Oct 21 2014

Going APE

Australia is fertile territory for mobile construction technology businesses. APE Mobile is a Perth, WA-based start-up automating contractors’ paperwork requirements.

APE LogoIt’s a familiar story. Experienced construction professional wants to use a mobile device; tests some examples and finds none of them do what he thinks is necessary; decides to develop his own mobile software instead.

Matt Edwards, a former Siemens Building Technologies executive with experience in the UK and Europe before moving to Australia, established a construction business consultancy called Applied Project Experience in Melbourne in 2009, and then moved to Perth. Following the launch of the Apple iPad tablet, he then began looking at the use of mobile technology to support construction business processes and developed a prototype application, called APE Mobile.

While his initial effort was, on his own admission, “a bit flaky”, he was encouraged enough to bring in a specialist software developer, David Hayward (founder and developer of ER Mapper, later ERDAS), and in November 2013, the first production release of APE Mobile’s Paperless Site app for contractors was launched. Contractor reaction to the Software-as-a-Service app was immediately positive, and the company quickly signed up several well-known international and Australian client businesses, including RioTinto, Colas and Monadelphous, plus a host of small- and medium-sized contractor businesses (see Tasman Civil case study).

APEmobile menu“Not a collaboration tool”

“APE Mobile is not a collaboration tool, at least not like Aconex,” Matt says. “It’s a tool for individual contractors to help them manage their own documents and processes across their project portfolio”. The application is broadly divided into five areas:

  • Memos – includes RFIs, site instruction, records of conversations, and captured responses
  • Forms – for internal paperwork
  • Actions – for defects, Non-Conformance Reports, etc
  • Drawings & Docs – includes annotation tools
  • Reports – for punchlists, custom reports, exports.

Adopting a single tenancy approach (creating dedicated storage spaces for each customer), APE Mobile hosts the application and collated information in a secure data centre so that the contractors don’t need to worry about data management; instead, their users can focus on using the mobile application to manage typical site information needs, including safety reporting, site diaries, etc, accessing and annotating drawings and other documents as necessary. The web-based back-end of the application can also be accessed by office-based users from laptops or desktops for administration purposes, and has most of the functions of the iPad app (“the office user can fill in and send forms; you can even start them on the iPad, save as draft, and complete them on the web, or vice versa”).

APEmobile annotateThe mobile app is currently only available for Apple iOS device users (Matt says they have yet to lose a sale because the app isn’t available on, say, Android or Windows), and has been designed to work even when there is no internet connectivity. All the information a user needs can be synchronised to the device, and either updated in the background where 3G signals are available, or synchronised once connectivity is regained (“useful when you are working on a remote mining project beyond the range of mobile devices”).

APE Mobile has been designed to be simple and intuitive to use. It includes form-builder tools so that familiar, previously paper-based processes are faithfully replicated online (“users are essentially doing their own paperwork, only more efficiently because of the automated data entry, drop-down menus, pick-lists, etc”), and is extensively configurable to suit different organisations’ needs without customisation of the core code. An open API enables easy data exchange with back-office business systems, ranging from ERP to Excel spreadsheets, while notifications to external users can be sent via email.

APE Mobile has extended beyond its Western Australia heartland and through recommendation and word-of-mouth has secured adoption by firms on the east coast of Australia. Encouraged by this, Matt is looking at funding options to expand the reach of the business, including taking it into new international markets, perhaps through partnerships with resellers or vendors of complementary technologies (and Matt includes SaaS collaboration platforms in this category). A free trial is available, with individual users supported from $65 per month, plus standard monthly storage allowances based on 10, 25 or 50 users (dubbed Gibbon, Chimp and Gorilla); enterprise deals (surely, King Kong!) can also be negotiated.

My view

The appetite for mobile-centric construction applications is clearly international. As I mentioned last week following my brief look at Basestone 2.0, there is a lot of development activity in the mobile arena – from BIM authoring software vendors, established SaaS players, long-time mobile specialists, plus startups. APE Mobile clearly fits into the latter category, alongside startups in the US, UK and mainland Europe, but – unlike most of these – it isn’t trying to compete with the collaboration vendors. Instead, Matt sees APE Mobile as complementing existing solutions, which may be a better recipe for survival.

Choice of device/operating system will also be a factor in the business’s future. The iPad may dominate site use among APE Mobile’s current Australian customers, but it may well be a different picture if/when APE ventures into, say, south-east Asia where Android use in construction is more widespread.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/10/going-ape/

Oct 21 2014

Aconex raises size of IPO

Aconex logo 2014The Australian reports that Melbourne-based SaaS construction collaboration software company Aconex has boosted the size of its raising for its upcoming IPO on the back of strong investor demand. Aconex previously said its plans were to raise between Au$120m and $150m. But it will now raise between $232m and $264m. The company is expected to have a market value of Au$350m to $405m (see post).

