James Benham created SmartBidNet – a web-based service that allows general contractors to manage pre-qualification, subcontractor bidding, RFIs and other onsite tasks and the sharing of construction documents – in his dorm room at Texas A&M University in 2006. Since that first version was released Benham’s company, JB Knowledge, based in Bryan, Texas, has expanded into other services such as project news, enterprise application and database services, consulting and mobile solutions. Along the way, SmartBidNet has evolved into a multi-platform solution equally at home with tablets, smartphones and desktop computers and Benham, himself, has become a crusader for open software standards and open APIs (application program interfaces).
“We are seeing a lot more BIM qualifications demanded by general contractors and owners,” says Benham, company president. “Financial bondability is still the number one concern for owners, but BIM qualifications are getting more stringent. We’re seeing more customers demanding you know how to work in 3D just as a qualification to bid.”
Last November, version 12 of SmartBidNet was released with a new open standards-based user interface (based on HTML5 and OpenXML) with a drag and drop dashboard and customizable widgets. The entire web application is now available in Spanish and French without outside translation software, as well. Time to load, a key issue for both general contractors and bidding subcontractors, decreased by 75 percent. As more customers are moving to mobile devices for daily tasks, SmartBidNet is now device-agnostic, thanks to its HTML5 codebase and its cloud capabilities. In 2010 SmartBidNet migrated its customer data to the secure Microsoft Azure cloud platform to ease sharing and file storage. That integration was completed with the release of version 12. Moving to a cloud-based system for sharing data is a move many engineering and construction companies are considering for their own internal systems to simplify data-sharing for their personnel.
“What used to take 45 minutes to download take-offs, now takes just a few minutes (in version 12 of SmartBidNet),” Benham says. “We deployed all plans into Microsoft Azure as well as our own proprietary network so you can directly access the plan-file repository from anywhere.”
Open standards-based code is more than just a business plan for SmartBidNet. Along with other companies, such as Sage Software, Notevault, To-Scale Software, Online Plan Service and eSub, SmartBidNet was a founding member of the Construction Open Software Alliance, a group launched last summer. The COSA is an alliance dedicated to better communication between architecture, engineering and construction software through the AGCxml data exchange schema, an open standard. Creating the environment to share data more easily across applications and vendors is something BIM managers have been clamoring for since at least 2006. The COSA is the first vendor group to adopt and promote AGCxml as an industry-wide solution.
“We’re way behind other industries in making this data transition,” Benham says. “Standards-based is the only way to move (construction software) forward. Construction software companies need to understand that their best business option is getting their tools out to as many people as possible, and not locking up their subscriber base. We believe construction professionals should not settle for any less in their business software than what is available in their consumer technology. There is no reason business software should not be applying the same quality of design as consumer software.”
Benham announced the formation of the COSA at the AGC IT Conference in Chicago last summer and also released a survey of 450 construction and engineering professionals called the “2012 Construction Technology Integration Report.” The report investigated how many applications each professional uses in a day and how those solutions transfer data internally, if at all. The numbers indicated a lack in cross-application integration between construction processes due to a lack of integration development between individual software providers.
While the COSA has brought in some major players, such as Sage, it still counts only a handful of software companies as members when there are literally hundreds of them providing tools for the AEC industries. The task before COSA is huge, as most construction software-authoring software companies are still focusing on a subscriber-based business model despite making their own ventures into cloud and mobile applications. Still, as a software developer alliance, its adoption of AGCxml is significant. The AGCxml schema had languished with no real organization outside of its developer, the Associated General Contractors of America, as its champion since it was introduced in 2008. With a group of dedicated software developers demanding its use it will have a much better chance of becoming the cross-industries standard it was developed to be.
“(Moving the industry to open standards) is something that has to happen,” Benham says. “We’ve seen it in our user base. We are rolling out native apps, so we want that to work in a browser and in an app as a cloud solution optimized for the construction business.”
Jeffrey Yoders is the technology editor at ZweigWhite. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.