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Nemetschek, Cad, Flaherty, Software

The future of CAD systems

Sean Flaherty, CEO of Nemetschek in North America, is working for 25 years in the CAD business. Like almost nobody else he stands for the program Vectorworks - after all, he was one of the developers of the renowned software as early as 1985. DETAIL-editor Tim Westphal got the chance to talk with Flaherty and to elicit some personal statements from him about the current as well as the future development of Vectorworks, BIM & Co.
Mr Flaherty, could you please tell us something about yourself and your plans for Vectorworks...
I am currently CEO of the Vectorworks brand pision within Nemetschek/Nemetschek North America. I started working on the product in 1985 as one of the original developers, and steadily worked my way up to the product team. We were a very small company, and as the company grew I increasingly acted as product manager and went on to become CTO. The founder of the company retired 5 years after the company was sold to Nemetschek and I became CEO. I have been CEO for 5 years now, and brought with me a really strong product focus. I think our focus on product technology and on customers drives the company forwards.

You launched the first of the CAD-solutions in 1985. Is that correct?
Yes, we – Vectorworks – used to be called MiniCAD, and originally it was a 3D Macintosh-only program. I was hired to add the second part, i.e. the drafting part, to the product.

Does that mean you came from Vectorworks and not from the Nemetschek Group?
Correct. We were called "Diehl Graphsoft" between 1985 and 2000, and in 2000 the company changed its name from Diehl Graphsoft to Nemetschek North America. Shortly before that MiniCAD had been renamed Vectorworks. So MiniCAD 7 subsequently became Vectorworks 8.

It was changed in the early 90s?
You mean the name? Yes, in 1997.

How long have you been CTO?
Before the acquisition, I was vice-president of engineering. When we became Nemetschek, I became CTO, so really it was just a title-change rather than a position-change. I was the original developer, as you know. Rich went on to manage the business, and then I took over the R&D teams. So it's been pretty much 25 years of working with the same technology and customer base that MiniCAD and Vectorworks were selling to.
Software development and processes have changed over the years. Would I be right in saying, however, that the cooperation and contact with the other pisions of the Nemetschek Group is closer than ever before?
Of course, yes.
Could you describe the way in which the internal cooperation works?
Essentially the company is organized as a holding-company. It therefore has 10 major brand pisions that are operated independently. Each one has a different CEO in charge of the strategy for that product line. When they acquire a company – like they did when they acquired us or when they acquired Graphisoft, the company doesn't change from one day to the next. The brand value, therefore, is pluralism. One of the strengths of the Nemetschek Group is that it tries to come up with a single solution for every customer and every industry. It allows its inpidual pisions to take a different strategy to meet customers' needs. In the case of Vectorworks, the R&D teams have stayed relatively unchanged. As far as high-level communication is concerned, twice a year the heads of all the technical teams meet and exchange R&D information. It's meant as a kind of a melting pot of ideas more than anything else. There is currently no strategy to, say, shut down the R&D team in Hungary or in the United States, or to merge them at a single location. There were some synergies at the start, however. For example, we set up an outsourced R&D team in the Nemetschek Bulgaria office immediately after acquisition. The company used to be wholly owned by Nemetschek. Now it's been spun out and is only 20%-owned by Nemetschek - an example of use of the Group's existing R&D reach. At the top level we've all agreed on a few key strategies that apply to all the products. The IFC push is one big example. The teams meet to exchange IFC information and best practices, and work very closely on making sure that there is an open standard for the marketplace. If you remember, 3 years ago we signed a partnership with Adobe. As a result, I think our products now have best PDF capabilities around. We have another open standard for exchanging information. But as far as specific R&D tactics or strategies to meet customer needs are concerned, these are still inpidual to each pision. Where there are synergies, however, these are used wherever possible. We, for example, are working closely with the Maxon and Scia (structural engineering software) R&D teams and have a number of initiatives to exchange information and proof compatibility between the products because we see some clear customer workflows supported by those group products. That's something I think that has changed within the group, and particularly over the last few years has seemed to be accelerating.
Does that mean different solutions for different markets? Using different brands?
No, we share. Take Germany, for example: this is probably where we have the most brands. In the BIM segment we have Vectorworks Architect, ArchiCAD and Allplan, all essentially competing in the same marketplace, but with very different approaches. If you look at the product and distribution strength of each brand, they are all very different. It is probably in the BIM sector that we have the most overlap as far as competing for the same customers is concerned. And again I think this is a part of the holding-company strategy: to say that some customers want to work an a Macintosh, others are more price-sensitive, others less and so on, thereby providing a range of benefits to customers and allowing them to pick the solution that works best for them.

