluctant to change. But look around. The skyscrapers, the roads and bridges, the dams and monuments. Do they look like they were constructed by laggards? Next time you’re in a big city, walk up to a construction worker and call them a laggard. See how that goes for you.
It’s also important to keep in mind how things “are” didn’t just happen in an ignorance vacuum. Things evolved for a reason. And until those reasons go away, we’re left with what “is” not “what should be”. And if things haven’t changed as you expected, consider the problem might by more complex than you give it credit. Those ‘laggards’ as they’re called, just might know something you don’t.
Resistance to Overboard
3d Modeling in manufacturing preceded common use in construction by about two decades. Same with concepts like PLM which is manufacturing’s ‘BIM’. Lean? Started in manufacturing (Just like me).
I pushed hard for 3d modeling back in one of my old companies. Endured the eye rolls and comments about how “3d is for boxes, not complex things like the warped surfaces” which they were doing in 2d AutoCAD. I also promoted Revit for a manufacturer of construction materials before Autodesk acquired the technology.
In each of those cases, when they finally saw what I was trying to convey, they over reacted and went too far. Complete abandonment of all 2d even where it made sense and 3d had no added value. They even attempted to do manufactured piece part modeling in Revit where Inventor or Solidworks was better suited. What was need was nuance and a blended approach. Instead the result was a binary shift. Classic throwing the baby out with the bath water. Lessons learned the hard way.
Sometimes when you apply too much force to a seemingly immovable or stuck object, it’ll eventually break free and go beyond it’s acceptable tolerance. If you’ve ever busted a knuckle trying to remove a stuck bolt while working on your car, you know what I mean.
3d Modeling has went that same way. Gone too far. If you ask me, as an industry are suffering from bruised, broken and bleeding knuckles.
The Problem With 3d Models
So what’s wrong with the current 3d modeling approach? Absolutely Everything.
No, not THAT ‘Everything’. There’s a lot of 3d modeling that creates incredible value and eliminates waste. It greatly exposes risk before cost is incured. In those cases we should do more not less.
The ‘Everything’ I’m talking about is that we’ve somehow moved into this unattainable, low intellect thinking that 3d modeling is the answer for….well, just about EVERYTHING. Revit projects have become nothing more than an erotic orgy of data vomit.
Oh look…corn. I don’t remember having corn. Is that a piece of baked potato? A date dump from a 3d model often results in forensics to even determine what the hell it is.
Need data? Add it to the model.
Nothing modeled? Model it.
Data changed? Open the Model and edit it.
Somehow the 3d Model turned into not only the single-source of truth but the ONLY source of truth. Merit for what to put in a model is typically controlled by somone with limited perspective. Can the computer can open it, navigate efficenetly and display/print sheets in an asthetically pleasing way? That’s the benchmark used today. There’s not a shred of data lifecycle cost or maintenance perspective let alone the cost and impact of those decisions up and down stream from the model.
This is absolutely flawed thinking. When you look at the data required for the built environment, there literally is no commercially available applications on the market today to help you manage this data. Hardly at the project level, and certainly not at the enterprise level. None. They’re all focused on the project model at it’s core….not project data. And certainly not enterprise data.
Yes, there are applications that help you manage portions of data or small genres of data. But nothing exists today which allows a company to manage their AEC ‘Data’ and leverage it across the enterprise. Once again I repeat, NOTHING.
Baseless Claim or Reality?
I’ve been thinking along these lines for some time. Years perhaps. I’ve been in User Groups and Meetups. Vendor Webinars. Industry Conferences. Hallway conversations. Far too many times I’ve heard “Model it” or ‘Add it to the Model”. No debate. No discussion. Just an accepted fact without any hint of value focused thought.
There’s a lot of examples in other industries that suggest alternate thinking. One is Manufacturing which typically leads trends in constriction by a couple decades. Manufacturing has Data Management systems and PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) systems. These are database systems that manage not only models but the data about the models. The key is that the data is associated to the model from an external database. They typically contain a lot of data that isn’t modeled. Anyone model Grease or Paint? A well implemented PLM system will tell you exactly how much you need and where to procure it all without a model of it.
Another notable example is GIS (Geographic Information Systems). A database is at it’s core, not CAD data. CAD data is merely just a small subset of data in a GIS system. Imagine a home changes owners. How does someone at the County get their GIS system updated? They update a database. What aren’t they doing? Opening CAD…Editing a graphical polygon with the owner information and saving the CAD file.
In both of these cases, external databases are linked to and help manage graphical models. The models don’t contain all of the data. And the databases usually contain MORE than just data for the models themselves. Unlike construction where we try to embed every conceivable piece of information right into the model itself.
I’m Not Alone…Anymore
As I said earlier, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I frequently question my own sanity. Perhaps not as much as those who know me. But I do none the less. So imgine my surprise when I recently came across a couple articles that reaffirmed my thoughts.
This first is this article from AEC Magazine. ‘BIM is Bust’.
To summarize, enterprise data is locked inside applications (and models). It’s created there and those applications serve as the gate keeper. Yes there’s Cloud services with API’s. But the data they host and control is still application/model centric. It doesn’t integrate with your data. If you want the data, you have to integrate with it. As such, it’s application/model centric. Not enterprise centric.
How Should We Use Models?
By examining how modeling tools came to be, we can understand how those tools should be used,
That start was as a drafting and documentation tool. At it’s core, creating drawings is the act of working out design decisions and documenting them. That documentation is then used to physically build whatever it is you were designing.
As tools progressed, they offered some natural enhancements. 3d helped us visualize not just during the design process but for others who weren’t skilled at visualizing in 3d from a 2d document. Parametric functionality also helped us build smart objects which helped us quickly make derivative designs. These functions also helped increase efficiency in the design process. We lessened the need to calculate small details and merely used smart objects to help build a design. They’re really ‘Digital Pre-Fabrication’.
Here’s one example: The following image is a conveyor support. It’s top and bottom width are variable. So is it’s height and the number of cross bracing panels.
Now look at the holes on the half circular mounting plate. Look also at the holes where the cross-bracing meets. It’s not in the center. What’s the length of that steel angle anyway?
Imagine trying to calculate all of this information from purely numerical data and no geometry. It’s no small task. The number of right-triangles and trigonometry required is quite complex.
If you need to build a few of these, 3d modeling is the perfect fit. The smart objects have made it a digital measuring tool. But what if you fabricated thousands of these? All different. Copying design files and making derivatives with new sizes gets to be time consuming. And the same 5 or 6 inputs drive all of them. And eventually, some of the parts will likely be duplicate as parts from one design just “happen” to match another. And what if the design needs to change? All those models as opposed to just regenerating them.
If you wanted to build a manufacturing system around this, you need a configurator and move data OUTSIDE the model. In this case, that’s what was done.
The assembly is 100% parametrically controlled from a spreadsheet. ALL data driving the model is driven from Excel from 6 inputs. From the length of the angle and position of holes. Even the size and shape of the structural steel shapes is driven from Excel. Here’s the formula for just the length of the selected cross-brace…
So what type of software tools do we have to manage this data at the enterprise level? Sure there’s product configurators but what about you parts library? Historical models and drawings? Common reference data defining shapes and configurations? Vendors and pricing? That’s where you implement data management or PLM systems in manufacturing.
What do we do with that data in Construction? Embed it in a model. Editable only by a Revit/AutoCAD/Microstation user. Locked up and application/model centric.
If you ask me, the solution was obvious. Or so I thought.
The Solution Should be Obvious
One of our technology vendors was pushed hard from many customers like us. The ask was to handle non-model based workflows and data. Their solution? A tool to model data in the field. They built some cool tech that will be helpful in cases, it’s not what was needed or asked. The data wasn’t modeled for a reason. So we didn’t need another tool to model it.
The real solution is to build a tool that can help us manufacture and build from data. No model required. Cutting of linear materials requires very little data as an example. Other operations like purchasing or assembly can be accomplished without a model too. Which means we can procure, manage pricing and labor, and even manufacture vast amounts of parts and data all without a model. None.
If we had tools that let us build WITHOUT a model, then where a model IS required it’s very simple to generate a model and/or link a model to that data. The manufacturing and construction process would have 100% coverage because it’s based on data, not a model.
When you use a model based system, you have partial coverage. You miss all non-modeled work and introduce a second workflow and processes. Also lost are analytics to view your entire operation.
One company I know literally publishes purchased items like buckets of adhesive as generic models. This is done so they can have all work go through their “model based” system and link to an ERP. Is that really what you want? It’s yet another workaround to compensate for lacking tools.
