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AECbytes Newsletter #39 (February 12, 2009)

Autodesk’s 2010 Product Portfolio Launch

Last week, Autodesk hosted two webcasts to officially launch the next version of its design software portfolio, one focused on AutoCAD and the other on its building, transportation, and geospatial products, all of which are now under its AEC division. While the company did provide a brief glimpse of some of its upcoming technologies at Autodesk University in December (see AECbytes Newsletter #38), it did not provide any details on specific features at that time, so the webcasts served as a good opportunity to get an overview of the developments and enhancements across the entire portfolio of products. Unlike in the past two years where this launch was held at an actual media event in San Francisco, Autodesk opted to go virtual this year, a nod to the current economic climate as well as the general emphasis on being green. Recall that Bentley hosted a similar launch event for its V8i generation of products in November (see AECbytes Newsletter #37), providing an easy way for users to compare and contrast the product offerings and development approaches of the two leading vendors in AEC software. This AECbytes Newsletter captures the highlights of the Autodesk product launch, including both the AutoCAD and the AEC webcasts.

AutoCAD 2010

In its AutoCAD webcast, Autodesk referred to the release of AutoCAD 2010 as a “watershed event” that has been unmatched by any previous release. It’s hard to recall any product release where something like this has not been said, and ultimately it is the users who will judge whether the improvements in AutoCAD 2010 are indeed as dramatic and unprecedented as Autodesk makes them out to be. Nevertheless, at least from the demos that were shown in the webcast, AutoCAD 2010 looks like a good upgrade with enhanced 3D modeling capabilities, the introduction of constraint-based parametric drawing tools, new PDF underlay and enhanced publishing features, and support for 3D printing. AutoCAD has not had any significant additions to its 3D capabilities since they were radically overhauled three years ago (see my review of AutoCAD 2007), but version 2010 breaks that trend by introducing new freeform modeling tools. You can create a variety of different mesh primitives with the desired level of tessellation and sculpt them into complex forms by pushing and pulling its various faces, edges, and vertices (see Figure 1). Filters can be set to easily select the level to be modified and movements can be confined to specific directions to make editing easier. You can smoothen specific surfaces or the entire object in one step, and when necessary, faces can also be selected for un-smoothening. Once the mesh object has been molded as required, it can be converted to solids or surfaces after which the wide array of AutoCAD’s regular solid modeling tools can be applied to it. The new support for 3D printing also makes it possible to quickly create physical prototypes of these freeform shapes for better visualization and review.


Figure 1. The new mesh modeling tools in AutoCAD 2010 being used to create a model of a digital camera. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Up until this release, the PDF support in AutoCAD had not been able to match up to the PDF conversion capabilities provided by other vendors such as Bluebeam and CADzation or even Adobe itself. In AutoCAD 2010, Autodesk has attempted to address this limitation with enhanced PDF publishing features. The vector resolution for PDF export has been increased, a Lines Merge option is now available, new font handling capabilities allows Truetype fonts to be embedded in the PDF leading to better quality text output that is also searchable, and you can choose which layers to include in the PDF and whether to create a single or multi-sheet PDF. Once created, PDF files can be directly opened in the viewer. Another new capability is the ability to import a PDF file and use it as an underlay for a drawing (see Figure 2). You can choose to display only selected layers in the PDF for the underlay, snap to its geometry, and clip it, fade it, or turn it off. For a multi-sheet PDF, you can select which sheet is to be used. According to Autodesk, better PDF support was the most requested feature for AutoCAD from its users, and delivering on this will minimize the need for users to install and use third-party PDF plug-ins.


Figure 2. Snapping to geometry in a PDF file used as an underlay in AutoCAD 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Another significant new capability in AutoCAD 2010 is the ability to apply various kinds of geometric constraints to drawing objects in relation to other objects, such as parallel, perpendicular, concentric, collinear and so on, as shown in Figure 3. You can also add dimensional constraints such as fixed point locations, specific linear and radial distances, angles, etc. An Auto-constraints tool that automatically adds constraints is available for added convenience. You can hide or show the constraints and delete them if they are no longer required. This parametric drawing capability is a way to add more intelligence to a drawing and can improve speed and efficiency by ensuring that all the important relationships and alignments between objects are automatically maintained. While this capability is much more critical in mechanical CAD, it can also come in handy for building design.


