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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (January 25, 2007)

Autodesk FMDesktop: Extending BIM to Facilities Management

While the concepts behind "building information modeling" or BIM have been around for almost two decades—Graphisoft's ArchiCAD solution, for example, was developed on model-based principles from the start—it was exactly 4 years ago when Autodesk embarked on a series of events in major cities across the US, designed to educate its customers about the benefits of the BIM approach embodied in its recently acquired Revit product. I had attended one of these events held in January 2003 in San Francisco. (An article I wrote about that event can be seen here.) Even at that time, the vision of BIM that Autodesk presented was not restricted to the design phase; it was anticipated that the benefits of BIM could extend to the construction, and operation and maintenance phases as well, making BIM the cornerstone of an integrated "building lifecycle management" process.

Four years later, we are finally starting to see a partial realization of that vision, at least in terms of technology. (Of course, widespread implementation of the technology by industry professionals is another matter and will continue to lag by a few years.) BIM as a technology has definitely matured for the design phase and has reached some degree of stability—multiple vendors now offer multi-disciplinary BIM solutions for building design. We have also seen some definite progress made on the next step, BIM for construction, with Graphisoft's suite of Virtual Construction solutions now in its second major release, the addition of features such as the Material Take-off in Revit Building 9, and supporting technologies such as such as Innovaya's Visual Estimating, which I explored in detail in a dedicated "Building the Future" article last year. And now, we are starting to see some BIM activity along the final frontier—facilities management (FM), operation, and maintenance—as evidenced by the recent ability of FMDesktop, Autodesk's dedicated FM tool, to read DWFs published from Revit Building and automatically interpret room data. This is a critical development in the realization of the BIM vision for the entire building lifecycle. I briefly mentioned it in my article on Autodesk University 2006 published in December; let's take a more detailed look at FMDesktop and its new BIM integration capability in this issue of the AECbytes "Building the Future" series.

Overview of Autodesk FMDesktop

Autodesk FMDesktop is a suite of products based on Applied Spatial Technologies' flagship FM product, FMDesktop, which Autodesk acquired in January 2006. Autodesk expanded its capabilities and released version 7.0 of the FMDesktop Product Suite in October to address the primary functions of facility management, including space and asset management, project management, emergency management, and maintenance management. FMDesktop is built on the DWF platform and comprises four major components that are available as separate but related applications: Facility Manager, Facility Link, Facility Web, and Facility Request. An overview of the main application, Facility Manager, is provided here along with a brief summary of the other three.

The Facility Manager application is the cornerstone of the FMDesktop product suite, providing the ability to manage all facility drawings and data in a database environment. The information can be managed in a traditional tabular format or graphically through the integration of facility drawings and data. It allows facilities managers to view, query, pan, zoom, print, and share facility drawings without needing CAD or BIM software. It also includes tools for planning, tracking, and managing project and move information as well as project related, demand, and preventive maintenance work requests, creating and issuing work requests manually or automatically generating them from a facility drawing, assigning work to maintenance staff and vendors, and attaching related documents to database records.

Facility Manager is a Microsoft Access based product (see Figure 1), and requires Microsoft Access 2003 or higher to run. For those who do not have this application, a runtime version of Microsoft Access 2003 is included on the Facility Manager installation CD. That is what I used to install and test Facility Manager. Other back-end database platforms that Facility Manager can work with are SQL Server (2000 or higher) and Oracle (9i or higher). The database component of Facility Manager stores all of the facility data as well as links to related documents and drawings. It also includes an object storage component, which stores the actual drawings, graphics, markups, reports, and other data. Both these components are shared by the other applications of the FMDesktop suite as well. The first step involved in running Facility Manager is to link it to the correct database file that contains the facility information you need to work with. Figure 1 shows the Data Link tool being used to establish the link to a sample database file that ships with the application. The same dialog also allows a new data source to be created for a new project. For the purpose of testing the application, I worked with the sample database file and expanded it to bring in data from Revit Building, which will be described in the next section. For now, let's focus on exploring the main features of Facility Manager.



Figure 1
. The user interface of Facility Manager, built on top of Microsoft Access. The Data Link option is being used to connect to the database file containing the required facility information.

