/ Interview / Trimble Builds on SketchUp as Both a Platform and Solutions

Trimble Builds on SketchUp as Both a Platform and Solutions

Matt Ball on October 22, 2012 - in Interview

Trimble has been on an acquisition streak in the geospatial technology market for some time, particularly in the surveying and construction arena. The acquisition of SketchUp from Google caught many by surprise, with much speculation on the plan. Informed Infrastructure editor Matt Ball spoke with Bryn Fosburgh, senior vice president, at Trimble about the intent and how the acquisition of SketchUp came about.

I²: I understand that you’re in Boulder today, instead of your Westminster, Colo. location. That’s the SketchUp campus right?

Fosburgh: We’re starting to transfer and hire more people in the SketchUp Boulder office. When we acquired SketchUp it was for the platform as well as for the potential applications that we could create with it. More people from different groups in Trimble are beginning to migrate here. We’re in a temporary location now, but will be in a new building in Boulder in the next few months.

I²: With the new building also being erected in Westminster, will that become more of the hardware office, with the software office in Boulder?

Fosburgh: We have software and hardware development in Westminster, but our core design, build and operate (DBO) platform software development is in Boulder. Application software is the focus in Westminster and many other locations throughout the world, such as surveying, heavy construction and building construction. The core SketchUp platform is in Boulder along with architecture applications.

I²: The acquisition of SketchUp seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise.

Fosburgh: It’s been really exciting. The group is very innovative, and they’re helping to transform Trimble from a cultural perspective in many ways—having been a startup and part of Google.

I²: How important was the Colorado connection to the acquisition. Was that serendipity or was that part of the design?

Fosburgh: I have to admit that when we started, we didn’t even know they were in Colorado. We started the relationship with Google first, over a year ago, with the intention of using various Google tools in different Trimble markets—primarily mining and construction—but also our telematics market. Google introduced SketchUp to us, and we started looking at how to use SketchUp as a platform for applications in various markets.

The first one that we looked at, with a product just released, is an automated mine design tool. We used SketchUp as the base for that application, and that’s how we got to know SketchUp well. Through our relationship with Google, they asked if we were interested in purchasing the company, and of course we were. It fulfills a market presence in the architecture industry that we didn’t have and we also acquired the 3D warehouse as an additional platform component.

We’re very good at the design and structural component of the workflow through the Tekla acquisition, and the mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) trades with QuickPen, Accubid, and Plancal. Trimble also has a large construction portfolio that is best-in-class, which utilizes our field solutions and Meridian products. SketchUp provides a platform that really allows us to integrate that workflow of the construction continuum and provides us with a product in the architectural market.

A lot of people talk about Building Information Modeling (BIM). I think that BIM is an important part of the building and heavy construction industries and it can help to facilitate the integration of the DBO lifecycle processes.  We believe in providing our customers both software and hardware solutions across the entire construction continuum and we see OpenBIM as the way to integrate along that process. It is a focus area and that’s where we’re investing.

I²: SketchUp is a very unique tool that no other company has been able to directly match in terms of ease of use as well as meeting the 3D conceptual design piece.

Fosburgh: SketchUp is very revolutionary from a user-interface perspective, setting a new paradigm for ease-of-use. The reason why is that the developers made it accessible to a wide variety of users, from the architect to “the gamer.” With the history of supplying product to that vast number of different users and applications, it really drove the ease-of-use paradigm that I believe is unique to the industry and enables 3D modeling for everyone. Virtually anyone can create a 3D conceptual model using this application for almost any application.

For the industries Trimble addresses today, we are very strong in the industry domain and related computational algorithms of the industry. That domain knowledge and computational competency for the specific industries, coupled with SketchUp’s ease-of- use paradigm and modeling capability, enables us to provide the professional a rigorous and intuitive product.

I²: Trimble hasn’t really had a product for architects and conceptual design, although you really have all the other pieces of the building lifecycle. Does this enhance the design piece, and give you visibility with designers?