Figure 3. The different kinds of geometric constraints that can be added to drawings objects in AutoCAD 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

All of these improvements, particularly the 3D modeling ones, have necessitated an upgrade of the DWG file format, similar to the time when the 3D modeling capabilities were revamped in AutoCAD 2007. As always, users can save drawings to previous versions of AutoCAD for backward compatibility, but an AutoCAD 2010 file cannot be directly opened with an earlier version of AutoCAD.

The Revit 2010 Product Family

Autodesk’s AEC webcast, held separately from the AutoCAD webcast, started off by highlighting the new opportunities for the AEC industry that will be provided by the proposed economic stimulus plan in the US, a substantial part of which is targeted specifically for building new infrastructure and overhauling existing ones. In addition, the increasing demand for energy-efficient and sustainable design and construction processes, which have, however, to be achieved with reduced budgets because of the economic downturn, makes software technology a critical component of AEC practice, allowing firms to do “more with less.” The webcast then went on to provide a fairly detailed overview of Autodesk’s entire AEC portfolio, which, with the recent addition of transportation and geospatial applications, includes well over 20 products. Let’s look at the highlights of the Revit products first, which remain the key BIM applications for the large majority of Autodesk’s AEC users.  

With version 2010, Revit sports a slightly different look and feel in contrast to the interface the application has had since it was introduced, so existing users will have to go through an adjustment period to get used to it. Instead of the toolbar on the left, Revit now sports the ribbon-based tabbed UI running at the top of the application window that Microsoft has popularized with its Office 2007 applications (see Figure 4). In addition to better organization and access to tools, the ribbon is also context-sensitive, displaying additional tools based on the object that is selected in the model. Just as with the Microsoft Office interface, there is a customizable Quick Access Toolbar that allows one-click access to a user’s favorite and most frequently used tools. This ribbon based UI is being implemented in all the Autodesk applications, providing a consistent experience and the ability to move between programs more smoothly.


Figure 4. The new ribbon-based tabbed user interface of the Revit 2010 applications. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

The most exciting enhancement in Revit Architecture 2010 is the new conceptual design capability, which, according to Autodesk, will make the use of tools such as Rhino and SketchUp redundant and allow users to take their designs from concept to construction documentation seamlessly in one environment. There is a whole new 3D design environment that allows free sketching and the ability to sculpt complex forms more quickly and manipulate them interactively (see Figure 5). Just as with AutoCAD 2010, dimensional and other constraints can be added to forms, so that essential parameters are retained and the modeling can be more efficient and accurate. These constraints can subsequently be converted into formal parameters for future use. There is also a set of tools to divide, pattern, and panelize complex conceptual forms to make them more buildable in the real world (see Figure 6).  At any time in the course of developing the conceptual model, it is possible to calculate the floor areas and the exterior surface areas, showing the obvious benefits of having conceptual design capabilities within the BIM application.


Figure 5. The new 3D conceptual modeling environment in Revit Architecture 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)


Figure 6. Panelizing a complex form in Revit Architecture 2010 to ensure that it can be fabricated and constructed in the real world. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

The 2010 version of Revit Structure also includes enhancements in conceptual design, modeling, and analysis to handle more the complex architectural forms that can be created with Revit Architecture 2010. It has the same improved conceptual design workspace for flexible form-making and direct manipulation, and also includes a new extension that allows preliminary analysis on complex forms to be carried out by applying loads to them and simulating their behavior (see Figure 7). The ability to model and analyze slanted columns is now available (see Figure 8), addressing one of the key limitations of earlier versions (see my review of Revit Structure 2008). The analysis and design capabilities have also been enhanced by the availability of several additional extensions developed with Autodesk’s Robot structural analysis software (see Figure 9), including a Connection Modeling Extension for creating typical 3D steel connections directly inside the model, a Bridge Modeling Extension for creating parametric bridge models by importing road centerlines created by the civil engineer via LandXML, and a Load Take-down Analysis Extension that allows the engineer to better simulate and understand how loads gets transferred through all the individual structural components of a building to the ground.