Is it the aim of the strategy, or of the holding company, by having so many brands to be able to address the different markets inpidually? And is this the strategy's strength?
Yes, it is. Computerworks sells Vectorworks, and Cinema 4D in close conjunction, so they consider this combination of packages to be a customer benefit. In North America, for instance, we sell our customers a package that includes either Vectorworks or Cinema 4D. Every country is very different with respect to its construction culture. But what's interesting about Vectorworks is that it is not just an architectural solution. We also have what we call horizontal integration, i.e., we are trying to address all the different design segments rather than have vertical integration through the construction lifecycle. We have an architectural solution, a landscape design solution, and an entertainment and theatre-lighting design solution. We see more similarities with the design groups as far as functional needs are concerned.

Is the software development still largely independent?

Yes, it is. We have a few joint-projects, but the bulk of the teams are still independent.

Are you seeing any advantages following integration into the group?
Oh, absolutely. The advantage we're seeing is the IFC know-how. This is something we have brought to Vectorworks since we joined the group, and it's been very important. Also, because we have such strong market coverage for open standards we have been able to, I think, push the direction of IFC-development by being so active in building smart. I think the synergies with Maxon really lie in being the leading multimedia-provider – this is one of the real strengths of the Nemetschek Group. Internally, the ability to use trusted contracting partner has been a big advantage. We have been able to interact with some teams in India and China and have formed Nemetschek Bulgaria. It is a much more open relationship, since we're all reporting to the same people. This lowers our R&D costs and is a much more efficient way for us to develop.
Does that mean architecture is only one of your main markets?
Architecture is the main market. Building and building design make up around 70% of our customer base. We consider everyone - the architect, the interior designer, the interior architect and the structural designer – to be part of the building-design marketplace. It's a very large sector for us, but by no means the only one.
Let's talk about the new Vectorworks release, which has been on sale since October 2009. What has the feedback been like so far from users and customers? And the reaction of the market?
The Parasolid-based engine is a major internal change. We used the best modeling kernel in the world for our software solution. Parasolid comes from the aerospace and automobile industry and is now part of the BIM world. This version has a great deal of added functionality. I think the market is still debating where BIM fits in, which firms will use it, and for which types of projects. I think people are unsure, including our customers. They're asking themselves, 'Will this 3D-focus really benefit me if I don't design buildings that are free-form-shapes?' I'm really looking forward to doing 3D-modeling and having a more efficient practice. And the increased investment in advanced 3D-technologies is slowly paying off. We have been steadily making more and more architectural modeling Parasolid-based, with the 3D flexibility getting more powerful with each version. On top of that, the other big feature we're working on is a kind of 3D-editing environment. This is because people are now increasingly adopting BIM techniques and leaving planfocus behind, despite the 3D capabilities. In the past, people felt more comfortable creating floorplans in plan mode, but now more and more people want to work in 3D. Students are emerging onto the market having never done any traditional drafting. There is no particular advantage to plan mode in their minds because no-one ever sees a building from the plan view, right? Instead you always see it from the front view, the side view, etc. To be able to work in any view, and then integrate the 2D-enviroment is very popular. The big question for an architectural design firm is: can BIM pay of today? So we need to make 3D-parametric-modelling just as efficient as 2D has always been, and somehow manage this without changing the 2D-environment, so that those who choose to continue to work with 2D can continue to do so. I think you can see in other BIM solutions how the 2D-environment has become some kind of bastard-child in the sense of, "You can do it that way if you want to, but we don't really recommend it."

