We tend to picture
the software and information technology tools in the industry
as coming from the superfarms–big software companies
that sell planning and design programs, estimating, scheduling
and project management tools, and back-office systems.
But there is a lot of kitchen-garden
IT development going on which yields a crop of software and
services that bears fruit continuously. Typically, these goods
are nurtured and raised by firms in-house, or are developed
by consultants or academics working to the specifications
of construction and design firms, or in some cases, professional
associations that represent them.
by Guy Lawrence for ENR)
Some of the produce is in software
and systems developed for project use, which may be conveyed
at the end of a job as a deliverable. But sometimes creations
are sold through IT divisions or spin-off companies as products
in their own right.
"In any engineering company,
there aren’t 100 but more like 1,000 bits of software
that people develop," says Dave Harrison, manager of
the IT services group for Montgomery Watson Harza, Broomfield,
Colo. "Very few are professionally developed; maybe none
are commercially viable, but it speaks to a company’s
ability to innovate and think outside the box. We harness
power for clients by creating decision-making tools."
Bechtel Group Inc., San Francisco,
Calif., is a company that quietly does it all. "We develop
lots of our own software. We have tailored application software,
proprietary software, and we also have software that we sell,"
says George Belonogoff, general manager of Bechtel Software
Inc., San Francisco, a Bechtel division started in 1987. It
is not just a big-firm phenomenon. Scores of midsize and smaller
firms create software and tools to meet construction industry
needs, and many of them show up in the marketplace, too. Examples
also include professional associations, such as the American
Iron and Steel Institute, Washington, D.C., and the American
Concrete Pavement Association, Skokie, Ill. The steel group
commissioned development of programs to design short-span
steel bridges, and other software of certain usefulness in
the design of steel. The concrete crowd promotes similarly
developed software to encourage designing for concrete. Distribution
is handled through their respective Websites, at www.steel.org
In each case the specifications
were developed by practitioners in the industry. The creators
are usually motivated by a desire to improve efficiency, gain
competitive advantage, capitalize on strengths or meet unique
needs. They justify the risks they run in developing products
because their needs are not being met in the marketplace,
and they reassure themselves with the prospect of recovering
development costs through sales. But the risks can be substantial,
"Try to find it outside before
you build your own," he says. "Especially for smaller
firms, the cost of maintenance and support is very high. Technology
is changing rapidly, standards and platforms are evolving,
and unless you have a critical mass I don't think you can
keep up with it. Competition is keen and it is coming from
"The thing is the staying
power: Can you maintain that software on different platforms
under different standards as time marches on?" he asks.
ADOPTER Bechtel developed its 3-D tool in the 70s.
(Photo courtesy of Bechtel Software Inc.)
Bechtel has been creating software
since the 1960s when the tools it needed to design nuclear
powerplants simply didn't exist. Belonogoff says it developed
a 3-D modeling program for the work in the 1970s called 3DM.
He says Bechtel's mechanical engineering program, ME101, which
it began licensing in the 1980s, is one of the success stories
of the industry. "A lot of analysis programs don't change
much. What changes is the front-end interface and the connectivity
with other programs," he adds.
Bechtel's products are for the
petrochemical and power industry, civil infrastructure, pipelines
and mining and telecommunications, and although many of its
tools are only licensed to clients, it still has products
for every sector it works in for sale. "Bechtel Software
really does not advertise. Our clients just talk to other
clients," Belonogoff says.
An example is SETROUTE, which
keeps track of cables and electrical circuits in power, chemical
and industrial plants. "We've licensed it to shipyards
in Louisiana and they're using it to manage the cables and
systems on ships. You may have 20,000 cables in a powerplant,
but there are an amazing number of cables in a ship–maybe
even more than powerplants." Another force driving outside
sales of Bechtel's technology is the need to collaborate on
international joint ventures. "We make sure it has been
successfully used on Bechtel projects first. It's not the
newest, it's just bulletproof," Belonogoff says.
A listing is at www.bechtelsoftware.com,
but don't expect a fancy Website. "Customers complained
the site was slow to load. They said 'just tell us what it
does,' so we got rid of all the graphics," says Belonogoff.
Also commercializing an in-house
product is Walt Disney Imagineering, Anaheim, Calif. The product,
a 4-D Visualization tool that has been in development for
about 5 years, has been developed in association with researchers
at Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering
(ENR 1/1-8/96 p. 32). The purpose of the tool is to apply
the element of time–a construction schedule–to
3-D models and fine-tune sequencing. It has been tested on
several major projects and is planned for release in September.
The software is focused on the
point of product delivery, says Chris Holm, a senior technical
staff member with WDI. "It has to be on the point where
the contractor is committing resources, as well as something
that would leverage the data that we were already very good
at creating. Disney has lots of CAD geometry and lots of schedules,
and we always require a lot of detail from the contractor
about his construction processes," Holm says.
