By Anthony Somos
May 27, 2016
This is part one is our series about cloud software in structural engineering. Stay tuned for the upcoming instalments by subscribing to our blog at the end of this post.
The structural engineering software industry has been disrupted before. It happened in the early 1980s when engineers made the transition from mainframe computers to personal computers. This was a huge step forward. Suddenly, engineers could have the number-crunching power of a computer at their fingertips without needing an enterprise-grade mainframe computing facility. Structural engineering software began moving from the mainframe to the PC and, very soon after, these programs were given graphical interfaces. Modern structural engineering software was born.
We spoke to someone who was there for that first transition. “In 1979, in lieu of giving my girlfriend an engagement ring, I bought one of the early computers, an HP85, with the idea of taking engineering from the mainframe [to] the PC.”
These are the words of Tom Van Laan. Van Laan took part in the PC movement when he started working at COADE, a software provider doing pipe stress analysis on the PC. He became CEO and lead the company until it was successfully acquired in 2010. Considering his work done, he retired.
Since the transition from mainframe to PC, not much has changed. Yes, our programs have become more sophisticated, but these programs are still, essentially, an analysis engine with a graphical interface running on a PC.
A new disruption is coming, however, and it has brought Tom Van Laan out of retirement to found a new company called CloudCalc. This new disruption is the cloud.
What is the cloud and how does it relate to structural engineering software? Let me explain what the cloud is with some imagery. Imagine that your keyboard and screen were connected through a hundred-mile-long cable to a computer in a data centre. The desktop you would see in front of you might seem like it’s being rendered by a machine close by, but that wouldn’t be correct. That desktop image would be pixel data that had to travel through a hundred miles of cable at the speed of light to get to you. Your clicks and keystrokes would need to travel all the way back through that same cable to register on the computer. In reality, that computer in the data centre is the cloud, and that hundred-mile-long cable that’s connecting you to it is the internet.
Why is this so revolutionary? Firstly, that computer in the data centre can be many computers working in parallel. If you are running a program that can take advantage of all of that computing power, you could run an analysis that would take a week on your PC, in ten minutes. Secondly, since the computer is in a data centre, it can be accessed from any device, anywhere in the world. That scalability and accessibility has the power to change the way people work. Until recently, however, structural engineering software has not been touched by this new paradigm.
While mentoring startup companies in the Houston area, Tom Van Laan witnessed for himself this new way of developing and deploying software. “I started working with a lot of young people starting software companies . . . and I really started to see that there was a different way of developing software that was totally foreign to me. It was all done in the cloud, whereas [at my last company] we had worked strictly on the PC.” These cloud products were set up to allow collaboration, device independence, very easy licensing, and [to] eliminate the need for updates, Van Laan told me.
“I started thinking back to my last ten years at [my last company] when I would travel around the world speaking to customers.” These customers weren’t as interested in new technical features as they werxe in solving problems in their own practice, Van Laan told me. They wanted better collaboration. They had teams in the field, in the office, and offshore that needed to efficiently share model data; it was too hard to keep everyone in sync with email attachments. Mobility was another concern. They wanted to be able to approve changes while on the worksite without needing to go back to the office to reevaluate the model. They also wanted licensing flexibility so that they could balance the amount of software seats they were paying for with the amount of work they actually had.
“Looking at cloud software, I said, ‘Hey, this potentially solves all those problems.”
After retiring from his last company, Van Laan had no intention of going back into business, but he felt that this new approach could help engineers. “I took it as a challenge and decided to go ahead and see if this was going to fly.”
Tom Van Laan may have spent most of his career as the CEO of a successful engineering software company, but in his heart, he was an entrepreneur ready to do what he needed to do to achieve success. It wasn’t hard for him to decide that, if CloudCalc was going to happen, he’d have to code the program himself.
