A few weeks ago I had a brief fireside type of chat with John Bacus, SketchUp’s veteran product manager and now a director at Trimble. We were just a week or so out before the eventual launch of the new SketchUp 2016. The goal was to step back a bit and talk more broadly about the AEC industry and Trimble’s place in it.
John really opens the first subject mentioning the big Bay Area maker faire. “Folks are really using CNC routers now with SketchUp more than ever,” says Bacus, “the cost has fallen and routers like the ShopBot CNC router are quite popular.
I mention to him that some architects have moved far beyond 3D printing and into the engagement of material exploration, design and fabrication. Kennedy & Voilich Architecture, one of Boston’s more notable architecture practices, is a cited example; they have a whole new segment of the practice called MATx Research which not only houses sophisticated large scale CNC equipment but an interdisciplinary team exploring material across cultural scales in the built environment. John mentions that 10K today buys a machine (CNC router) that can take in large sheets of material, for example, a full 4×8 sheet of plywood. And the materials are expanding.
Augmented Reality Bigger than VR?
While CNC routers and 3D printing continue to grow I mentioned that at the last AIA National Convention the big technology push was really VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) as well. Bacus’ reaction was swift. “AR is pretty green but there are many companies interested in it. Architects have had this superpower with drawings,” continues Bacus, “that others cannot see. AR ultimately enhances the communication and is of benefit to the whole AEC industry.”
Two AIA National conventions back, when SketchUp was new under Trimble but still coordinating projects with Google, Bacus was excited to show me a secret project called Project Tango, an AR (augmented reality) implementation wherein 3D BIM geometry would be revealed behind photographic imagery on an Android tablet device being driven in real time by the tablet’s camera. What the Tango project enabled was the ability to see through walls like Superman. Any user could take a geo-located tablet into a building and AR software would reveal a coordinated view between 3D model data and a picture coming from the device’s camera.
I mention that I felt this was very promising technology but Bacus surprised me by talking about Microsoft’s Hololens instead, a technology that also targets augmented reality in much the same way as Google’s technology. Bacus believes the Microsoft Hololens technology is very impressive but would not commit to naming any Trimble projects that may tie into it. However, what he does believe is that the AR industry is more important to the AEC markets than the VR (virtual reality) industry.
“AR is more important in the construction markets,” says Bacus. Trimble is the type of AEC technology company with the right areas of focus to bring the AR technologies together with the types of solutions that will make sense to AEC professionals. However, it’s completely unclear where Trimble may make its first move in this space. What Bacus did say however is interesting. “There is a strategy…a clear strategy to enter [with AR] the construction market,” says Bacus, “and to work backwards into the office.”
Trimble Connect and its Importance
While Trimble’s future with technologies like the Hololens and AR in general may not be so clear, what is much more visible is the company’s aims with Trimble Connect. Acquired from Gehry Technologies a couple years ago, Trimble Connect continues to advance itself at a rapid rate as a leading edge project collaboration and document management (PCDM) platform.
“GTeam was originally a tool for project coordination,” says Bacus, “but integrating work process is the thing we really think we do well and Trimble Connect ties all of those loose processes together—it gives industry professionals a canvas from which they can work together.”
Trimble Connect is thus a centralizing force within the Trimble organization and more discreet tools are connecting into it. “Product integrations are now in a second generation,” adds Bacus, “and more products are being connected and our API for third parties is also in its second generation.” Trimble Connect, as an online software as a service (SaaS) product gets product updates continuously, as in little pushes every few weeks. Recently the company integrated support for the BCF file format directly in Trimble Connect. The BCF format is a key technology spearheaded by the buildingsSMART organization pushing for an “open” BIM industry.
“We are actively involved in buildingSMART, through Tekla,” says Bacus. He also mentions that IFC (industry foundation classes) is really “the best hope” in forging the type of interoperability the whole global AEC industry needs to advance BIM’s promises from theory to reality. Trimble is not a company that believes in any AEC future wrapped around a single file or data type much less a super vendor.
We have to have a way to bring data reliably across tool chains. “The Civil and the AEC worlds don’t support the same common model formats,” adds Bacus. This is a key reason why open standards are so critical in the CAD industry supporting the civil, AEC and GIS industries—all industries truly connected now more than ever. Bacus notes that Esri is a third major player in all this space.
Ultimately, Trimble wants to be the best partner in the whole industry and is actively working on strengthening relationships that tie tool chains together more seamlessly, because for a company like Trimble their own customers work with software applications that span the gamut of major software houses in AEC. “Bentley is a great friend of ours,” says Bacus. “And with Autodesk we also have a really functional partnership. Autodesk Revit can read our file format.”
The Role of SketchUp—It Grows
Despite Trimble’s strong relationships throughout the AEC industry, there is no denying that SketchUp is a force to be taken seriously. Many smaller AEC professionals have learned how to rely on it entirely for both their design phase and construction phase drawings and models, dumping their previous CAD, BIM and 3D applications.
For these practitioners, the beauty is in the unified experience of working entirely in one application, end-to-end, for all their drawing and design work. And what SketchUp alone cannot offer the end user, there exist a vast sea of third-party add-on applications spanning the gamut from advanced rendering tools like V-ray plugins to advanced energy analysis tools like Sefaira.
An Ecosystem Doubled?
Another aspect of SketchUp’s growth in the industry is Trimble’s way of opening up the program at various levels to spur on community and third-party support. “We have now opened up the API for Layout too,” says Bacus, speaking of a key feature change in SketchUp 2016. He is not sure where developers will take third-party development with Layout, but some speculations include the obvious things like new drawing and editing tools, even simple things like new types of lines and objects. “Great rendering engines could feed into Layout,” Bacus added. “And documentation automation are also high on the probability list for what developers may do.”
There is a very high probability rate that Layout will bloom with new tools and optionality due to the opening of its API. Extension Warehouse, the place to find third-party tools for SketchUp, will likely grow around new plugins for Layout, and maybe at a clip just as robust as SketchUp’s plugins. What Trimble’s competitors could be looking at, unhappily most likely, is an ecosystem doubled.
Yet, while Bacus tempers his enthusiasm for SketchUp in his trademark soft-spoken manner, you get the sense underneath of a heightened excitement for things going on within the larger Trimble company. Only time will tell what those may be.