If you build tools that work only with models, they’ll only work with a model.
If you build tools that work with only data, they can also use models because a model is a shortut to data.
Now all we need is someone to start building “Data” centric tools.
I have a lot of people contact me and ask about software tools. They usually only know of some of them but not all of their options. Often they don’t fully understand what all they do or don’t do and how they may compare to each other.
So I figured I’d throw together a little summary of the better options that I’m aware of. There’s others out there but they’re really not penetrating the market or working toward integrating with other solutions near as I can tell. OR perhaps I’m just clueless and haven’t run across them yet.
I’ve listed the tools below in Alphabetical order to minimize suggestions of bias hopefully. But I tend to be pretty opinionated so take that for what it’s worth.
I’m sure everyone I’ve listed below will have issues with my descriptions to some degree and that’s ok. While I personally know many of people involved with these companies, I’m not an expert on their solutions. I highly recommend you talk to all of them and ask them your specific questions.
Note: I have not listed machine tool specific software like TigerStop‘s TigerTouch or Watt‘s new 3dPP Software. If you have tools like those, you likely already have those software options available to you and are familiar with them.
Other tools specific for Duct fabrication like Autodesk Fabrication CAMduct or Trimble ToolShop (Vulcan) are not covered because the Sheetmetal trades have been using them for years and are quite familiar with them.
The last thing to note is that just because a few solutions have an ‘X’ in the same column does NOT mean they even come close to addressing that category the same way or equally as well. Just that the tool helps with those major/broad categories I’ve listed. These tools do much more than I outline, I’m just covering some of my major observations. Review software demo’s and workflows closely.
Allied BIM is a great group of guys. They’re a little smaller than some of their competitors but don’t let that fool you. They integrate with more variety of machine tools than their larger competitors. So what do they do?
Fabrication Center – This is your production management system. Helps you keep track of what you’ve fabricated, what’s in process and what’s in the pipeline.
Fabrication Desktop – This is a machine control application that integrates with their other tools. It’s a huge upgrade to what you’d get out of the box from TigerStop or Razor Gauge.
Fabrication Tools – Help automate model and drawing production, spooling, etc. all in Revit. (you know, all those things Autodesk should have done but didn’t).
Allied BIM also sells machines last I knew. I’ve seen one of their setups and I tell you…if you want “White Glove” treatment and support….these are your guys. I don’t know anyone else installing a camera so they can remotely watch and assist your team on the shop floor. As they started out as a set of in house tools as a fabricator, they’re also the only company I know who’s run by guys who actually worked production. They’ve also recently partnered with ATG USA (Autodesk Reseller) to help support their sales efforts.
While a well known Autodesk reseller, they’re the new kid on the block competing against eVolve MEP. It’s hard to describe but while they’re competing against eVolve Mechanical, they’re approach to tools they’re building seems quite different. I’m pretty impressed with what they’re doing and where they’re going. General feel is instead of big complicated commands that you use once in a while and do a lot, theirs are more a suite of simpler more elegant tools that you’re going to use again and again putting money back in your pocket.
Here’s a few offerings under the “BIMrx” branding…
BIMrx Core – A lot of general Revit management tools.
BIMrx Fabrication – Modeling automation and efficiency. Focus here is on Fabrication ITM workflows.
BIMrx Fabrication DBS – Don’t have a Fabrication ITM database? Here’s one you can just buy vs build yourself.
BIMrx MEP – Modeling automation and efficiency. Focus here is on RFA/Family workflows.
Microdesk has other offerings too but they’re not focused exclusively on MEP so I’m not going to cover them. I do however encourage you to take a look.
Formerly known as WebDuct, they started out as a field ordering tool for Ductwork and other materials. Their Ductwork workflows have various integrations to CAMduct, ToolShop(Vulcan), PractiCAM, etc. But don’t let their Sheetmetal origins fool you. They’re a material logistics tool (pipe, consumables, tools, etc.) that integrates into a number of ERP systems used by MEP contractors like Viewpoint, Coins and others.
One of their more recent additions is an online duct builder which might be a good competitor to GTP’s FieldOrderZ. But because of their field logistics focus, they’re not really competing against Msuite, Stratus Connect2Fab or Allied BIM….yet. There are customers of those products that also using BuildCentrix.
eVolve MEP is a company and suite of tools spun out of Applied Software. Applied Software ended up picking up Fabrication support after TSI’s demise when they acquired Enceptia (formerly DC CADD).
Their bread and butter (among other things) are tools to help model authoring, spooling, hanger placement, etc. Once again, this is a company that really shouldn’t exist except for Autodesk’s inability to listen to customers. They’ve built all the things you’d need and more to model with ITM content in Revit in contrast to Trimble’s RFA/Family based SysQue. On the ITM side, Microdesk is really the only major competitor with MSuite’s FabPro and Victaulic Tools taking a good sized bite of the apple too.
eVolve Electrical – Electrical based model authoring and automation. Not sure but I think this is RFA based.
GTP’s Stratus product is another one of the big competitors in the production managements space. Their differentiator IMO started as a focus on machine tool integration but as other’s have caught up, it’s become their ability to highly customize the system. This makes it a bit unwieldly to manage but if you master it, you can make it do a lot of things nobody ever envisioned and things their competitors can’t do. This flexibility also makes it a little easier to incrementally implement IMO as opposed to a larger more encompassing rollout common with other software implementations.
Here’s some of the products GTP offers…
FieldOrderZ – This is a newer offering designed to facilitate ordering materials and even field based sketching of fabrication. It does intigrate w/Stratus but can also be used standalone.
GTP Connect – This tool is designed to facilitate procurement from models.
Stratus – This is GTP’s production management system. Works with CADmep or Revit as well as both RFA and ITM content. While GTP doesn’t have Spooling solution inside Revit, you can Spool completely within Stratus.
Syclone – This is a tool used to import PCF file into Revit to generate a model. PCF is a format that can be exported from a number of applications to exchange piping component data.
Wireworks – This is GTP’s model authoring tool but it’s specific to Electrical only. content in Stratus. There is no equivalent for mechanical that I’m aware of.
HangerWorks Pro is a Revit Add-In to help with Hanger placement and modeling. It was originally written by GTP for Dewalt. It then disappeared for a while and it’s just recently resurfaced again but completely rewritten by the developers at MSuite from my understanding. I’ve not seen what the new rewrite looks like but do have a demo scheduled.
Manufacton was really one of the first ‘Production Management’ solutions available in the industry. I’ve been told their original founder was from Autodesk and a lot of their funding came from some Autodesk insiders. However, unlike their 2 primary competitors at the time (MSuite and Stratus) they really seemed to struggle to gain market share in MEP. When I had my demo, they weren’t even able to tell me who any of their MEP customers were…I ended up telling them who they were.
Ultimately they looked for a buyer and were acquired by Vizz Technologies. I’m not familiar with Vizz Technologies or where they’ve taken the product since. However, it still appears to me to focus more as a high level, generic (not MEP focused) production management tool. Executive management may really like it but it doesn’t appear focused as much on the end users in Detailing or the Shop like you see with Allied BIM, MSuite, Stratus. Still, it’s worth a look of you’re looking for a solution to help manage your shop.
MSuite is one of the big players when it comes to production management. If you’re looking for a solution and don’t look at them, you’re not doing your due diligence. They have a number of things they do but the big differentiator of MSuite in my opinion is their incredible focus on productivity. If managing the labor (productivity/scheduling) for your fabrication and install is your focus, there’s nobody that does it better IMO.
I hear a number of Union contractors dismiss Msuite claiming they’re not allowed to “track labor” but I find this a bullshit argument and excuse personally. There’s a number of union contractors using MSuite including some of my friends working at one of my competitors locally. I’m more than happy to put you in touch with a number of users if you think production tracking and scheduling is an issue.
Here’s a high level list of some of their tools…
BIMPRO – This is MSuite’s set of tools for Model authoring. Spooling automation, Hanger Layout and more.
FABPRO – This is MSuite’s production management system. Track everything your shop fabricates and have complete visibility to the labor effort it takes. Works with both RFA and ITM workflows.
FIELDPRO – This is MSuite’s tool for tracking in the field. What’s been received…what’s been installed.
While MSuite has it’s roots in MEP, you’ll also see they’re making more headway in the industrial space than their competitors (IMO) near as I can tell. If you also do industrial work….take a serious look.