Figure 7. The Conceptual Form Analysis Extension in Revit Structure 2010 which allows structural engineers to apply loads and simulate the behavior of the conceptual forms created by architects. (Courtesy: Autodesk)


Figure 8. The new capability to model slanted columns in Revit Structure 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)


Figure 9. The extensions for connection modeling and bridge modeling. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Moving on to Revit MEP 2010, one of the major highlights of the new release is native integrated heating and cooling load calculation tools that can help engineers perform energy analysis, evaluate system loads, and determine the energy demands of the building (see Figure 10). The different loads are differentiated by color, making them easier to visualize and analyze. Three different levels of heating and cooling load reports can be generated: simple, standard, and detailed. The properties of the various MEP equipment types have been enhanced to include load information, and over 300 ASHRAE duct fittings and ASME pipe fittings have been added to the content libraries. There are new weather data tools and enhanced building space calculation settings. Revit MEP 2010 also includes native support of Ecotect and Green Building Studio, making analysis easier and more accurate, facilitating the exploration of several “what-if” scenarios before finalizing the design.  


Figure 10. The integrated heating and cooling load calculation tools in Revit MEP 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

All of the Revit applications also feature native 64-bit support which enhances their ability to handle large projects and improves performance and stability for memory-intensive tasks such as rendering, printing, model upgrading, and file importing and exporting. They also include expanded API (application programming interface) support, better interoperability with Civil 3D and Autodesk Inventor, and gbXML (green building XML) improvements that can improve interoperability with external energy analysis applications.

Other 2010 AEC Products

Moving on to the other AEC applications in Autodesk’s portfolio, AutoCAD Architecture continues to be positioned as a tool that offers enhanced productivity for architects familiar with AutoCAD rather than for full-fledged building information modeling. The 2010 version of AutoCAD Architecture inherits all the improvements in AutoCAD 2010 that were described earlier, and in addition, sports a new streamlined ribbon interface, similar to the one in Revit, allowing quicker access to tools and commands. The Help functionality has also been enhanced to provide pertinent information on specific tools more easily. In addition to the interface enhancements, modeling of walls has been improved with automatic cleanup of the individual wall components for angled, cornered, and intersecting walls. Wall endcap editing has been enhanced by joining the Trim and Extend commands with Fillet and Chamfer, allowing walls to be designed in the same way they will be constructed (see Figure 11). Endcap editing styles can also be saved for future re-use. Other usability improvements include a new Space Separator tool which allows spaces that are not bound by walls to be automatically divided, a new flip text position grip for AEC Dimensions that provides additional control over the placement of text, and the inclusion of a distinct “ramp” type for stairs that comes complete with its own display and annotation tags.


Figure 11. Improved wall endcap editing in AutoCAD Architecture 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Other AEC applications that were discussed in some detail were 3ds Max Design and NavisWorks. 3ds Max Design 2010 is being pitched not only as a visualization tool that can reuse design data created in Revit or AutoCAD for creating renderings and animations, but also as a tool for sustainable design by virtue of its capability for performing very accurate lighting simulations. Both daylighting as well as artificial lighting can be simulated, allowing analysis of interior spaces as well as the exterior illumination of a building (see Figure 12). Light angles and intensities can then be adjusted based on the desired lighting effect. By allowing interactive lighting analysis to be carried out at the early stages of the design process directly from a BIM model, designers can iterate more quickly to find better sustainable solutions for a project. Other improvements in 3ds Max Design 2010 include over one hundred additional modeling tools for more creative form-making, an extensive library of particle effects and flickerless rendering improvements for better communication of design intent, and the addition of render-like effects such as soft shadowing, exposure control, and ambient occlusion in the viewport display, allowing near photo-real display of models.


