Friday, July 27, 2007

Plus 3: Changing, But Staying On Top in 3D Modeling

March 1, 1997

With any given new year, many of the companies we follow identify new challenges and define new goals for themselves. This type of redirection is especially true for Plus 3 Software Inc. (Atlanta, GA), where 1997’s gains are likely to surpass expectations envisioned just a few months ago.

Established in 1983, Plus 3 Software has become one of the leading developers of 3D land modeling software for the civil engineering, surveying, construction, geographic information systems (GIS), and photogrammetry industries. Its flagship product, TERRA-MODEL, is known for its speed, accuracy, and design capabilities.

On the business front, in January of this year, Spectra-Physics’ Construction Instruments Group (CIG) (Chicago, IL) purchased Plus 3, quickly launching the smaller company into a bigger arena of the global marketplace. With revenues in excess of $200 million, CIG is the largest of four major business groups owned by Spectra-Physics AB, a corporation based in Stockholm, Sweden. Spectra-Physics manufacturers electro-optical instruments and equipment for a wide variety of industries.

"The combined knowledge and resources of CIG and Plus 3 will allow us to better serve the needs of our customers, prospective customers, dealers and business partners," said Derrick Darby, Plus 3’s founder and president. Atlanta will become the "center of excellence" for the companies’ worldwide application software development. It’s expected that the employees of Spectra-Physics Laserplane Paydirt operations in Dayton, Ohio will relocate to Atlanta by the end of this year. "Business at Plus 3 will remain as usual, with no interruption of service," Darby said. He will remain president of the newly combined operation.

Leveraging the Market

The acquisition by CIG leverages Plus 3’s ability to reach new customers and gives the company more financial independence. Said Darby, "This [acquisition] gives us the breadth of a multimillion dollar organization and makes us part of their overall solution package."

The companies’ products and support strategies create a natural synergy and complementary relationship, he said. TERRAMODEL, Plus 3’s flagship product, targets data acquisition, design and construction functions, whereas Spectra-Physics’ Paydirt software package concentrates on construction earthwork, takeoff (digital data gathered by surveyors), and estimating applications. The acquisition institutionalizes a long-term informal partnership between the companies and positions Plus 3 for fast growth.

"We expect to significantly increase revenues this year over 1996 figures," Darby said. "We think that’s very doable."

Darby’s predictions can’t be taken lightly. He’s committed to moving the company into the global marketplace and making TERRAMODEL and its underlying modeling engine (now packaged by the company as 3D ToolPak) part of the engineering and application development desktop for a range of companies and industries.


A realization by industry professionals in the early 1980s that land design work was moving out of the civil engineer’s hands and into those of the draftsman marked the inception of Plus 3 Software. This realization was brought about by the fact that CAD programs were designed to automate the desk of the draftsman, not the civil engineer. Even today, current CAD-based land modeling software is limited in its design capabilities since it still largely works on top of a drafting tool.

From the beginning, TERRAMODEL was developed to be a true design package that is not limited in capability by a CAD host. Its unique, point-based data structure and engine not only provide superior land modeling tools, but higher accuracy, faster production speeds, and smaller file size, as well. TERRAMODEL has over 15,000 installations worldwide. It runs under Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT, DOS, and various flavors of UNIX (Sun SPARCstation, Sun Solaris, HP9000 models 300/400/700, Silicon Graphics IRIS Indigo, Data General AViiON, and IBM RS/6000) operating systems.

Darby founded Plus 3 in 1983 when he realized the limitations of the automation tools being marketed to engineers. Darby and his team assembled an integrated 3D land modeling system intended for use throughout the life of a project. He promoted the software as being the central digital model for coordinating the efforts of multiple partners involved in any project. TERRAMODEL, with thousands of installations, has borne out those predictions and wedged itself firmly into the design/build software marketplace.

