YOU PROBABLY DON’T THINK MACHINE LEARNING has much to do with you and vice versa if you are a CAD industry technical creative. But in 2019 you would be wrong. And especially if you are a Vectorworks user.
At the 2018 Design Summit—Machine Learning Touches Down
At this year’s Vectorworks Design summit, held back in November, the global BIM/CAD leader with an HQ in Maryland had much to say about AI and the future of machine learning in Vectorworks. In fact, machine learning—which can be defined as “the practice of using algorithms to parse data, learn from it,” and then make a prediction or determination—has been at play at Vectorworks inside its software code base for quite some time.
I would say yes, we are interested because ‘little BIM’ is our basic market.
Onstage at the keynote address, CEO Dr. Biplab Sarkar had several new examples to talk about. Perhaps one of the most compelling ones, only now revealed at the conference, was the use of letting machine learning predict what your next task will be as a CAD or BIM user. Sarkar notes that the company is using Google’s TensorFlow algorithms to analyze user-interface operations by its user base that opt-in to having Vectorworks collect data on their usage of the software. By examining just six months of a specific user’s data, the machine learning could make substantially accurate predictions about what CAD or BIM operations would likely follow a particular operation. So it is thinking like this: if “A” operation, then most likely “B” operation.
With that kind of precision and predictability, many user-experience enhancements can take place. The software can, for instance, initiate a function for you. Or, it may merely alter the user-interface to make the next step faster. It could also prepare background rendering or viewport processing ahead of when you need it.
To prepare for rolling out this kind of AI technology, the Vectorworks team previewed early stage user-interface changes coming to a version of Vectorworks in the future. One dramatic change is the placement of contextual tool icons directly under the cursor. That feature itself is not revolutionary by any means, as other CAD tools already do that. What is revolutionary is that these tools could dynamically respond and change based on predictions based on machine learning artificial intelligence. Now if you are a Star Wars fan, you already know that the robot R2D2 often took matters into his own hands, anticipating what needed to happen next based on what had already happened and what was happening now. Sometimes R2 would be told to sit still and not do anything, but in most cases, the robot’s predictive actions often saved the day—literally.
Most Vectorworks users are not going through life or death scenarios like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but having your BIM or CAD program think a wee bit ahead of you will most likely be quite useful. In most cases it will help you work faster, in some cases, it will maybe help remind you of what you may have forgotten.
Speaking of Learning CAD and BIM
During the keynote attendees also learned about a new learning, training, and certification system coming to Vectorworks Select Services customers. This will likely seem long overdue to Vectorworks users, but the driver for it may have come from its resellers. “Our [learning] resources have been spread thinly over the Internet,” said Dr. Sarkar. “There is no single place to go to search for something. That was the motive.”
So the company is doing something radically better. It has licensed an e-learning system and the Elements System, as they are calling it will be topical, level-based, include both training and testing that leads to certifications. “One of the things we hear from our users is ‘how do we onboard staff?” says Sarkar. “This new resource we are building will definitely help with that. Companies will be able to evaluate employee capabilities through testing and certifications.”
Pushing Forward with BIM
This new initiative may also help the company push forward with its users with BIM adoption, as Vectorworks users move to enhance their marketable status in the industry by testing and certifying at higher levels of expertise with Vectorworks. The highest levels will take them through a comprehensive understanding of BIM technology and workflows, for example.
During my conversation, I raised awareness of a recent AIA National study that showed that a large minority of architects (AIA member architects) are not at all interested in BIM adoption for a variety of reasons. I asked Dr. Sarkar if his company was targeting those users or are they just looking at the ‘BIG BIM’ market? “I would say yes, we are interested because ‘little BIM’ is our basic market,” says Sarkar. “Our bread and butter business is the 4-5 person firm,” he adds. “Yes, we have medium to large size firms in the US, Europe, and Asia, including large construction companies with hundreds of licenses in places like Japan—but those represent the smaller amount of companies—in the smaller offices, some don’t want BIM at all; they want a drawing tool.”
