AECbytes Newsletter #59 (September 27, 2012)
This article looks at the recent technology updates from AEC vendors since the last AEC Technology Updates article published at the beginning of this year. These updates include various new product developments from Newforma, the launch of Revit LT from Autodesk, the new Vectorworks 2013 product family that has just been released, the releases of the next versions of form•Z and Bluebeam Revu, the acquistion of SketchUp by Trimble and its implications for the AEC industry, the acquisition of Deltek by Thoma Bravo, and the latest developments of the cloud-based collaboration solution, CadFaster|Collaborate. We will also explore two brand-new solutions, Sefaira Concept in the area of sustainable design, and Rendra, which is a BIM model viewer for mobile devices. As before, the objective of these types of updates is to consolidate the key developments in the AEC technology industry in one place to make it easier for interested industry professionals to refer to.
Newforma, developer of the Newforma Project Center application for project information management (PIM) and collaboration application that was reviewed in AECbytes earlier in March, is continuing to expand its footprint in the AEC industry and become one of its key technology vendors. Starting with its flagship Newforma Project Center application that was targeted primarily toward architectural and engineering firms, Newforma has now expanded its client base to cover all disciplines in the building industry, including owners. In October last year, it released the Newforma Punch List mobile app for Android tablets, which allowed AEC professionals to capture, assign, manage and verify punch lists in the field that could then be integrated with Newforma Project Center. Newforma officially re-branded itself as a multi-product company earlier this year, launching a number of product suites for the different disciplines in AEC.
The company has continued to ramp up its product offerings in recent months, acquiring Attolist, the developer of the AEC-Sync web-based construction collaboration software. It has rebranded AEC-Sync as Newforma Project Cloud, which will be used for project hosting and web-based construction management and contract administration (see Figure 1). In another key development for Newforma, it has licensed M-SIX’s VEO platform, which will enable a Revit model to be viewed within Newforma Project Center, further strengthening the Revit integration of the application and the bridge between Revit’s BIM capabilities and the PIM functionality of Newforma Project Center. This ability to view Revit models is expected to be available in the next release of Newforma Project Center. And finally, Newforma acquired Tap Tapas, a software application studio specializing in mobile solutions, which gives it the in-house expertise to expand its web and mobile offerings for AEC professionals.
Figure 1. Shared folders (top image) and a submittal log (lower image) in the new Newforma Project Cloud. (Courtesy: Newforma)
In a product development that was somewhat expected, Autodesk launched a lighter version of Revit that is also more cost-effective, with a list price of $1,195. Revit LT is a simplified application designed to help small AEC firms transition to a BIM workflow, and is available as a standalone version or as part of the new AutoCAD Revit LT Suite 2013, which includes both Autodesk Revit LT 2013 and AutoCAD LT 2013. It is based on the functionality of Revit Architecture, and therefore does not include functionality specific to Revit Structure and Revit MEP. Also, while the full version of Revit allows multiple users to collaborate on the same project file simultaneously, Revit LT only allows individuals to work on projects or pieces of projects independently. Another key differentiating factor is that in-product rendering capability is only available in Revit and not in Revit LT. However, both applications can access the Autodesk 360 cloud rendering service, which is available through the Autodesk Subscription program. Other Revit Architecture features that are not available in Revit LT include the built-in energy analysis capability, conceptual massing and adaptive components, exports to the gbXML and IFC file formats, interference checking, and construction modeling. Given the popularity of AutoCAD LT, it was probably only a matter of time before an LT version of Revit was introduced. It remains to be seen if this will generate more revenue for Autodesk without cannibalizing the sales of its existing Revit application.
I recently came across a new vendor in the sustainability space called Sefaira. Although the firm was founded in 2009, it went public with its flagship application, Sefaira Concept, only a few months ago. To put it simply, Sefaira Concept enables energy analysis of a SketchUp model (see Figure 2), and this is what makes it different from other known energy analysis tools such as Green Building Studio, Autodesk’s Project Vasari, and IES VE. Most designers use SketchUp for conceptual modeling at the early design stage, and this is precisely the stage that Sefaira is targeting with its analysis tool. It is well known that changes made earlier in the design process have the most impact on the quality of the design, and using a tool like Sefaira Concept in the early stages of design exploration with SketchUp can provide quick feedback and allow the designer to go through many more iterations while designing. Since SketchUp is not a BIM application per se, a large part of Sefaira’s intelligence lies in inferring which 3D elements in SketchUp correspond to what building elements—information that is necessary for energy analysis. Sefaira’s tool can also work with massing models in SketchUp. It is designed to be as intuitive and easy to use as SketchUp. Another key differentiating factor of the application is that it is almost entirely cloud-based, and can therefore provide analysis results in a matter of minutes, making it easier for the designer to go through multiple iterations until a satisfactory result is achieved.
