AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (December 14, 2010)
Last week, we took an extended look at the highlights of the general session of Autodesk University 2010, held in Las Vegas earlier this month, and the host of new solutions that Autodesk is developing for the AEC industry. This article provides an overview of several AEC-related applications that were on display at the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University, where close to 120 exhibitors were showing hardware and software solutions that work with Autodesk products. There were a large number of Revit add-on applications as well as additional tools extending the BIM capabilities of Autodesk applications in different ways, and several additional software and hardware solutions, both from regular exhibitors as well as new ones. While I was not able to visit all the booths, I did my best to see as many AEC-related products as possible.
A number of new add-on products for Revit made their debut at Autodesk University this year, extending the capabilities of the Revit platform in different ways. For example, there was Ideate BIMLink, which creates a bidirectional link between Revit and Microsoft Excel, allowing the BIM data from a Revit model to be pulled easily into Excel as well as pushed back from Excel to Revit (see Figure 1). It can be used both by Revit users as well as additional project team members to get access to the model data, check it, modify it if required, as well as use the data for other design-related tasks such as cost estimating, takeoff, or analysis. The link also includes data that is otherwise hidden, such as phase and design option data, as well as family and shared parameters. Excel’s sophisticated editing capabilities, such as a global search and replace, can be used to make many kinds of additions and modifications to the design data more quickly and efficiently compared to manually editing the data in Revit. Large quantities of fields can be quickly populated in Excel and the advanced formulas allow calculated data such as occupancy loads, duct and pipe lengths, or beam cut lengths to be added to tags very easily. The application facilitates better quality control of the Revit model by allowing measurements, naming conventions, and parameter values in the data to be standardized in Excel; the processed data can then be pushed back into the Revit model.
Figure 1. Accessing Revit data in Excel using Ideate BIMLink. (Courtesy: Ideate)
Another new application was SkyBIM Estimator, which is a cloud-based cost estimating solution for Revit. It allows automatic quantity takeoff to be performed directly from Revit models, by simply clicking on a Takeoff button in Revit. The link is bidirectional, allowing all changes in the Revit model to be automatically reflected in the estimate, and any changes made to the estimate to be transferred to the Revit model. The online interface to view and edit the estimate is WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), allowing the user to interact with an estimate exactly as it would appear in print. The application interface also takes full advantage of the close link between the Revit model and the estimate, allowing the estimator to cross-check elements between the estimate and the model (see Figure 2). For example, you can select items in the estimate and highlight their corresponding elements in the model. Alternately, you can hover your cursor over elements in the Revit model to dynamically inspect their takeoff quantities, costs and other estimate properties. Since the application is cloud-based, the estimating data is hosted in the cloud, enabling multiple project team members to collaborate simultaneously on the estimate. SkyBIM Estimator includes many additional capabilities such as the ability to intelligently transfer cost data including construction assemblies and labor crews between projects, so that as more projects are costed, each new project becomes progressively quicker and easier to cost. The estimates can be viewed in many different formats, products can be represented by complex multi-ingredient construction assemblies in order to provide detailed cost breakdowns, and there is the option to determine a product's labor cost by assigning a labor crew and installation time to it. Also, SkyBIM Estimator supports Revit design options, phases, and levels, enabling the production of estimates that are filtered by these parameters.
Figure 2. SkyBIM Estimator maintains a link between the Revit model and its estimate, enabling the costing data for each item to be inspected. (Courtesy: SkyBIM)
AEC firms that have Revit content libraries—which would encompass most firms using Revit—could benefit from a suite of Revit Express Tools which includes a number of add-ons designed to leverage the power of BIM and save time. The suite is developed by CAD Technology Center, an Autodesk Gold Partner for AEC. Two of the key content-related applications in this suite are the Revit Family Processor and WaterMark. The Revit Family Processor makes it possible to update Revit families programmatically, allowing a user to manipulate Revit family materials and parameters and update individual families or an entire content library in a matter of minutes. The Watermark tool allows firms to add unique data into Revit families that cannot be removed, protecting their Revit content from unauthorized use. Additional Revit add-ons include a tool that exchanges data between Excel worksheets and Revit element parameters; a tool that automates printing/plotting on user-defined plot sets and the process of extracting AutoCAD and Microstation files from Revit; a set of tools for building model detailing and BIM data analyzing, which works with all three Revit disciplinary BIM applications; a sheet management tool; as well as additional tools for modeling doors, rafters, floor framing, trusses, and openings more quickly and efficiently compared to the main Revit tools.