TERRAMODEL’s application design and structure is unique, emphasizes Darby. Rather than utilize a CAD model, it has a point-based structure. "We’ve designed the database and the graphics engine, and optimized it specifically for speed and performance," Darby said. "To meet the needs of ‘real world’ professionals. The approach wasn’t easy, but it’s given us a superior product for use in the surveying, photogrammetric, civil engineering, GIS and construction markets."

Being small never hurt Plus 3, but becoming part of a worldwide company will add strength to its presence. "But," said Darby, "some things can’t and shouldn’t change." Example? Derrick’s clients know him on a first name basis and they’re proud of how well software products from this small organization serve large design jobs. After all, they’ve been involved with product development all along the way, testing Derrick’s new versions and keeping him informed of what they liked, what worked, and what didn’t.

TERRAMODEL’s Loyal Following

Customers have come to rely on TERRAMODEL for helping them handle their largest and most complex projects. For Murray, Thomas & Griffin, a full-service civil engineering firm based in Texarkana, Texas, TERRAMODEL is a "reality check." Explained Robert Murray, a principal of the firm, "If you can model it in TERRAMODEL, it can be built. In simple CAD packages, you can draw anything, and they let you kid yourself that the design will work in the real world. TERRAMODEL doesn’t lie. It tells you when something can’t be done, and that’s the kind of thing an engineer needs to know. ’Can what I’m designing actually be built?’."

The firm recently used TERRAMODEL to remediate a 40-acre landfill near a residential neighborhood in Houston. This project showed how the software can be used for an entire project life. Said Murray: "We modeled the entire site, including topography and drainage. We designed a slurry wall around the site, a venting system to release the gas pressure, and created a site design to transform the former dump site into a recreational area."

TERRAMODEL is not new in the marketplace. In fact, it’s had a long run of continual growth and improvement. TERRAMODEL was first introduced as a DOS-based product, and quickly developed a loyal, albeit hard-core following, said Darby. When Windows became available, a new version of TERRAMODEL was written, using the interface as a native environment. "Windows has been a phenomenal opportunity for us to expand our share of the market," Darby explained. Because TERRAMODEL for Windows is more Windows compliant, according to Darby, than its competitors, firms continue to switch over. With all of their packages running under Windows, training and maintenance are much easier and these firms are finding that TERRAMODEL is a much more powerful solution to their engineering jobs," he added.

Over the years’ customer feedback on TERRAMODEL has prompted the company to rethink and expand its packaging and positioning. Its base application is now available in five so-called "PAKS." A wide variety of complementary optional modules are sold separately. Additionally, several ArcView applications give GIS users access to TERRAMODEL’s civil engineering designs.

"That sounds like a lot of products," admitted Darby, "But each serves a specific customer need. And not all have been kept as part of our product line," he notes. For example, a roadway product sold by the company didn’t meet the users needs as well as Plus 3 expected. "Instead of keeping that product as a separate module, we’ve improved it and incorporated it into TERRAMODEL for Windows. Now it’s a re-construction product in addition to being a construction product. But that’s what our users were asking for. Most of the roadway work being done in the marketplace is reconstruction of existing roadways. We took that feedback and built the module into a world-class roadway design and reconstruction product," Darby said.

Current engineering tool products from Plus 3 are relatively easy to use, Darby said, thanks largely to the Windows interface. But suggestions on improving the products come in regularly and, he said, and this input is continually taken into consideration as products are redesigned. "We add customer-requested features to our packages a couple of times a year," said Darby.

To support this commitment to improving products and customer service, the company has grown steadily, staffing its engineering R&D with surveyors, civil engineers, computer scientists, and product support specialists. Ron Ciccarone, vice-president of Plus 3’s Client Services, former head of the civil engineering department of McCrone Engineers (Annapolis, MD), is a prime example. He standardized McCrone on Plus 3 products and customer support is his top priority.

