“A EC Systems 2000”, which took place in June in Washington, D.C., was swamped with dot-coms aiming at the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) community. Among the exhibitors was supplyFORCE.com, a distributor enterprise that emanates from within the electrical industry.

One year later, attendees witnessed a sharp contrast. “AEC Systems 2001”, which took place in June in Chicago, was smaller, and much more demure. There were fewer dot-coms and fewer exhibitors––one estimate was that the number of companies with software/services on display was down by more than 50 percent.

Additionally, speakers representing the remnants of some of the originally enthusiastic project-collaboration Web service providers noted that they were targeting construction project owners first these days, in place of their year-earlier focus on construction companies.

There was a pall over the e-commerce segment of the show. Some believed that large architectural/engineering companies, such as Bechtel, and especially project owners, would drive the use of project collaboration by electrical contractors.

Bechtel

Bechtel, a huge constructor, has been the leading proponent of e-business for construction. At several key e-commerce/construction conferences in 2000, top company executives spoke openly about the electronic transformation of their company, and ultimately, the construction industry.

The June 2001 comments of Richard Berry, an in-house venture capitalist with the company, delivered at a Zweig White conference held in conjunction with AEC Systems included the following:

• Bechtel has 13 venture capital investments, totaling $55 million––but the cash and effort put behind one of them, the construction project collaboration firm Citadon, makes it the company’s “flagship” investment.

• Bechtel has 1,100 projects going on at once. Of those, the company currently is running 12 on Citadon––only 1 percent!

• There has been some internal resistance to using Citadon. Despite the public, out-front support top company executives have given e-business—and the financial support it has put behind Citadon—Bechtel hasn’t been able to force project managers to use this system.

On that point, Berry noted that: “Most definitely, there have been barriers to adoption within Bechtel. We’ve had some friction there. We’ve recently gotten over that—reached a boiling point, I guess—and we’ve gotten beyond that.”

In a follow-up, Berry said 25 to 30 percent of its projects might be run via the Web in, say, the year 2004. A preliminary estimate, then: At least 70 percent of the projects run by Bechtel will still be managed the “old” way—the way with which most electrical contractors are familiar—three years from now.

Demo questioned

During the AEC Show hours, the sponsors allowed exhibitors to hold sessions on the show floor, demonstrating their wares. One such session featured one of the Web collaboration firms, with a quasi-endorsement by the information technology (IT) manager of a major engineering company.

On a project done in collaboration with other companies in another country, the engineering firm used the Web collaboration vendor’s services. The IT manager noted that his firm’s engineers were on airplanes about every two weeks, and that they used the Web collaboration software to communicate across continents.

One day after sitting through the demo/testimonial, I ran into another attendee during another session. I told him that there didn’t seem to be much to what was demonstrated.

The attendee was a “systems integrator”––he integrates computer software and hardware for engineering firms. He had worked for a number of the sub-consultants to the big engineering firm on that project. According to him, the big firm’s use of the collaboration services on the project didn’t amount to more than “putting a bunch of files on an FTP site” with e-mail notification.

Bottom line

Putting these pieces of “evidence” together brings into focus where the Web collaboration trend is heading in the near future.

If this is where e-commerce in the collaboration end of construction sits in 2001, isn’t it going to take a very long time—without an unforeseen major push—for this sort of thing to catch on?

SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer. He writes a monthly e-commerce column for www.tedmag.com.