Digital Transformation for the Average Contractor (Part 4)

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?

Summary

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.

Digital Transformation for the Average Contractor (Part 3)

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.

1 – Technology Removal

Photo credit: Kyle Slattery License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

2 – Technology Realignment

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

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.

3 – New Technology

Photo credit: Pixabay License: Simplified Pixabay License

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.

Digital Transformation for the Average Contractor (Part 2)

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.

Tools for Documenting Existing Workflow

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?
  • …etc…

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.

Example of a Data Ranking Matrix

A few suggestions while gathering this information…

  1. 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”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Swim Lane Diagram Example

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.

Digital Transformation for the Average Contractor (Part 1)

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 problem…

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.

Current trends contributing to “Industrialized Construction”
“Technology Evolution” is driven by several changes.

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.

Existing project workflows…Separate groups and processes throwing data at each other.

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.

New project workflows…We all share in a pool of data.

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.

Example of a “Microsoft / Autodesk” based Technology Stack.
Example of a “Trimble” based Technology Stack.

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.

A good “Generic” Technology Stack Model.

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.

Wrapup

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.

Autodesk BIM360 Docs – Licensing Enforcement Starts Soon

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.

61 of 12 BIM360 Docs Licenses Used.

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.

Rant Mode – OFF

Non-Compete Agreements

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.

Autodesk Selling Previously Abandoned Product

While applicable to my career over a decade ago, I normally wouldn’t cover news on ArtCAM. It’s not relevant in my current professional life. However I find this interesting and noteworthy which is why it caught my eye. 

ArtCAM History 101

In 2014, Autodesk acquired a CAM software developer named Delcam. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delcam)  Delcam was based in the United Kingdom and wasn’t as widely known as some of the big players like MasterCAM, Gibbs, Esprit or any number of others. Delcam was different. Instead of a few well selling products, they had a vast portfolio of CAM smaller solutions for niche markets like jewelry and footwear. 

Autodesk on the other hand is a large volume software company. They don’t do “niche” very well. The smart play was to leave Delcam alone. This lasted for a few years but that recently ended.  

One of their more popular products was ArtCAM. I supported it at one of my past employers over a decade ago. Earlier this year, Autodesk announced they were discontinuing ArtCAM to the dismay of it’s users. This was no surprise as Autodesk has a long history of acquiring software and companies and realigning or discontinuing products. You can see a list of most of them on Steve Johnson’s blog here…https://www.cadnauseam.com/autodesk-graveyard/

Departing from Historical Actions

What I do find noteworthy, and I’m just getting around to write about it now despite being month old news, is that they made the decision to sell it off. ArtCAM will continue but from a new company. This typically doesn’t happen. You either take the hit and migrate to what Autodesk wants or you find another product. This time, the product will continue but with a new company and name…Carveco. http://carveco.com/

Why do I find this interesting? It’s no surprise that Autodesk has pretty much abandoned new development of Fabrication CADmep, ESTmep and CAMduct. All their efforts are focused on Revit’s Fabrication parts. While that eliminates the need for CADmep for many, there’s still no clear public strategy on ESTmep or CAMduct. It would be nice if they took those products and found a way to spin them off. Granted, it’s harder in this case. They share a common data platform (the Fabrication Configuration) and content with Revit now. None the less, I’m sure there’s a lot of smaller firms that could make a good run of it. They’d just have to partner with Autodesk a little differently than in typical. 

What do you say Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost? You’re company helped fracture the MEP industry with your purchase of MAP software in 2012. Only now do we see several 3rd parties emerging and targeting the MEP contractor. How about giving one or two of them a shot…to continue with the value we see in these products?  

Autodesk Acquires PlanGrid

Today, Autodesk announced their acquisition of PlanGrid. You can read the press release from Autodesk here…http://adsknews.autodesk.com/pressrelease/autodesk-to-acquire-plangrid.

This doesn’t really seem like a surprise. PlanGrid has a large and active user base where as competitor Fieldwire seems like they’ve had trouble competing and gaining significant market traction. 

What is a surprise to me, is that typically these types of “big” announcements are typically given in Las Vegas during Autodesk University, not the week following. I suspect that in this case, an announcement of this type would have distracted from the other BIM360 related messaging Autodesk was trying to deliver.

Why Would PlanGrid Sell?

