AEC Technology Updates, 2016 – Part 2 AECbytes Newsletter #82 (September 1, 2016)

Last week, AECbytes published Part 1 of its annual technology roundup highlighting recent key developments in AEC technology, and in that we looked at updates from leading vendors including GRAPHISOFT's BIMx, Bentley's ContextCapture, Autodesk LIVE, Trimble's SketchUp 2016, and Allplan 2017. In this article, Part 2 of the roundup, we continue to look at updates from other established AEC technology vendors, including Newforma Project Center, form•Z, the Sweets app from Dodge, DESTINI Estimator, and Solibri Model Checker, as well as a few more. But first, let’s look at a new application about which there is a lot of buzz but very little is known so far—Flux.

Flux

I had heard occasional references to Flux a few times over the last year, mostly mentioned with a reverence that made it seem like it was going to be the “next big thing” in the AEC technology industry. It was definitely intriguing, yet not much about Flux was publicly known except for the fact that it was somehow connected to Google—which explains the awe!—and that it was a collaboration platform of sorts. In typical Silicon Valley startup fashion, it had been operating in stealth mode since it was founded in 2012 inside of Google as part of the Google X Lab, a research subsidiary devoted to exploring and developing interesting and futuristic ideas such as self-driving cars. Flux emerged in May 2014 from Google X with venture funding from some leading Silicon Valley firms (as reported in this TechCrunch article), but it took until December of last year to make itself publicly known and release its first product. Positioning itself as a “cloud-based service for architects, engineers, and contractors to seamlessly exchange data,” Flux seemed to be just another collaboration tool, and in an industry with a surfeit of such tools already—including heavyweights such as Aconex, Trimble Connect, Autodesk’s BIM 360, and many more—how much better could it be at helping AEC professionals work together better?

It turns out that Flux is not just a collaboration tool of the kind we already have. I had a chance to learn more about it recently from the CEO of the company, which piqued my curiosity to understand the technology better by going through the fairly detailed information about it on its website. Here is the gist of what I was to decipher: the main difference between Flux and existing tools is that Flux is unequivocally focused on data rather than files. What this means is that any building data that is sent to Flux is parsed and internally re-constructed into a building representation that is intelligent (or what would be called as “semantically correct” in academic/research parlance) and can therefore support any kind of computational task related to building design such as what-if analysis, evaluation of various criteria, simulation, and even generative design. Another aspect of Flux related to its ability to read and understand building data is that it can co-relate multiple disparate pieces of data related to a building into a consolidated whole. From a practical standpoint, this means that it can construct an accurate building representation from different data sets that have been sent to it, possible from different design applications. Taking this a step further, this also means that Flux can act as a translator between existing design applications, allowing the data created in one application to be “converted” into the native format of another application. Of course, this also calls on Flux’s ability to have a two-way communication between the applications it supports so that it can also send data back to them in addition to just receiving it.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because we don’t really have any other applications which can do this and therefore do not have precedents to refer to. While I will plan on a detailed product review of Flux to better understand and explain it, I hope this broad overview helps to clarify what Flux currently offers to the AEC industry, which is a web-based platform where you can create a collaborative project to which different users can send selected building data through a plug-in from applications such as Revit, SketchUp, Grasshopper, Dynamo, and Excel (support for other applications is in development); which integrates the data coming from these different applications and keeps it synchronized, accepts and tracks changes, and keeps the project participants posted about them; and which, of course, includes the requisite visualization tools that allows the integrated project geometry to be viewed online and shared with others (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Flux platform integrating content from Revit and SketchUp.

Going forward, what is really exciting is what you can do with the building cognition capability of Flux, a hint of which is provided by some of the experimental tools and solutions that are shown in Flux Labs. A couple of the ideas that I found the most interesting from a technology standpoint—and which serve to highlight the “intelligence” of the building representation in Flux—are a tool that can analyze a floor plan to find the shortest path between two points (Figure 2) and a tool that can perform line-of-sight analysis to determine whether a set of windows in a building has a clear view of features in its vicinity (Figure 3). This is the kind of work that was expected to come out of academic research in architectural computing, and it’s terrific to see it being commercial implemented, even if it’s just at the prototype stage now.

Figure 2. The prototype tool in Flux Labs for analyzing a building floor plan in Rhino/Grasshopper for the shortest paths.

Figure 3. The prototype tool in Flux Labs for conducting line-of analysis in a building modeled in SketchUp.

Newforma Project Center

It’s been a while since we have seen any major updates to Newforma Project Center (NPC), Newforma’s flagship project information management (PIM) application—the last major version of it that was reviewed in AECbytes was the Ninth Edition in March 2012. However, we have seen Newforma expand beyond its initial audience of architecture and engineering firms to address a wider spectrum of AEC/FM with new products and services for collaboration, construction management, and field management including Newforma Project Cloud and an expanded set of mobile apps launched in  2014; Newforma SmartUse, a touch-friendly mobile platform for construction project collaboration (described in the “AEC Technology Updates: Construction and FM Applications” article published in February 2015); and most recently, Newforma LeanPlanner, a tool for production planning designed specifically for superintendents and foremen, incorporating the concepts and methodology of “lean” planning and delivery (described in the “Technology Solutions for AEC Exhibited at Autodesk University 2015” published earlier this year).