CIFE's director, Martin Fischer,
says that while other 4-D software is being sold, the Disney
4-D visualization tool is adept at accepting cad files in
many formats and allowing adjustments to the model itself,
without having to go back to the source cad files and regenerate
every time you want to run a "what-if" scenario.
by Guy Lawrence for ENR)
Another firm taking IT to market
is J.A. Jones, Charlotte, N.C., which has launched a spin-off
to capitalize on its construction expertise. Jones started
Virtual ESI last June as a systems integrator capable of putting
a construction face on general industry-standard management
software from J.D. Edwards. Virtual ESI hosts company Websites
and handles software implementation services. "Most of
the companies that produce software don't really have the
industry expertise," says Kevin Kochanski, assistant
vice president for business development. As an application
service provider, ESI integrates front-end estimating, scheduling
and project management software with back-end enterprise software.
The customer needs "minimal up-front capital," he
HNTB Architects, Engineers and
Planners, Kansas City, Mo. has also found good reasons to
develop in house tools. Agnes Otto, an HNTB associate vice
president and director of technology initiatives, says her
firm has two sets of products: tools it sells, and tools it
holds for strategic advantage. "None of this stuff is
that profitable. Our decision has been made on operating more
competitively in an extremely competitive environment."
HNTB's construction information
management system and the collaboration products are designed
to help owners. "InterXchange is a Web collaboration
and project communication tool. It connects all the players–HNTB,
subs, clients, even key public figures who are particularly
interested in the project. The other tool, CIMS, is a construction
information management system designed to protect the owners'
interests and assets. It is used by construction inspectors
to log all action happening on a site on a daily basis, whether
it's people, materials or activities. And it also has handheld
capabilities, which has been a huge productivity tool. They
do their inspections, go home, sync-up, maybe add a few bullet
points, but it is basically done," Otto says.
However, other company-produced
software, such as a bridge design program, is deemed part
of the HNTB's competitive edge, and is not sold, Otto says.
Liability concerns also come into play, she says, because
complex design software "has to be used properly."
Development on the tools HNTB
sells began about 1995. "We were looking for a way to
use the Web. We were spending a lot of money on licenses,
and a lot of money on customization," Otto says. "We
said, 'This is a pretty simple tool, we can do that,' so we
Otto says the firm's construction
package is unusual because "we saw some things in the
marketplace, but they were targeted for contractors. HNTB
is an owner's agent. We were looking on the inspection side,
safeguarding the owner's interest."
Another area in which HNTB is
taking its it expertise to market is in selling 3-D visualization
and Web design services for government clients putting together
large projects. It has eight massive bridge sites and is getting
ready to launch its first live Webcam on a bridge in Greenville,
Miss. "Multimedia is somewhere we have had huge success
in the public involvement arena. As the public has more access
to the Internet, it may be more valid than the town hall forum,"
says Otto, "so we've developed tools for content management
on public involvement sites."
But the pace of information technology
development is rapid, and meeting under-served needs is a
moving target. Other tools for owners born out of the industry
are proliferating. An example is PeakStar, from a Mill Valley,
Calif., company of the same name. The product began as an
in-house design-firm project that was dropped as being too
expensive. The consultant on the work, Tom Clark, a former
contractor and engineer, found outside financing to go it
alone and is gradually rolling it out now.
SERVICE PeakStar is a property-centric data management
system. (Graphic courtesy of Peakstar)
PeakStar takes a cue from customer
relationship database systems, which use the premise that
all commercial activity revolves around customers, so if you
center your data there all activity will be reflected. PeakStar
is property-centric and focuses on property records, investigation,
construction, leases, capital improvement and budgeting. Clark
says getting the center of data right is key.
Similarly, at Montgomery Watson
Harza, Harrison says the company is combining its industry
knowledge to create combination packages such as mWizard,
a system for retrieving database information from the field,
which has been in development for about 14 months. "This
sprang out of an idea a couple of field guys had," he
says. The technology transfers construction and inspection
data to field crews for locating pipe and other tasks, using
a GPS component to sync data to location.
Harrison says that while competing
products are coming out, the firm is still offering mWizard
to clients. "We wanted to prove we could develop and
produce something," he says. "The value is so easy
to pitch to a client. It can save field guys a lot of time
rummaging around for drawings, material safety data sheets
and other documents. If you can save 5% of that time, this
thing pays for itself."
Pete R. Perciavalle, director
of operations for InfoStructures, the MWH unit that offers
its IT products, says the product is a differentiator for
the firm and has applications for any utilities with distributed
MHW is also offering electronic
"manuals" for operations and maintenance. Perciavalle
notes there are many competitors, "but we've found a
way to put these together cost-effectively." He says
the firm has sold about $5 million in electronic O&M manuals
this year alone, primarily to water and wastewater utilities,
but it is also marketing to other public owners such as school
One of the biggest challenges
for "intrapreneurs" like Harrison and Perciavalle
is to convince their own colleagues to use or specify a homegrown
technology, says Perciavalle. "In an entrepreneurial
company there's always someone who thinks they can do it better."