And it's not as precise as 3D, is it?
Sometimes it's just faster to do it that way. We have a case study at a school in the UK that's just been completed. It's very interesting because they wanted the ability – in case it wasn't the most efficient. Because they have to change crews, doing the modeling and how the design's done and how they are sharing the files. The students were worried that they might get part way through and get stuck. So they did this thing called "moderate BIM work". Some of the detailing was done at 2D-level and most of the basic modeling. They were so successful that they hired a BIM consultant to come back and show them the next step. This is the best way to get into BIM: do a little 3D-modelling initially, the major lines, indicating where all the geometry is in your view, and then adding detail on top of that. What then happens is that each successor-project requires less detailing and more modeling, until they become so efficient that big chunks of the drawings can be done automatically. An important change in my opinion.
You spoke about the Parasolid core. If we take another CAD solution – Autodesk, for example – what are the advantages of the Vectorworks 2010 version compared to the latter?
One of the advantages of the new 2010 version is that users can work in two different ways. The user works with the wall and wall functionalities that AutoCAD Revit, for example, offers. In Vectorworks he can also generate a parametric wall and work on the wall using the 2D functionalities and 3D basic functionalities. He can work parametrically with 2D and 3D basic geometries. This is a big advantage: the architect can combine both working methods. So no limitations, just a logical extension?
Exactly. This is enabled by Parasolid. The combination of architectural objects with basic geometrical objects. The inclusion of Parasolid based planning isn't as obvious as it might seem then, is it?
It isn't, no. What we've seen is the AEC market moving towards high-quality 3D for years now. Each year, customers have a few more requirements concerning 3D: "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to do this, and wouldn't it be nice to do that." We saw this coming, and in 2000 hired a guy who worked for PTC, Computervison, Intergraph – all the major players in the MCAD (Mechanical CAD) world. He looked around, and we asked him: "Can you help us with our 3D?" This industry, and the whole BIM market are really behind the MCAD world. The automobile and aerospace industries have been showing us the way for years – virtually, on the computer. What does virtual reality imply?
It implies managing tremendous amounts of data. And if you don't have the proper kernels to manage this data, then sooner or later the game's up. You say: "I can't handle this amount of data anymore. I'm not flexible enough!" On the other hand, the question is, does the customer really need it? Custumers looking for solutions that will provide good and quick results!
Yes, that's the direction that the entire architectural world is heading. I think the number of products made that decision early on, that's good enough. What we find is that really limits not only the type of architecture. When I talk about free-form-surfaces, people imagine the one out of every fifty buildings that has a big curved wall. But really it includes all the disciplines involved in architecture. If I buy your software-solution with the integrated Parasolid core, do I need to buy any new hardware?
No, because you're using your processors more efficiently. Parasolid is massively multiprocessor-enabled. A lot of computers now have at least two cores or quadcores and quadcore double-processors, and we are able to use them more effectively. One of the things that attracted us to Parasolid was that we are able to split the tasks in Vectorworks: the CPU does the geometry and the GPU – the graphics card – the rendering. If I understand you correctly, BIM is the something like the base, and the Parasolid core rounds it off. Is that correct?
The BIM doesn't have to be 3D, but the biggest benefits come from its 3D component. Take this hall we're in at the moment. It isn't a particularly fancy building, but the number of elements in here is incredible. You need the horsepower, the CPU power, to manage all of them correctly and not to have to draft on top. For example, we did a polygon count as part of our initial evaluation. One doorknob had more polygons than all of the walls combined. Can you imagine! So the complexity is not where it's important. It's where it's needed. To say that Mechanical-CAD has greater 3D-needs than the AEC is not true. In fact, the opposite is true!
What lies ahead for Vectorworks? In which direction will the company be heading?