After this spate of new products, primarily coming from acquisitions, Newforma has returned to its flagship NPC application with a new release announced a few weeks ago. The most significant enhancement of the new version is that it is cloud-enabled through the integration of an extension called Newforma Cloud Services, which allows the project information managed through NPC to be stored on the cloud and/or on-premise, providing more flexibility to distributed project teams for collaboration. Newforma also announced today a new Connector tool that will integrate Newforma Cloud Services with PlanGrid, Box and Dropbox, as well as other popular applications used by architects, engineers and constructor workers. Thus, NPC customers now have the option to keep their project information on-premise, in the cloud, or in dual locations. Also, the project files are automatically synchronized across all locations and applications to ensure that project teams always have access to the most current data in the office, on the jobsite, and on mobile devices. As with any collaboration application, the new cloud-based functionality includes version control, elimination of duplication, controlled access, and automatic logs to capture the audit trail of the project files.

Given that the “cloud” is the order of the day, this expansion of NPC to include cloud services was only to be expected. In fact, over time, we should expect to see more and more of our traditional desktop applications “cloud-ified.”

form•Z

It’s been a while since we caught up on the developments with the powerful 3D design and modeling application, form•Z. The last version of it that was discussed in AECbytes was form•Z 7.0 three years ago (see the archived article, “Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2013 Expo”), and since then, AutoDesSys, the developer of form•Z has not only introduced several new features in form•Z but also consolidated its product offerings. Bonzai3D, the separate conceptual design tool based on form•Z that had been introduced in 2009 has been rebranded as form•Z jr, and there is now a free version of form•Z, similar to SketchUp, called form•Z free which contains a subset of the tools found in form•Z jr. The full-featured version is now called form•Z pro and it is currently in release 8.5, with a recent 8.5.1 update. There is also a free mobile viewer for viewing and navigating form•Z files on the iPhone or iPad to share them with others, which includes features such as saving and recalling views, controls for layers and lights, sectioning, and measurements (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The form•Z mobile viewer which allows form•Z projects to be accessed on the iPhone and iPad.

The key update in the latest version of form•Z Pro is a set of new generative tools  that boost creativity by offering a variety of ways to create new and interesting forms, especially when combined with each other. They also work well with many existing form•Z Pro tools like subdivision surfaces and deformations to make even more interesting forms. They include a Voronoi diagram tool that creates a formation of cells from a set of points; a suite of Point Scatter, Surface Scatter, and Volume Scatter tools that can create formations by distributing copies of objects on or inside of other objects; a Parametric Map tool that allows 2D objects to be mapped onto a surface or face of another object; a Wrap tool that creates a new object from the 3D spatial boundary (or convex hull) of a set of objects or the 2D boundary of a planar set of points; and a Delaunay Triangulation tool that creates robust triangulated meshes from a set of points on a surface or plane. An example of the kinds of forms that can be created using the new tools is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. The forms that can be created using the new set of generative tools in form•Z Pro.

Sweets App for AutoCAD

While AECbytes does not cover many developments in 2D CAD—preferring to focus more on BIM and future technologies—there’s no denying that much of the workflow in AEC is still CAD-based, with a substantial amount of production work still be done in 2D in an application like AutoCAD. This makes developments like the upcoming Sweets App for AutoCAD from Dodge Data & Analytics, previewed at the AIA Convention a few months ago, still very relevant and newsworthy. Sweets is the most established and well-known resource of building product data used in the US AEC industry, providing comprehensive product information, CAD details, BIM objects, specs, catalogs, galleries, green product information, and so on.

To make it easier for Sweets data to be used in the design process and make product selection more efficient, Dodge unveiled a Sweets app for Revit earlier this year, allowing Revit users to search, select and annotate product information from the Sweets database directly into their projects. With the recognition that a lot of AEC firms are still using CAD, Dodge went back to the “drawing broad”—excuse the pun—and is creating a similar app for AutoCAD. It integrates with AutoCAD, and as with the Revit app, it makes product selection faster and more efficient, allowing architects, designers and engineers using AutoCAD to search, select and tag product data from the Sweets database—which has close to 100,000 listed products—directly into their drawings. Figure 6 shows this app being used to select a door object in an AutoCAD project.

Figure 6. Locating a specific door manufacturer in the Sweets product database and browsing through its catalog to make a selection for a door object through the Sweets app in AutoCAD.

Additional Updates

Other key updates on the AEC technology front include a new version of the BIM-based estimating software from Beck Technology, DESTINI Estimator 2016 2.0, which now features Navisworks integration and filtering, allowing users to specify only the properties they need, a new Takeoff view that shows quantities from 2D drawings and 3D models, and model comparison views to reflect changes and cost impact in 2D and 3D models as well as Microsoft Excel imports of estimates. The model checking tool Solibri Model Checker, has a new release, v9.7, which adds capabilities in the area of issue management, improved QA/QC workflows and the management of private company resources.

In the meantime, BIM Assure, a new model checking solution that was recently reviewed in AECbytes has been officially released. Also, the BIM issue management tool, BIMcollab continues to gain traction with the release of new versions of BCF Managers for different applications such as Revit, ARCHICAD, Navisworks, and Tekla Structures to allow collaborative work on identifying, tracking, and resolving issues in the shared model. There is also a new issue management tool called BIM Track, which seems to have similar capabilities to BIMcollab for facilitating project collaboration. And finally, a new point cloud tool for SketchUp called Undet coming out of Lithuania seems very promising (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Undet allows point clouds to be brought into SketchUp and used as a reference for modeling.

This wraps up the mid-year AEC technology roundup for 2016. There were many more developments that I was not able to cover in this two-part series, but I hope I have been able to highlight the most critical ones. As always, please let me know if I have missed anything important and I will try to cover it in a future article.

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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