The success of the efforts of his team is evident in Plus 3 being named "#1 for Product Support" by POB (Point of Beginning) magazine. The results of the magazine’s annual "Surveying and Mapping Industry Study," pub-lished in the February 1997 issue, polled 2,000 active subscribers responsible for purchasing equipment or overseeing purchasing functions at leading surveying and engineering firms.

The survey rated 30 manufacturers of surveying equipment and software in the following five categories - Technological Leadership, Price Fairness, Product Support, Product Availability, and Depth of Product Line. In each category, Plus 3 Software was rated by readers within the listing’s top half, and usually within the top 10. In the Product Support category, Plus 3 rated number one, and in the survey’s "quality ratings" for surveying software, the company received an "excellent" rating from 64 percent of respondents.

TERRAMODEL Production PAKS and Modules

The major TERRAMODEL production PAKS and associated modules include the following:

TERRAPAK - integrates all aspects of land modeling, mapping, design and engineering. It contains all of the tools a civil engineer will need to perform, site, sewer, roadway, and hydrology design.

SURVEYPAK - provides the solutions a survey professional needs to quickly go from field to plat. SURVEYPAK contains drafting, report writing, mapping, COGO, geodetic survey, contouring, and CAD transfer functions.

CONSTRUCTIONPAK - allows crew standardization on a single software package for staking and layout, job site planning, tracking earthwork volumes, contouring, coordinate geometry, and engineering.

COGO Module lets users perform highly accurate graphical design and survey calculations in a fraction of the time, by combining speed and accuracy with flexibility and ease of use. COGO uses a 3-D database with unique point descriptors for all standard geometric routines.

CAD Module offers full drafting functionality, whether it’s drafting generated by a design or calculations. All attribute text is updated automatically when any design changes are made to ensure high accuracy and speed up the drafting process. The CAD Module reads and writes DXF and AutoCAD DWG files.

Contour Module generates contours much faster in TERRAMODEL than in packages that require a CAD host, due to data duplication and synchronization problems often found in CAD add-on software. Contour creates a surface or subsurface by forming a triangulated irregular network (TIN) from the original XYZ data points—which is more accurate than an interpolated grid used by many other packages.

Site Design Module offers complete and powerful surface design tools. Calculate accurate volumes without cutting cross sections, and experiment with different layouts to find the best design.

Roadway Module is a route location and design package for roads, streets, multi-lane highways, airstrips, canals, earth dams, and more.

Sewer Design and Analysis Module lets users analyze and design sanitary sewer and storm drainage quickly and with minimal effort. This module saves hours of tedious work through streamlined design and plotting features.

Hydrology Module provides storm detention studies that are simple and fast, but powerful. TERRAMODEL makes it easy and accurate by providing a single user interface and project file, multiple hydrograph calculation methods, easy-to-edit graphics, and report flexibility.

3-D View Module lets users generate, view and plot 3-D color-coded perspective views from any surface. 3-D view is also a very strong marketing tool that allows clients to see how a proposed design will actually look and fit with the surrounding landscape.

Image Manager Module is a unique module that enables users to import, view, design on, and plot raster images—even when working with large files. It also provides a backdrop for mapping, design, and land planning functions.

TERRAMODEL’s Data Capture Modules are a pair of products for manipulating data from data collection systems. GeoCap Module provides a direct, bi-directional link between TERRAMODEL and Geotronic’s Geodimeter stations. There’s no need for an additional data collection package. Raw field data can be transferred directly from the Geodimeter to a PC. Once the design or layout is completed in TERRAMODEL, data can be sent back to the instruments for stake-out. DC LINK serves as an interpreter between TERRAMODEL and a number of popular data collection systems, including TDS, Sokkia, TOPCON, and Wild. It converts raw field data from all of these sources to either an ASCII or TRV format so it can be read into TERRAMODEL.

