Aconex: Cloud Platform for AEC CollaborationAECbytes Review (May 12, 2015)

Remember the AEC dotcom boom and subsequent bust during the late 1990s to early 2000s when over 150 companies were all developing some version of an AEC collaboration portal? We even had a dedicated conference, AEC Systems, specifically for showcasing these solutions. While most of these solutions are now defunct along with the conference itself, the need for a collaboration solution in the AEC industry is stronger than ever, given the growing size and complexity of projects and the increasing number of disciplines and firms that need to be involved. One such solution is Aconex, which actually goes all the way back to the AEC dotcom days but fortunately escaped their fate. Perhaps this was because the company that developed it, also called Aconex, was started in Australia, “far from the madding crowd” of AEC dotcoms funded by Silicon Valley venture firms. Aconex has not only survived since it was started but has actually thrived, and is now a public company in Australia. This review explores the solution in more detail and attempts to understand what accounts for its growing adoption and success in the construction and engineering industries, particularly when so many other collaboration solutions have failed even to survive, let alone gain traction.

Aconex, the Company

Aconex was started in Australia in 2000 as a web-based procurement management solution for construction projects. This is reflected in its name, which comes from the term “Australian Construction Exchange.” While its procurement service didn’t take off as well as anticipated, the online collaboration service that it was also developing was much more successful. From the very beginning, Aconex was designed not just for building projects, but also for infrastructure, energy, and mining projects, all of which tend to be extremely large. Australia, in particular, had many such projects, and Aconex was fortunate to be “in the right place at the right time”—Australian firms looking to manage these huge projects were happy to find a locally-developed solution that they could use.

After cementing its position in Australia and neighboring New Zealand, where it is now widespread, Aconex expanded to other regions and is being increasingly deployed to manage large-scale construction and engineering projects across the globe (Figure 1). It has a very impressive array of statistics to showcase its adoption: over A$800.0 billion in projects, 1.3 billion documents, 600,000 users worldwide, and 50,000 companies served in 70 countries around the world. It has 40 global offices with headquarters in Melbourne, Australia as well as San Francisco, California. The company went public in December 2014.

Figure 1. Some of the noteworthy construction projects around the world that have used or are using Aconex. Top left: Indira Gandhi International Airport, Terminal 3; Top right: Dubai Metro; Lower left: New York City Hall Reconstruction; Lower right: Panama Canal Expansion Project.

Aconex, the Product

There are two main aspects that distinguish Aconex, the product, from other collaboration and project management solutions in AEC. The first is that it is entirely web-based—it runs completely on the browser and there is no accompanying desktop or server-based application to be installed. While this in itself is not unique—after all, there are several SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) products out there, not just in overall IT but also in AEC—what makes Aconex stand apart is that it is primarily intended to be deployed project-wide, across all the disciplines and teams involved in the project, rather than firm-wide, across all the projects the firm is working on. The distinction between the two has, so far, not been well made in the traditional literature on collaboration solutions, and one type is very often confused for the other. To understand the success of a solution like Aconex, it is important to first understand the difference between these two types—project-wide as opposed to firm-wide.

Most of the well-known collaboration and project management solutions in AEC such as Bentley ProjectWise, Autodesk Vault for AEC, Autodesk A360, Newforma Project Center, and so on are primarily deployed by a firm—typically large, with multiple offices that may be located in different parts of the world—to better manage the projects the firm is working on and enable collaboration between the people within the firm. (See the AECbytes Research Report, Comparison of Bentley ProjectWise and Autodesk Vault for AEC; the article, Autodesk's Rebranded A360 Cloud Solution; and the review, Newforma Project Center Professional Ninth Edition.) A solution like Newforma Project Center is focused as much with facilitating business processes as with as managing project information, but it is still primarily a firm-specific solution. While many of these solutions do have an external collaboration capability which allows them to share project data with team members outside the firm (see, for example, the article on Newforma Project Cloud), they are, by and large, still focused on being deployed by individual AEC firms. This is why the websites of most of these solutions highlight the firms that have chosen to implement them—see, for example, the list of customers on Newforma’s website.