The Australian Business Review says Aconex will sell 101.9 million to 105.4 million shares when its bookbuild gets underway on 27 October. The deal equates to an enterprise value for the company of Au$322.6m to $379.5m. Aconex will lodge its prospectus by 28 October before trading on 18 November.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/10/aconex-raises-size-of-ipo/

Oct 20 2014

State of the (mobile) nation

Next week I will be attending the two-day COMIT/Fiatech conference at The Crystal in London’s Docklands (30-31 October 2014 - see previous post). COMIT’s previous conferences have seen a lot of content crammed into a single day, but this year’s builds on Fiatech’s successful European Summit and the two-day joint event will allow consideration of a wider range of technology subjects under the umbrella of “Efficiency Through Digital Projects”. Two ongoing projects underline the current surge of interest in mobile technologies in construction.

Mobicloud App ChallengeFirst, as part of the build-up to the event, COMIT is helping with a nationwide survey by academics at Loughborough University, looking to establish “The state of the nation” regarding use of mobile technologies in construction (to help with the survey, click here). Early indications of the results will be presented at the conference.

Second, the conference will take place in the final weeks of a competition being run by the MobiCloud Project: the MobiCloud Construction App Challenge. Basically, the project is looking for great ideas for mobile applications for construction. The idea judged to be the best by a panel of experts will be awarded a prize of  €1,000 (about £800). Development teams are also being sought to turn one of the submitted ideas into a commercial app. This project will be showcased at the conference (at 5.15pm on 30 October).

[Disclosure: I am a member of the COMIT management team.]

Permanent link to this article: http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/10/state-of-the-mobile-nation/

Oct 17 2014

Why the UK BIM toolkit is a key building block

The BIM ‘Digital toolkit’ should help UK firms, including SaaS vendors, adopt and then export BIM skills, practices, procedures and standards and apply them in other markets.

Just as sustainability saw an explosion in ‘greenwash’ – sometimes spurious claims about the ‘greenness’ of various products or services – so building information modelling has seen frequent ‘BIMwash’, with firms asserting that they are already delivering Level 2 or even Level 3 BIM. The fact that the Government’s BIM Task Group had not yet defined a full set of Level 2 components did not appear to hinder the hype. However, recent announcements will mean, from early 2015, that such BIM competence claims may more easily be substantiated.

NBS BIM toolkit

dPOW logoOn Monday 22 September, the Technology Strategy Board, now Innovate UK, announced that a team led by NBS had won a £1 million contract to take forward development of a “Digital Toolkit” for BIM, creating the last two building blocks of Level 2: the digital Plan of Works (dPOW) and a classification system for construction objects.

The award follows a two-stage competition to examine the feasibility of the project. The first stage, kicked off in February (post), attracted around 70 expressions of interest, including a strong submission from a pan-industry group of professional institutions (C8, which included the Institution of Civil Engineers*), but just three were selected to submit proposals for the second stage.

NBS – whose team includes the BIM Academy, BDP, Laing O’Rourke, Microsoft and Newcastle University – is contracted to deliver the first elements of the toolkit in early 2015, and then maintain it as a free-to-use industry resource for a minimum of five years. This commitment was too onerous for the C8 consortium, but NBS has since courted their continued involvement.

Richard WaterhouseRichard Waterhouse (right), chief executive of RIBA Enterprises, which owns NBS said, “We already have the backing of key organisations such as CIBSE, CIOB, ICE, IStructE, RIBA and RICS and we will be extending and widening this dialogue over the coming months.” The institutions will form part of a toolkit advisory board providing direction and also potentially undertake subcontracted work.

The dPOW will become an important resource to help technology vendors, particularly providers of SaaS construction collaboration platforms, provide a ‘common data environment’ to support sharing of structured data across a project. The classification development will see Uniclass 2 clarified, reworked and extended to ensure comprehensive and international coverage of all professions’ needs across all disciplines, including infrastructure projects, says Waterhouse.

NBS will ultimately be the ‘guardian’ of the BIM toolkit. It will be able to use expertise and experience gained in creating toolkit elements to offer other value-added products or services, but the ‘toolkit’ will remain freely available to UK construction (Waterhouse told me he expects it will need to be freely available for longer than five years as some sectors will lag in developing BIM expertise). NBS will be talking further about the toolkit at NBS live on 4 November in London (details here).