In a further boot to their credibility and playform, on May 13, 2022 MSuite announced they were acquired by Stanley Black and Decker. I’m expecting to see development excelerate even more with Stanley backing this suite of tools.
PypeServer is a little more difficult to explain. Most are familiar with it is from it’s early days as the programming and control system for Watts pipe profiling machines. But it’s changed in recent years and you’re likely not as familiar with who they are today.
Watts has since moved to using their own software 3dPP for their new machines. 3dPP looks to me like an almost identical clone (a very strong nod to PypeServer IMO). But PypeServer now supports a lot more machines…
At it’s core, PypeServer is most similar to a CAM program but yet it’s still quite different. So lets try to explain…
How PypeServer is different than other CAM programs from my perspective is their approach to a variety of things. For starters, most CAM programs output a CNC file for programming a part. PypeServer uses a database which can be used to recall production run parts or even queried to run reports on past production.
They also are starting to heavily leverage the cloud to facilitate data transfers eliminating the need to manage lots of files to program parts. One added benefit to this is it makes this a LOT easier to install a machine safely in your corporate network without having to add it to your domain and deal with antivirus or firewall issues that can affect machine performance. Instead, give it a connection to the web and that’s all your IT needs to do.
Another key distinction is that most CAM programs at best import exports from other CAD systems. PypeServer goes out of their way to integrate with others. Their list of importers is impressive. Each custom tailored to the CAD system they’re designed for. The Stratus import as an example, works automatically without the need for any operator actions. This minimizes the work within PypeServer to program the parts.
Another example of this is the ever growing list of Addin’s for other CAD systems to export more streamline the workflow. For our industry, their Add-ins for AutoCAD and Revit will push data to the cloud where it’s easily imported into their products without the need for file management. Here’s a rundown of their core products…
PypeServer Connect – This is their Addin that exports parts from Revit, CADmep, Plant3d to PypeServer Lyte or PypeServer Enterprise.
PypeServer Lyte – This is their newest addition used to drive linear cutting equipment like TigerStop and RazorGauge.
In the interest of disclosure, I am on PypeServer’s Board of Advisors. That means that for whatever reason, the listen to my ramblings about the industry. They’ve not in any way compensated me to write this and I’ve not submitted anything written here for their review. These are just my thoughts…consider them bias or not as you see fit.
This company’s focus is field ordering of Duct and other accessories, hardware & material from the Field to Shop. Their application elminates the need for paper orders, spreadsheets, emails, faxes and phone calls for a more error free experiance eliminating the wasted time of traditional procurement methods.
I’ve been a big critic of Trimble for a long time. They’re history of buying multiple solutions, allowing them to get obsolete and then buying new ones always bothered me. However….I’m seeing signs of a new Trimble. A Trimble that’s interesting in bridging their solutions together and providing more open access via API’s an integrations.
So imagine my surprise to see their new Connect2Fab product in Tampa this January at the MEP Innovation conference. This looks like it’s going to go head to head against GTP’s Stratus, Msuite and Allied BIM.
So it’s new and that likely means it’s not as mature as some of their competitors. But it looks good and is impressive for just getting out of the gate. Considering all the other things Trimble offers in the market, this should be considered a real threat to competitors and a viable option for contractors.
Trimble’s other main tool is SysQue, their Model Authoring offering. Unlike eVolve Mechanical that’s focused in ITM/Fabrication Part workflow, SysQue is based on Revit’s RFA content. SysQue comes with it’s own content making it an attractive offering to many who don’t have the time, skills or money to invest in making their own.
Once again, this is a tool that shouldn’t need to exist except for Autodesk’s gross neglecte of the MEP contractor industry. But if you want to do fabrication modeling in Revit efficiently, you’ll need something so it’s worth a serious look.
Let’s face it…Trimble’s had everything they’ve needed and more to compete directly against Autodesk for some time. But their offerings didn’t integrate well and that wasn’t ever really a big strategy within Trimble. But that seems to be changing….from Detailing w/SysQue, Content (RFA & ITM), Submittal Management, Estimating, Collaboration and even ERP….imagine if (when) all that’s connected.
If Trimble manages to pull this off well and repair some of trust they’ve lost with some customers in the past, they’ll be well positioned to knock Autodesk flat on their ass IMO. Autodesk rarely shows up with a booth to any event with actual trades people in attendance. On the other hand you always see Trimble with a well staffed booth. I suspect you’ll see where this is going and how much traction it’s getting within 2-5 years.
BuildingData – This is Trimble’s Fabrication ITM content library. Hands down, the largest collection of ITM on the planet.
Connect2Fab – Trimble’s new Production Management solution for managing your shop from models.
EC-CAD – This is Trimble’s AutoCAD MEP based modeling tool (Formerly East Coast CAD)
MEPContent – This is Trimble’s AutoCAD Block, IFC and RFA content library.
SysQue – Trimble’s Revit Addin for Model Authoring
Note: In the interest of disclosure, I’m not a user of SysQue and RFA content for MEP fabrication modeling. I use ITM content. That said, a lot of folks think I’m anti-SysQue. That’s not the case. I actually was involved in it’s early beta testing/development at a past employer. It’s a perfectly valid tool and is the right tool for many companies. The only thing I was ever against were some of the early marketing tactics like “Native Revit” and other bullshit sales tactics which for the most part have ceased now that Trimble acquired it.
Victaulic Tools is another interesting software offering. They’re not really a software company trying to capture the fabrication modeling market. Rather they built the tools in large part for their own BIM Services group and they sell them for a very modest cost to customers. Regardless of which tools people buy, they often also buy Victaulic tools due to it’s low cost and very helpful utilities.
Virtual Building Supply (VBS) provides ITM content for Autodesk Fabrication users. Whether you work in CADmep, ESTmep, CAMduct or Revit with Fabrication Parts, if you need ITM’s added to your database, VBS is a good source of high quality content. If they don’t have what you need, reach out and they’ll quote you to build it. Unlike many other content providers who provide “subscription” content services, VBS content is a “buy it once” model.
VBS also will provide a full database if you are in need as well. They’ll even manage your database. So if you need a full database or just a few ITMs, they’re well worth looking at.
So that’s my list of many of the major software tools available. There is no perfect solution. Many can be used alone or in conjunction with the others on the list. Some are even both competitors and partners with each other.
I really encourage everyone to look at all these tools if they address the issues they’re trying to solve. Just don’t get caught up on buzzwords. There’s a lot of users in the industry that will give you the pros and cons of each of these tools.
Most in the construction industry is familiar with the report from McKinsey a few years past as well as others. The report outlines how Construction lags behind almost every other industry in terms of productivity. It looks something like this…
Shortly after Autodesk acquired PlanGrid was when I really started to get annoyed about these statistics. It was during an evening dinner hosted in Seattle for local construction industry leaders. Autodesk and PlanGrid were presenting their vision of the future together.
In attendance were competitors, trade partners, general contractors and owners from the all the firms you think of when you think Seattle construction. Generally speaking, it was a good meeting. That is until a particular Autodesk executive took his turn at the microphone.
Like a well rehearsed orchestra, out comes the productivity chart with his statement that construction productivity has been flat for 20 years. Without skipping a beat, he informed the group that the ONLY explanation was that as contractors, we’ll “Work as Slow as you let them or as Fast as you Make them.“.
Anecdotal stories from industry trades men and women always made me suspect that data was misleading. Stories of how a 1 million sq/ft hospital use to be a 5 year project and now a good team can knock it out under a year. We’ve shifted a lot of work from the field to the shop and there’s really no benefit? Nonsense!
Sometimes when you start making improvements the benefits don’t first appear where you think. When you first turn on the A/C in a home in a warm humid climate, you start feeling more comfortable almost immediately. Except the first thing to lower is humidity, not temperature. Improvements in the construction process starting in the early 2000’s had benefits, they just may not have shown up in the poor metrics historically used to measure productivity. Similar trends were observed with technology in general. There was a lag between Silicon Valley tech’s offerings and results in business processes. It takes time to realign business ecosystems.
An Alternate View
My nature is to question everything and everyone. Even I don’t escape this scrutiny myself as I’m usually my toughest critic. I’ve encountered too many instances where reality was 180 degrees opposite of what was considered obvious.
While that McKinsey report was important for our industry, it’s also been very misused. Instead of the explanation being that we work as slow as allowed and as fast as we’re made to, I have another theory. The software we’ve been sold for 20+ years promising increased productivity and efficiency has done nothing.
To be fair, this story isn’t limited to Autodesk as plenty of other software vendors like to misuse this productivity data. I also don’t think technology has had zero benefit either. The debate on either side is largely hypothetical. Rather the problem is more complex and the description of the problem is also likely flawed in many ways.