Fosburgh: Absolutely, and again we’re really looking at a DBO platform. We believe BIM is a component of that process for the construction continuum, and is a management process. If we look at the industry from a DBO continuum, we saw SketchUp as a means to realize our vision of going from concept to construction which will both improve productivity and reduce rework. We’ve been in the construction industry through our acquisitions for over 30 years and it is one of the company’s focus areas.

SketchUp is the conceptual and modeling tool that enables us to fulfill this concept to construction vision for the building and heavy civil construction industries (roads, railways, highways, airports). When I talk about SketchUp as a platform, that’s the platform concept—so that our roadway people can build roadway analytics that use the conceptual design nature of SketchUp to go from that concept and design to the machines that push the dirt. Or from a conceptual view of the subdivision to a surveyor who is creating a subdivision plot. In the building construction industry, it’s how the architect can share a conceptual view all the way out to the realization of that building through construction.

Our vision is—concept to construction—which streamlines the DBO process of the construction continuum and significantly improves productivity and reduces rework. SketchUp is a product within that workflow, and also provides a conceptual and modeling application across all of our vertical markets as a platform component. Today the 3D Warehouse primarily has SketchUp models, but it could include more as the collaboration source across the construction continuum.

I²: You’ve mentioned various software pieces that have been acquired recently, and many of these are probably created with different programming languages, so there’s some complexity there to integrate. Is integration a big push to normalize the software and be able to interchange and integrate more directly with other tools?

Fosburgh: If you take all our acquisitions, organic development and joint ventures over the past decade, each have fit into the concept to construction vision, within the DBO phases of the construction continuum. With that vision, each group has a mission to become best-in-breed within their phase as we integrate across the continuum. When we approach customers, we present ourselves as a best-of-breed and an integrated DBO platform.  For customers who have other solutions our integrated strategy enables them to work with our solutions.

To use an enterprise example, there are many companies that have Oracle as their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool, but for their Customer Resource Management (CRM) piece they have Salesforce. So customers want to have the flexibility in what they term best of breed, therefore Trimble has to provide the integration capability to link to other tools and in phases along the continuum where we don’t offer a solution.

When we look at integration, we work to understand the types of information that a customer wants to share between tools to improve their workflow. The vision is a thin integration layer that allows customers to have different tools and to facilitate collaboration with the larger system. The goal is that the best-in-breed acquisitions will fit on top of a platform. They are still going to build individually each application, but the vision is to improve integration between these best in breed applications and enable a more seamless workflow.

I²: There are so many different approaches to the integration piece, where software vendors are opening up their APIs with an eye toward developers that will create custom solutions for customers. It sounds like Trimble is focused on creating solutions yourselves. Is there an intent to open up the software to developers and solution providers to meet a custom demand?

Fosburgh: Absolutely, because a customer may have non-Trimble solutions that need integration or they want to create market or geographic extensions. Making APIs available and utilizing standard protocols is just a requirement for integration and the SketchUp API enables this capability. For the industries to really get the benefits, software manufacturers will have to offer APIs in the future if they want to localize by either geography or market. The other piece that we gained with SketchUp is more than a thousand developers that build and extend SketchUp’s functionality to make it more compatible with other software and more adaptive to other geographies. SketchUp as a platform has a Ruby API where people write plugins or extensions that enhance SketchUp for specific geography or market application. There is also Software Development Kit (SDK) to read and write SketchUp files or custom exporters with libraries for reading and writing SketchUp files.

That is how Trimble built our relationship with Google and SketchUp. The SketchUp API and SDK is something that we used to build the mining application, and we feel we need to continue to provide for our platform so that it can be localized both geographically as well as by market.

I²: In that AEC space, there are such large global players. I’ve heard that Autodesk makes 90% of their revenue off of 10% of their customer base. I’m guessing that with SketchUp that is flipped, because it is in a lot of people’s hands and the cost is low.