The resource should also help UK firms adopt and then export BIM skills, practices, procedures and standards – some, like PAS1192:2, set to become ISO standards – and apply them in other markets. This was something anticipated in Richard Saxon’s “Growth Through BIM” report for the CIC last year (see my recent post: A BIM boom for SaaS collaboration vendors?).

CapEx + OpEx = TotEx

While many UK architecture, engineering and construction businesses appear keen to exploit BIM, some have been adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach pending the completion of the Level 2 roadmap. Meanwhile, client owner/operator organisations are also beginning to realise that BIM can help improve the operation and management efficiency of their built assets across their life-cycles.

Ultimately, this is what will drive and reinforce BIM adoption. As clients start to insist on more efficient procurement, delivery and future management of their facilities (TotEx), their suppliers will be striving to innovate. Linking ‘smart’ built assets, connecting both historic and real-time data, aggregating it and integrating it with metrics from key business or organisation processes, will help owners identify what makes customers spend more, students learn more, patients recover faster, office workers be more productive, etc.

This may seem like utopian future-gazing, but it’s about owners’ business outcomes. Data will be the key connector, and the BIM toolkit is an important stepping stone towards that brave new world.

This is a version of a comment piece I wrote for Construction Manager’s recently launched BIM+ portal, published on 29 September. [* I am a deputy chair of the ICE's Information Systems Panel.]

Permanent link to this article: http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/10/why-the-uk-bim-toolkit-is-a-key-building-block/

Oct 16 2014

Basestone 2.0 launched

Basestone’s new iOS mobile application features (it says) the market’s “most intuitive interface”, but in a busy market, integration matters as much if not more than interface design.

BasestoneAfter meeting Blue Ronin/Basestone‘s team in January 2014 (and at other events since then), I have kept an eye open for developments from the London-based startup. In early September 2014, it launched Basestone 2.0, the latest iteration of its iOS mobile-based application for viewing and collaboration on construction sites.

According to the company’s blog post, the biggest change is a complete makeover of the interface, recognising that “when you’re working on site, the last thing you want is to be fiddling around with confusing technology”. The new-look app features what Basestone claim is “the simplest and most intuitive interface of any on the market”.

Basestone interfaceInformation about a single issue is grouped together, aggregating data from multiple Basestone annotation tools and photos, allowing users to capture the progress of an issue from beginning to end, including interim snagging, and ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. With the issues list, it’s now also easier to get an overview of all issues related to a particular drawing: who created them, how urgent they are and what their status is: simply tap on any issue to zoom into the detail.

Also new in 2.0 is the ability to create projects directly in the app, as well as via the basestone.io website back-end. Users can also import files from other applications, including Dropbox and Box, direct from an iPad. Pricing-wise: basic use of Basestone (enabling sharing of up to 50 drawings) is free; for over 50 drawings, a Professional account (up to 500 drawings) costs £19.99 per user per month, while unlimited storage comes with a £99.99 price tag.

My view

This is a busy and fertile market at the moment with a lot of development activity, sometimes across all the main mobile operating systems, sometimes just across one or two. The main BIM authoring software vendors (Autodesk, Bentley, etc) are creating mobile tools, as are the existing vendors of SaaS (eg 4Projects, Aconex, Asite, Conject) and other collaboration platforms (eg: Newforma’s SmartUse); there are also some long-established mobile developers (MCS Priority One, plus others focused on point solutions such as defects management), and then there has been a flurry of tools created by startups in the US (Plangrid, FieldLens), UK (Cadbeam, Sitedesk) and mainland Europe (GenieBelt), all seeking to make on-site collaboration including access to drawings and/or, in due course, building information models, easier.

The mobile-first developers can create applications designed from the ground-up for ease-of-use on site, focusing on what their end-users require most in terms of functionality, and optimising the connectivity and communication capabilities of the devices they work on. They can quickly attract bottom-up adoption, perhaps from site-based users frustrated at the sometimes over-complex, feature-bloated functions of rival solutions, which can try to squeeze all the capabilities of existing desktop or browser-based applications into the mobile experience. As such, I welcome the disruption of new startups like Basestone.

However, ultimately the security and reliability of the hosting environment and the ability to create and review archives of information captured during project delivery will be what matters most to main contractors and owner/operators. How well a mobile application’s data can be integrated with the rest of a project delivery technology ecosystem will guide its success or failure. As well as a shake-up, there will be a shake-out. While some new businesses may thrive, others will be acquired, or will wither and die. Just as we saw a flurry of construction collaboration businesses launched in the original dot.com boom, we are now seeing a mini mobile boom, and – as before – not all will survive.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/10/basestone-2-0-launched/

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