All the data in Facility Manager is organized into categories such as Facilities, Administration, Actions, Resources, and System Settings, accessible on the left side of the interface, as shown in Figure 1. Each category has a number of forms used to create, access, edit, and manage the associated data. Thus, the Facilities category, which is shown expanded in Figures 1 and 2, has forms for storing the various details about the facility and its components that are required for managing it, including organization, number of properties, the buildings in each property, the floors in each building, the zones and spaces on each floor, and the equipment items in each space that need to be tracked. The form for each component allows an extensive amount of detail to be captured about it (see Figure 2). Not all of it needs to be entered—only as much as is required by the facility manager. With regard to the other categories, the Administration category captures administrative information such as cost center numbers and descriptions; the Actions category includes forms that perform actions on data and drawings, such as importing DWF files and creating reports; the Resources category captures resource information such as occupant and staff details; and finally, the System Settings category includes forms for customizing the working environment without altering the actual program. Thus, one of the key tasks for a facility manager that is essential to the effective use of the program is to spend some time upfront gathering, organizing, and entering the facility data using these forms. This can be done incrementally, by entering the critical data first when creating a new data source for a new project and adding the additional information later.


Figure 2
. The form for adding Building information for a specific Property in Facility Manager. The information shown here is from the sample project that ships with the application.

Facility drawings are an important component of facilities planning and management, and Facility Manager allows two different types of drawings to be used: space plans and plan views. A space plan is object-based, comprising of the drawing geometry linked to the associated data of spaces and/or equipment objects in the FMDesktop database. It is the main feature that integrates facility drawings with the facility data. A plan view, on the other hand, is a static layout that only contains drawing geometry without any associated information about the drawing. Plan views are used to highlight important facility features, such as mechanical system layouts, electrical distribution layouts, and fire evacuation plans. Section and elevation drawings, when necessary, can also be brought in as static plan views. Figure 3 shows an example of a space plan as well as a plan view of the same floor of a facility. Both types of drawings are imported into Facility Manager using the DWF format. While any type of drawing can be imported as a plan view, importing a space plan requires the use of space metadata contained in applications such as Revit Building 9.1, Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2007, and Autodesk Building Systems 2007. Given that the use of AutoCAD is still so widespread, the ability to import AutoCAD data in the form of a space plan is also available in the form of the Facility Link application in the FMDesktop suite. This is designed to run inside AutoCAD, version 2005 and later, and allows the space and asset data records in the FMDesktop database to be linked to the corresponding graphics in an AutoCAD drawing, which can then be imported into Facility Manager as a space plan.


Figure 3
. An object-based space plan showing the link to space records (top image), and a static plan view showing the network map of the same floor (lower image).

Once the facility drawings are imported and integrated with the associated data, Facility Manager can be used to carry out the wide array of management tasks described earlier. Since it incorporates DWF technology, it includes all of its viewing and markup capability (see top image of Figure 4). Facility managers can retrieve and edit selected data from any drawing or from multiple drawings, run queries to get needed information, generate on-the-fly graphical or data-based reports, identify asset relationships, dynamically initiate work orders, and export required information to a spreadsheet, a text document, or a database. Since the space plans are object-based, it is easy to generate color-coded drawings based on specified criteria, such as vacancy, occupancy by department, project schedules, cost centers, and so on (see lower image of Figure 4).


Figure 4
. Other capabilities of Facility Manager, including markups (top image) and generation of on-the-fly color-coded graphical reports (lower image).

The capabilities of Facility Manager can be extended by the remaining two applications in the FMDesktop suite mentioned earlier, Facility Web and Facility Request. Facility Web allows the facility data created and maintained in Facility Manager to be published online, enabling broader access to the facility drawings, data, and reports by anyone who needs them. Access can be given to anyone in the organization or only to specific users. The online version allows the data to be queried and includes the ability to create and share drawing markups. Facility Request is also a web-based application, and allows people throughout an organization to easily submit work requests to maintenance managers and facility managers for a specific location, as well as check back on its status later.

Now that we have a better idea of how FMDesktop works, let us move on to see how BIM data can be brought into it from an application like Revit Building.

Getting BIM Data into FMDesktop

Since BIM applications like Revit Building are building-aware and capture object attributes in addition to geometry, the logical BIM-based workflow would be for the building data created in Revit to be brought seamlessly into Facility Manager rather then re-created. This was only made possible by a new feature in the recent release of Revit, version 9.1, which allows room and area data to be included in the DWF files exported from Revit. This is illustrated in Figure 5, which shows a multi-storied research laboratory project being opened in Revit Building 9.1 and subsequently exported to the 2D DWF format. The "Rooms and Areas" option needs to be checked in the DWF Export Options dialog. It is possible to include multiple floor plan views in the same DWF file, as Facility Manager now includes multi-sheet DWF file support. Another important option to select during the export from Revit is "Fit to Page" in the Print Setup dialog, so that the entire floor plan is exported for each page.


Figure 5
. Opening a project in Revit which contains room objects, and exporting its floor plan views to the 2D DWF format with the "Rooms and Areas" option selected.

