Midwest University AECbytes Feature (April 20, 2015)

Towards the end of March, I attended Midwest University, an AEC-focused technology conference organized by CTC (CAD Technology Center), a long-time Autodesk reseller and partner in the BIM space that also provides training and consulting to AEC firms. CTC is headquartered in Minneapolis and puts together this annual event that is intended to be like a mini Autodesk University (AU) for those who are based in the Midwest region of the US and may not be able to make the annual trek to Las Vegas in November/December for the much larger Autodesk event. It has events, classes, and exhibitors, just like AU, and even though it started off as only a one-day event two years ago, it is expanding in scope as well as attendance, reflecting the strong demand for learning and networking in areas that are typically under-served by technology events.
                              
One of the key advantages to attending a smaller event like Midwest University was that it allowed more learning opportunities—there was more time to attend sessions and classes as well as learn about the limited number of products being exhibited in greater depth than at an event which is packed with exhibitors. Some of the hardware and software solutions for the building industry that I was able to learn more about include the new suite of Civil Information Modeling tools from CTC, mobile workstations from MSI and what makes them so compelling in the AEC industry, how exactly the cloud storage solution Panzura works to significantly speed up working with large files even over a wide area network, and the automated wood and steel framing capabilities of StrucSoft Solutions’ MWF application. All of these are described here, along with some additional highlights of the sessions and classes at the conference.

CTC’s CIM Tools

CTC used the event to showcase the various add-on tools it develops, as well as the consulting and training services it provides to AEC firms located in the region. One of CTC’s long-standing products is a suite of productivity tools for Revit, which is being continually expanded. The current count is 27 and the most recent tools— Fab Sheets, Parameter Jammer, and Revit Properties—were described in the AEC Technology Updates article published in February. In addition to its Revit Express Tools suites, CTC is also developing a suite of tools for Civil Information Modeling (CIM), which it launched at Midwest University. Along with the large number of infrastructure professionals at the conference—almost the same as the number of building industry professionals—the development of the CIM Tools suite by CTC highlights the growing importance of technology solutions in infrastructure design, prompting third-party developers as well as consulting and training firms in AEC technology to start focusing some of their efforts on this AEC discipline, which has been largely ignored until now.

CTC has launched its  CIM Tools suite with three tools that are intended to enhance productivity for those working with AutoCAD Civil 3D, making them conceptually similar to its Revit Productivity tools for those working with Revit. The tools are Corridor Cleanup, which allows users to select multiple corridors, baselines, and regions, and in one click, remove all surface, width, and/or slope targets (Figure 1); Survey Sweeper, which can simultaneously delete unwanted survey points and survey figures from drawings and survey databases; and finally, Feature Line to Alignment, which can be used by surveyors to generate an alignment and layout profile from a feature line. This suite of tools is currently free and can work with versions 2013, 2014 and 2015 of Civil 3D. In addition to the CIM suite, CTC has also developed a “Corridor Productivity Pack” with subassemblies for AutoCAD Civil 3D corridors that are ready for import into the application.

Figure 1. Using CTC’s Corridor Cleanup tool in its new CIM suite for more efficient corridor design in AutoCAD Civil 3D.

MSI Mobile Workstations

On the hardware front, it was interesting to see the products of a computer vendor, MSI, which is relatively new to the AEC field, in an industry that has long been dominated by established players like HP, Dell, and Lenovo. While MSI might be new to AEC, it has actually been around for several years—it was established in 1986—and is the leading brand in the gaming industry, with its products routinely reviewed in PC World, PC Gamer, Gizmodo, and other mainstream computing publications. It develops a wide range of computing products such as motherboards, graphics cards, notebook PCs, desktops, and all-in-one PCs, and more recently, tablets, servers, cameras, and robotic appliances. One of its key products for the gaming industry are high-end laptops—which it calls “mobile workstations”—which pack top-of-the-line power and performance into a lightweight, thin, and relatively less expensive computer that is not too heavy for gamers to lug around. The same rationale applies to the AEC and manufacturing industries as well, where professionals could well use superior performance and graphics capabilities in a device that is readily portable.

