This year at its second annual user design conference, Vectorworks, Inc., managed to double its attendance figures to more than 600, increase its mini-expo with both Nemetschek Group sibling companies and external partners, and again stir up some exciting networking events, user sessions, and exciting keynote presentations.
For an architect “techie type” affair, such as a conference like this is, the company is good at showcasing its mantra that Vectorworks is the “designer’s choice” BIM and CAD program. There were several top notch architectural firms at the show, including Italy’s 5+1AA, The Office of James Burnett (OBJ) and Switzerland’s Itten+Brechühl AG.
Despite the design talent, and the inspiring Design Keynote by Eva Franch i Gilabert, of Storefront for Art and Architecture, the most exciting talk at the event is likely the technology keynote where attendees are treated to a peak at the future of Vectorworks technology. Newly minted CEO, Dr. Biplab Sarkar, spoke to me after the event, along with new vice presidents, about where he plans to take Vectorworks, in both technology and markets.
In your new CEO role how do you see taking Vectorworks in directions that are more uniquely yours?
I think one of the main things I would like to work on is reinforcing the awareness that Vectorworks is a BIM product, and teaching many customers that they can do full BIM with Vectorworks. It is a misconception that we are still only a 2D product, and you will be seeing more and more information from us and from our customers who are doing wonderful things with BIM workflows using Vectorworks Architect.
Are you speaking about both inside your customer base and outside in the market?
Both, because of the history of the product as a great 2D CAD and presentation software going back to the MiniCAD days.
So how do you plan go about bringing this “BIM awareness” to both customers and the general market?
So there has to be a lot of marketing effort in order to do that. So in the United States, for example, we have started doing BIM Camps. And we have done them slowly in other parts of the world, such as in Japan, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, but I want to do them more regularly worldwide.
And those BIM Camps are very often not filled with existing customers but more often are filled with prospective customers. So that is how you increase the awareness. And of course more case studies always helps the awareness too.
Do you have the built volume for case studies now?
Up until recently not a lot of buildings were actually constructed using Vectorworks as a BIM software platform but that is happening now.
We have a fantastic presence in parts of the world, so we are getting more and more examples from our strong markets internationally. But we don’t have presence all over the world. So for example, we have presence in Asia-Pacific. So when we say one quarter of our revenue comes from Asia-Pacific, it is nearly all coming from Japan and Australia. So you can imagine what we can do in Southeast Asia, for example, or the Middle East, or in Eastern Europe…we don’t have much of any any presence in Russia. Expanding our geographic presence is very important, and we expect to see more case studies reflecting that.
So in those developing countries that you just mentioned like Russia, and let’s add India, are there any countries that are more important?
India is very important to us. Both in India and China we have a presence but it is young and still developing for us. We also are looking at opportunities in the Middle Eastern countries, and when you think about it those countries are using AutoCAD LT. That is what we know. And Vectorworks Fundamentals is the perfect candidate to replace AutoCAD LT in those countries.
Do you think the traditional distributor model is still relevant in the 21st century?
I think countries, cultures and buying behaviors are constantly changing and are not the same country to country. There’s always going to be uniqueness there. What’s important is having representation for your brand and products that are growing while investing in pushing to expand both directly and indirectly.
So in big countries you want many distributors competing with each other, ideally?
It depends on the market, but in some countries, I believe this is a valid business strategy. Look at Autodesk in China for example. They have more than 20 different distributors that are all competing with each other. However, we are not looking for them to compete with each other; rather, we are looking to have distributor relationships in large geographic markets that will be the most ideal to serve our present and future customers.
I want to return back to something you said a few minutes ago. Do you think your own customers are holding back BIM with Vectorworks? You have so many customers and yet not a lot of buildings in the ground that come from Vectorworks BIM. Is Vectorworks too good of a 2D product that it actually holds back your own customers from moving in the BIM direction?
In some ways that is true, but not entirely. We still keep investing a lot in the presentation features for 2D drawings. The drafting is very important to architects and we are doing all kinds of new things on the presentation side. So that investment is there.
But another thing that plays an important part are the government requirements. In some countries BIM requirements are being mandated for government work. For example, in Japan, where we have a huge presence, they don’t have any requirements yet. So why should they do it? The architects there think it is too much work. Whereas, in countries like the UK they have to do it; because of the 2016 mandate they have to submit IFC files. So more and more countries are mandating BIM deliverables. As this happens, Vectorworks Architect’s BIM capabilities will be ready to support all designers.
So emerging markets will probably be the last countries to have these governmental BIM requirements, and growing share in those countries will damper BIM utilization in those places while in the US and UK and so forth BIM use grows?
Yes, very likely. We will push and promote BIM globally, but government mandates can have big impacts on BIM workflows at the firm level.
I want to make sure I understand the VGM technologies applied to the 2D Top Plan view mode. So what was involved in that, help me understand why that is different than what was there before?
(Vectorworks Vice President of Product Development, Steve Johnson:) Well, we developed the dramatic improvements and new tools in 3D views and interactions over the past few years using VGM, and that’s using modern OpenGL graphics. And the 2D views and navigation were just using a deprecated version of OpenGL and it wasn’t using the VGM technologies we had programmed for 3D; essentially, in 2D, Vectorworks couldn’t store as much graphics memory or operate as fast as it could in 3D and so we had to move those 2D graphics into the VGM.
