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INSIDER: Introduction — Five Rising Stars

The fourth edition of our annual INSIDER Reports delivers a focus on five disparate innovators making large impacts in the AEC/CAD markets.

OUR FOURTH ANNUAL architosh INSIDER Report has slipped in timing this year, but not on the depth and quality of its primary topics. While issue no. 1 was centered on a company and its ecosystem (Graphisoft), and issue no. 2 drilled down on a specific technology/file type and its ecosystem (DWG-based CAD), with issue no. 3 we focused on a thematic technology (algorithms-aided design) or “computational design” as it is more commonly known.

INSIDER Report No. 4

This year the theme is organized around innovative leadership—as Architosh and its editors see the industry and as INSIDER Xpresso readers engage around certain emTech (emerging technology) topics in our monthly newsletter.

Xpresso readers are far more engaged with computational design than robotics in architect, for example. While automation technologies in construction have been de rigueur for most of 2020—and a good testament of that is our Xpresso newsletter coverage—the collapse of AEC construction automation darling Katerra has been a real stunner.

Process progress in AEC is relentlessly challenging but hundreds of point-solutions are making substantial headway in the design and engineering and the construction side of the industry.

INSIDER Report No. 4 highlights five technology firms serving the AEC and CAD/3D-based industries that we believe are rising stars in software, hardware, and services and making a big impact in their respective markets with their industry-leading innovations. Take a look at the list of five INSIDER features below and read our summary explanations.

Table of Contents:

The introduction listed on the report cover graphic in this article (show below) is what you are reading here.

INSIDER Reports - No 4 -- Technology Leaders

architosh INSIDER Report #04 — focuses on five rising tech stars (firms) making an impact on AEC/CAD/3D industries.

To get a bigger look at the cover graphic, click on the image directly above you. Its image pertains to the Varjo feature and specifically to the virtual teleportation technologies the Finnish VR/XR headset maker just introduced a month ago.

Five Rising Stars

In this section, we briefly summarize our thoughts about the impacts and innovations of five key technology companies, in order: Varjo (Finland), Spacemaker (Norway), Shapr3D (Hungary), Digital Blue Foam (Singapore), and Layer (USA).

Right away we can notice the global diversity of innovation leaders.

1 – Varjo

Varjo’s VR-1 headset introduced a few years ago at the height of the virtual reality boom was a standout solution with its groundbreaking Bionic Display. Like several of the other innovators in this group of five tech stars, Varjo’s technologies found accelerated adoption in areas perhaps not envisioned. The VR-1 was indeed adopted by designers—including architects like Foster + Partners—but in general, the AEC market wasn’t where they met success. Instead, they met with big success in places like aerospace and auto design and specifically once the XR-1 was introduced with “simulation” and training markets.

In the title image above, an XR-3 user is inside a building under construction. He looks up and can see an “animated train pass through the partially constructed building.” This is the fully occluded 3D visualization that can be seamlessly integrated with the pass-thru video. This image shows a user somewhere else, watching whatever the XR-3 user sees. The red glow of this room (in the image above) helps us see the screen as the XR-3 user sees it in the title image. 

Varjo’s innovations are set to make an outsized impact as the company unleashes its Reality Cloud and virtual teleportation technologies. In the pandemic and post-pandemic context, virtual meetings and the nature of collaboration are transformed forever. Technologies like Reality Cloud and the latest Varjo VR and XR headsets are set for much greater adoption and this will drive down this gear’s costs as Wright’s Law makes its impact. That’s where virtual teleportation gets really exciting and we see great potential with the Dimension10 acquisition allowing for Varjo to focus specifically on targeted AEC industry solutions.

“Remote Work Has A New Partner in Varjo’s VR-3 and XR-3 Headsets” takes the reader on a little journey, noting the pandemic’s role in the acceleration of this technology type, and walks through the specific technology innovations up to the Reality Cloud.

2 – Spacemaker AI

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost told me on a call last year that Spacemaker AI had the best artificial intelligence in the world focused on this particular problem area: early design phases in architecture and urban development. The only company of the five in this issue acquired by a much larger company, Spacemaker too has refocused its target customer shifting initially from architects to large developers who could afford its large price tag. In “The Fourth Revolution—How Spacemaker AI Optimizes Architecture Development” we learn from its co-founders how the AEC industry is lacking the basic building blocks to make large-scale optimization possible with digital technologies.

Autodesk’s acquisition of Spacemaker should ultimately democratize the Norwegian company’s technologies so that smaller firms can afford to benefit from over-the-shoulder AI systems. 

There are two things exciting about this company. One is that open realization and its desire to do something about that, and two is its mission to usher in this so-called “fourth revolution” which enables “over-the-shoulder AI” to the masses. Of course, like almost all the five companies included in this issue, they have had to start with very large customers for practical business reasons. The Autodesk acquisition should lead to the democratization of their AI-based technologies, helping smaller firms utilize over-the-shoulder AI as well.

3 – Shapr3D 

Hungarian-based Shapr3D is included in this group because they are one of the fastest-growing CAD companies in history. And because they have astonishingly grown that fast mostly on the Apple iPad Pro platform. “Shapr3D is Bold on Apple and CAD Dominance” focuses on the company’s recent push to the desktop CAD market focusing on where they believe the future lies—on ARM-based systems.

