Last week, US-based software giant Autodesk announced the acquisition of Norway-based urban development startup Spacemaker.ai for a reported $240 million. The all-cash-deal is the latest in a string of acquisitions that repeatedly underline Autodesk’s determination to drive the digital evolution in the infamously antiquated construction sector. For a company that also serves the engineering, manufacturing, media, education, and entertainment industries, recent acquisitions demonstrate a focus on using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to change the way we design and construct our built environment.
“This is something strategically we’ve been working towards, both with the products we make internally with the capabilities we roll out that are more cutting edge, and also our initiative when we look at companies we’re interested in acquiring,” said Andrew Anagnost, CEO, and president of Autodesk. “We’ve been watching this space for a while; the application that Spacemaker has built we would characterize it, from our terminology, as ‘generative design’ for urban planning, meaning the machine generating options and option explorations for urban planning-type applications. Spacemaker really stands out in terms of applying cloud computing, AI, and data science.”
Spacemaker’s cloud-based software solution utilizes AI to help real estate developers, architects, and urban planners make more informed decisions in the design phases of construction projects. Spacemaker solution “looks over a designer’s shoulder” to augment human intelligence with digital wisdom, allowing users to quickly generate, optimize, and iterate on many more design alternatives than would be feasible otherwise. The result is less human-error and more informed decisions, leading to increased safety, efficiency, construction speed, and ultimately, a better built environment for all.
“It was never our plan, at the beginning of 2020, to sell the company,” Spacemaker CEO, Håvard Haukeland, told TechCrunch. “But when we started talking to Autodesk, who have reached out for a while, we realized they share our vision. And we understood that this can put our vision on steroids and we can really reach that vision much faster. And that’s what drives us, that’s what we want to do: We want to realize our vision and get our offering out in the world, at the hands of millions of architects and engineers and developers”.
Haukeland and his team are not alone in their experience. In just over 2-years, Autodesk has made five significant acquisitions focused on AI and ML in preconstruction phases. Each deal building-up the company’s technical ability but, in combination, they also reshape the market in a way that cements Autodesk’s dominant position. The spending spree began in July 2018 with the acquisition of Massachusetts-based Assemble Systems Inc., a SaaS solution provider enabling construction professionals to condition, query, and connect BIM data to key workflows across bid management, estimating, scheduling, site management, and finance.
“I welcome the Assemble Systems team to the Autodesk family, as part of our efforts to digitize and improve the construction industry,” said Autodesk’s CEO, Anagnost, in a statement at the time. “We are connecting project data from design through construction, creating the cloud-enabled tools necessary to make the critical preconstruction phase of a project more predictable and profitable.”
Then, in the space of 4-weeks across November and December 2018, Autodesk added two more AI/ML-enabled preconstruction solution providers to its portfolio at the combined cost of $1.15 billion, both startups based in San Francisco. First, for $875 million, was PlanGrid, which offers mobile construction management software that gives builders real-time access to blueprints, punch lists, daily reports, submittals, and other critical information. Then, less than a month later, Autodesk spent $275 million on the acquisition of BuildingConnected, a preconstruction software that brings digital efficiency to the typically manual process of sending invitations to bid, qualify vendors, and track opportunities.
“We are trying to completely digitize the construction process all the way from design to build. With the completion of [the purchase of] BuildingConnected, we feel we have acquired all the important assets we need to acquire,” said Anagnost, at the time of the deal. “Construction has a lot of startup focus on it —there are lots of people buying assets. We think we now have the right portfolio.”
Autodesk moved fast on these deals to fend off any challenges from established rivals, such as Trimble and Oracle, who have been considering their own acquisitions in the space, but Autodesk’s spending was far from over. After a relatively quiet 2019, the corporation dived back into the market in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable recession that will follow the emergency relief programs propping up the global economy. Existing construction projects have not been as hard hit as other business activities, however, and confidence remains strong about the continued growth of construction in the post-COVID era.
Six months into the pandemic, Autodesk announced an agreement to acquire Pype, a provider of cloud-based solutions for automating construction project management workflows. Pype’s solutions use AI and ML to extract and process data from project plans and specifications, providing unprecedented insights on project management workflows. Like previous acquisitions, Pype’s suite of software reduces tedious manual entry and human error that comes with it, thereby reducing cost and schedule delays on construction projects.
“I could not be more optimistic about the future of the building industry,” said Anagnost. “Even in challenging times such as those we are currently facing, Autodesk remains focused on making the jobs of people who build easier. Pype’s robust machine learning capabilities will empower Autodesk customers to connect workflows across the building lifecycle in new ways and optimize their businesses for long-term resiliency.”
Assemble, PlanGrid, BuildingConnected, Pype, and Spacemaker.ai will gradually be brought together, with BIM 360, into the maturing Autodesk Construction Cloud. This portfolio of software and services is quickly cementing its place as the dominant platform for advanced pre-construction processes that could drive a new level of safety, efficiency, collaboration, and innovation into an industry still weighed down by manual processes and human error. By bringing together exciting young AI and ML startups in the pre-construction space, Autodesk is using established channels to inject new technology into an old-fashioned construction industry.