Thursday, 24 April 2014
It’s funny, my first reaction to the Trimble buys SketchUp news was that it was some kind of spoof, and I checked the link and site closely. It was surprising, because who knew that Google was selling anything, and while very strategic for both Trimble and Google, it’s hard to imagine how this went down. I’d guess that SketchUp wasn’t on the open market, and that Google did some hand picking of their target company with a strategy in mind. Precision data capture likely has a strong place in the deal.

Trimble has been the North American entity that has been gobbling up a huge string of geospatial companies, alongside Sweden-based Hexagon. The fact that SketchUp is in Boulder, and that Trimble is close by in Westminster, Colo., likely had something to do with the deal. The proximity, certainly has meant a series of existing partnerships between the companies, although according to a recent conversation, Google uses Topcon technology for StreetView data collection.

Why Now?

The question of the timing leads to a whole raft of speculation. My bet is on Google’s development of rich 3D data through all their ongoing StreetView data collection. It’s no secret that they’ve continued to add to the sensor array on the vehicles to include LiDAR point cloud data capture. To date, I’ve only seen this type of data in NAVTEQ’s booth, and not on the open market in any sort of browser view with rich 3D details. It would make some sense for SketchUp to be jettisoned if the eventuality of HD 3D city models with Google Maps and Earth were to be hitting the Web soon.

SketchUp was initially meant to spur crowdsourcing of 3D city models, opening up a pipeline of detailed amateur-created models that would cost the company nothing to capture. To spur this effort, Google had a yearly “Model Your Town” competition, where the winning town received recognition for their efforts. These promotions certainly have added to the amount of 3D data in Google Earth, but the world is a big place and it would likely take centuries of such projects before the data was collected in one country, let alone the world.

Models

The news that Trimble and Google will combine forces to continue to contribute to the 3D Warehouse means that the display of models within Google Maps and Earth will continue. There’s no word on the continuation of free SketchUp capabilities for the masses, but Google would suffer a lot of bad publicity if they were to allow this free tool to go away or for someone to charge for it. My guess is that there’s a clause that the free viewer must continue.

The SketchUp modeling tools could use some serious streamlining to improve the model creation workflow. The SketchUp software remains powerful, and rich in functionality for a free product, but it takes a good bit of time to wrap your mind around the many toolbars. There are a very deep number of YouTube-based tutorials to get you up to speed, but while the documentation is great, it’s not a tool that many will invest the necessary time into, in today’s time-cramped lifestyle.

The combination of SketchUp with the workflow of Trimble’s data collection tools, and perhaps a low-cost laser scanning device, could greatly speed the model creation workflow. Wouldn’t it be great to see a new version that had you modeling your house in just a day or a weekend to a high degree of accuracy with some sort of handheld scanner or model-capture device? I’d be in line today to buy it.

Coincidence

On Tuesday of this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, one of the top two CAD software companies along with Autodesk. I aimed what I hoped was a challenging question toward him, asking whether he was worried about the consolidation taking place at Hexagon and Trimble, where they’re combining geospatial hardware and software. I framed the question as convergence of GIS, CAD and BIM, and singled out Trimble as a chief competitor, because they have Tekla as a BIM piece of software. In my mind Hexagon doesn’t pose as much of an immediate threat to the CAD and BIM vendors, because they have Intergraph, who don’t really have a general infrastructure design software tool. While the question was easily dismissed, I felt that the query hit home as something the company has been contemplating.

Running through my head recently was also a candid moment with Ola Rollen of Hexagon a year ago, who indicated that they had been looking at Bentley as a possible acquisition when they decided upon the Intergraph purchase. The immediacy of strong positive cashflow from Intergraph, based on contracts with the military, made this a more attractive acquisition target, but Hexagon likely now harbors a heightened interest in adding CAD or BIM capability now that Trimble owns both Tekla and Sketchup.

SketchUp Workflows

SketchUp has continued to be a cool tool for the fairly rapid building of 3D models. I’m expecting the professional product will now be greatly enhanced with tight integration with Trimble’s other construction-oriented software and hardware tools to become a platform for design of 3D models for all manner of construction project. With the right enhancements, this easy 3D modeling tool could take hold in a good segment of the market that is more concerned with assembly rather than the design of unique and artistic new buildings.

Trimble takes a very pragmatic approach to business with the company’s lean operations, and their approach to providing a whole ecosystem of construction tools to improve workflow. Trimble’s ConnectedSite technology is an inspiring combination of sensors to keep tabs of current conditions on a job site, along with work management and scheduling software to speed assembly.

It’s certainly clear that this acquisition is a game changer for the broad geospatial market. With this increasing move toward end-to-end planning, design, building, and maintenance, further consolidations are just around the corner. The efficiency of infrastructure construction has been suffering for quite some time with horrible inefficiencies. Let’s hope that this new era will greatly streamline the speed and efficiency of such projects so that we can tackle the hard job of replacing aging infrastructure with costs that make rapid and massive rejuvenation possible.

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Vector1 Media publishes Sensors & Systems (www.sensysmag.com), Informed Infrastructure (www.informedinfrastructure.com) and Asian Surveying & Mapping (ASM).  Each of these publications deal with the application of sensing and modeling for different scales of geography. Sensors & Systems explores global change, Informed Infrastructure examines smart city applications and technology, and ASM covers geospatial technology application in Asia-Pacific.

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