Figure 1. The Sefaira plug-in in a SketchUp model for energy analysis. (Courtesy: Sefaira)
Another new company I became acquainted with a few months ago is Rendra, which is developing a solution that will enable everyone involved in a construction project to view its BIM model and the related information on their smartphones, laptops or tablets (see Figure 3). There are no limitations with regard to the size of the model that can be viewed. The company is actually a start-up based out of Norway and is about to launch pilot testing with selected partners in Norway this fall. It is also currently assessing the U.S. market. While the construction process is fairly similar in both countries, the main difference seems to be that Norway is seeing strong IFC and OpenBIM support. The product, which is still in a prototype stage, is essentially a field BIM application, a category that Vela Systems (which was recently acquired by Autodesk) has popularized. It will be interesting to see if Rendra can hold its own against such an established vendor in the AEC field.
Figure 3. Viewing a building model on a tablet using Rendra. (Courtesy: Rendra)
Earlier this month, Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc., released the 2013 version of the Vectorworks product family, which includes the BIM tool, Vectorworks Architect. Improvements have been made in the new release to simplify complex BIM tasks, for example, a new Auto Hybrid command allows users to graphically convert complex, free-form modeling forms into proper 2D representations with data; door and window tags are now in 3D; and the roof object has been completely re-engineered based on the Parasolid modeling kernel. Also, automatic creation of cropped viewports is now more efficient, allowing for better navigation between detailed views and the model. Improvements in the generic 3D modeling capabilities include a new Clip Cube mode, which provides additional visibility control over large complex model; a Surface Array command, which allows for duplication of 2D and 3D geometry onto planar or NURBS-based surfaces and allows for the design of complex models such as roof systems (see Figure 4), curtain walls, and stadium-like structures; and improved perspective projection, which allows users to work with models in a full-screen perspective view. Rendering enhancements include non-blocking rendering, which allows the user to continue working on a project while a scene renders; physical sun and sky backgrounds to provide natural lighting that automatically responds to a location, date and time of day; and a new Arroway Textures library, which includes wood veneers, concrete, wood flooring, stonework, tiles and other construction materials. Interoperability has been improved with new file format support for Rhinoceros 3DM, DWF, FBX, COLLADA and gbXML and enhancements to already robust file imports and exports such as IFC, DWG/DXF and ODBC.
Figure 4. Using the new Surface Array feature in Vectorworks Architect 2013 to create a complex roof system. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Vectorworks)
Meanwhile, over at AutoDesSys, version 7.0 of the powerful 3D modeling application, form•Z, was released. New features include a smart interface with automatic picking and automatic guides that can assist in drawing more accurately; the addition of parameters to 3D forms so that they can be dynamically generated and further manipulated at any time after their initial generation; a Reshape tool that offers more sculpting actions for producing robust solid models that can be fabricated; total overhaul of the NURBS tools to make them more powerful and easier to use (see Figure 5), along with a new NURBS analysis feature for evaluation and iterative refinement of the design; new formula tools for creating complex curves and surfaces based on mathematical formulas; in-place editing of components; dynamic clipping planes that allow for non-destructive cutting of models enabling easier inspection of a design; and a new shaded working environment for the modeling interface. Also, the traditional form•Z drafting and modeling environments found in previous versions have been merged combining the power of both in a unified environment, which yields long desired features such as dimensions, hatching and linestyles in 3D.