Fosburgh: There is a free version of SketchUp, and we intend to continue to offer the free version. I think there’s a lot of concern in the community to understand why Trimble would continue with the free version. It goes back to this ease of use paradigm. SketchUp has made all of us into competent 3D modelers, because of its ease of use. I believe they’ve been able to accomplish that partially because of their large user base. When you have everyone from “the gamer” to the architect using the product it enables us to visualize opportunity in other markets. There is such a broad audience that it has created this marketplace centered on the 3D Warehouse that is really unique. We have every intent to continue with this free version.

I can’t disclose the numbers on either revenue or subscribers, but if it’s free then obviously that’s a larger subscriber base that is free users versus paid users. There are customers who buy it for conceptual architecture, and we want to continue to add features to the professional product that meet their needs.

I²: There is precedent in the design/build/operate world where there is a free version to view and interact with a model, but with SketchUp that is very different as there is a lot of model creation functionality.

Fosburgh: What we want to do is to continue to add the value to the free version to further improve the ease of use paradigm. I would say that the customer we look at is very much the maker customer. If you’re familiar with the Maker Faire [http://makerfaire.com] audience, it’s a new generation of Popular Mechanics. I grew up reading Popular Mechanics.  The new generation is this Maker Faire audience and typifies the concept to construction vision, and they’re everything from the person modeling a chair to those modeling a go-kart or a gaming environment. All those functions are in the free version.

In the paid version of SketchUp, we will have two pieces. It will give platform and plug-in capability for specific markets that Trimble participates in today—surveying, heavy construction, building construction, and others. SketchUp as a product will become more of an architectural product. Today architects use it for its conceptual capabilities, but we plan to add more functionality that will strengthen it as an overall architectural tool. There’s a tool that you can add now called LayOut [http://www.sketchup.com/product/layout.html] that adds 2D drawings and professional design documents such as dimensioned drawings. This capability, plus future development, will make it a stronger architectural offering.

I²: Are there plans to do any simulation and analysis of models, such as energy or impacts?

Fosburgh: We have a lot of that already today in some of our products, including in our MEP solutions. We acquired a company in Switzerland that had a strong European focus called Plancal. That has some of these environmental components, and we’re working to harness these algorithmically rich features with the ease of use of SketchUp.

I²: We’ve been talking about the platform, and then there are all these pieces. Will the individual software products retain their names and individual marketing?

Fosburgh: We are working on our brand strategy, and at this point I’m not prepared to disclose that fully. Tekla is a very strong brand in the structures market, and Plancal is very strong in the MEP marketplace in Western Europe. You don’t want to affect that brand equity and potentially alienate the existing customer base.  We believe what is important to the customer is a solution that meets their needs and integrates their workflow. Hence this improves productivity and reduces rework.

We have these best-in-breed components, where we’ll continue to develop the Tekla solutions for structures, or the Plancal, Quickpen and Accubid solutions for MEP. We’ll build on this integration vision where we can seamlessly collaborate across the products. Our goal is to improve collaboration and data or information flow across the design, build, and operate continuum. We believe that if you solve that it brings you closer to the concept to construction vision. We have to facilitate that, without impacting the flexibility or capability of the best in breed capability of our individual products.

These products cannot be held hostage by a platform. The platform has to provide value to the end user and the individual component of the DBO workflow. That’s the emphasis of our development.

I²: Construction has been late to adopt digital workflows that dramatically improve efficiency. With more of a view toward private investment in infrastructure, it would seem that a new level of efficiency is needed. Is efficiency a primary business and development driver as well?

Fosburgh: Transparency is a primary driver in any industry today, but in this DBO continuum with so many disparate solutions that transparency becomes quite manual even if you’re using the best software or hardware technology product. If you don’t have integration or visibility, you don’t have transparency. You’re forced to collect data from these high tech sources and then manually mesh the data. We believe collaboration is required for transparency.

In the overall Trimble perspective, across all of our industries, the mantra is to improve productivity, increase efficiency and quality, and reduce rework using technology. Because that’s really what the customer wants to do. Across all of the industries that we’re in, we break each industry down into workflows. We look to improve productivity with hardware and software to make the work more cost effective.

Matt Ball

About Matt Ball

Matt Ball is founder and editorial director of V1 Media, publisher of Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping and the video news site GeoSpatial Stream.

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