Another Autodesk reseller, IMAGINiT, used Autodesk University for the launch of its new Scan to BIM software that allows point cloud data to be directly imported into Revit and used as a reference for the creation of 3D models (see Figure 3). The product's key features include the ability to import industry-standard formats including PTS and PTX; view the point cloud inside Revit based on color, intensity or elevation; and assist with the creation of Revit elements, including the automated creation of walls, windows, pipes, and ducts, as well as construction geometry to assist with other element types. The view can be cropped to only see portions of the point cloud, if required, and speed up the visualization. While Autodesk has announced its own support for point cloud data in Revit (see AECbytes Newsletter #49) and we also had Pointools, a more established point cloud software solutions provider, exhibiting at Autodesk University, it should be helpful to have multiple vendors focused on the problem of capturing as-built data, given the increasing number of renovation and retrofit projects in contrast to the reduced number of new projects in AEC.
Figure 3. Using the Scan to BIM Revit add-on to import point clouds and use them as a reference for creating more accurate 3D models of existing buildings. (Courtesy: IMAGINiT)
Trelligence and IES, which are both regular exhibitors at Autodesk University, announced a strategic partnership that will integrate the space programming and planning capabilities of Trelligence’s Affinity with the energy analysis capabilities of IES’ VE applications, enabling the sustainable analysis of a project when it is in the earliest design stages. (For an overview of the different IES VE tools, see the feature, Sustainable Design Tools Exhibited at AIA 2009; for an overview of Affinity, see the feature, Trelligence Affinity: Extending BIM to Space Programming and Planning) Already in development, the planned connection between Affinity and IES VE software tools will provide architects with the ability to capture program data and auto-generate conceptual floor plans and stacking diagrams in Affinity, then run sustainable analyses using IES VE (see Figure 4). Using either the VE-Tools embedded within Affinity, or by exporting to VE for access to the full range of analytical tools, designers can determine the most efficient floor-area-ratio before room layout is considered, and can continue sustainable analysis into the schematic design phase. Multiple layout options in Affinity can be iteratively explored, while simultaneously conducting real-time analysis against energy and other performance metrics for optimal sustainability. Using Affinity’s bi-directional integration with ArchiCAD and Revit, the schematic design can then be loaded into BIM, where it can continue to be tracked against the program requirements as it progresses into the detailed design phase.
Figure 4. The planned integration between Trelligence Affinity and IES VE for early stage sustainability analysis. (Courtesy: Trelligence)
Solibri, another Autodesk University regular, returned this year to show version 6.1 of its Solibri Model Checker application, which introduces the capabilities for “Deficiency Detection” to check model and reduce risks. Solibri has, thus far, been the pioneer and industry leader in checking the quality of BIM models for various uses such as spatial coordination, quantity takeoff, or energy analysis (see the review of Solibri Model Checker 5.0 published in March 2009). With the new deficiency detection capability, it is now possible to detect missing components and non-existing or incorrect information in the model, which represents a major leap forward for the application. Checking results may yield, for example, illogically or incorrectly modeled components, or altogether missing spaces or components. Another key enhancement in the new release is a Hyperlink Manager that will enable the use of the model as a centralized user interface to coordinate activities, specifications, building code and BIM requirements, construction phase documents, etc. Links can be added at any level within Solibri Model Checker and to almost any element, including rulesets, models, types, components, issues, and slides. The application seems to be gaining momentum—Solibri recently announced an agreement with Turner Construction Company for their use of its software nationwide to support the enhancement of Turner’s BIM quality assurance, 5D quantity take-off, and 3D clash detection capabilities.
I also saw a set of applications specific to MEP engineering by EastCoast CAD/CAM, which offers a full suite of MEP sheet metal, piping, and plumbing solutions for engineers and contractors throughout North America and Europe, and is Autodesk’s Preferred Industry Partner for AutoCAD MEP and Autodesk Revit MEP. At Autodesk University, EastCoast CAD/CAM launched two fully integrated Design-to-Fabrication software toolsets: MEP Fabrication Version 1.0 for AutoCAD Revit MEP 2011, and Fabrication for AutoCAD MEP 2011 Version 3.2. These solutions link the real-world sheet metal and piping fabrication capabilities to Autodesk’s MEP design applications with enhanced functionality and tighter integration for improved design to fabrication workflow. They provide sheet metal professionals with design and fabrication tools reflecting real manufacturer content that is critical for getting the job done, directly inside Autodesk’s MEP design applications, allowing them to produce and manufacture better built structures and more streamlined projects, while also minimizing impacts, reducing inefficiencies, and creating a safer environment in the field.
