2015 Year in Review for AEC Technology AECbytes Newsletter #79 (February 4, 2016)

As 2016 gets underway, laden with potential and possibilities for new technology developments in the AEC industry, it is worth taking a step back and looking at the highlights of what 2015 brought to us. Taking stock of the recent past should give us a better sense of what to expect in 2016 and to perhaps, as an industry, be better prepared for it.  

Developments from the Top Three

Of the three main AEC Technology vendors—Autodesk, Bentley, and Graphisoft—I would have to say that Bentley seemed to have an especially good year in 2015. It had lots of exciting new applications to show at its annual Year in Infrastructure conference held in November, some of which were developed in-house but the majority of which have come from recent acquisitions, including LumenRT for creating movie-like animations and visualizations of designs, ContextCapture for high-fidelity reality modeling from photographs, and EADOC for cloud-based construction management. It seems like Bentley has upped the ante for the technologies and companies it acquires, with its recent spate of acquisitions adding enormously to the vibrancy and dynamism of its product portfolio—which has, until now, been known primarily for comprehensiveness, power, and dependability rather than “coolness.” We saw a terrific example of this in a demonstration of how ContentCapture was used to create a detailed city model of Philadelphia to help with the planning of the Pope’s visit to the city last Fall.  The conference also provided the opportunity to learn about how leading projects and firms around the world were using Bentley’s MicroStation and ProjectWise family of products for a wide range of infrastructure projects, from building and construction to mining and utilities. An example is shown in Figure 1, which is a project from Brazil that was one of the three finalists in the “Innovations in Buildings” category of the 2015 “Be Inspired” awards that were presented at the conference.

Figure 1. The Engbras Park City project, also known as “The Glebe,” a multi-purpose complex in São Paulo, Brazil, which was implemented using Bentley’s BIM solutions, notably AECOsim Building Designer. (Courtesy: Bentley)

In contrast, Autodesk had somewhat of a lukewarm year with respect to the AEC industry. It made a promising start by announcing several new products and feature enhancements at its AEC-specific summit in May, where we learned not only about updates to its existing applications like Revit, InfraWorks, and NavisWorks, but also about upcoming applications such as Building Ops for building operations and maintenance, Akaba for exploring spatial alternatives at the early stage design, and Urban Canvas for “SimCity”-style urban planning, all of which seemed very intriguing. However, there was little to no mention of these solutions at its subsequent Autodesk University event in December, where the focus was primarily on the manufacturing industry rather than on AEC. The only big AEC-specific product announcement that was made at Autodesk University was BIM 360 Docs, a new application for cloud-based document management built on the same BIM 360 platform as Autodesk’s BIM 360 Glue and BIM 360 Field. While BIM 360 Docs is undoubtedly going to be a useful addition to Autodesk’s AEC portfolio, it was disappointing to find that Autodesk did not have any more exciting—let alone game-changing—technologies to offer to the AEC industry. While there is certainly an increasing convergence between manufacturing and construction, as Autodesk sought to emphasize, it would still have been heartening to see some more AEC-specific developments from Autodesk.

Graphisoft is a relatively smaller vendor in the AEC Technology industry compared to Autodesk and Bentley, so expectations from it are also proportionately lower. While Graphisoft continues to develop ArchiCAD on an annual release cycle and the new versions of the application that are released every year have substantive improvements—such as the “predictive background processing” in ArchiCAD 19 last year that was aimed at making it significantly faster—it has been somewhat disappointing that we have heard nothing new in relation to Graphisoft’s BIMx Pro, its nifty mobile app for reviewing the 3D models as well as the 2D documentation of an ArchiCAD project, or its BIMcloud service for model-based collaboration.

Other Key Advances

Looking beyond this well-established triumvirate, there were several additional developments pushing the state of the art in AEC Technology forward. Trimble, in particular, seems to be gaining ground as a force to be reckoned with. Not only has it continued to develop the popular AEC technology products it acquired in the last few years such as SketchUp, Tekla, and Vico, and to release regular updates of these applications—such as SketchUp 2016 in November—it is also launching brand-new products such as the Tekla Structural Designer (see Figure 2) and was the first vendor to show a prototype AEC-specific implementation on Microsoft’s new HoloLens platform (described in the “Augmented Reality in AEC” article). It also has a whole slew of construction related offerings that was described in detail in last year’s “AEC Technology Updates: Construction and FM Applications article.