Plus 3 Tools For ArcView bring the worlds of GIS and civil engineering together by giving ArcView users access to civil engineering, parcel mapping and land modeling tools. Civil View provides the link between ArcView GIS and TERRAMODEL civil engineering software. Use ArcView data in TERRAMODEL for 3-D modeling, surveying or civil engineering applications such as roadway, sewer, or site design. Contour for ArcView runs completely inside ArcView. ArcView Tables, DBF files, ASCII text files and ARC/INFO coverages can be used to compute a 3-D model and generate contours. Parcel Mapping for ArcView allows input of metes and bounds descriptions or digitize a plat map in TERRAMODEL to create parcel boundaries. Read in parcel polygons, bearings, distances and other attributes as ArcView themes.

Personnel With Many Talents

Additions to the sales and marketing departments during 1996 are likely to help Plus 3 reach the sales goals set forth by Darby for 1997. "These professionals have been added to Plus 3 to help us transition into being a market-driven company. We’re trying to see the needs our customers have and will have and build our products in line with what their needs and goals are and how they see their businesses changing," Darby explained.

Richard McKay was named vice-president of sales and marketing. Originally from Northern Ireland, McKay has held various managerial positions with Topometric Inc., Carl Zeiss Inc., and Vision International, a division of Autometric Inc. He is a certified photogrammetrist and member of ASPRS. At Plus 3, McKay oversees sales and marketing efforts and has developed a "defining strategy" for reorienting the company’s sales delivery system. "Our approach in the past was to sell the whole box," McKay explains. "With a complex product like TERRAMODEL, we need to customize quickly for each industry solution as we learn about the client’s needs. A new approach to selling TERRAMODEL will focus on business solutions. We will create customized modules and sell them to specific market segments."

Kurt Maynard, also joined the company last year as vice-president of Business Development. He formerly managed R&D at John E. Chance & Associates Inc., and was involved in developing the company’s OmniStar, FliMAP and TruckMAP Survey technologies. Maynard pioneered offshore surveying and is the industry’s acknowledged leader in the use of GPS for precise positioning and laser profiling. At Plus 3, he will guide product development and orientation strategies.

Looking Ahead With More Reach

As McKay sees it, TERRAMODEL already enjoys an excellent reputation as a precise mapping and land modeling product. The advantage gained by the purchase of the company by Spectra-Physics is that their software covers the front-end of the same processes. "Their package provides takeoff quantities for estimating, but to use those measurements in the field requires TERRAMODEL’s precise coordinates - so there is a natural technical fit for our products and philosophies," he said. "Now, Plus 3 occupies both ends of the process."

According to Darby, the new company will continue to support product development with its strategic partners on every front. "It will be business as usual," he said. Darby sees a future for using TERRAMODEL more closely with enabling technologies like GPS and wireless communications to have TERRAMODEL work in real time on 3D surfaces. "In no way, will the new acquisition and alliance take resources away from TERRAMODEL," added Darby.

Another market for TERRAMODEL envisioned by Darby uses a pen computer in the field to manage construction projects with real time information input and analysis. "Making engineering decisions in real time offers a huge benefit to the end user in cost savings," he said. "We’re going to arm the engineering/
surveying professional with enough data to make real-time engineering decisions in the field. That’s where I think you’ll see our product development focus continue to grow."

With so many directions to grow, customers might be thinking Plus 3 has outgrown the needs of smaller, US-based clients. "No way," said Darby. "We’ll remain specifically oriented to the civil engineering/surveying marketplace in our design products, and that allows us to stay very close to the customers and react quickly to their needs. That’s always been our strength and will remain so for the foreseeable future," he said. "We’ve grown on the outside, and realigned ourselves for even faster growth in the market. But inside we’re still committed to meeting the needs of our customers, one customer at a time.It’s an approach that works, so why change it?," he asks. "This is about winning with strong relationships and the best product and sales team in the world. We have simply expanded the vision or arena in which our product offerings fit."

Contact: Plus 3 Software Inc., One Dunwoody Park, Atlanta, GA 30338. 800-235-4972 or 770-396-0700,