What made PlanGrid strong in the market is the ease of use and field adoption of their platform. Plain and simple, field personnel liked it and used it, It doesn’t really matter what something costs if it doesn’t get used. PlanGrid had a platform that was used. My guess is they sold because what better way to finish than on top. In the end, what were they doing that Autodesk couldn’t do, or soon do with their BIM360 Docs platform? I know several companies that pay more annually for PlanGrid than their entire Autodesk product lines. In some cases PlanGrid renewals were double Autodesk. And for what? Storage and viewing?

As Autodesk continues to build out their BIM360 platforms, and users increasingly adopt services like BIM360 Design (formerly Collaboration for Revit), it wouldn’t take long before people started asking why they were paying so much when BIM360 Design published to BIM360 Docs already and seemingly did the same thing?

Where would PlanGrid differentiate itself? When we take an intelligent model and publish it to a PDF, we’re loosing a lot of information. Any more intelligence PlanGrid would try to add is attempting to recreate what was once there but lost. Not to mention, adding more functionality would start to move PlanGrid away from the core principals that made it strong…simplicity. In the end, I think PlanGrid chose to end on a high note before an eventual decline.

What Does This Mean For Autodesk?

When Autodesk acquires a company, they do it for one or more of the following reasons…

  • Buy interesting technology they don’t have
  • Buy the talent of the firm who’s doing interesting things and employ them to do the same for Autodesk
  • Kill technology that’s driving the market in directions Autodesk doesn’t like
  • Buy the customers

For Autodesk, I don’t really think they care about PlanGrid’s technology or development teams. Not that they aren’t good tools and people, but Autodesk has their own. Instead of having to OCR PDF’s to automatically hyperlink them, you should be able to create the PDF from this intelligence already in Revit. There’s really no point in trying to recreate lost intelligence (PlanGrid) when you already have it captured (BIM360). 

Instead, I think Autodesk wanted the user’s. It’s the quickest way to increase your BIM360 Docs usage which is where I think the users will be migrated to. If not BIM360 Docs, perhaps a more streamlined tool for field communication that uses BIM360 Docs as it’s storage platform.  

What Does This Mean For Users?

Lower software costs. I know, I know. They’s not something you typically get from an Autodesk acquisition but paying double for a PDF sharing platform than all your other Autodesk services certainly won’t continue. I predict the price will drop, they’ll then “realign” duplicate platforms and move everyone to BIM360 because PlanGrid no longer “makes money” and they’re done. That’s what happened in the past in similar situations like Autodesk Fabrication being acquired from MAP software. We in the MEP world know how that worked out…new development halted, fixes released at a glacial pace and updates almost non-existent. Move to Revit or fall behind. I think you’ll see that dynamic play out w/PlanGrid as well. 

For now, I’ll enjoy not paying double to share PDF’s because PlanGrid says we have tens of thousands of sheets on a project we use when the reality is we’re only looking and a handful of sheets for a project team that’s using PlanGrid. While a good product which we do use, our usage numbers have never been what they’ve suggested. I wonder if Autodesk fell prey to some of those technically accurate but misleading usage stats as well. 

Autodesk Concurrent Usage Restriction

A couple months ago I posted about a “business rule” Autodesk had which restricted a user from using more that 2 titles of their Collection on the same computer at the same time. The original post can be read here. This wasn’t a technical limitation rather a legal restriction. The “rule” essentially stated that you couldn’t run more than 2 products at the same time for the same user on the same computer. This would be like Microsoft saying you couldn’t use Email, Word and Excel all at the same time. I asked several trusted Autodesk resellers, my Autodesk insiders and other industry peers and it seems this restriction wasn’t very well known, In fact, not a single person I asked was aware of the “rule”

Back in January when I first raised the issue, I was in the middle of a contract renewal and it was Autodesk’s fiscal year end. As a result, there were several Autodesk regional reps raising the issue internally at Autodesk. I had hints back then (unofficially) that they were reassessing the policy and would likely remove the restriction. I’m now happy to report that as of March 29th, the policy restriction has been officially removed.

It was reported in the “Moving to Subscription” forum as a followup to my initial complaints and concerns. You can read the entire forum thread here.

If you look at Autodesk’s Collection Licensing support article here, you can see the restriction struck through and updated.

I’m a tough critic of Autodesk’s policies and their sales practices. But I have to admit, this was fairly quick action on their part considering their legal team was likely involved. They historically haven’t made concessions based on customer pressure very often and when they have, it sometimes comes very slow. In the use case I gave them, I discussed how an MEP firm running Fabrication CADmep would need 3 licenses, One license of CADmep, one for the AutoCAD session it was running on and Navis.