Back in Facility Manager, the DWF file exported from Revit can be imported using the Import DWF command under the Actions menu. As shown in upper image of Figure 6, the Import interface displays all the floor plans that were exported from the Revit Building file. You can now select the required drawing and import it either as a space plan or as a plan view. In Figure 6, the First Floor plan from the Revit DWF file is being imported as a space plan under a new property and building name. If the property and the building do not already exist in the database, the Import interface gives you the option to create them. You can then also create a new floor for the building with which to associate the imported space plan. This process can be repeated for each level of the building, until all the space plans exported from Revit Building are captured in Facility Manager.

If you now go to the Drawings interface, you can display the space plans that were just imported from the Revit DWF file. The plans come with the information that was associated with the individual spaces in Revit such as space number and description (see lower image of Figure 6). The area of each space is also calculated and displayed. The facility manager can now go ahead and add additional information about each space such as occupant information, capacity, type, equipment, and so on.


Figure 6
. Importing the DWF file that was exported from Revit Building into Facility Manager. The top image shows the first floor plan being imported, while the lower image shows the same space plan after the import has been completed.

The capability just described also works with the latest versions of other Autodesk object-based building design applications such as Autodesk Architectural Desktop and Autodesk Building Systems, provided that room objects are used to create the spaces rather than AutoCAD-based drawing tools.

Analysis

Up until now, the process of obtaining spatial information for facilities management has been very laborious and tedious, even with the use of computer-aided facilities management tools (there are several of these in addition to Autodesk FMDesktop, including Archibus, Tririga, eCenterOne, and so on). Floor plans are either scanned or brought in as electronic CAD files, which are then used to create polylines that define boundaries of rooms or other types of facility space. Needless to say, this manual polylining is a time-consuming process and does not guarantee full accuracy. The Facility Link application—which, as described earlier, plugs into AutoCAD and allows objects in an AutoCAD facility drawing to be linked to records in the Facility Manager database—is definitely an improvement over manual polylining. At the same time, it is not entirely without its share of additional work, as it requires all the spaces within an AutoCAD facility drawing to be identified, given that typical AutoCAD floor plans comprise walls rather than spaces. This is why the seamless and instantaneous ability to bring in the information-rich spatial data already created by architects using BIM applications is such a big deal for the FM industry. It has the potential to cut away much of the extraneous work, streamline processes, and allow facility professionals to concentrate on their core management tasks without having to worry about the process of getting the needed spatial data into their FM systems or its accuracy.

This is not to say that the vision of extending BIM into the lifecycle phase of a building has already been fully realized. Currently, Facility Manager is only able to import and comprehend the room data from applications like Revit Building. While it imports the geometry of walls, doors, windows, columns, and so on (as shown in Figure 6), it does not import the attribute data associated with these objects. Facility Manager also does not yet import equipment information from applications like Revit Systems and Autodesk Building Systems. Thus, MEP drawings from these applications will have to be imported as plan views into Facility Manager, and the user will have to manually create the appropriate equipment records for the various spaces. Autodesk plans to continue expanding the range of intelligent building data that can be imported into Facility Manager from BIM applications, which should further help to streamline the process and reduce the "dumb" work that needs to be done to set up an FM project. In time, with more intelligent data automatically populating the FM database, facility managers would have a wider array of tools and capabilities at their disposal, allowing them to perform their tasks more efficiently, get more accurate and real-time facility information, and respond to service requests and emergencies more quickly. The FM database can eventually become the "live" model of the facility and can be used to monitor it, control heating, cooling, and other systems, detect hazards and activate the appropriate response systems, and so on.

In addition to expanding the range of BIM data than can be imported, Facility Manager could improve upon some aspects of its interface. One critical limitation that I found was the inability to visually see the entire hierarchical organization of the facility in a tree-like structure. This information can currently only be obtained on a piecemeal basis by accessing all of the individual forms for Properties, Buildings, and so on, shown earlier in Figure 2. Another limitation, which can be a potential source for confusion, is that space plans imported from BIM applications like Revit Building, such as the one shown in Figure 6, do not appear in the Drawing Navigator. They need to be accessed using the separate "Look For" utility located at the top of the drawing window. A more detailed discussion of Facility Manager's strengths and limitations is beyond the scope of this article.

Conclusions

Many facility operations today are still being managed through paper-based processes that include drawings and spreadsheets. Those that have been using computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) systems have been reaping its significant efficiency benefits over paper-based FM processes. And now, with BIM starting to reach into the FM phase, the FM industry stands to gain even more dramatic benefits and efficiencies. The vision of BIM integrating information and processes across the building lifecycle no longer seems like a futuristic proposition, but something that can be realized over the next few years.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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