In contrast, a solution like Aconex is entirely focused on projects, as evidence by the fact that the company’s website showcases all the projects it has been deployed under rather than the individual firms who are implementing it. What it essentially does is provide a cloud collaboration platform for a project that can be used by all the disciplines and firms working on it to collaborate across the lifecycle of the project, from planning to delivery and operations. Thus, the main “client” for Aconex is typically the owner or the general contractor for the project—they would, after all, realize the most benefits from its “across the board” project collaboration and management capabilities. The solution is usually priced as a percentage of the cost of the project factored in with complexity, location and expected participation; once it has been paid for (by the project owner or GC), it is available—at no additional charge—to all the firms who are working on it without any limits on the number of users or the amount of data. The price also includes unlimited training and unlimited support, which is quite unusual for a technology product but is actually very forward-looking—the easier it is for users to learn and implement correctly, the higher the success rate of the application, the greater the chances of it being deployed in future projects. (It should be noted that an enterprise pricing option is available for customers interested in deploying Aconex across their organizations—making it firm-wide in addition to being project-wide.)

Another aspect that accounts for the success of the solution is what Aconex refers to as “neutrality.” What this essentially means is that despite the collaborative nature of the solution, the individual firms using it can decide what to share with whom, retaining control and ownership of their data (see Figure 2). Thus project participants, including those in the organization that subscribe to Aconex, only get access to data that is explicitly shared with them. This  encourages the platform to be more widely used than if it was simply a central location for storing information that was accessible to everyone.

Figure 2. The platform neutrality in Aconex ensures that all participants are in control of who can see the information they send.

With regard to the actual functionality of the product, it has been developed to manage the information and processes in large construction projects that can involve team members from hundreds of different organizations collaborating on thousands of documents and exchanging millions of pieces of correspondence—its cloud-based architecture allows it to scale to projects of any size.  Accordingly, it includes all the features shown in Figure 3 that run across the entire lifecycle of the project from planning to operation, including document management, BIM collaboration, workflow automation, bid management, control of project correspondence, field inspections and issues management, handover management, and the creation of digital O&M manuals. (An overview of its Dynamic Manuals  functionality was recently provided in the article, AEC Technology Updates: Construction and FM Applications.)

Figure 3. The range of functionality in Aconex for information and process management across the lifecycle of a project.

Since the application is in the cloud, all of this functionality can be accessed simply by logging in through a web browser. Some of these are illustrated in Figure 4. They show (from top to bottom) multiple files being uploaded to the system from a local computer; the creation of drag-and-drop workflows;  the built-in reporting capabilities, in case this showing where reviews were being held up; and a bid package being put together by conveniently selecting the files that are already in the system.

Figure 4. Usage of some of the functionality of Aconex.

Also, since Aconex is completely web-based, all of its functionality can also be accessed on a mobile device. Some examples are shown in Figure 5, including checking tasks, accessing project email, reviewing drawings and documents, adding markups to any documents or photos captured with the mobile device, and sending transmittals.

Figure 5. Accessing the functionality of Aconex on an iPad.

BIM Support

With the rapidly increasing adoption of BIM in construction projects, no collaboration solution can be successful without being able to work with BIM models, which prompted Aconex to develop a dedicated module called “Connected BIM” that it launched about six months ago. While the concept of model viewers is not new and most collaboration solutions have a built-in viewer for BIM models, what is unique about Aconex’s BIM viewer is that it works entirely within a browser, just like the rest of the application, and it allows multiple models to be quickly brought in, collated, and viewed together (Figure 6). Thus, any project team member could view the different disciplinary models merged together for an integrated understanding of the project and how the different components go together.

Figure 6. Viewing multiple disciplinary models in Aconex to get a consolidated understanding of the project.