Figure 5. The overhauled NURBS toolset in form•Z 7.0. (Courtesy: AutoDesSys)
Earlier this year, Bluebeam released version 10 of its popular electronic publishing application, Revu. I last reviewed version 9 of the application in May 2011, in which I found that its strengths included comprehensive capabilities for creating, editing, and collaborating on PDF documents; viewing and navigation of 3D PDF files; the ability to delete or edit content; a visual search capability; and a graphic and visually pleasing interface, with the ability to open up to 16 tabbed views of a document. At the same time, it had some problems with creating 3D PDF files. In the new release, this issue has not only been fixed but the overall 3D capability of the application has been expanded, with plug-ins for Revit and Navisworks Manage, and the ability to create 3D markups and save 3D markup views. Another key enhancement is an expanded hyperlink capability that makes it easier than before to add and manage hyperlinks in a PDF. Recall that hyperlinks can be configured to display websites, networked files, or jump to specific pages or snapshot views in a PDF. You can now create and name link destinations, also known as Places, and then hyperlink to those places in the current PDF or another PDF. All document hyperlinks are displayed in a list for easy editing and organization.
There were a couple of key acquisitions in the AEC technology field. Last month, Deltek announced that it was being by Thoma Bravo, a leading private equity investment firm with a 30+ year history of providing equity and strategic support to management teams and growing companies. Recall that Deltek is the leading provider of enterprise management software specific to the AEC industry, and many large AEC firms have already standardized on it for business tasks such as ERP, CRM, and Finance. It is best known for its Vision application, especially designed for architecture and engineering firms for their enterprise resource and project planning tasks. Last year, Deltek also unveiled a brand new offering, Federal Intelligence Solutions for AEC firms, which collectively provides detailed information on billions of dollars worth of planned AEC contract projects. Deltek has been supported so far by another investment firm, New Mountain Capital, and the transition to Thoma Bravo as a partner is expected to make Deltek even more successful in the future and contribute to its mission of being the industry standard solutions provider to project-based businesses worldwide. In fact, Thoma Bravo has a long history of investing in highly respected and industry-leading software companies, and it purchased Deltek because of its potential strength and reach. Thus, it should be business as usual for Deltek’s customers in the AEC industry.
Another acquisition that happened earlier this year was that of SketchUp by Trimble. While it was somewhat bemusing when Google bought SketchUp in the first place, it was just as surprising to hear that Google was divesting of SketchUp from its otherwise vast portfolio. Google was never an AEC technology company, and the dominant users of SketchUp continued to be from the AEC industry, so there always seemed to be some kind of mismatch between SketchUp and Google. One good thing for users that definitely came out of Google’s ownership was the free version of SketchUp. Also, to Google’s credit, it let the SketchUp team continue developing the application as it saw fit. The new SketchUp owner, Trimble, is definitely closer to the AEC industry than Google ever was, with previous acquisitions of well-known AEC applications including Meridian Systems and Tekla. Though best known for GPS technology, Trimble offers a large variety of solutions in many sectors apart from construction, including agriculture, defense, mining, surveying, and others. It is also a publicly traded global company, with its products used in over 141 countries around the world, and employees in more than 30 countries, along with an extensive network of dealers and distribution partners. While I did not find SketchUp listed on Trimble’s website yet, a possible Trimble strategy could be to make SketchUp a bridge from design to construction and bring it closer to the AEC industry, which still yields the dominant user base for the application.
And finally, there is a noteworthy update to CadFaster|Collaborate, the cloud-based product integrating with Vectorworks that I wrote about in my article on the AIA 2012 Convention. It is a third-party plug-in that works as a cloud-based collaboration tool for the distribution of CAD and BIM models for review, as well as a high-performance visualization tool for mobile devices such as iPads (see Figure 6). Since then, CadFaster|Collaborate is available as a plug-in for Autodesk Revit 2013 as well, and is listed in the Autodesk Exchange Apps Store. In addition, CadFaster has just released a new MyCadbox free Cloud service that gives multi-disciplinary project teams an easy method of downloading and archiving all mark-ups and discussion threads associated with models shared in CadFaster|Collaborate. Users can also generate a PDF file, making it easier to create a permanent record. For professionals always working in the field, mark-ups can be retrieved on-demand in a standard data format with just a browser from any internet-connected mobile device.
Figure 6. Navigating building models on an iPad using CadFaster|Collaborate. (Courtesy: CadFaster)
That’s it for this edition of the AEC Technology Updates. The next one should be published in the spring of 2013, consolidating all the key developments in the AEC technology industry in the coming months.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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