What’s Behind The Numbers
The first place you need to look, is where do the numbers come from? McKinsey’s data comes from a number of sources including international. In the US, that data comes from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only recently did the BLS start aggregating data from specific construction sectors. Those sectors are as follows…
Single Family Residential Construction
Multi-Family Residential Construction
Industrial Building Construction
Road and Bridge Construction
Prior to getting these more sector specific numbers, they simply applied productivity from Single Family construction to the entire construction sector as a whole. Data points simply weren’t available for anything better. The above sectors don’t accurately reflect much of commercial construction where software and services dominate the focus of sales efforts by vendors.
Simply put, we’re measuring a lot of different things. Measuring them poorly and lumping them all together to get a half-assed number. They’re not good numbers but they are better then nothing. Even the BLS talks about the difficulty in obtaining good data due to various factors. One such factor is that labor from subcontractors is NOT included in the data. It’s treated like purchased materials for the purposes of BLS data collection. Subcontractors were predominantly where early prefabrication occurred. Not at the general contractor level.
That begs to question, as we move more to product manufacturing in construction, does more of that dollar value shift out of the productivity stats? It doesn’t shift labor equally to the shop as there’s still onsite assembly needed. Much like outsourcing anything, it’s not a 100% shift in labor as there’s now project management involved when outsourcing so labor actually increases. I suspect a shift to industrialized construction will not show well using current productivity measurement methods. We’ve separated the manufacturing and assembly resulting in increased labor. How does this affect the numbers?
But don’t take my word for it, dig into the data and publications yourself. There’s some good reading.
While construction productivity is a story our industry needs to hear, we need you ensure the data is used within the proper context. To start with, those “Productivity Charts” don’t actually report “Productivity“. Rather, they report “Productivity Change“. Those are two vastly different things.
If you compared the most vs least productive activities against each other over time, one will likely show drastic improvements in one while the other shows little. That doesn’t mean the activity with little improvement is somehow the laggard or in drastic need of disruption. Simply put, some activities have more low hanging fruit than others.
Secondly, the nice things about charts is you can make them say anything. Looking at that earlier productivity chart, did Agriculture, Manufacturing and Construction all magically start out with equal productivity in 1947? Unlikely. Let’s look at that data in a complete reverse manner…
Same exact curves, but displayed differently. Is Construction a laggard or did Agriculture and Manufacturing just get their shit together finally?
Construction has so many variables and is so difficult to compare, that most of these charts compare against dollar value for lack of anything better. That is likely the best number to use as poor as it is, but Dollars to Hours ratios are not the same across trades, materials, geographic regions, construction types, etc. Nothing has perfectly equal economic value.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting Construction is the lens that other industries should look at themselves through. Having transitioned from Manufacturing to Construction in 2008 myself, I see a lot we’re doing wrong and there’s dirty laundry everywhere. However when you look at the same data from a different perspective, it suggests that there’s more to the story. It’s not the picture much of the industry prognosticators and technology pundits suggest in an effort to peddle their wares.
Dissimilar Manufacturing Models
When you think of Manufacturing and increasing productivity what do you think of? High volume standard products? Or do you think of single individual custom products? Now how about construction? High volume standard buildings or custom?
Most of the world is made of standard products not custom. From milk cartons to dental tools to cars, most everything you use is a standardized product. If not, they’re assembled from standardized products. Productivity gains in manufacturing come from highly refined processes, assembly lines, standardized parts, simplification and automation. These things take significant overhead investment and volume to recoup the capital they require. There are millions of products on the market and each of those have a scale of units sold.
This isn’t really the case for construction. Construction is predominantly a large custom machine assembly activity. While there’s an increasing number of “products” going into a buildings, the ratio of standard products to custom will never be the same. Where a manufactured product requires custom parts, there’s usually a ‘volume’ component to the equation. And where there’s parts in a product, they’re assembled in similar or the same way in each unit. This also isn’t the case for construction now and never will be IMO. It’ll trend toward manufacturing, but the movement in that direction will always be less than the gap that still exists for much of commercial construction.
One last contrast between manufacturing models is at the task level. Much of manufacturing is automated or comprised of single person tasks. Contrast this to construction where due to size and scale, many tasks are performed using multiple people. It’s far easier to automate one person than an entire team.
Scope and Scale
Another key difference between manufacturing and construction is in the scale of the activity. In a nutshell the larger physically a product is and/or the more parts/complexity it contains the longer the cycle time. We can buy most any power hand tool with almost zero lead time. A major $250-500k machine tool like a 5-Axis mill is going to have a lead time from a few months to even a year or more depending on backlog.
A building is really just a large machine. Likely the largest machine that’s commonly built. And it’s complexity is likely only rivaled by products like a jet airliner. It should be noted that a 737 from order to delivery takes about 24 months and that’s a multiple unit production activity with a sometimes decades long design process.
One reason size matters is distance, Everything I need to assemble most products can be within an arm’s reach or done on an assembly line (multiple units). Have you considered the distances of material and workers in construction? Vertical transportation alone in a high rise is a significant factor in productivity. Same components…just higher up in the air. It’s not really fair to compare manufacturing productivity with the productivity of building a cross country highway. And when was the last time you’ve had the entire population of a city core commuting through your manufacturing facility while you’re moving materials into position? Does a factory floor material handler need oversize load permits? Coordinate a city street shutdown for a crane pick?
If you look at the history of manufacturing, a lot of work has been outsourced globally. In the last 2 decades, a lot of that work has been brought back. With a focus on reducing complexity, ease of manufacturing and assemble (DfMA) manufactured products have become…simpler. Electronics and computers now replace complex mechanisms,
Construction on the other hand is trending in the other direction. Prefabrication and modularization takes added time and materials making things more complex. That complexity in manufacturing is a trade off for simplicity and safety in assembly on site…the actual build. It’s also what’s required to speed on-site construction and scale a physical location that can’t easily be scaled. It doesn’t in itself save time or material in many cases. It can actually increase these factors.
Simply put, product manufacturing used raw materials to make parts to make products. Construction used raw materials to make it’s product…little use of parts. Industrialized construction is inserting “product” into the process. That’s an extra step that didn’t exist before and productivity is not likely to be the first result you’re going to see. The benefits are elsewhere not productivity (quality, safety, scalability, speet of assembly/build, etc.)
In addition to prefab and modular trends, systems are more complex and new materials being developed in the name of energy efficiency and safety. With these systems comes significant financial risk. You could recall entire product lines and replace them for the price of a failed construction project like the Harmon Tower in Las Vegas. Do a quick internet search for the litigation around construction failures using Aquatherm piping in the US….a product that’s proven itself in other markets but was often misused during it’s entry to the US market. When you insert new risk, it’s going to cost money and/or time.
Customer Business Models
Everyone wants an iPhone. It’s trendy like many products. How many people want the same home or office? How many building owners even use their building the same way? Buildings aren’t bought the same way or using the same criteria as manufactured products. The financing isn’t even the same.
Value is defined by the customer and what they’re willing to pay for. For products, it’s typically reliability, utility, fashion and/or often price. In construction, those things are important too but there are other factors. Some of those other factors often cause waste in other areas like labor and materials which cast a dark shadow on productivity.
Lets examine a couple real world examples I’ve seen….
Example 1: Hospital construction schedule necessitates overtime. The following week, it’s layoffs and a complete shutdown. Why? The healthcare company wants to buy another chain and an open construction product on the books creates an obstacle for the bankers, accountants and lawyers. No worries, it’ll pick back up in 6 months. In the mean time, you have a huge hole in your schedule with no time to fill. 6 months from now, you’re already booked and the labor halls have empty benches. How’s your productivity now? Ultimately the customer did what made sound business sense for them but injected added cost and waste into the process.
Example 2: Your doing a tenant improvement (TI) project. There’s another team doing the Shell and Core. You could really make use of their tower crane but they’re going to demobilize. After all, they work for the developer who wants to take their money and move on. Again, sound business for the developer, but which costs time and productivity to the tenant’s TI.
No Waiting or Digitization Required
How many projects do you know where the construction schedule is ahead of the design schedule? All to common right? We don’t have time to wait while 100% of the design is finalized. We make calculated decisions based on risk of change and move forward. Construction has a low digitization rate and lacks sophisticated supply chains. In practical terms this means construction is VERY agile. That’s right…Analog IS Agile.