The feedback I received through resellers pushing their Autodesk partner managers for answers came back quickly in mid-January exactly how many users globally fell into that scenario. I was impressed how quickly they started analyzing the scope and impact to their company and users. Hats off to Autodesk for squashing this ridiculous rule. For the first time in over 25 years of dealing with Autodesk, their sales and legal teams came together and did the right thing.

Beware: Autodesk Subscriptions, Industry Collections and Trust

Everything Must Change

It’s no secret that Autodesk is moving to an annual subscription model. There’s a number of reasons Autodesk tells you it’s for the flexibility and benefit of the customers. Some of these benefits include…

  • Predictable annual licensing costs
  • Lower initial cost for procurement (no more large initial upfront cost)
  • Flexible licensing model (add/drop licenses as your business needs)
  • Ability to release product updates anytime

All these benefits are true, legitimate reasons a customer would want to move to a subscription model. If you look at the current pricing promotions, converting existing licenses to the Industry Collections looks very financially attractive.

A number of years go, Adobe rolled out subscription licensing. Revenue suffered for a couple years and then rebounded. Customers were no longer making large upfront purchases but as time went by and subscriptions increased, revenue rebounded and higher profits ensued. And because revenue wasn’t tied to an annual “release” cycle of software updates, it’s a more predictable and stable revenue stream. It’s no wonder Autodesk is following in Adobe’s footprints. As a business, they’d be foolish not to and even as a customer, I don’t begrudge them to make a profit and give them more flexibility in running their company.


The Problem

When Adobe made the transition, revenue was significantly impacted and returned in a couple years. Autodesk is seeing the same thing with one key difference. Autodesk has underwent 11 straight quarters of losses. Adobe never lost money. Clearly, Autodesk’s customer base isn’t as understanding and you see a lot of public facing criticism in public forums against being forced into this model.

Part of the problem is the longevity of the data Autodesk customers produce compared to Adobe. Autodesk customers often maintain engineering or product documentation for decades. That pretty marketing graphic made from Adobe products likely isn’t managing product or building data 2 decades later.

The other part is Autodesk’s horrible track record with pricing. Autodesk isn’t a software company, they’re a sales organization and they’re very good at it. They have a history of squeezing the re-seller channel, taking over their major accounts and competing with their third party partners.

Here’s a few examples…

  • Autodesk tells their re-seller channel they’ll partner with them on major accounts. The fact is many find themselves frozen out of the discussions, especially if there’s any hint of looking out for the customer’s interest.
  • It was very common to be able to “upgrade” your annual maintenance contracts to higher end software. To go from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Mechanical or AutoCAD MEP or was cheaper or only slightly higher than staying on AutoCAD. When your maintenance contract was up for renewal a year later, you then see the deferred price increase you just were hit with. If you wanted to “downgrade”, you paid a fee, typically the cost difference between the two products.
  • When Autodesk stopped selling the Revit MEP Suite, they rolled out the Building Design Suite. If you were already on the Revit MEP Suite, you were grandfathered in could maintain your contract. It was during this time the sales channel was running a “promotion” to upgrade and telling customers they should act fast before they were enforced to upgrade at a higher price. The problem, a) The Design Suite promotions ran almost continually to show vertical product sales increases to Wall Street and b) They would “uplift” customers to the Design Suites for free a mere 6 months later. One company I worked with, Autodesk tried to sell over $300k in upgrades this way only to get them for free months later. They claim they didn’t know but how could they not? I’m just a dumb customer, I knew…because it’s happened before.
  • Autodesk had their sales staff and resellers promoting selling Perpetual licenses “while you can still get them”…and customers did. All the while I suspect they knew they’d just increase the maintenance subscriptions to more than the annual subscriptions. Your “savings” in cheaper annual renewals just was wiped out.

If you look at the various changes has made over the last 2 decades, rolling out maintenance subscriptions and finally making them mandatory to replace upgrade charges or rolling their new annual subscription model, you’ll notice a common theme. All of these changes create an “Artificial Crisis” for customers which results in collecting as much as they can while delivering as little as possible,  Given their track record of deceptive and misleading sales, it’s no wonder customers have a lack on trust and are resisting these changes.


What Should You Do

Customers like to think they have control. Autodesk likes them to think that as well. But the fact is, you don’t. I hear a lot of talk from customers about maintaining their existing perpetual licenses and resisting the move to subscription, Personally, I think that’s misplaced.