There were several additional AEC-related software solutions on display at the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University. Bluebeam, best known for its PDF Revu application for PDF creation, editing, and markup, continues to add to its product family. Following the launch of Bluebeam Studio, which enables digital collaboration on PDF drawings and documents in real-time, at the AIA National Convention this year (see the article, New Technology Solutions Exhibited at AIA 2010 Expo), Bluebeam has introduced two new advanced solutions: Bluebeam Q, an enterprise server-based solution for companies that want to centrally control and automate PDF publishing and processing; and bFX, which extends the power of Bluebeam’s PDF markup tools to files stored in remote locations such as online project management systems, plan rooms, and websites. These solutions were being demonstrated at Autodesk University to show how project teams can take electronic publishing and paperless workflows to the next level.
I also came across a promising new venture by Horizontal Systems which attempts to solve the problem of BIM-based collaboration and project management by providing a web-based platform for storing and accessing BIM project data. It has developed a “Glue” platform that integrates with leading 2D and 3D design tools as well as project and facilities management systems. Data formats and exchanges are handled through the Glue Server, which is developed to eliminate incompatibility issues between different software platforms and disperse project members. The project data is stored in a single repository that can be accessed from anywhere, enabling easier collaboration by distributed team members. The system integrates with a large number of design applications, including those from Autodesk such as Revit, AutoCAD and NavisWorks, as well as many other applications including ArchiCAD, MicroStation, Bentley Architecture, and SketchUp. It was not clear to me how exactly the integration was being done, but this a definitely a solution that warrants a closer look going forward.
Another new application demonstrated at Autodesk University was NEXUS by Transoft Solutions Inc, which has an extensive software suite for site design and civil engineering and is a regular exhibitor at Autodesk University. (An overview of its TORUS application for roundabout planning and designing was provided in the article on the AIA 2009 Convention.) NEXUS is a CAD application for planning and developing roadway intersection designs for new construction and rehabilitation projects (see Figure 5). It allows designers to use two ways to initiate the creation of an intersection design. One method is to define the schematic of an intersection by setting the lane configuration, capacity conditions, or leg templates. Another method is to select an intersection template. The intersection layout, which includes road edges, lane lines, median island envelopes, corner island envelopes, control radii, stop bars and crosswalks, is created and oriented based on the reference geometry that the user defines. Once the basic design is initiated, a full set of tools is available for refining the design to meet project requirements. In addition, the advanced safety functions and unique road grading ability found in NEXUS allow designers to quickly analyze sight lines, vehicle conflict points, grading and surface drainage in the early stages of design. As a result, designers are able to evaluate intersection models more thoroughly and quickly, enabling them to meet both budget and time constraints.
Figure 5. The new NEXUS application for intersection design by Transoft Solutions. (Courtesy: Transoft Solutions)
On the hardware front, Dell showed its Precision line of workstations, which are its highest-performing and most scalable systems, specifically designed for graphics-intensive professionals in architecture, engineering, product design, animation, and digital imaging. The line-up includes M4500 and M6500, which are notebooks offering desktop workstation class performance but with mobility; a range of highly scalable desktop workstations including T1500, T3500, T5500, and T7500, for demanding multi-threaded applications; and R5400 & FX100, a dual socket 2U rack workstation with high performance graphics and high-quality remote access. Dell is planning to make a bigger push into vertical markets such as AEC and is working with leading software providers such as Autodesk to certify system and application compatibility, so that users can know which system configuration works best for the applications they want to run.
And finally, I had the opportunity to see the latest in 3D printing technology from Z Corporation, including the new ZBuilder Ultra rapid prototyping machine, and the affordable, multicolor ZPrinter 250. The ZBuilder Ultra builds durable plastic parts rivaling injection molding’s accuracy, material properties, detail, and surface finish, at one-third of the price of machines with comparable performance. It is, however, more suited to mechanical or product design than building models, which are typically more detailed. The ZPrinter 250, on the other hand, will definitely be of interest to AEC firms as it more affordable and has a small physical footprint, but still incorporates the speed and many automation features found in Z Corp.’s high-end printers.
Just as with the main event, a visit to the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University continues to be very energizing for the technology enthusiast, the atmosphere abuzz with solutions demonstrating technical prowess and innovation as well as the boundless enthusiasm of the exhibitors developing them. Even in these difficult economic times, it is heartening to find developers that continue to improve the tools available to professionals in industries such as AEC, so that they can perform their tasks more efficiently, quickly, and cost-effectively. Projects may not be as plentiful as they used to be but technology products still are, and this might be a great time for AEC firms to explore more of them and see what they have to offer, so that once the economy improves, they can use them to deliver improved products and processes to their clients.
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 email@example.com.
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