Research Nation: A Visit to Finland, Part4
As recently as the middle of 2001 I believed that true, concurrent, on-line AEC collaborative design was still some time away in the distant future. Then, folks from a Finnish company called Enterprixe Software Ltd arrived in the USA for an unadvertised series of invitation-only one-on-one demos. The company's eponymous product was and is nothing short of electrifying, so much so that I gave it an unqualified (albeit brief) rave back in IssueThree. However, because I've seen my share of software that demos well in beta or early release, yet fails to live up to expectations in a production environment, I chose to spend an entire day, during my latest trip to Helsinki, visiting the company and observing its software in action on real projects. In hindsight, I now see that my earlier rave barely hinted at the industry-transforming potential of this product.
Our Story So Far
In Part1 of this journey through Finnish information and communication technology (ICT) for AEC, we focused on the national research and development agenda, through the lens of TEKES, Finland's national technology agency.
In Part2, we looked at representative programs and projects—many of them funded by TEKES—and especially those conducted by or administered through VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland.
In Part3, we moved from funding and research to development and application, with a particular emphasis on the innovative technology vision of Olof Granlund, Finland's largest building services engineering consultancy.
This final installment (for now) about ICT/AEC innovation in Finland turns to commercialization, using Enterprixe as a case study.
Founded in the spring of 2000 as NetModeler, Enterprixe is a Finnish-Swedish company with several offices in Finland, plus one in Stockholm, Sweden and a development office in St. Petersburg, Russia. Many of the key personnel in Enterprixe came from CADEX Software Ltd, where they developed and marketed SteelCAD and ConcreteCAD from 1985-1999, reaching 1,200 licensees in 42 countries (CADEX was sold to Tekla, who already had the popular Xsteel software product). The former CADEX folks were joined in Enterprixe by two of CADEX's largest customers—Sweco Bloco, a 2,300-person Swedish E/A firm, and Tyrens, another large Swedish engineering company—with additional investment from Sitra, the venture capital arm of the Finnish government, plus a loan from Tekes (as an aside and a "heads-up" warning to 200 other countries, Sitra's vision is "that by the year 2010 Finland will be one of the three most successful countries in the world").
Enterprixe's development and marketing teams are drawn from the ranks of former SteelCAD and ConcreteCAD people, as well as from the former Revit Technology Corporation, the German Speedikon architectural CAD/FM outfit, the Netherlands outpost of Bentley's TriForma, and from Xsteel. These teams comprise some of the most extensive and intensive bases of expertise in database issues related to multi-user modeling systems. The emphasis throughout the company is on the goal (some might say the grail) of multi-user, multi-discipline collaborative design over the internet.
By structuring project collaboration around their own model server back end, the Enterprixe folks can push and pull model views and model changes to and from software clients running AutoCAD, Autodesk Architectural Desktop and GSM/WAP phones(!)—a VRML client and a Microsoft Excel client are under active development. Enterprixe offers direct connections to SteelCAD and ConcreteCAD, plus linked import/export with Microsoft Project, Swedish cost estimating package BidCon/MAP—even IAI/IFC files (although Enterprixe's model server is separate from and in no way dependent on the IFC format).
As I noted back in June, the resulting system "offers the fullest form of synchronous, on-line design collaboration—one in which the model itself embodies the shared repository of design team communications and decisions. Local copies... function only as editing/viewing clients of the shared, server-based model." The "big idea" is to keep users using the software tools, platforms and interfaces with which they already are comfortable. To view model information, it doesn't matter if you are collaborating via PC, handheld device or mobile phone. The system doesn't discriminate in its viewing/editing capabilities whether you are an architect, engineer, contractor or owner. If you prefer to view model changes via a spreadsheet interface as opposed to a drawing interface, that's fine, too.
The key feature that enables this flexibility is partial model check-in/check-out, with full versioning for project history. At each session, the user logs in and checks out his or her area of the entire model plus the respective area of the user's local model. The local system then loads the parameter values from the server with which to "build" or update the local model.
Each user works and saves locally (including off-line, if desired), periodically updating the local model to see other users' changes (only the change data is transmitted, making updates nearly instantaneous). Completed work can be checked back in, either for approval by named users (for content or project admin review) or simply published to all users (subject to access rights).
This system organization also allows selective showing and hiding of any components of the model, effectively filtering discipline-specific or user-specific views, as well as phased cutaway views and graphical drill-downs through the model data (model filtering also is important in today's security-conscious construction environments: it's easy to show designs to different audiences with the level of detail determined on a "need to know" basis). Obviously, this model framework is inherently capable of supporting 4-D simulations (the three spatial dimensions of CAD, plus time), but in a more easily shared and interactive way than other 4-D approaches that have been tried to date.
Already in use by Senate Properties, Finland' largest facility owner/operator, on a massive renovation and upgrade project to the art museums in Helsinki's high-visibility Atheneum Building, the Enterprixe EXP system is rapidly being rolled out to other projects in Finland—as the company seeks development/implementation partners abroad.
Other folks are pursuing the model server approach to multi-user, multi-discipline collaboration over the 'net: Granlund developed its own BSPro model server, but is now moving towards the IFC model server developed at VTT; various IFC implementations embody the model server approach; and Bentley Systems has long been a staunch proponent of the model server approach, especially with its oft-misunderstood and under-appreciated ProjectBank technology.
In my opinion, the surest path to adoption of new technologies is through extension of existing technologies—people are naturally resistant to change, but if they can achieve new functionality through seemingly familiar means, that becomes a path of least resistance. Beyond all its undisputable technical sophistication, Enterprixe wisely chose to use existing software clients as the view/edit interface to their model server wizardry. It may be a bit early to call the winners in the AEC model server sweepstakes, but, if one were looking to place a bet today on the most complete realization of real-time collaborative design by anyone from anywhere, Enterprixe's EXP is a powerful contender.