Autodesk wants you on subscription and that’s where you’ll go, sooner or later. You don’t have a choice without switching software, Want to Upgrade, Downgrade, Cross-grade to another product, move from Standalone to Network Licensing, you’ll have to go on subscription. Unless you don’t want to pay more annually to maintain your perpetual licenses than it would to go to subscription, you’ll move…sooner or later.

Willing to stick it out? Feel free but in industries like construction that are really evolving with new technology workflows and require all team members to be on the same page to leverage collaborative project workflows it’ll be tough to do. Even with the evolution of technology to the cloud and big data analytics, other industries are going to be hard pressed to not upgrade. How many people do you know running AutoCAD r14 or even 2008 for that matter?

Still not convinced and plan on hanging onto your perpetual licenses forever? Good luck. That “Navisworks Manage” you have you’re free to run forever as long as you can find the hardware that will run it. In fact, you can’t even buy a maintenance subscription anymore because we at Autodesk stopped making it. You’re welcome to buy a subscription to our new “Navis Quantum” anytime however,

If you’re really dead set on maximizing that initial investment you paid for your perpetual licenses, you really have only one option…stop paining maintenance subscription now. Ride it out a couple years and buy subscriptions when you need them. They’ll be running a promotion sooner or later. With a fiscal year end of January, the new years is always a good time to negotiate pricing.


What’s the Future Hold?

So let’s just assume you’re on annual subscriptions down the road. What can you expect next?

Because you can add/drop licenses easily with annual subscriptions, they’re easy to scale with your business. When business is good, so is Autodesk. But what if there’s another recession and people start dropping licenses?

While most resellers and Autodesk are promoting Industry Collections, there’s a little know catch that every contact I asked either in the reseller channel or at Autodesk didn’t know (and I asked many). The Industry Collections limit you to running 2 concurrent products for the same user on the same computer. If you’re in the Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing construction industry, it’s common to run AutoCAD, with CADmep (runs in AutoCAD) and Navisworks at the same time…maybe ever Revit too.

You literally can’t find information on the FAQ’s regarding this restriction and the sales people are telling you that you can drop your Navis and CADmep licenses and migrate your Revit/Acad to an AEC Collection and save money and licenses without disclosing this restriction.

The only place you find information is on the Knowledgebase (if you search for “concurrent usage”)…

https://knowledge.autodesk.com/search-result/caas/sfdcarticles/sfdcarticles/Industry-Collections-Licensing.html

Or in a single Discussion group post by Autodesk…

https://forums.autodesk.com/t5/installation-licensing/industry-collection-licensing-basic-information-amp-licensing/td-p/7250896

It’s not found in the other countless pages and links your most often referred to. Reading closely, you’ll notice, one talks about the restriction generically and the other only pertaining to network versions. Autodesk re-sellers don’t have access to Collection licenses (only individual products) and can’t even test. So hows this work and how does it apply?

Upon much research by myself, my industry colleagues and Autodesk, come to find out it’s not a “technical” limitation rather a “policy” that’s not enforced with technology. So, what happens if/when…

  • They start enforcing the policy?
  • They perform your next license audit and see you use more products that you should concurrently?
  • The economy slows and their revenue drops so they implement a “no concurrent usage” policy?

As you can see, Autodesk is in complete control and your only option once on subscription is to pay or or stop using the software. There is no longer a perpetual license to fall back on.

Ok, fine, you can just buy an extra Navis or Revit subscription. But those need to be assigned to a specific user who also has access via the Collection. Or if you’re preference is network licensing, forget it. Revit and Navis are no longer able to be purchased with network licensing unless on a subscription.

If you don’t think it’ll happen, think again. For the second time in just a few short months, Collaboration for Revit isn’t enforcing licensing. The first time this happened, when they turned it on many users were left without access to their projects and unable to work. They should have had licenses, true but C4R configuration and setup is not straight forward. It’s common to grant access to people in a project. They may not realize you also need a license provisioned in another system. In fact, it’s very easy to have multiple licenses assigned to the same user from different companies essentially giving Autodesk double revenue and you’ll never know.

Given their misleading tactics in the past, how do you know this disabling of license checking isn’t intentional in an effort to get people to start using and depending on the software only to force a purchase down the road? It’s well known that AutoCAD was as popular as it was due to the easy of piracy back in it’s infancy.

So in summary, there’s really only a few practical options,..

  1. Give in and move to subscription, you’ll be there anyway eventually.
  2. Drop your maintenance subscription now if you can and ride it out a few years
  3. Move to another product/vendor.
  4. Maintain your perpetual contracts and pay more than any other option,