At Midwest University, MSI showed how its mobile workstations are thin and light, despite being equipped with high-end NVIDIA Quadro GPUs, and how they are engineered to accommodate for the heat produced from the GPU’s processor, which competing products are not. Also, they are configured to bump up the read/write speed significantly, which can save time as well as improve the user experience for AEC users needing to load large project files. Other compelling features of MSI’s mobile workstations are that they are highly expandable, with the ability to configure up to 32GB of RAM and a total of five hard drives; they include a physical button to switch the GPU from the integrated Intel HD graphics to NVIDIA Quadro GPU, which saves battery life while not utilizing GPU or CPU resource heavy applications such as Revit, AutoCAD, 3ds Max, etc.; they can support up to two external monitors for extended display; they have a fully customizable keyboard including the ability to even customize the keyboard color scheme; and they come with a wide-view display that is brighter and sharper than the traditional laptop display (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Wide-view display on MSI’s mobile workstations.

Panzura

I had the opportunity to better understand the cloud storage solution, Panzura, and how it works. The basic problem it is trying to solve is the fact that AEC firms have increasingly large volumes of project data generated by multiple offices located in different parts of the world, which need to be accessed by team members from any of their different offices. Most firms have already moved from a decentralized storage model—where project data is stored local to the office that creates it—to a centralized model, which allows the data to be accessed from a central store from any location, eliminating duplication and ensuring that all members are working on the same set of data. However, this brings about a latency problem when working with the large CAD and BIM projects and files common in AEC, as the data needs to travel across a WAN (wide area network)—the time it takes to open a typical file can be as high as 30 to 40 minutes. Obviously, this is very frustrating and many firms have deployed WAN acceleration technologies such as Riverbed to speed things up. But since these technologies work only by amplifying bandwidth, the impact has been limited.

What Panzura does is actually provide a file system—a cloud-integrated global file system—where all the project data is centrally stored, with active data cached at every location in Panzura controllers. The controllers are in constant communication with the global file system and with each other through specialized software that continually updates the local cache, keeps it in sync with the central store, and locks files or individual elements when they’re in use (Figure 3).This makes it possible for users to access the same consistent version of all files at LAN (local area network) speeds, bringing the time required to work with large files down from several minutes to a few seconds. Also, since the central storage is cloud-based, it handles operations such as archiving, backup, and disaster recovery there rather than at the local site.

Figure 3. A diagram showing how Panzura works, with a global cloud-based central storage, and controllers at every location that communicate with the central store and with each other to avoid WAN latency.

MWF and Other Exhibitors

I was also able to get an update on MWF, an application for automating the framing of structural models within Revit, which had been launched at Autodesk University 2009 by StrucSoft Solutions. MWF, which stands for Metal Wood Framer, uses rules to automate the creation, clash detection and manufacturing of light gauge steel and wood framing in Revit. Originally developed for walls, MWF now works for floors and ceilings as well as trusses (Figure 4). It can automatically detect the corresponding element in a Revit model and create a solution based on user-defined rules, templates, and preferences. It also comes with libraries of building components and predefined connectors, joins, etc., which are used to create the automated framing solution. Additional capabilities include automated clash detection and resolution; accurate member dimensioning, material take offs and automated and customizable shop drawings; auto-grouping of identical members and panels for easy shop floor and construction site optimization; and optional CNC output to export the created model directly for fabrication.

Figure 4. Examples of the use of MWF to automated wall framing (top image) and truss layout (lower image).

Other exhibitors at Midwest University included FM Systems showing its FM:Interact application for enabling the use of a Revit model for facilities management; Bluebeam, now a part of Nemetschek, shows its Revu application for PDF creation, markup, editing and collaboration technology that has a Revit plug-in; Advance2000 showing the benefits of its private cloud computing solutions; FARO, showing its traditional laser scanning equipment as well as its new handheld scanning devices; and Steltman Software, another infrastructure-focused firm that develops productivity tools for AutoCAD Civil 3D. In addition to technology solutions and services, there were also some exhibitors providing additional AEC-related services including EverBank, which provides commercial financing to AEC firms, and AEC Resources, a staffing firm which is exclusively focused on the AEC industry and is especially equipped to recruit talent with the needed CAD and BIM skills.