Figure 2. The new Tekla Structural Designer combines structural analysis and design into a single application. (Courtesy: Trimble)

Graphisoft’s parent company, Nemetschek AG, also continued to make inroads in the AEC industry with the acquisition of Bluebeam, a leading developer of AEC-specific PDF solutions, in late 2014, and more recently, of Solibri, developer of the only model-checking solution used in the building industry, Solibri Model Checker. Solibri has a long history in the AEC industry and its ability to “spell-check” design models for the satisfaction of design criteria—captured in the form of rulesets—such as accessibility, egress, building codes, and so on came just in time to take advantage of the growing move towards BIM. We thought it would only be a matter of time before an application like Solibri Model Checker was deployed en masse for the automatic checking of building designs for code compliance. But unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, as I pointed out in my recent “Automating Code Compliance in AEC” article, and hopefully, with the strength and resources of Nemetschek, we can hope to see a more widespread dissemination of automated code-checking technologies in regulatory agencies world that are responsible for granting approvals and permits for construction.

Other noteworthy developments in 2015 include a new graphical sculpting capability called Marionette in the new version of Vectorworks released last summer (see the article, “AIA 2015 Convention and Expo”); a “jack of all trades” solution called Fuzor that I saw at Autodesk University 2015, which impressed me with its extensive capabilities including visualization and analysis; another potential model-checking solution called BIM Assure which I also saw at Autodesk University 2015; continued improvements to performance analysis tools such as IESVE, Sefaira, and ElumTools to meeting the growing call for more sustainable buildings; and the launch of LeanPlanner by Newforma as a visual production planning tool for superintendents and foremen on the job site.

On the hardware front, while we continued to see more powerful computers and printers from companies such as HP and Dell, it really was a breakout year for drones and laser scanners, which are now being used not only to document as-built conditions but also monitor progress at construction sites. And while we had nothing especially exciting on the general technology front—the jury is still out on Windows 10—what I did find interesting was Apple’s release of a larger iPad that might be especially useful in AEC (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Apple’s larger iPad Pro released in September. (Courtesy: Apple)

Looking Ahead

While BIM has proved itself as the go-to technology for the design and construction of buildings—where the discussion has shifted from debating about whether it is the right thing to do to how fast and how best it can be implemented—it has still to gain a foothold in the operations and facilities management (O&M) of a building’s lifecycle. Examples of the effective use of BIM in O&M are still hard to find, even for those buildings that were designed and constructed recently using the best of BIM and other advanced technologies available. While we do have a handful of solution providers in this space such as FM:Systems, EcoDomus, and Onuma, they are relatively smaller vendors in comparison to the likes of Autodesk, Bentley, Trimble, and Nemetschek, and might not have the stature to influence building owners and operators to explore the benefits of intelligent model-based O&M. Undoubtedly, we need a lot more technology development in this area to move it forward, and it is important because it ultimately affects everybody rather than just those involved in the design and construction of buildings.

Some other technologies to watch for in the months to come are the “Internet of Things,” commonly referred to as IoT, and Augmented Reality or AR. So far, both these technologies have been geared towards general use rather than AEC applications in particular (as discussed in the articles, “Augmented Reality in AEC,” published last year, and “The Internet of Things in AEC,” published in 2014). But they definitely have the potential to improve design and construction, especially IoT, with its ability to monitor construction using sensors placed on individual elements. We will continue to see more of prefabrication and consequently, further developments in robotics to manufacture the components that are to be assembled more efficiently. And finally, another technology that might be further developed is large-scale 3D printing that actually allows building and structural components to be 3D printed rather than manufactured using traditional means.

Overall, 2015 was a year of incremental upgrades in the AEC Technology industry rather than any dramatic new developments, which is perfectly fine from an implementation perspective—AEC firms can continue to hunker down and get on with their BIM deployment plans rather than get distracted dealing with a curve ball thrown at them. However, for technology enthusiasts who have the luxury of reveling in technology for its own sake, the occasional curve ball would be more than welcome.

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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