A Lean CAD Company Punches Above Its Weight
Roopinder Tara posted on May 11, 2017 | 4083 views

In Ghent, Belgium, about halfway between the tourist city of Bruges on the coast and Brussels, the capital of the European Union, you’ll find excellent—but strong—beer and the most delicious chocolate. At night, its medieval architecture is gracefully lit and reflects on a network of canals that beg to be photographed. It’s an unusual and delightful place to have a CAD company.

Figure 1. Ghent will be remembered for its beautiful canals, strong beer, delicious chocolates—and the headquarters of Bricsys.
Figure 1. Ghent will be remembered for its beautiful canals, strong beer, delicious chocolates—and the headquarters of Bricsys.

Bricsys invited us to its press event, Insights, which is held at its headquarters in Ghent, to see its CAD programs and meet its people.

BricsCAD is a most capable general-purpose CAD program. It is a good deal, besides. With upgrades, it seems to be able to cover BIM and mechanical design with adequate depth. The fact that it has not taken CAD users by storm continues to be somewhat of a mystery to many at Bricsys, including its CEO, Erik de Keyser.

Figure 2. If the shapes in the Bricsys logo look like stylized bricks, you might be overthinking. BRICS stands for Building Related Interactive Computer System.
Figure 2. If the shapes in the Bricsys logo look like stylized bricks, you might be overthinking. BRICS stands for Building Related Interactive Computer System.

Good Deal

Erik de Keyser can articulate very well all the reasons why BricsCAD should rule in the CAD world. It does most everything that AutoCAD can do, if not more, and it sells for one-fifth of what AutoCAD sells for. BricsCAD Classic is listed for $550. How’s that for a starter?

Figure 3. CEO Erik de Keyser leads off Bricsys Insights at the company headquarters in Ghent, Belgium.
Figure 3. CEO Erik de Keyser leads off Bricsys Insights at the company headquarters in Ghent, Belgium.

Bricsys headquarters, two floors in a modern high-rise building in a business-y part of Ghent, is a 20-minute fast walk from the touristy city center. Forty-five or so of the company’s 130–140 total employees live in Ghent; a few more are visiting from its fully owned Russian subsidiary, Bricsys Russia, which it acquired (an asset purchase) from LEDAS.

If you haven’t heard of Bricsys in Ghent, it’s even less likely that you’ve heard of LEDAS from Novorobirsk, though it’s Russia’s third largest city. LEDAS deserves more attention. Composed almost entirely by PhDs, some rocket scientists (they worked for the Russian military before the USSR meltdown, I’m told) were more than capable of creating entire, robust CAD programs of their own.

But it proved tough to upend the CAD market from Siberia. CAD manages to be a game played best by the U.S. and Western European companies, though Russian developers have been used behind the scenes for their coding skills. For example, IMSI flagship product, TurboCAD, was built entirely by a Saint Petersburg, Russian team. LEDAS was spotted and scooped up by bargain-minded de Keyser, who was looking to get into 3D in the quickest way possible—by acquiring the guys who had already shown they had mastered it.

We find out that Bricsys had also been considering acquiring SpaceClaim, based in Concord, Mass., which was to end up with ANSYS. We will assume that the American company had a higher price tag than the Russian one.

Figure 4.Think a moderately priced CAD program can’t handle big models? Bricsys showing the city of Melbourne, Australia.

Figure 4.Think a moderately priced CAD program can’t handle big models? Bricsys showing the city of Melbourne, Australia.

American CAD users pay top dollar for CAD products. Spending $3,000 to $5,000 for a CAD seat is common. It is an act that has been repeated so often that it has created the most lucrative CAD market in the world. Foreign CAD companies (ZWSOFT, Gstar, Think3, IntelliCAD, IronCAD and others) have stumbled as they have tried to break into the U.S. CAD market. While selling in Asia, parts of Europe and South America may have delivered sustainable business, none of those markets have the millions of users with the means to pay several thousand dollars for the full price of the product (not pirated copies) and cavalierly treat it as a routine cost of doing business. Even architects, who have a reputation for being frugal compared to engineers, have accepted AutoCAD, or its AEC vertical software, Revit, which is now renting at $2,000 a year, as the lingua franca of their craft.

Figure 5. Intergraph offers its CADWorx piping and plant design software for both AutoCAD and Bricscad. Of course, the CADWorx/Bricscad combination is available for a lot less.
Figure 5. Intergraph offers its CADWorx piping and plant design software for both AutoCAD and Bricscad. Of course, the CADWorx/Bricscad combination is available for a lot less.