We are getting more and more pressed at the top side of BIM than the bottom side. And not just by architects but on the landscape architecture side as well.
Dr. Sarkar acknowledged that their European BIM customers are pushing at the envelope of what is possible and the company is interested in addressing their needs with BIM. “They want more advanced capabilities with BIM, like getting complete sections from the BIM model,” he adds.
Importantly, Sarkar noted that with Vectorworks and its history as a powerful 2D CAD tool there are many ways to work and their users appreciate all of that flexibility. However, their BIM users want just one way to accomplish something. “This is a different shift internally at the company and changes perceptions of use,” he notes. “We are getting more and more pressed at the top side of BIM than the bottom side. And not just by architects but on the landscape architecture side as well.”
BIM Servers, CDEs, and External App Workflows
In reference to a conversation about the popularity of V-Ray, I asked how the Vectorworks team felt about building out partnering workflow options versus coding and providing everything themselves—including just using tools within the Nemetschek brands.
“I am always a believer in the fact that we cannot do everything,” said Sarkar. “That is why I pushed for the adoption of the Parasolid modeling kernel after I came to the company. My thought is that we should have a good API [application programming interface] and it will provide us with a generalized way of transporting data between anything.”
Dr. Sarkar noted that the company is working on such an API now. “There will be news along this line pretty soon,” he added. The API will be flexible and powerful, capable of moving data across all types of other apps and tools, including rendering application, BIM tools, AAD tools, AI and machine learning tools.
I then asked about connections to CDEs (common data environments). Dr. Sarkar said Vectorworks itself is not interested in creating its own CDE for its users. “At this point, we are looking at the CDE project Bluebeam is working on.”
It is not clear yet how the Nemetschek Group’s CDE strategy will unfold precisely. However, one thing that is clearer is that Vectorworks users, in general, are not all that interested in cloud-based CDE tools at the moment, except for the market in the United Kingdom. Sarkar and his team seem more interested in watching this CDE space to see how things pan out. “What kind of bothers us is that a CDE is fine but it is not really a BIM server. The BIM server is something different,” he adds. “So do you now have to have both or can it be merged into one system?”
Careful, Plotting, Global Growth—Closing Notes and Thoughts
With a staff size of nearly 300, Vectorworks Inc. can’t just exhaust resources on building out technology that may or may not find traction in the market. So this “wait and see” approach to trends such as CDEs and BIM servers is essential. This doesn’t mean the company isn’t doing R&D on these items in the background; it just says there are no public commitments at the moment.
I am always a believer in the fact that we cannot do everything. That is why I pushed for the adoption of the Parasolid modeling kernel after I came to the company.
During the CEO keynote at the Design Summit, some great slides came up about the company’s growth trends and markets. For those who track this company carefully—like many of its diehard users do—there was nothing dramatically new here. For example, its own users still reflect its decade’s long trend of being 55 percent Mac and 45 percent Windows based.
Organic growth continues astride in their core markets—Japan, the US, and certain EU markets—in that order. They add about 20-25 thousand new licenses per year, and the Vectorworks Select subscription renewal rate is about 92 percent.
For those who are not aware, Vectorworks Service Select is a licensing option that brings the benefits of the Vectorworks Cloud services to the user, as well as access to the latest releases. Its renewal rate may serve as a rough proxy for retention on the platform among more engaged users. But with total users over 675,000 licenses and Service Select members at just around 120,000, that proxy may be quite rough for some time.
A more telling measure is likely its revenue growth. While the company did not provide exact figures (other than the figure mentioned above) during the keynote, Dr. Sarkar put up a slide that showed that revenue has tripled since 2010. That is a substantial and healthy growth rate. Another interesting new fact is that its Spotlight, Braceworks, and Vision products for the entertainment industry CAD lines are now nearly half the revenue of its AEC customers and twice that of its Landmark users. So this is a company that is growing in multiple directions at once.
Editors Note: Earlier today we accidentally published this article prior to its completion and were unaware. We apologize and will endeavor to prevent such mistakes in the future.