Going back to his roots as an engineer and programmer wasn’t hard. “I’d never worked on cloud-based stuff before, so I bought a book . . . It was basically eight chapters, each one about a different language. I went through it and started writing CloudCalc as a prototype.” It took one year to write the program, and six months to validate it against AISC standards—a 600-page verification document.
When it came time to launch the product, Van Laan “had some preconceived notions” about how well it would go. Having mentored young cloud software companies, and watched as they snatched up 200,000 users off one TechCrunch article, the goal of hyper-growth seemed very attainable. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite workout that way.
“It’s hard to reach engineers online. . . . It’s really, really, tough.” That was 2014. Since then, Van Laan and his team have worked every day to get the word out. It’s been working. A year ago CloudCalc’s user base was in the low hundreds. Today it is fast approaching 3000 users. They’ve done this by maintaining an active blog and social presence and by constantly improving the product, but they’ve also put in the miles, heading out to the trade shows and visiting engineers. “You see the difference between telling an engineer about this and showing it to him or her is night and day. You tell them and it’s too easy to think about the ‘why it’s not going to work’ and ‘why it wouldn’t be good’, [but] then you show them and a lot of the time the light goes on and they say, ‘Why isn’t everybody using this?'”
It is important to recognize that cloud software is not a major advancement in the actual modelling and analysis capabilities of structural engineering software. The tip of that spear probably still lies with the industry incumbents designing faster solvers and better automation. The rise of cloud software will be more like the rise of the PC, which gave engineers better access to important tools and more flexibility in the way they worked. Let’s look at CloudCalc to see how this works.
Firstly, Van Laan told me, CloudCalc is more accessible. “You can sign up to CloudCalc in 30 seconds. All we ask for is a username, a password, your e-mail, and your country. That’s it.”
The accessibility of CloudCalc means that a firm can be more dynamic in their software strategy. When a project starts, you can buy as many licenses as you need and be up and running immediately regardless of where you are, what kind of computers you have, or how many engineers need to be working. At the end of a project, the licenses can be scaled back down. Van Laan says that this strategy can be useful today, even if a firm already has licenses for a PC based program. “We can do a CIS/2 import. Maybe [CloudCalc] can be added on as inexpensive mini-licenses in support of the way you work now. We did a survey and . . . 87% of the people who looked at it and tried it said that [CloudCalc] could fit into their process, eventually.” This is an interesting option for firms who often run into the license capacity wall.
CloudCalc can also fulfill most of the functions you would expect from a structural engineering software tool. It does steel frame analysis according to AISC standards. It can do static and dynamic loads, response spectrum analysis, and natural frequency and modal extraction. It has a database of over 6000 shapes from American, Indian, British, and soon, Mexican codes.
Because the software can be acquired with such a light touch from the developer, Van Laan told me that they have made it easy to learn and use. “Those that have tried it have said that it is easier than anything else they’ve used. . . . We’ve got an online tutorial where someone can pick this up in 30 minutes.” CloudCalc is taking care to analyze user behaviour, both online and by observing users in person, to make sure that the help and training is there when a new user needs it. “We’ve constantly looked at where [our users] are stalling out and how we can eliminate that friction to get them going again.”
Cloud-based software could represent a shift in the way engineers access and use their software tools. Imagine the world with virtually zero downtime for software updates; where a firm can scale their licenses up and down, month by month. Imagine a future where design work can be done on any computer, and models can be shared without worrying about your recipient’s software and systems.
This future is closer than you think, and CloudCalc is a big part of it. There are other cloud-base structural engineering software companies as well.
A team of young engineers from Australia has already had success with cloud-based beam design, and are taking a leap into an even bigger product. There is a software vendor in California that is upgrading a classic application it has sold for decades to make it a cutting-edge cloud-based design tool. This post was just the first in a series that Eng-Base is writing about the new breed of cloud-based tools for structural engineers.
Eng-Base Weekly is a curated newsletter for the modern structural engineer. Read about technology advancements, lessons learned, and insights from other professionals in the built environment. Not getting our newsletter regularly? Subscribe here.