Chapoo

Bricsys’ document management software, Chapoo, is in use at Brussels airport, said de Keyser proudly. Its acceptance outside of Belgium is not offered.

Chapoo is a play on words: in French, a chapeau is a hat.

Bricsys split itself into two entities to launch Chapoo years ago. Chapoo functions as its own entity, though it resides under the same roof. It has its own branding and management, though it answers to de Keyser.

BIM

Much of the presentations were about the next version of Bricsys BIM, which will not be unveiled until the Bricsys annual user meeting later this year in Paris. Although we can’t reveal details, suffice it to say that the BIM software does a commendable job of creating 3D models of a building.

Sheet Metal—There’s Nothing Like It

Figure 6. Now, watch this. Bricsys will automatically unfold (almost) all of the sheet metal parts in an assembly. This one feature may be worth the price of admission for companies that design and manufacture with sheet metal.
Figure 6. Now, watch this. Bricsys will automatically unfold (almost) all of the sheet metal parts in an assembly. This one feature may be worth the price of admission for companies that design and manufacture with sheet metal.

While AutoCAD-like CAD systems typically approach AutoCAD’s capability, scurrying to add features and capabilities every time AutoCAD releases an update, it’s rare that they surpass AutoCAD in anything of significance.

Briscys’ sheet metal, available in the Premium version, is one of those exceptions. We see Bricsys deconstruct a hundred-plus part assembly, breaking each part down to its flat shape. It got most parts flat in rapid succession. Only a few had to be manually flattened.

Incomplete History of Bricsys

Bricsys has a long and complicated history, and there isn’t much time to cover all of it. de Keyser skips over the company’s beginnings—the many company name changes, the moves from one country to another, acquisitions, rapid growth, contractions and so on. The company went public during the Internet bubble. It changed its name to Bricsnet, and made its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was a heady time, with VCs pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the hopes that construction trade, a trillion dollar industry, was going to embrace web-based services. Over $500 million went to BidCOM, Blueline Online, Bricsnet, Framework Technologies and Cubus, said CAD historian Dave Weissberg.

Bricsnet raised $23 million in funding between 2007 and 2010, and hired many employees, including a sales team.

But building it didn’t mean they came. Construction had a long way to go before the company gave up its blueprints. Internet, extranet … its version of high tech was a fax machine.

The outlandishly funded, high hoping tech firms all shrank from lack of customers, or folded. Bricsnet became Bricsys, and shed its ‘net hopes, its dreams, its offices and its people.

This is where de Keyser picks up. Bricsys emerged from the Internet bubble a mess.

He came away with a team of six people. He had to build the team and the product back up, slowly, surely … and closer to home. de Keyser is an architect by education with a degree from S.H.I.A.S. Gent.

It was an experience that forged de Keyser. The lesson has taught him to run a company lean.

A sales team will just eat up a company, he says. Bricsys is sold through the company’s website and a network of resellers.

Twenty years ago, it lost its product Bricswork, renamed Triforma, to Bentley. It’s sold today as AECOsim. A parametric Parasolid-based architectural modeler, it could have been the next Revit. Bricsys had been codeveloping it with Bentley.

“We’re no longer at the mercy of investors or banks,” said de Keyser, who enjoys the total control he has at Bricsys.

Bricsys has about 45 people in its nicely furnished, very modern-looking offices, which we toured.

Overall, Bricsys has between 130 and 140 employees. Included in this total is Bricsys Russia, which was built from assets (personnel and technology) of LEDAS.

Time to Strike?

For the 12 media representatives invited to Ghent, it was a chance for several to see Bricsys for the first time. The company had invited people from far and wide, including Australia, such as Steve Johnson, an Autodesk critic.

de Keyser may have sensed the blood in the water, with Autodesk in the midst of a leadership change, and a licensing model change (perpetual to term licensing) that may have left some users feeling stranded. Was this a chance to “rescue” Autodesk customers?

Will this do the trick for Bricsys? Simply having software at a fraction of Autodesk price but with most of the functionality was not having the desired effect. 

Keep Building—They Will Come

For now, it seems that Bricsys is going to impatiently wait for CAD customers to see the light. It will keep adding features and power, while keeping a price point that should be very attractive to users of big CAD products, like AutoCAD and MicroStation.

“For one year of licensing AutoCAD, you can get Bricsys with a perpetual license and one year of maintenance,” said de Keyser. 

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