So, technically, what was going on before is that the 2D graphics were not being stored on the GPU’s memory…do I have that right?
(Sarkar:) Yes. That is part of it. So the whole graphic representation of the 2D model will be on your video card. So that’s helping you do dramatically faster navigation. In the past, once you left the navigation, and you took your fingers off the mouse, Vectorworks software had to recalculate everything to do the final drawing. It could take a few seconds to do the final quality drawing. That is where we had to do a lot of work; before we had to wait five or more seconds to do the final drawing, and with VGM 2D Top Plan improvements, this will be dramatically improved so there is next to no waiting for the screen to redraw.
(Johnson:) And that’s the second part of that. There are the navigation graphics, which use the VGM graphics, and then there is the final frame, which we did in one single thread, on one single processor before, and now we have split that out to multiple cores. So if you have a modern machine and you have eight processor cores, you will see all eight blue lines lit up because it’s utilizing all of them now and it’s working in the background so you are not interrupted. The VGM while you are moving around, generates fast enough graphics that enable you to navigate and move while behind the scenes the multithreaded final frame graphics are being calculated. The total result is a faster smoother experience.
So the graphics now are a combination of the fast VGM graphics, which are tapping the power and memory of the GPU, while the final frame graphics can run side by side and utilize all the cores your machine happens to have. We combine the best of both worlds!
So let me get this straight, are the final frame graphics solely on the CPU?
(Johnson:) Yes, the final frame graphics require the CPU. We have re-engineered our Top/Plan graphics engine so the CPU effort can be spread out to all available processing units. The Top/Plan experience is enhanced because VGM provides fast Top/Plan graphics using the GPU while all available CPUs work in the background to produce crisp, high-precision graphics our customers expect. With this new technology, the user is able to move quickly from task to task without waiting for graphics to be delivered to the screen.
I would imagine too that not knowing exactly what is around the corner with Microsoft and Apple, particularly Apple with its new Metal graphics API…so if there is a way for them to get that final Quartz “presentation layer” final frame graphics to run through Metal it will utilize the GPU in the end, correct?
(Johnson:) Yes, That’s right. We are constantly re-engineering the graphics stuff but it is always a challenge.
(Sarkar:) But I think you know that we have the scene graph already built now using the VGM layer; anything that you can do with Vulcan or Apple’s Metal, or anything like that, will be easier in the future.
The new irrigation features in Landmark are impressive and the crowd really reacted to them. You mentioned in the talk five man-years in the making, but when did you really start the work?
(Sarkar:) We started last year with a staff of engineers who spent the equivalent of five man years programming it. Right after Energos was completed we started working on this project, and the design of the project began three years ago by an external contractor from Canada, and he was a landscape architect.
So this was an existing Vectorworks Landmark customer who initiated this new feature in Landmark?
And when you use the word “design” what exactly do you mean?
It means he wrote the requirements; he didn’t code anything. He wrote a specification for what it would look like in Vectorworks Landmark.
What irrigation technology was out in the market before this?
One tool that people have been using is RainCAD, which is commonly used as an extension on AutoCAD. So first you have to buy a three thousand dollar license of AutoCAD and then you need to buy a thirteen hundred dollar extension, plus deal with two different companies for support. So people were not really happy with those possibilities as that is very expensive.
I see. Landmark is such a feature complete product now with GIS, irrigation, IFC BIM support for landscape architects and all the rest and for a much lower price than your main competitors. Why have you not yet “knocked out” the competition? What is holding things up in your view?
The industry as a whole is still in the process of embracing CAD and BIM in their workflows because there wasn’t as much of a need and a lot of the landscape work is done from a different perspective. Adoption of Vectorworks Landmark is growing around the world as the benefits are being realized.
Okay, so when you are talking about the landscape market are we not talking about two things? It’s the licensed landscape architects and it’s everyone else or these landscape designers, correct? How big is each part of this market?
(Sarkar:) Over there in the UK they preserve some parts of the city for gardens and these people who are involved in that are landscape designers and landscape architects—mostly.
(Vectorworks Vice President of Product Management, Darick DeHart:) And I think you can also compare some of the firms to the building industry where landscape design-build firms are comparable to design-build contractors for homes.
Right, so in essence they do the install, not just the design.
(DeHart:) Right, they can do the install as well.
So what percentage would you say your Landmark product is between these two groups of users?
(Sarkar:) Oh, well there is a third sector, which is urban planning. There is a huge component of our Landmark users who are urban planners. You go to Belgium, you go to the Netherlands…many of our customers are actually huge urban planning outfits that are using our GIS features, for example.
I actually visited a customer recently and they are doing the urban planning of Chinese cities. So the third leg is city and urban planning professionals and it’s a big and growing group.
I would say the landscape designers are the lowest percentage of users, the landscape architects are the majority, and the urban GIS planning professionals is the second biggest group.
Thanks for talking to me here in Chicago.
(Sarkar and co.:) You are very welcome.