WASHINGTON, DC — Like rafters on the whitewaters of West Virginia’s rugged mountain rivers, the construction trades are riding the rapid current of B2B e-commerce.

Many are finding the sheer volume of information and innovations as hard to maneuver as the sheer volume of water cascading through a Class 5 rapid.

A conference and trade show, “A/E/C Systems 2000,” was recently held here to educate members of the construction trades on the whos, whats, whys, whens, wheres, and hows of the burgeoning B2B Internet business platform.

Sponsors dubbed the show “the only event where everyone in the design and construction industry — architects, engineers, designers, owners, facility managers, developers, and contractors — will come to see, touch, and learn how the Internet is revolutionizing the creation of projects.”

On The Show Floor

Here are some examples of what happened on the exhibit floor:

  • Buzzsaw.com showed its online design collaboration, bidding, buying, and construction management services.

  • e-Builder showcased e-Builder 3.0, a project-specific website that manages single and multiple projects entirely through the a web browser interface.

  • ContractorHub.com presented its B2B e-commerce exchange that is said to streamline and automate the procurement and payment process for contractors and suppliers.

  • JobCostOnline showcased a channel concept for communication between subcontractors, general contractors, suppliers, and customers via the company’s online project management system.

The Seminars

There were several seminars focusing on doing business via the Internet, arranged under the title of “From Bricks to Clicks: E-Solutions for the AEC Industry.”

Judy Schriener, managing online editor for the McGraw-Hill Construction Information Group, talked about “e-Business — What to Expect.”

Schriener pointed out that people are looking for websites that will handle every aspect of a transaction, but that the industry is not quite there yet.

“There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace because vendors are a little too ambitious and are claiming to offer end-to-end solutions, which no one has,” she said. “That’s in the future. End-to-end means online design to facilities management, total tracking of the job.”

Schriener listed some of the things that people want and things people don’t need from e-commerce websites.

What they want:

  • Seamlessness (everything in one place);

  • Ease of use;

  • “Cool” wireless gadgets;

  • Security;

  • Searchability (by object, not just drawing); and

  • An end to confusion.

What they don’t need:

  • Hype and conflicting claims;

  • Buzzwords and jargon;

  • Overly complex interfaces;

  • Systems that will be obsolete in a year; and

  • Systems that don’t interact.

According to Schriener, she has been told by one of her constituents that of the 170 construction vendors currently conducting e-business, only three will remain, having consolidated and survived the elimination process.

She doesn’t see a lot of change in the trade over the next six months, but added that the biggest challenge will be to accept new trends while retaining old standards.

“E-business is still business and the same principles still apply. E-commerce is supposed to allow businesses to work in a cheaper and faster way. Make it fun, non-threatening, and exciting.”

Boosting Profits David E. Weisberg, president of Technology Automation Services and publisher of “A-E-C Auto-mation Newsletter,” held a seminar on “How the Web Can Improve Profits.”

Weisberg said that a key reason the web is so important is its ability to improve business effectiveness.

“Design has evolved because of the technology that is available,” he said. “Changes [to design] need to be made instantaneously, which has a definitive impact on the way of doing business.”

Thanks to e-commerce, projects that used to take weeks or months to start up are beginning almost immediately. “We are seeing projects starting up in the building stage almost as soon as the design stage is starting.”

Weisberg emphasized that time is a commodity, citing these characteristics:

  • We need it yesterday.

  • Ideas are perishable.

  • We can no longer do everything sequentially.

  • Design-build is increasing as a business practice.

  • Owners want to be involved.

So what role does the Internet have in a contractor’s company? Weisberg stressed the importance of integrating the Internet and the ease in which to do it.

“The Internet is readily available anywhere in the world. We now don’t have to create a whole level of software in order to have any type of collaboration.”

He said that the proof of the success of e-business lies in the amount of money invested in it. “Over $450 million has been invested in construction web services in the last 24 months. The investment community sees the potential of the changes in the construction industry.”

Despite the obvious success of conducting business via the Internet, there are businesses that still resist the change, and the longer they conduct “business as usual,” the longer it will take to make the necessary changes.

“There are still a lot of subcontractors that don’t get the technology,” said Weisberg. “And it may be a few years before they buy into it.”

Knowing the goals of e-commerce is a key toward moving off center and into new technology, he added. “Our objective [when working with contractors] is to improve their profits, not necessarily reduce their costs. The flexibility of how you look at information and use it is tremendous.”