Entering AEC's Digital World

The AEC industry is in the midst of a storm of change, and reprographers are caught right in the middle of it all. Looking at the industry as a whole—from the lack of job growth within the construction sector and the low if not anemic level of housing starts and building permits being issued—it looks like recovery and growth may be many quarters away. Additionally, the AEC sector is in the midst of increasing legislation for higher environmental building standards (such as LEEDS) and increasingly stringent safety regulations. Increased pressure on the entire supply chain—buyers to builders to architects—tighter margins, and a more efficient, mistake-proof workflow also challenge the AEC workforce.

Industry experts, however, have begun to see some positive signs that the market is starting to make the turn toward recovery. Todd McGowan, sales manager of the Engineering Division, Seiko Instruments USA, Inc., has seen a slow, but steady, recovery. HP’s Emre Ozguc, director of Marketing, Large Format Printers, points to recent reports from IDC that show in Q1 of 2011 the technical wide-format printing market grew 15 percent YoY in unit terms in North America. “Construction activity in the US is still slow, but beginning to show recovery. We are seeing an increasing demand from the AEC market for large-format printers, especially in the workgroup segment,” said Ozguc.

Bob Honn, Director, Product Marketing, Wide Format Printing Systems division, Océ North America, concurred with Ozguc’s findings. “In the US we have seen slight improvements in the sale of wide-format printers this year, as well as stabilization in the number of ‘clicks’ generated by Océ machines in the field. These are good indicators that the AEC/reprographic communities are experiencing the same improvements. Although these improvements make us cautiously optimistic about where the market is going, it still appears as if the industry has a ways to go before it is fully recovered.”


Keep Those Belts Tightened

While industry experts have seen some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, the fact still remains that this market is experiencing many challenges—from low construction activity, to increased competition, to the influx of newer technologies. In many cases, reprographic shops are finding themselves forced to move away from the traditional ink-on-paper model they’re accustomed to and adopt these newer technologies—just to stay in the game. Layoffs have become common in many segments of the market as well as reprographers struggle to ride out the recession and stay in business.

“The crisis has forced many AEC companies either out of business or to be more frugal in everything they do, including printing,” said HP’s Ozguc. “Keeping costs low while speeding up project timelines is a competitive requirement. We are seeing a trend toward more distributed printing favoring workgroup printers versus centralized printing on production machines. More and more projects require collaboration between companies and across geographic locations. As a result, architects, builders, and contractors are becoming more and more mobile, with a growing need to access drawings 24/7. Paper is still critical for the review process, creating the need for a seamless bridge between digital and paper formats.”

“The recession has caused many firms to layoff portions of their staffs and 'rightsize' themselves to be profitable going forward in the new economy,” said Honn. “In this process, they have adopted new technologies and modified processes for doing business, so the slowdown was an opportunity to become stronger. Now the challenge becomes how to competitively compete in a business climate that has fewer projects with smaller margins.”


Connectivity and Color

As time progresses, it is more and more evident that the AEC market is changing quickly. Reprographers can no longer survive with their current business model of just being printers, but instead need to adopt new design technologies and new ways of conducting business. Having expertise with Building Information Modeling (BIM), Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC), along with Internet-dependent printing solutions, is vital for business. Reprographers need to become more closely aligned with the front of the construction process and become valued managers for data and content for their customers.

“The BIM/IPD/VDC process transformation and adoption will continue to shape the future,” said Honn. “A key piece for reprographers is how they leverage these changes and then monetize them to make up for the reduced amount of centralized printing that will be required.”

“As the market recovers, the industry will be looking to innovate the way business is won and conducted. Printing solutions will become increasingly Internet-dependent, allowing customers to manage content from the cloud; distributed printing will rise in popularity,” said Ozguc.

Increased use of color in the AEC workflow also continues to be a growing market opportunity—but a time-sensitive and limited one.

“The adoption of color printing is still a key innovation that is taking place, and we see this as a means to provide a transitional link between the present and future and to grow the most profitable part of their business,” said Honn. “Those reprographers who have weathered the storm and are doing well today are the ones that made investments years ago in CAD color and display graphics printing. There is still an opportunity for more to do this today, but the opportunity will not exist forever.”


AEC’s Digital World

As digital technologies—smart phones, tablet PCs, 3D modeling, BIM, IPD, and VDC—continue their push into the AEC market, reprographers need to find their place in the AEC project stream. In many cases, this will require the addition of personnel who understand the IT infrastructure and BIM modeling software, which will enable those reprographers to become involved in a project much earlier on—giving rise to additional opportunities.

“Print jobs will become more complex because of the shift from 2D to 3D and from monochrome to color,” said Ozguc. “Ideas, design, and the method [in which] they are communicated will be increasingly digitized. However, paper will still retain a vital role in the design and build process. The need to seamlessly bridge between digital and paper worlds will continue to grow.

“Build data management services around BIM/IPD/VDC such as hosting BIM modeling services, renting space for 3D coordination meetings, and becoming a value-added reseller for AEC technology products and services, to name a few. Reprographers must realize that they have a very strong channel position in a viable market, so they must work to pump more products and services through it,” said Honn.

“Also, as reprographers reinvent themselves, there is a need to distinguish the value that they offer and how their services are aligned with the needs of their clients," he added. "They must diversify and look beyond just construction and engineering, all the while however staying close to the AEC industry so they are there as business opportunities develop.”