Figure 12. 3ds Max Design 2010 allows accurate simulation of both interior and exterior illumination. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

The NavisWorks suite of applications for 3D design publishing and project review (recently reviewed in AECbytes) also features some enhancements in the 2010 release. The Clash Detective tool has been improved with the ability to group together multiple clashes that are due to one interference issue, and new options such as View in Context and Transparent Dimming for better visualization of a clash within its surroundings. New measuring tools make it easier to take accurate measurements including finding the shortest distance between two objects and the distance between centerlines. Measurements can now be converted into redlines and saved with a viewpoint, as shown in Figure 13. Sectioning enhancements allow smaller subsections of a model to be explored and reviewed more easily. Support for non-Autodesk applications such as ArchiCAD 12 has been updated, along with support for a new file format, JT Open, which is common in manufacturing. While the ribbon interface has not yet made it to NavisWorks 2010, it does include the ViewCube and SteeringWheel navigation widgets that are now standard in most Autodesk applications.


Figure 13. Creating redlines from measurements in NavisWorks 2010. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

The remainder of Autodesk’s AEC webcast was focused on discussing the 2010 versions of its civil engineering, transportation, and geospatial products such as AutoCAD Civil 3D, AutoCAD Map 3D, AutoCAD Raster Design, Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise, and Autodesk Topobase software. We will look at the highlights of these products in a separate article to be published later.

Analysis and Conclusions

Autodesk’s 2010 portfolio of products all seem to have many useful enhancements that should make them easier to work with and more effective and efficient in their individual disciplinary tasks. In contrast to Bentley’s V8i generation launch a few months ago, Autodesk does not have any common or over-arching themes running across all the applications, but that by itself is not any guarantee of quality or success. What ultimately matters is how well each individual application has been improved and whether its earlier limitations have been addressed. To that end, AutoCAD 2010 clearly stands out with its new freeform mesh modeling tools, greatly improved PDF support, and the ability to create intelligent, parametric drawings. But given that the number of AEC users who still use AutoCAD for anything other than construction documents seems to be diminishing in the wake of increased BIM adoption, one could argue that the real value of these enhancements remains questionable. On the other hand, the new modeling environment in Revit Architecture can prove to be invaluable if it will indeed make the use of external applications like Rhino and SketchUp for conceptual design redundant. Revit Structure is another application in the 2010 lineup that stands out by virtue of the tremendous improvements in analysis capabilities, available in the form of several new extensions to the application. The sustainability-related enhancements in the new versions of Revit MEP and 3ds Max Design are also compelling, and we are likely to see more of these across all the Autodesk applications as sustainability continues to become the top-rated criterion in any building or infrastructure project.

In contrast to the large number of products that were presented in the webcasts, there were some that were very conspicuous by their absence—these include Autodesk Impression, Buzzsaw, and Constructware. I hope Autodesk Impression is not going the way of Autodesk Architectural Studio, as it is a well-designed and handy illustration tool (see my 2007 review of Autodesk Impression). Given the current economic climate which is forcing most vendors to trim costs, the news of some product cuts shouldn’t come as a big surprise. However, I do find it strange how both Buzzsaw and Constructware have completely fallen off the radar screen for Autodesk—they were scarcely mentioned even at Autodesk University, and by going through the recent 2010 launch webcasts, you wouldn’t even think that Autodesk had any products by those names.

The other question that emerged from the webcasts was whether the consolidation of Autodesk’s transportation and geospatial divisions into its AEC division is a good thing. While it will undoubtedly help along the integration and interoperability fronts, there is also the danger of the AEC division being spread too thin, and of the product line-up becoming too vast and bewildering for its users. The AEC webcast already embodied some of that experience, and I hope Autodesk makes a serious effort not to over-burden its users by attempting to sell them too many products.

Stay tuned for more detailed reviews of some of the key 2010 Autodesk products once they are released.

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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