Not only can individual models be turned on and off as required, it is also possible to manipulate the visibility of different components within a model. Other capabilities include being able to add markups to the model to identify issues and create formal project communications such as RFIs linked to specific objects; share these markups as well as specific viewpoints for model review, feedback and resolution; as well as attach documents or other information to any element for enabling the BIM model to be used for facilities operation and maintenance (Figure 7). Also, since the models are in the cloud and the platform includes mobile support, the models can also be accessed on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. And finally, once the collated model is completed, with all issues resolved and handover information attached, it can be exported in IFC or COBie format, as required.

Figure 7. The ability to link documents to an element in the model.

BIM models can be brought into the Aconex system in a number of ways. Aconex supports OpenBIM and the IFC file format, so a BIM model from any authoring application can be uploaded by publishing it in IFC format. In addition, in a nod to the popularity of Revit for BIM, Aconex provides a Revit plug-in that can publish Revit models directly to Aconex (Figure 8). An upcoming capability allows a NavisWorks clash report in BCF format to be brought into Aconex’s BIM module, from where it can be reviewed by the project team, assigned to a team member, and revised as the identified clashes are resolved.

Figure 8. The Aconex plug-in which allows a Revit model to be directly published to an Aconex project. The lower image shows the published model open in Aconex.

For a solution like Aconex that has been developed for project-wide collaboration, the BIM support is especially important as it allows the design team to easily distribute large BIM files, and more critically, it allows the rest of the project team— other designers, engineers, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and owners—to easily access the models without the need to have or learn authoring tools, using simply a web browser. They can view the model in different ways, drill through the parts, get information about any element, attach notes or additional documents to an element, add markups for issues and RFIs, and so on. If any issues are detected, the individual model authors get notified, and they can go back, update the models, and republish them. Like all other documents, there is version control for models as well, so all team members can be assured that they are working with the most recent version of a model. There is also an audit trail for models, so that there is a complete record of who accessed what and when.

Conclusions

The steady growth of Aconex from a start-up company in Australia to a public company that is being used to manage large-scale construction and engineering projects across the globe can be attributed to several factors: its focus on project-wide collaboration, an area served by less competition, rather than firm-wide collaboration, for which there are already several solutions specializing in different aspects such as design, accounting, scheduling, internal document management, etc.; an innovative model in which one customers pays for the deployment of the solution across the project and subsequently makes it available to all the firms and disciplines on the project with no limit on the number of users or the amount of data, as well as unlimited training and support; an “industrial strength” platform that can handle the millions of documents and terabytes of data that are common to the types of projects it is used on; a pure cloud-based service that allows full access to all functionality through just a web browser, as well as on mobile devices; support for BIM models that goes way beyond simply being able to simply view models but also allows them to be collated, sliced and diced, marked up, and enhanced with RFI or asset information by the large number of project team members who are not the creators of the model; and platform neutrality, which allows all the users of the solution to control who can access the information they share. Given all this functionality, which has been developed over the last 15 years since the company was founded, it is hardly surprising to find Aconex being implemented on many well-known and prestigious projects in the world, as was shown in Figure 1.

While most of Aconex’s capabilities will likely continue to be further improved and refined as it is developed—there really is no end to making a software smarter, more capable, and easier to use—one specific aspect it needs to focus on is integration—specifically integration with solutions such as ProjectWise, A360, Newforma, Primavera, Timberline, etc., that individual firms are deploying for internal project management, collaboration, accounting, scheduling, and so on. The use of Aconex on a project would not nullify the need for a firm to deploy an internal solution, and firms could do without the duplication of effort—for example, uploading a project file to two separate systems instead of one.  Ideally, both the internal and external collaboration solutions should work seamlessly with the required data automatically flowing from one to the other as required. Aconex does provide APIs for such third-party integration, but it needs to also work on some key integrations itself, similar to the one it has already developed for SharePoint.

The AEC industry no longer needs to be reminded of the benefits of collaboration, just as it does not need to be reminded of the benefits of BIM. Perhaps the AEC dotcoms that were developing collaboration portals were ahead of their times, which is why they went bust. Aconex has done well to survive the dotcom crash of the early 2000s, and with the rise in project complexity and BIM implementation, it seems well poised to tackle the concurrent rise in demand for project-wide collaboration and information management.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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