I think the next big thing will be what I talked about the beginning: horizontal integration. We really want to stick with a design-based product, and for me the future lies in establishing and maintaining our lead as the provider of the best 3D solution on the market. A lot of architects use our products to design constructions never built before. Architects such as Daniel Libeskind, who is a long-time customer of ours, Peter Zumthor, who's just won the Pritzker Price. These types of architects, i.e. design-focused architects, are really interesting to us. They have a need for extreme flexibility, because a wall or roof on some of these buildings is essentially an abstract term, for example when folded. We offer a whole range of different features and allow architects to choose whether to use them or not. And this is going to continue, even as we build. It's important to remember that there are people out there still not using BIM techniques. We don't want to make them second class citizens and say, "You need to change your working methods". I very often hear people say: "Oh, you need to fire all your craftsmen and only have senior architects in your practice!" Such a move represents a radical procedural change, and isn't going to happen from one day to the next. It's a long continuous process, with some firms leading the way and others being late adopters. We see a lot of people who are currently at the middle stage. You need a system that allows you to work which ever way you want. The thing about BIM I don't like is that it tries to guess all the 3D geometry you're going to need. The ability to take our canned architectural elements and integrate them with pure solids in order to create something new is very important, as is being able to represent them and use them in the model. How does Vectorworks achieve interoperability between the different solutions, within the group, and between itself and external solutions such as IFC?
IFC is by far the most important for the model data. We see an open systems world, with IFC being used to transfer data at the model level, and PDF at the drawing and 2D level. I think that's a flexible long-term solution. IFC has, as you know, been a long, long time coming, but we're starting to see real data transfer in a functioning manner. So I don't think there's anything competitive in it because if you don't have an open standard, then it's all proprietary work. I think proprietary is certainly the right way to work on your desktop. But where you have collaboration between different disciplines, you're almost forced to adopt some kind of open standard because no single company can provide everything. I travel all over the world and know that construction practices in Germany are completely different to those in the United States, which in turn are completely different to those in Japan. To say that you're going to have one best-in-class solution for every construction methodology and every architectural company, and that you're going to base it all on one proprietary format that only our products can read and write just doesn't make sense. I think clearly some kind of open standard is needed, and IFC seems to be currently by far the best supported. Data interchange is very complicated, and moving between different systems and ensuring full fidelity of data is a tough task. But I think we're getting to the point where right now there's no better way of transferring models between systems than IFC. Everybody keeps working on it, and it's becoming more and more reliable. That's certainly the position of the whole group as well because we as the Nemetschek Group are one the biggest proponents of IFC. All our products support the format. In some areas it is more popular than others. Scandinavian countries, for example, heavily base their operations on IFC, and the US-government now requires plans to be presented in IFC formats. It is increasingly becoming the global standard for model delivery. We still continue to support all of our other formats, and I think PDF is actually underutilized as a format. It is extremely popular as a sheet of electronic paper. But to use it to send geometry is something a lot of people never think about. We need something different that allows external references to PDF. If a workflow just involves 2D-data, we encourage customers to use PDF instead. That way, if a file is updated by, say, your contractor, it'll be automatically updated inside Vectorworks as well when you get the new file. Communication is via PDF, but updating is completely automatic, and then you draw on top of the PDF. If you don't need to edit the PDF, e.g. if you're a construction engineer drawing on top of an architectural plan, you don't need the ability to edit the walls. You just need the ability to refer to them in a precise manner. So you wouldn't need Vectorworks at all, and would be...
Better off. What about other formats?
Other formats like DWG are very problematic because they try to convert all the data, whereas with PDF, as long as you have a workflow, it doesn't need any editing. That's a much faster way to work. People have been slow to pick up on this, but we've been pushing more and more tutorials on the subject. And it's becoming really popular with, for example, our theatre-lighting customers. They're usually way down the design chain. First you get the whole building built, then the guy has to hang up the lights for the first big show using whatever they used to design the building. A PDF file is viewed as an image of a sheet of paper at the moment. It could however include options for controlling, viewing and referring.
This article is taken out of the following magazine:
DETAIL 5/2010

Analogue and Digital (also available as English Edition 4/2010)

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