All those digital tools and integrated workflows. None of that is needed to build. All you need are People, Material and Tools. Simple materials and simple tools. And simply put, until recently, the technology did not exist to properly manage that volume of data is a collaborative way. The Cloud has really helped here but it’s use as a collaborative tool in construction is still in it’s infancy.
Another key difference between construction and manufacturing is the economic risk. Factory expansions get canceled or accelerated. But there’s also market research into number of customers and many other factors. It’s easier to scale your plans up/down or outsource fabrication and still get a large portion of your desired value. In construction, your customer is typically buying 1 of something. Half a fence isn’t 50% effective so it’s scalability during economic uncertainty is less elastic. We might scale back quality of furniture or advanced systems for energy savings but the building will get built or not. There’s not a lot of in-between.
Construction is also the largest capital investment someone will make. In a short decade (2008-2018), we went from a “Labor shortage“, to “Never Have enough jobs again” to “Labor shortage“. That type of economic swing does not lend itself well to investment in construction. It also doesn’t help you invest in building an industrial complex for construction. Detroit’s automotive industry, with it’s existing infrastructure has almost went out of business more than once in my lifetime. There’s no significant workforce still building cars by hand.
Accelerate that business cycle from my 50 years of life to a decade. Trying to build a brand new infrastructure to support industrialized construction isn’t going to happen over night. Most think Katerra failed. I think it was a hell of a win. To do what they did at the scale they did for as long as it went on was impressive. But it was an anomaly at best. Likely only facilitated by undisciplined business evaluations by speculators looking for a unicorn. Financial gamesmanship allowed Katerra to do what they shouldn’t have been able given the timeline involved. They paid dearly for that gamble. The industry as a hole has benefited. Industry innovators and disruptors often only serve to break the dam. Others behind it are often the floodwaters you were expecting.
Different Social Engagement
Construction is also a very social activity. This repeats each and every time. Manufacturing on the other hand is social during design and perhaps production startup. Even then it’s still considerably less social. After design and process definition, manufacturing becomes very transactional. When’s the last building you saw go up that was on auto-pilot? I don’t see the consumers of the built environment purchasing transitionally as a rule of thumb outside a few narrow edge cases.
Additive manufacturing (3d Printing) is perhaps the best hope of an “Auto pilot” for construction. It’s the sexy new thing in all the trade media publications and news articles. But I’ve yet to see a mechanical room printed in 3d. I’ve not seen how they’ve 3d printed embedded conduit or voids for electrical. And I’ve not heard of any new record tall skyscraper built this way. When Boeing has the largest buildings on earth (by volume) to build a jet, imagine them larger to build a 40-story highrise and make those production facilities mobile. That’s what we’re up against.
The last difference I’ll highlight is the regulatory environment construction operates under. Does the city council and their various committees dictate the size, quantity or color of the buttons on the machine you’re manufacturing? Do community groups protest the look of your products and demand that they have a similar feel as the rest of the products in your home?
Safety is another where the regulatory differences are striking. No industry is exempt. But they are targeted. Be it fishing, robotic cell design, chemical processing…there’s usually a limited scope to much of the regulations being pushed in the manufacturing space. In construction, those regulations sweep broadly across the whole industry. Much of this is insurance and litigation driven as well. In these cases, time is money and money wins. I’ve yet to buy a car and have a discussion with a dealer about bonding, lien wavers, or if my coverage will be OCIP or CCIP (Owner Controlled vs Contractor Controlled Insurance Plan). Financing a car is fairly straight forward. A building is not. Risk drives this and it will affect productivity.
I’m certainly not disputing the value of safety. However every moment you’re setting up/taking down safety gear and not holding a pipe is increased labor cost. In a manufacturing world, those measures tend to be more permanent, not repetitively relocated. They’re also more easily automated in manufacturing if human waste can’t be extracted any other way.
That’s a Wrap
Again, the point of all this isn’t that I think Construction don’t need to improve or change. It does. Safety is critical. So is energy and material usage. The point I’m trying to make is this….We don’t need to be brow beat into buying anyone’s product. None of them are going to save our industry by themselves. Our industry is doing quite well and is headed in the right direction. It just takes time to change an industry and build and new industrial complex to feed it.
I hope the next time you hear someone casually throwing out construction productivity stats, you’re more likely to push back. Empty slogans and catch phrases have no place in disrupting our industry. Sound business and data driven decisions do. Don’t let them bull shit you any more.
A bit if Personal History
PS: The below photo is of my child hood home I moved into in 4th grade. It was built in 1975 in a rural part of Michigan with a county population less than 8500 residents. It was a prefabricated home. All floor plates, walls and roof trusses were delivered in 3 open top semi trailers and assembled via crane over a full concrete block foundation in the course of a day. That was 45 years ago and it’s still not mainstream today. Things change slower than you realize and only to appear to have changed quickly in hindsight. Industry disruptors rarely destroy entire industries overnight. While there’s a lot of runway ahead, if you objectively look back 10-15 years, you’ll see we’ve come a hell of a long way.
This is my 4th and last article on Digital Transformation for the average contractor. The whole point of this series was to help companies understand that they don’t need to know what the future holds to prepare for it. If you missed them, the other 3 articles can be found here…
In this article, we’ll look at an action plan. By using this plan, you can help focus your efforts.
A 5 Step Action Plan
It can help to prioritize with any effort. Because there’s a lot to do, it’s easy to get lost in all the work. Your action plan may look different and it should be if your needs are different. However, these 5 steps are a good starting point.
Step 1 – Mitigate Current Risks
You might have existing risks because of prior actions. You can only mitigating these risks if you identify them. Review what you’re currently doing because that’s likely where they are. However some risks may be due to what you’re not doing. Here’s some ideas to get you thinking….
Is your data backed up? Not just server data but cloud systems, machine tools, etc.
Are you managing user accounts in all your technology systems?
Do your advanced or complex configurations have documentation?
Is your data accurate (BIM Content, Models, Standards, etc.)?
Are users trained in proper processes and technology usage?
Do all your technologies have an “owner” or responsible party?
Is Staff cross trained or does your technology and processes rely on only one person?
Who is maintaining your standards? Is there even governance around them?
Are there things critical to your organization controlled by others outside your organization?
What things have “Single points of failure”?
Step 2 – Reduce Waste and Inefficiencies (Create Value)
Your next step is really something you likely do already. Reducing waste and inefficiency. However it’s a good idea to revisit occasionally. After you’ve documented your workflow, developed a new workflow or changed your technology. It’s good to revisit how these things impact your efficiency and drive value. Some general thoughts that can apply to most company…
Are users aware of how your technology should be used (training)?
Do you have under utilized or misused technology or processes?
Duplicate technology for the same purpose?
Are there things you do that are easily outsourced?
What can be automated but isn’t?
Do new cloud workflows represent what should happen or did you simply move your existing processes into the cloud?
Are your computers or hardware setup consistently, maintained proactively or built with automated processes?
Step 3 – Missed Opportunities
One area people don’t think about enough is missed opportunities. You’re always watching costs vs benefits. Results of doing things. But what’s the cost of not doing something? What’s the cost of missed opportunities? These could come in many forms. It’s best to build your own list but here’s a few examples…
Leverage knowledge from existing staff
Free or joint marketing from vendors or customers
Missed value you could sell if you were leading edge with technology
R&D opportunities with technology vendors
Existing competencies not marketed properly
Step 4 – Prepare for the Future
This step is really what Part 2 and Part 3 of my series was about. These are things you can do now, despite an unknown future. There’s a lot you can do right now that sets you up for success down the road. However you don’t need to wait until the first three steps are done. You can start chipping away at these now. They just shouldn’t be your primary focus until Steps 1 through 3 are well underway. Here’s a few ideas, feel free to add your own…
Document existing processes
Develop ideal workflows
Start building missing competencies in staff and departments
Restructuring existing technology stacks
Capture wisdom of staff nearing retirement
Reverse mentor older staff by tech savvy younger generation
Step 5 – New Strategic Opportunities
This step is the hardest to provide guidance on. It really depends where your company sees itself going. The skills they have can help differentiate itself in the market place from others.
Here’s were an ear to the ground can be helpful. Trying to anticipate what trends in construction may be fads vs long lasting or even transformational. How can you leverage them? How can you change your business to remain relevant? Regardless of the future, if you’ve followed all the other guidance, you should be able to easily adapt when these trends emerge.
Will you be a manufacturer in an “Industrialized Construction” economy?
Do you have staff capable of developing prefabrication or modularization strategies?
Are you able to be an efficient supply chain provider?
