The AEC design technology market has a handful of key software developers; Autodesk, Bentley and Nemetschek are the main volume players. However since the mid 2000s Trimble, best known as a GPS provider, has acquired its way to compete with the established players.
In 1978 Charlie Trimble left Hewlett-Packard and set up a marine navigation and location system based on the new GPS system, which used 24 orbiting satellites to locate positions on the surface of the earth. It was not long before Trimble applied this technology to surveying, mining and mapping. By 2003, the company was into 3D laser scanning and had partnerships with Nikon and Caterpillar. Since then, it has been on an aggressive acquisition path.
As an industry observer it has been quite incredible to watch. Big names such as StruCAD, Tekla and Google SketchUp have all fallen to Trimble’s insatiable growth. Trimble has a broad plan to have its own building ecosystem and to become a player in the Building Information Modelling (BIM) market with a portfolio of solutions.
Trimble describes its acquisition strategy as “principally a mechanism to establish beachheads in new market spaces, fill in product line gaps, or add new technologies to our solutions portfolio.”
Now with over 500 products, the company has revenues of approximately $2 billion making it three times bigger than Bentley Systems and rivalling companies like Autodesk. However, when it comes to working out exactly how Trimble will approach the market and integrate these many tools, the company has kept its cards close to its chest.
The first sign that a cohesive message was coming out of Trimble came a few months ago with the appearance of the Trimble Buildings website (buildings.trimble.com), which highlights its industry solutions covering: Architecture, Structures, MEP, Contractors, Owners and Site Preparation. The company has focused its messaging on what it calls the Design Build Operate Lifecycle choosing to steer away from jumping on the BIM branding bandwagon, with the exception of the Tekla Structures product and Tekla BIMsight for project collaboration.
The website is certainly a statement of intent, Trimble has a very impressive suite of tools, from concept to facilities management and with its long history in GPS surveying and site preparation has very close links to fabrication and construction that Autodesk, Nemetschek and Bentley do not have.
The biggest and most recent surprise was Trimble’s purchase of Google SketchUp in 2012. Market rumours were such that Autodesk and Dassault Systmes were interested but Trimble got the deal.
Google originally bought SketchUp from @last software, a small, quirky Boulder, Colorado company, which set out to create an easy to use 3D modelling tool. By plugging into Google Earth, SketchUp provided an easy way to add 3D buildings to the maps.
Google bought the company in 2006 and started to give away the base application for free, with the addition of a low cost professional version. The fact it was cheap and easy to use meant that SketchUp become an industry standard, with a copy on most architect’s machines. It also eased the AEC industry into seeing the benefits of 3D modelling and accelerated BIM adoption.
The downside was that, due to its price point and ease of use, SketchUp was not seen as a professional tool, yet it is very much part of today’s design software armoury.
Having recently purchased high-end structural BIM applications, the Trimble interest in SketchUp appeared confusing to industry watchers. In an interview with aecstrategies website, Trimble’s Sector vice-president Bryn Fosburgh gave some indication as to how SketchUp will be a platform level product.
When asked about the synergies between the many acquisitions and SketchUp, Fosburgh replied: “SketchUp provides an integration point between architect and designer and designer out to field. It’s complementary to all of our acquisitions over the last five years.”
On the new Trimble Buildings website, SketchUp Pro, the paid for version (approx £322), is stated as being for concept development, visualisation, communication and planning. Over the free version, which has been renamed SketchUp Make, Pro is both a 3D modeller and competent 2D drafting package enabling designs to be modelled and documented.
To find out more about Trimble Buildings and the company’s SketchUp strategy and product I talked to John Bacus, product management director, SketchUp, at Trimble and Paul Davis, senior communications manager, Trimble Buildings.
According to Mr Bacus, SketchUp is the key product for architects in Trimble’s building portfolio. Looking at the competition, Mr Bacus said that Revit and MicroStation were very good documentation tools for design, great at costings and scheduling but difficult to learn and poor at the conceptual phase. He admitted that Trimble wanted to push SketchUp further down the process, to schematic design and development but wanted to concentrate on design not the production phase.
Both Mr Bacus and Mr Davis were guarded about making any specific forward looking statements but indicated that later this year there would be a clearer vision explained, but only when the technology and integration of Trimble’s technologies were ready.
However, there is an internal roadmap to better integrate the broad range of Trimble building products.
SketchUp Pro has only been slightly rebranded with the addition of the current year. Mr Bacus admitted that under Google the product had suffered, in the later years, with lack of new functionality but under Trimble this will no longer be the case.
In the latest release, the following new features have been added:
- Extensions Warehouse
- Pattern fills
- Copy array
- Faster vector rendering
- Page numbers in the pages panel
- Curved label leader lines
- Smarter toolbars (Windows version)
- Increased zoom in capability
- HD video export
Out of these the key additions has been the Extensions Warehouse. SketchUp has had a number of developers adding functionality to the core platform using the Ruby API.
The Extensions Warehouse is a place where all these products can be accessed, bought and downloaded. At the time of writing there were 158 extensions that had 129,000 downloads.
There are many architectural specific add-ons, such as IES’s analysis application, Openstudio (energy analysis), lightup (light analysis), skelion (solar), gModeller (energy), totalstation point importer and Buildedge Plan, which created walls doors and windows with parametric-style editing in a very impressive way. Mr Bacus estimated that 40%-45% of users already have extensions downloaded.
SketchUp is very much a platform technology here and Mr Bacus explained that by adding a layer of specific AEC tools, it would clutter the interface and push the core product in a direction that would put off other users.
Complex geometry is also seen as a deep vertical by Mr Bacus. The API/ warehouse route allows users to add more focused tools and deep vertical capability. So, Trimble is still keeping true to the generic nature of the core platform. With this view, I suspect that Trimble will be developing its own add-ins for the Extensions Warehouse, as opposed to building a dedicated product for architects.
SketchUp has had the 3D Warehouse for some time, which has probably the largest selection of 3D content for any application. With the news that BIMObject will be looking to provide BIM content, it is pretty clear that SketchUp’s future will compete more directly with Revit and ArchiCAD in providing the Information part of ‘BIM’.
SketchUp has always been impressive and despite languishing under Google for a number of years it is clear that Trimble has big development plans.
Google was always secretive about SketchUp’s usage, but Mr Bacus did tell me that last year there were over 30 million individual sessions of SketchUp started and in a week can hit as many as 2.5 million. There is no doubting the penetration of this product and this is certainly one of the reasons that Trimble was interested in acquiring it.
Mr Bacus says the low price does not tell the story of SketchUp, but concedes it allows many in the industry to claim that it is not a pro-level product, in spite of its popularity on many real-world projects. With literally millions of users, a growing extensions ecosystem and Trimble’s impressive acquired back catalogue of AEC products, I am expecting to see some serious competition for the established BIM developers.