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Autodesk Buying NavisWorks, But Questions Linger

June 6, 2007

by Nadine M. Post with Tom Sawyer

The looming acquisition of a software vendor that supports interoperability of competing electronic design and construction products by a leading vendor of design software is both raising concerns and welcomed. On May 31, Autodesk announced it had signed an agreement to acquire NavisWorks, which produces a universal file reader for 3D coordination, collaboration and construction sequencing, for $25 million.

“The news concerns me greatly,” says Mark V. Holland, chief engineer for Omaha-based steel fabricator Paxton & Vierling Steel. “Will the application keep its original direction of being a universal reader in the building information modeling world?”

Jay Bhatt, senior vice president of Autodesk’s AEC Solutions Division in Boston, says it will. “We do not intend to make NavisWorks products work better with our products than others. We want to give customers the best tools to use disparate information.”

NavisWorks, through its JetStream product, has the ability to read and merge design data from a host of programs serving many disciplines. It can then run clash detection. The software relies on being able to read vendors’ file formats, including those of Autodesk’s competitors. Bhatt has already begun to talk to those firms, he says, without revealing which ones. At least one competitor, Bentley Systems, declined comment.

The industry’s perception, whether true or not, is that Autodesk will not disclose its file formats to keep competitors at bay, says Eric Lundquist, managing director of Heller Manus Architects, in San Francisco. Lundquist considers Autodesk’s portable document format, called DWF, “totally unnecessary” because there is the PDF file format that is globally used by anyone who has a digital device and Internet access. But the PDF format is controlled by an Autodesk competitor. “Autodesk products and the PDF file format do not play well together,” Lundquist says.

The thought that Autodesk could be intentionally limiting the compatibility of file formats while adding needed functionally to its software line makes professionals “nervous about BIM’s future in Autodesk’s hands,” he says.

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Matthew Jogan, project architect with H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, in New York City, is not one of them. The deal can “be a wonderful alliance bridging the strength of Autodesk’s tools with NavisWorks’ software,” he says.

Michael Le Fevre, director of planning and design support services for Atlanta-based Holder Construction, is also optimistic about the sale. “It would be crazy for Autodesk to lock down NavisWorks’ file-format neutrality,” he says.

Jan Reinhardt, program manager for virtual design and construction in Turner Construction’s  Reston, Virgnia, office, encourages Autodesk “to continue to make advances on successes that NavisWorks has in enabling interoperability.”

And Douglas Eberhard, chief technology officer in the Denver office of Parsons Brinckerhoff, says it is good “to the extent they keep NavisWorks open.”

“We at NavisWorks are working under the understanding we are going to continue to do what we do,” says Peter Thompson, CEO of Sheffield, England-based NavisWorks. Jonathan Widney, president of NavisWorks’ U.S. subsidiary based in Scottsdale, Arizona, says, “I understand all of the neutrality concerns.”

Moving forward, the ongoing challenge for all vendors is to embrace full interoperability through industry standard IFCs rather than proprietary interfaces, says John Cross, vice president of marketing for the American Institute of Steel Construction.

The deal is supposed to be sealed before July’s end. Bhatt says that it is too early to say whether NavisWorks’ product will ever allow editing or design. Other questions remain, including whether NavisWorks will remain a separate unit.

This story first appeared on ENR.com, ArchitecturalRecord.com’s sister Web site.

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