Can you help your customers with smart building technology?
Will Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence render you obsolete or is it simply a tool you use?
Who are the new players in the construction economy and is there value you can bring to them?
How can you capitalize on the struggles of your competition?
Aside from here in Step 5, everything in this series of posts are things you can start doing right now. They’re things that don’t require a prognosticator’s view of the future. Yet they’re all things that will help you be more agile and able to adapt when trends or disruption comes knocking.
You don’t have to worry about the future to prepare for it. There’s enough to do right now that you can stop worrying. More than likely, at some point you’ll take notice and see you’re living the future. The actions and choices you’ve used to prepare you allowed you to tackle the future without even realizing it.
Make smart choices. Stay busy. Stay Relevant. You can eat the future one small bite at a time.
I discussed the problem and overall objective of digital transformation in construction in Part 1. In Part 2 I outlined four activities you could take right now. Activities that cost nothing more than time. These activities can really help inform you. Guiding where you should start working when aligning your technology stack.
There’s a lot of things you can do to better align your technology. While there’s no magic formula there are a few categories these activities fall under.
In many cases, you might be removing technology from your portfolio. Maybe it’s obsolete or ineffective. Whether your processes have changed or the technology didn’t stay mature it’s best to remove things that are no longer needed or don’t provide the value you were looking for.
It could also be that there’s overlap in solutions. Does more than one product serve the same purpose? You typically don’t want more than one solution for the same problem. There can always be exceptions. But you should have a very good reason if you have duplicate technology.
In many cases, you already have good tech in place. However you may not be using it correctly or to it’s potential. This is often a result of someone solving a specific problem and buying a product to address it. This can result in technology you haven’t fully implemented or is implemented poorly.
This doesn’t mean the solution is bad or that the effort was bad. But it can be helpful to revisit. Is there more value you can leverage? More of your processes and workflows covered? Can you use the product differently to achieve a greater purpose?
When you realign existing tech, it often just takes time. Time to relook at the factors that led to it’s use. Relook at how things have changed. Changes in your process as well as how the product may have matured since first selected.
Can you change your process to better accommodate the product’s value proposition? Can you change how you use the product to better serve your needs? Here’s another case where it only takes time if you have a good tech savvy person in house.
It might also be wise to leverage a vendor or consultant to help. You might also consider leveraging vendors for training. They have experience with other firms using their tools. With their knowledge, they can often can point out use cases you might not have thought of.
The other cost during realignment of technology is licensing. If you’ve under or miss utilized technology, fixing this problem may result in additional use. This translates to additional licensing costs for you. This isn’t bad. It’s good. The whole point is to gain value and productivity. Both of those things should be worth paying for. If not, it’s a sign you’re using the wrong tool.
When it comes to new technology, the number of choices can be overwhelming. You may not know what the future holds. And every vendor claims they’ll lead you there.
The fact is, you don’t need to be a prognosticator to choose good technology. There’s a number of basic concepts and criteria you can use when evaluating technology. Concepts that help you make better choices regardless of what the future holds.
When I look at technology, there’s a number of questions I ask myself about a potential solution. Here’s a partial list of things take into consideration. There is no right or wrong answer. They won’t all be true. But you can get an idea if you have a good solution or not based on these and other factors. When using these criteria, your choice will likely be better suited to the future even if it is unknow. Make your own list or add to this one….
Is it cloud based or enabled? Most things are migrating to the cloud. If it’s an on premises only solution, it’s not aligned with the future as well as a Cloud based solution.
Does it reduce or eliminate paper? Anything that reduces or eliminates paper will help reduce static obsolete data.
Will it reduce or eliminate data files? Much like paper, data files are typically copies of the real data in a system. Think of a PDF, it’s really electronic paper. Give preference to anything that gives you real time access to data without needing “files”.
Is duplication of data reduced or eliminated? Data duplication is never good. It requires extra effort to keep in sync or find out why it’s different. Find solutions that reduce data duplication in your environment.
Will it simplify or eliminate processes? If it makes things simpler, there’s less waste. Less training. Less things to go wrong.
Does it simplify IT infrastructure? Your IT infrastructure can often be impacted by technology. Solutions that simplify your infrastructure can often be an added benefit.
Is it Model based? Can the solution leverage your BIM or CAD models? Not just export data from them or convert them but use them directly to provide value? A Model Based enterprise is what you should be striving for.
Can you integrate it with other solutions? If you can’t integrate with anything else, you’re boxed in. Even if you don’t have anything currently to integrate with, you typically want that ability later should you need it.
Does it have an API (Application Programming Interface) Without an API, you can’t automate anything like data mining or integrating with other solutions. Even if you don’t have a programmer, you may want to use one later. Don’t limit your future options without a good reason.
If it doesn’t meet some of your criteria, does it get you closer? Sometimes we just can’t get everything we want. It might be too much of a change or maybe it’s just not available. But can you get closer? Don’t over look incremental improvements.
Digital twin? Does the solution get you closer to having a digital replica of your product, facility and/or process?
Has manufacturing used a similar solution? Manufacturing has led trends seen in construction by two or three decades. BIM in AEC is similar to PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) in Manufacturing. 3d Parametric Modeling? LEAN? Model Based Enterprise? Prefabrication and Modular construction use similar concepts as DfM, DfA or DfMA in manufacturing that helped re-shore a lot of work that was once offshored.
Have other industries used similar solutions or concepts? Shipbuilding has transformed to use modular. Healthcare leveraged a lot of Toyota’s Lean concepts. GIS uses CAD data linked to external data sets. A lot can be learned from watching others.
Is time eliminated from your process? Any solution should put time back in someone’s day or reduce lead times.
Does it build in quality? If using the solution, will it help mistake proof your processes?
Will the solution require a dedicated administrator? Many solutions sound good on the surface but require a lot of administrative overhead. Verify the cost of administration when looking at any technology.
Is data better organized? Will using the solution help better organize your data and information? Data is of no value if others can’t find what they need.
Can it leverage or use existing data? You have a lot of data already. Can it leverage or use what you already have and provide more value to an existing data asset?
Does it turn data into information? Data is worthless. Information is priceless. Make sure any solution provides information, not just data.
What % of existing data/systems is being used? How much of what the solution offers is actually going to be used or helpful? Features don’t provide value if they’re not going to be used or helpful.
Is the data in system(s) or file(s)? Data that resides in a “system” or database is typically more flexible than in a “file”. File based data typically requires additional management and processes. This makes them prone to user errors.
Can data be captured as a natural byproduct of using the product or does it require a separate work activity? If it takes you a lot of time to log, capture or report on data, that’s a separate work activity. Any system that makes you feel like you need a separate cost code to account for your time just to use it, is likely not a good solution.
Does using the system help standardize data? Standardized data typically yields more value with higher reliability and often eliminates a lot of human error.
Will it help with “Aggregation of marginal gains”? Sometimes a solution’s value isn’t the “one big thing” it does rather that it does or helps facilitate a lot of small incremental improvements.
Can you get a return in 1-2 years? Don’t worry about predicting the future. Tech moves fast. Be cautious of any solution claiming they’re the “Future”.
Is it the lesser of 2 evils? Never a decision anyone likes to make but sometimes a problem is big enough and the benefits in other areas are significant enough that what you do compromise on is the lesser of two evils.
Does it get you closer to your vision? Sometimes you can’t implement the solution you want. It may not exist or it’s just too big a change for your organization to swallow. Don’t dismiss smaller changes over time. Nobody said it’s a permanent solution.
Are Licensing terms flexible? Paying the same licensing cost for part time users as full time is wasteful. Likewise, solutions that want a percentage of revenue can be costly. You can’t always choose licensing terms but they’re often negotiable to a point. Verify the percentage of revenue is revenue from processes the solution addresses. Try to limit licensing costs early on in the implementation…you’re not using the full solution on day one.
Can you replace the solution easily in the future? Nothing is forever. How easily will you be able to swap the solution for another should your needs change?
Your list of things to consider when choosing technology solutions can and should vary. The point is, we don’t have to be able to predict the future with laser accuracy to select good technology. Use common sense concepts and principals and you’ll be well positioned for an unknown future.
In Part 4 (my last in the series), I’ll cover some aspects and approaches to prioritization.
In my last article, I showed a high level overview of what you’re trying to achieve. Digital transformation in construction is really about eliminating data silos and data handoffs. Because you now have a clear vision of what you want to happen, you’re ready to start putting your plan in place.