Additional Conference Highlights

In addition to the opportunity to learn about new and updated AEC technology products and services, Midwest University also provided plenty of information by way of the general sessions and classes.  We heard from CTC about its perspective on AEC technology based on its long-standing consulting and training work in the field. It has identified four main future trends that are rapidly emerging: the use of virtual reality in visualization and coordination; 3D printing, not just for prototypes but for actual production and manufacture; laser scanning, not just for documenting as-builts but also for more efficient construction; and the increasing use of drones for aerial capture. This was corroborated by presentations from Autodesk showing actual examples of AEC projects utilizing these technologies such as the Panama Canal reconstruction, the design of the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco (Figure 5), the USS Arizona reconstruction project, and the use of 3D printed panels for the façade of new SFMOMA building (Figure 6). We also learnt interesting tidbits such as BIM360 being the fastest selling product Autodesk has ever had, and that Autodesk was actively moving away from the perpetual licensing model it has had so far towards a subscription model to provide users with immediate access to the tools they need.

Figure 5. The new span of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, designed by Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Figure 6. The new SFMOMA building in San Francisco.

Other sessions included a discussion panel in which some very interesting questions were posed on a variety of topics ranging from tools for infrastructure design, the biggest challenges facing the AEC industry, the importance of industry standards in data exchange, the status of BIM in FM and the benefits of BIM to the owner, the need for better management of BIM data across a project, the future of 3D printing and digital fabrication, and the role of virtual reality and gaming technology in AEC. The last question tied in nicely with a presentation by Mortenson Construction on how it was exploring the use of gaming technology for enhanced design review and decision making. Mortenson was one of the first construction firms to adopt BIM and VDC (Virtual Design and Construction) and while we have often heard about its use of advanced modeling techniques (see, for example, its presentation at the 2011 Winter BIMForum), this exploration of multi-player immersive experiences in gaming environments is relatively new to the company and should serve as a good testbed for the industry as a whole. If Mortenson finds it useful and effective, other construction companies can also making gaming technologies an integral part of their toolset. Mortenson is currently undertaking this as a research project in collaboration with the University of Minnesota (Figure 7).

Figure 7. The use of multi-player gaming technologies being explored by Mortenson Construction for its building projects.

With regard to classes, I have already written about attending an advanced InfraWorks class at Midwest University which triggered the article “Why Isn’t There a Smarter BIM Tool for Building Design, Yet?” asking the provocative question of why we still don’t have a smart building design tool which does not require us to painstakingly model every detail in our buildings, but can automatically create much of it from a conceptual sketch using a rule-based expert system. (You can see the different responses from readers to this question on the AECbytes blog as well as on LinkedIn.) Another class that I had the opportunity to attend was on the use of drones for aerial laser scanning by Becher Hoppe, a civil engineering and architecture firm that does a lot of survey, real estate, and utility coordination work. We learnt about the process (shown in Figure 8) the firm follows in taking aerial photos captured by a drone—with something as inexpensive as a GoPro camera mounted on a basic drone—into Autodesk Recap for stitching the photos into a model, then exporting it to Autodesk Memento for any needed trimming and clean-up, and finally, bringing it into InfraWorks, Revit, or Civil 3D as a reference for modeling. (For more on aerial capture, Autodesk ReCap, and the new Autodesk Memento, please refer to the article “3D Scanning, Printing, and Visualization at the Inaugural REAL Conference” in the Q1 2015 issue of AECbytes Magazine.)

Figure 8. The aerial photos taken by Becher Hoppe with drones imported into Recap for stitching (top image), then into Memento for trimming (middle image) before finally being used in Infraworks (lower image).

This concludes my overview of the recently held Midwest University. I found that its smaller size—compared to other industry events like Autodesk University—made it more conducive to learning and networking, and I see it as especially invaluable to those who are located in the Midwestern region of the US. While the conference is still heavily Autodesk-centric—which is hardly a surprise, given that it is organized by CTC which is an Autodesk reseller and partner—I hope that in time, it evolves to be more inclusive of products and solutions from other AEC technology vendors as well.

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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