Intimately familiar with the iPad’s performance growth and Apple’s chip leadership, Shapr3D isn’t holding back their enthusiasm and confidence about Apple’s chip transition to custom Apple Silicon and moving away from the Intel X86 architecture. With Qualcomm buying Nuvia, a chip company formed by ex-Apple chief chip architects, and setting its sights on the competition with Apple for laptop and mobile devices in chip performance leadership, we can expect the industry battle lines to shift from Intel vs AMD to Apple versus Qualcomm for all processors targeting smartphones up to common computer laptops for macOS and Windows and Linux.

Shapr3D on ARM-based Macs is the newest development for the award-winning CAD software company that is bullish on Apple Silicon.

But Shapr3D isn’t just an innovator because they are ahead of the curve relative to silicon and device use transformation, their 3D modeling application is also a superbly great application and an award-winning one at that. This is why its journey to the desktop market is also very exciting.

4 – Digital Blue Foam

Digital Blue Foam made waves two years ago when the AIA was in Las Vegas and Graphisoft hosted its BIM conference just before the AIA show. The Singapore-based company introduced an innovative AI-based generative design platform that addresses many of the same core issues that SpacemakerAI is tackling.

The two applications are essentially competitors and like Spacemaker, Digital Blue Foam has gotten started early with bigger customers, including Japan’s mighty Takenaka, which is one of Japan’s top 5 largest AEC industry companies. They also have secured a larger user in the University of Budapest.

01 - "Digital Blue Foam is the best feasibility study software we know" - Takenaka Corporation. All rights reserved.

“Digital Blue Foam is the best feasibility study software we know,” says the Takenaka Corporation, a massive AEC company in Japan that includes design, architecture, engineering and construction, and management. 

In “Augmented Intelligence: Digital Blue Foam’s Alternative Approach to Generative Design in Architecture,” we learn about the company’s stealth beginnings, its architect-educated and trained co-founders, and unique features such as its Pen Tool that enables human designers to iterate with machine learning-based generative solutions.

5 – Layer

Layer app may be seen as a controversial selection to be included alongside such acquisitions as Spacemaker and well-funded Scandinavian tech leaders as Varjo. However, I feel that Layer is one of the more modern applications in the market with particular strength in its data flexibility and independence. While Layer today does have a plug-in connection to Autodesk Revit, the app itself is widely used without any connection to a BIM or CAD application at all. Like nearly all the companies noted above, Layer initially targeted architects but found particular strength in other sectors—notably in the facilities management sector. It is especially strong in the hospital sub-sector of AEC.

Layer’s flexibility with data and form-creation means that users can craft their own individualized “data-centric” workflow solutions. It also has a Slack-like system for team communication using hashtags that can link all kinds of stuff together. Their goal is to be a full-featured CDE (common data environment) and the app is getting closer and closer to that destination. They have recently introduced slick model view functionality that will serve them well for more advanced CDE functions down the road.

Layer boasts direct Revit Add-on functionality, bi-directional synchronization, and a truly modern, responsive user interface across all device types and platforms, democratizing access to AEC project information no matter how the user chooses to connect to it. It also now has a full-on 3D BIM model view with a game-like navigation system. 

In our article “Beyond the CDE — Layer App and its Remarkable Fluid Power” the reader learns why their app is very modern, how it can run so seamlessly on mobile platforms as well as desktop, and why their early development choices allow them to focus on features, not platform plumbing, and how soon they will bring in other model types like Rhino, IFC, SketchUp and more.

Closing Thoughts

With the exception of SpacemakerAI, all of these companies could be upcoming targets for an acquisition by a larger AEC or CAD industry player, with the exception of Varjo which could be acquired by a tech heavyweight like Microsoft, Google, or perhaps an Asian giant like Samsung. Autodesk doesn’t have a reason to acquire Digital Blue Foam but an Autodesk rival could easily snatch them up. Layer already integrates with Autodesk BIM 360 but Layer’s goals for staying independent and connecting to “everyone’s” BIM will enable them to grow quite a bit over time. Plus, as the digital twins market continues to grow, Layer may have many interesting growth paths and ultimately become a much more valuable company for acquisition later on.

One of the more interesting companies here to think about is Shapr3D. This company is going after the MCAD market—really going for its future. Its place in AEC is not yet clear, but the app is built on Parasolid, runs amazingly fast, and has the intuitive feel of SketchUp but is a vastly more sophisticated modeler fundamentally. Where Shapr3D evolves with respect to the AEC market is an evolving question.


Editor’s Note

We updated this story with pictures with captions, additional URL links and some minor added material, and small edits on 27 July 2021. 

Reader Comments

  1. Reader’s interested in this kind of story where we discuss specific products that we see as distinguished in the market should also read our AIA BEST of SHOW award stories. You can find those references here: https://architosh.com/best-of-show-winners/

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INSIDER Xpresso keeps CAD industry professionals up-to-date on next-gen emerging technologies (emTech) that will revolutionize the worlds of AEC and manufacturing and design. As an Xpresso reader, you will hear from some of the most important voices inventing and using the very latest tech in areas such as AI, machine learning, algorithm-aided design (AAD), AR, VR, MR, 3D printing, 3D computer vision, robotics, and SmartCities technologies.

Each issue arrives in your inbox on the first Sunday of the month. Issue #1 arrived on March 3, 2019. Full archives and easy navigation for your pleasure. Enjoy! 

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