Looking for solutions at this point might be tempting. I know I’m always eager to jump in and start problem solving. But let’s hold off on that for now. Put a pin in it and we’ll get to that later.
4 Actions You Can Take Immediately
Before we introduce any new technology solutions, there’s actions you can take right now. You don’t need to write a check or create a budget. Because the only cost is your time and that of your coworkers.
Because they’re not required, my observation is that most companies don’t perform these steps. You’ve likely heard the saying “Time is money” countless times. But in my career I’ve noticed that you can typically waste 10x more money than you spend before anyone ever notices.
Because these steps only take time, there’s really no reason you can’t do them. It’s highly recommended that you do. If for no other reason, the end result will be a good communication and sales tool. It’ll help you move your initiatives forward with those that aren’t as tech savvy and don’t see the path to digital transformation.
Action 1: Workflow and Process Mapping
The first action you can take is to document your existing workflows and processes. By “your”, I really mean the workflows and processes of your company. Many refer to this process as “Value Stream Mapping”. If you’re not familiar with the “Lean” jargon don’t get caught up in the semantics. You’re really just trying to capture and diagram what really happens.
To do this, meet with various groups of users separately. You don’t need a whole department. Choose a diversity of people that will give you the broadest possible honest feedback. To help your groups easily visualize what they’re communicating, write on a whiteboard or use Post-It notes on a wall.
Ask simple questions. Pretend you don’t know anything about the workflow or processes.
What do you need to start you work?
Who do you get information from to do your job?
How do you receive this information?
Are you ever missing information?
Where do you get answers to your questions?
What are your deliverables?
Who do you give them to?
The idea is to capture all the variation in a group’s workflow. Different ways information is obtained or delivered. Differences in who you get information from or give it to. Variations in data types or quality.
When you document these workflows, take note of value added activities as well as waste. When you’ve documented all the various groups, you can start piecing together workflows of different groups. You’ll likely start seeing some common themes of waste, value or workflows.
Action 2 – Data Documentation
The second action is documenting the lifecycle of your data. It might make sense to actually start this as part of your workflow mapping earlier. As long as you have people together, might just as well start asking them about their data too. That’s because workflow mapping can really inform you about a lot of the data that’s used.
This documentation is sometimes referred to as “Cardinality”. Again, there’s no need to get caught up in semantics or official definitions of the process. You’re essentially just documenting everything you can about you data.
What data “Could” you use if it was easily available?
Who can create the data?
Is the data static or does it change?
Who can edit the data?
What data do you use?
Who only views the data?
As you document the data, take note of the user type. Engineer, Detailer, Project Manager, Shop, etc. For each type of user, note if they create, edit or use any particular piece of data. Do they need it or could they merely use it? How important is the data to that group? As an example, engineering data is obviously more important to an Engineer, Fabrication data to the shop staff and so on.
A few suggestions while gathering this information…
Don’t call it “BIM Data”. Just call it “Data” or people will automatically limit their feedback to their personal definition of BIM. I received more input when I simply referred to “Project Information” or “Data”
When you meet with more users, your list will grow. You might want to take a second round of questions after your initial list grows.
Take note of data importance to different user types…Critical….Helpful…Nice to Have…etc.
Action 3 – Develop Workflow & Process
Another important step is to map out your ideal workflow(s). When doing this, it’s a high level exercise, you’re not documenting picks and clicks. Most commonly you see this done using a diagram with swim lanes. You might also end up documenting several workflows. Workflow differences between contract types (Design-Build vs Hard Bid) or customer types would be common. You’ll want to start with the workflow that most closely aligns with your work.
In your workflow and process document, you should be highlighting information flow. What information or decisions are made, where and when they are made, and where that flows.
Your ideal workflow should be more simplified than the process map you created earlier. It’ll be hard to get out of your head preconceived notions. But try to just focus on the data so your ideal workflow is not designed around technology. Try to remember…People….Process….Technology….in that order. Here we’re simply documenting our ideal process void of technology.
Action 4 – Technology Map
The last step in preparing for a digital transformation is to look at technology. Now that your ideal workflow is identified, it’ll be easy to map your existing technology over top of it. The documentation you produced earlier will help you do this. You’ll know the types of data, the tools or data types it’s contained in (PDF vs Excel vs CAD, etc).
When you go through this process, you’ll start to see where your technology lacks. If you see a lot of CSV, PDF or other excel workflows, they’re good indications that there’s issues. You’ll also see areas where there’s overlap. These are processes or tasks that have multiple options. Those are other areas to take note and look for improvement.
Your Digital Transformation Begins Now
The effort involved in the above activities is not trivial. While it only cost time, it does take a lot of it. To do this properly you’ll want to engage a lot of your coworkers and get their feedback.
With the documentation from these processes, you have a litmus test to perform on all future technology decisions. Purchases or initiatives all can be held this workflow to see how it fits.
In my next article, we’ll start getting into what the next steps are and how to select technology. After all, identifying what we are trying to do at a high level and documenting our workflows doesn’t change a lot all by itself. At some point to get to digital transformation we need to start intentionally and thoughtfully realigning our technology.
There’s a lot of buzzwords in the construction space. Digital Transformation…Industrialized Construction…Machine Learning….Generative Design…Augmented Reality…Drones…Robotics….and the list goes on. So what do you do? Today? Tomorrow? Next year? What actions do you take to prepare for a an unknown future? All while managing the challenges of your current projects, staff, backlog and cashflow.
I use the mechanical engineering/contracting industry in my examples. However the essence of what I’m about to say is applicable to almost any contractor. If you don’t have an unlimited budget, time and/or resources, knowing how to prepare for an uncertain future in the heat of battle can be alarming.
But it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need a crystal ball. You don’t need unlimited overhead and staff to properly prepare yourself and prevent yourself from becoming obsolete from business disruptors. What you need is a good plan. A plan that helps you understand what’s happening, why it’s happening and most importantly how to make the correct turns when you’re not sure exactly where you need to navigate.
The contracting business is changing. This is creating a few big challenges to maintaining profitability and efficiency. To survive, we need to tackle these changes head on. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard.
What’s Driving This?
A lot of things are driving these changes, most of which can be grouped into one of two categories. The following lists outline some of the major trends and shifts occurring.
If you look at any of these trends individually, that all seem obvious. Not only obvious, but it’s hard to argue that any of them are negative or harmful. In fact, they all seem like good things. And they are. But when they’re all happening in unison, all these “good things” are creating a lot of the problems the industry is currently experiencing.
The Chaos of Today
To help manage these disruptions, it’s helpful to understand what’s happening today. Below shows an example of today’s workflow. Most groups work in silos. As they work and create more data and information over the duration of a project, they start throwing it over the fence to others within an organization. Meanwhile, other parts or the organization throw data to them.
For most this feels like we’re juggling a ball, an egg and a chainsaw. And while we’re juggling we’re also simultaneously in the middle of a game of dodgeball.
So what happens when…
We forget to throw data to others
Too much / too little information is thrown
We don’t catch data thrown to us
Too much / too little information is caught
We miss the catch or forget to throw
Information is caught or thrown early / late
We loose information
Information was unclear
We throw or catch data to fast / slow
Data is obsolete or unapproved
We get duplicate data
The Solution for Tomorrow
To combat these problems, we need a new process. The below is what we really want. A single stream of data everyone accesses. With this model, you don’t give anyone data, they inherently have access to the data you have which they need. It’s not a copy of the data or a report of the data. It’s access to the source data. Now, when someone needs information, they have access to it.
Throughout the construction process, because our data is less fragmented, it’s easy to warehouse. This allows you to better inform design by pulling the historical data from the service group. Sales can now leverage this data to explain the lifecycle savings when your bid may be higher. In reality, any data from any phase can more readily be accessed from any other phase. Quality of the entire process improves when this happens.
A New Technology Stack
This “Future” process is very likely a utopian state we can never fully accomplish. At least not in our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get closer. This doesn’t mean we can’t take a more thoughtful and meaningful approach to the solutions we use. The fact is we can. We may still have to use technology we would rather not. Things we can’t integrate as well as we’d like. But we can get closer.
The following are examples of a technology stack portfolio. Key technologies thoughtfully selected which form the backbone of your digital process.
These are just two examples. You don’t have to follow these examples. Your technology stack may be mixed or match differently. You may even have different solutions than those shown in the example.
In these examples, we could use Building Data with Stratus, or Autodesk Fabrication with MSuite. Stratus and MSuite are both model based production management systems. They can both leverage your BIM platform and your BIM content and integrate with your company’s back end ERP system. For a mechanical (or electrical, general, etc.) contractor you can look at a more simplified representation below.
Again, your model may differ. You may have two or three circles. The names in those circles may be different. But you shouldn’t have six or seven or twenty circles. It’s important that you put thought into how these systems can be used and work together. It’s also important that you understand their limitations.
This isn’t to say you don’t use a lot of additional applications. But they shouldn’t be major data stores without connectivity to some of the pillars in your technology stack. Ideally they’ll connect to one of the existing pillars but not be a major pillar in themselves.
This wasn’t really intended to be a roadmap. It’s more of a vision. Something you should be trying to achieve with careful thought and consideration. There’s no magic formula or combination. Nothing you should blindly copy and follow from others. Your technology stack needs to match your organization. The speed and effort to put it place based on your company culture and organizational readiness.
Regardless of how long it takes, the important thing is you’re working toward that vision. We don’t know what the future will bring in our industry. Some things will never change while others may abruptly disrupt your business. No matter what changes are forced upon you, the less impactful these changes will be the closer to this model you are. When required to, you’ll be better positions to respond in an agile manner.
In my next article, I’ll cover some things you can start doing right now that can help prepare you to implement this new model.
My apologies for misleading headline, but I feel the issue is important enough to grab your attention with.
To start, I’m not aware of any upcoming enforcement action by Autodesk regarding their BIM360 Docs service. But that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Project teams may get hit like a ton of bricks if they are not prepared. When it’s about to happen, nobody knows.
Dude! Why The Alarmist Tone?
If you’ve been around the Autodesk ecosystem long enough, you’ll know Autodesk has always supported enforcement of software licensing. It’s speculated the rise of AutoCAD’s popularity was because of the ease of pirating back in the day. But as Autodesk grew, so did their enforcement activities. These activities include software licensing audits of which I’ve participated in two (100% compliant I might add)
I’m a firm believer in Intellectual Property rights (IP) and applaud Autodesk’s efforts to protect their investment. With this I have no problem.
Times Have Changed
Things have changed in recent years. Typical pirating of desktop software was either an intentional or negligent act. With current subscription models and cloud based services, piracy is a much smaller issue now that it once was. This new economy of subscription licenses and cloud services should render licensing concerns a thing of the past right? Wrong!
If you were a user of the old A360 based Collaboration for Revit platform (C4R), you might recall about October 2017 (if I recall correctly) many project teams across the US were unable to work. Call it an “oversight” or “defect”, call it what you want. The issue was C4R was not properly enforcing licensing. To be clear, it wasn’t enforced at all…until it was.
To make matters worse, your company could assign licenses to your users, or another partner on the project could provide the licenses. It’s not real clear where you’re ability to “use” C4R was coming from because even without a license, you could view the files on the web. Inquires to Autodesk would always result in no help citing privacy concerns.
Needless to say, once Autodesk “flipped the switch“, project teams all over had users unable to work until they procured more licenses. Autodesk responded that a notice was posted in the public Autodesk forums. It also wasn’t possible to Email everyone involved despite having Autodesk ID’s be the user’s Email address. Not sure how they said that with a straight face.
In short, Autodesk has a confusing licensing model, was not helpful to customers trying to understand their compliance, allowed easy inadvertent over usage and then pulled the plug. Oops. Guess we won’t do that again.
Looks Like Déjà Vu(All Over Again)
Did you know, BIM360 Docs licensing is also NOT being enforced currently. Additionally, license usage and counts are not available in your accounts portal either like your other products. Simply put, BIM360 Docs licenses are automatically assigned/unassigned as you add or removed project members on your BIM360 Docs account.
The only place to find your current status is from the Account Admin page and clicking on the Analytics menu. Here, you can see I clearly added 61 users when there’s only 12 licences available. Each users had NO functional limitations.
And it only gets worse from here. Any Project Administrator can add anyone to your account they want. In fact, you Want project administrators so they can efficiently on-board your team members. You may even make other trade partners outside your firm Project Administrators so they can on-board their own staff. The issue is, Project Administrators have no access to view licensing usage, only the Account Administrator which you don’t want to give wide access to.
So here you have a situation where you can easily become over consumed and not realize it. Autodesk assures me they do routine audits and allow people to “true up” or they shut the licenses down. But given past history, are you confident the right person will get notice? Are you confident enforcement won’t be turned on and your project won’t get shut down for a couple of days while your order is placed?
The Bigger Issue
For such a large company so focused on software compliance (historically), it seems very odd to me that this is the second “oops“. And it seems ironic that for something that should be so simple like Cloud Service licensing, that it can be so horribly confusing.
“BIM360 Docs licenses are automatically assigned. They don’t stay with the user. However, you get one for free with BIM360 Design which a user can take with them.”
Does the person managing your licensing know what that means?
And it’s just disappointing that it’s so easy to become “over-licensed” with very little visibility. They let everyone into the concert with no security, shut the door and just as the band start playing, announce they you all didn’t have enough tickets.
Call me a conspiracy theorist but it is starting to appear like this is an intentional deployment and utilization strategy. Get teams dependent on the product, then pass around the collection plate.
One Final Complaint
If you’ve heard enough, you may not want me to point out that Autodesk likely collects revenue for multiple of the same licenses for the very same users. Seriously, stop reading if you’d prefer to remain in the dark.
BIM360 Docs licensing (to be “legal”) requires licenses for every active member in an accounts membership list. If I host a BIM360 project for the entire team and the team wants to use BIM360 Docs, I need licenses for the entire project team. Sounds reasonable. But there are other projects hosted by other firms. My team needs access to those as well. Those firms are paying for licenses (if they’re legal) for my team…who already has licenses from my account.
The Conclusion – I Promise
In my opinion, there is no excuse for the confusing, sloppy mess that is BIM360 licensing. It’s not hard. Others like Adobe and Microsoft have figured it out.
I’m not someone who’s against BIM360. It’s done great things for project teams and workflow. Seriously! But somebody really needs to start raising awareness to these types of issues. While we’re all giddy little nerds with a cool new toy doing neat things, as an industry, we’re neglecting the legal terms and other business risks. It’s not as fun but it’s just as important. I hope others start raising these types of issues or I’d expect more of the same from Autodesk.
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer so if you need legally binding advice, please seek out the services of an attorney licensed in the required jurisdiction.
I have researched my own legal matters on several occasions just as a matter of being educated in various matters. I’ve found over the years that a lot of people I run into have not.
Much of my network of associates operate in technical fields. When they change jobs, they’re often asked to sign a Non-Compete Agreement as a condition of their employment. More times than not, it’s signed as-is without any negotiation.
The most blatant power grab I’ve seen, was a former employer who hadn’t had time to draft their Non-Compete and was asking me to sign a document that said I’d agree to sign the official one once it was drafted. Say what? I’m going to agree to agree to something in the future for which I’ve not seen?
Even then, I didn’t say “No”, but asked how I could agree to agree to something unknown. They eliminated the requirement without me ever having to say No.
My Non-Compete Rules of Thumb
Different states have differing rules about what’s allowed and not allowed including duration. Check with your local jurisdiction for clarification in your area. Most law firms will give you a free initial consultation.
A fair Non-Compete shouldn’t prohibit you from gainful employment in the area of your technical expertise.
If signed as a condition of employment, Non-Compete agreements have legal standing provided they don’t violate some aspect of the law.
If you’re asked (or required) to sign AFTER you’re employed, they typically are not enforceable unless you were compensated in some way for signing it (bonus, higher wage, etc.)
Yes, it’s a legal document but don’t hesitate to edit it. Add things you like, strike those you don’t and change the terms how you see fit. Most companies are willing to negotiate the finer points of a Non-Compete.
Unless you’re hiring for a law firm,. the person asking you to sign isn’t the legal wordsmith that drafting that abomination of a document. Don’t take it personally. They won’t either when you ask for changes.
Limit the companies you can’t work for. What if they dominate an industry and most of your potential future employment options are “a customer”? e.g. I won’t go to work with anyone I’ve had direct interaction with as a result of my employment…etc.
Ask that they have a clause that if THEY terminate your employment, that the clause is null and void.
You’ll still need to honor confidentiality agreements but you should be able to work anywhere if they terminate your employment.
Work to limit the duration of the terms. e.g. 3 months as opposed to 5 years.
Ask to add a buyout clause, an extended notice to leave or other options to exit the agreement.
In short, get creative. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s an opportunity to have a conversation where you can discuss your concerns and they can even help find creative ways to ease your concerns while addressing their own.