AEC Technology Updates, 2017 AECbytes Newsletter #89 (August 17, 2017)

In what seems to have become an annual event, this article captures the many developments in AEC technology that I have not been able to cover in my regular articles and reviews. It is an encouraging sign of the AEC technology industry being so vibrant that we not only see new releases of existing products on a regular basis, but also brand-new solutions hoping to address the thorny issues of design and construction more innovatively. This 2017 AEC technology round-up looks at both—new releases of existing products such as Allplan, Twinmotion, 4M IDEA, BIM Assure, Aconex, and Autocase; as well as new solutions including Unicorn Render for rendering and BIMsmith for finding BIM content.

Visualization

I was first introduced to Twinmotion at Autodesk University 2015 and was blown away by its power, sophistication, and the quality of its visualization. Developed by Abvent, Twinmotion is specifically targeted towards architecture, urban planning and landscaping professionals to allow them to present their designs in a realistic and life-like environment. It includes features such as the ability to import 3D models in a wide range of file formats,  merge multiple files in a single scene, update imported models while retaining any modifications and materials created in Twinmotion, adjust lighting, and add as well as animate entourage such as people, foliage, and vehicles.

Abvent has just released the 2018 version of Twinmotion adding a whole slew of new capabilities to it, including direct synchronization with ARCHICAD as well as Autodesk Revit that can import not just the geometry but all the element data, with their organization and hierarchy, of the BIM model; automatic positioning of the model in its real-world context based on its geolocation; the ability to quickly manipulate aspects such as the landscape, vegetation, seasons, and weather with just a slider; the ability to control the traffic and movement of people and vehicles that have been added to the model; the addition of many more libraries for elements such as water bodies, landscapes, sounds, lighting, and materials; and the ability to visualize the project at different stages of development (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A Twinmotion animation of a project showing its phased development.

Another visualization application I recently learned more about is Unicorn Render, developed by Space Tech International. It is a standalone physics-based photorealistic renderer (PBR) for Windows and is very relevant to AEC as it supports importing models from a large number of BIM and CAD applications, including parts of models or entire components. It can also maintain a live link with many of them, including Revit, with plug-ins, ensuring that any changes in the model can be automatically updated in the renderings while keeping intact all the previously defined material and light settings (Figure 2). In an area teeming with rendering technologies and applications, what makes Unicorn Render compelling—its “secret sauce” as it were—is that it enables getting professional quality results without much of a learning curve. It is easy to use, and yet can quickly produce extremely realistic renderings (see Figure 3). It is optimized to work with NVIDIA’s GPUs and works well even on a computer with an average GPU specification, achieving super-fast results on professional CAD/CAM PCs with high-end graphics cards.

Figure 2. A Revit model imported into Unicorn Render for creating a high-quality visualization.

The time allocated from importing a model until the user is ready to render is close to zero in Unicorn Render, whereas in most other systems, the test-try-and-reset phase is cumbersome or overly complicated and time consuming, even for visualization experts. The user interface of the application is designed to be intuitive to use to achieve the desired rendering, without any obscure terms or parameters. The libraries included in the application have close to 500 materials that can be immediately put to use, and which were all conceived and defined according to real-world parameters and conditions, thus minimizing the preliminary setup. The scene can include natural as well as artificial lights, which follow IES standards (Figure 3). For example, when importing a user-defined object that includes some material and illumination settings (type, color, and intensity), they automatically appear lighting the scene. The application supports interactivity, allowing the user to navigate the scene in real-time on a PC or immersively using the Oculus Rift  or any other VR device. The output can be in the form of images, video, 360-panoramas/VR, or any combination thereof.

Figure 3. An indoor scene with both natural and artificial lights rendered in Unicorn Render.

BIM

ALLPLAN from Nemetschek—which is also the parent company of Graphisoft, Vectorworks, Scia, and many more AEC brands—is finalizing the upcoming 2018 release of its Architecture and Engineering BIM applications. The new version has an extensively reworked user interface that arranges the tools in a task and role-specific manner. In conjunction with the cloud-based BIM platform, Allplan Bimplus, interdisciplinary teams can now share native and OpenBIM data across network boundaries in real-time. To further improve collaboration in BIM mandated projects, Allplan 2018 includes a cloud-based attribute management interface and a task board that shows users their open tasks. Other significant improvements include free-form modeling and free-form reinforcement based on the Parasolid modeling kernel from Siemens, associative views, and advanced visualization based on the CineRender engine from Maxon, another sister Nemetschek company.

In conjunction with features from earlier releases such as pre-stressing tendons, longitudinal sections along arbitrary paths and parametric PythonParts, Allplan is a compelling solution not only for buildings but also for infrastructure projects, which are often characterized by challenging geometry with double curvature and varying cross sections (Figure 4). Without the appropriate tools, the creation of fully detailed models, including pre-stressing tendons, reinforcement and mounting parts, can become extremely laborious. With Allplan 2018, such structures can be modeled, documented and visualized very efficiently, resulting in time savings as well as improved ease of use.

Figure 4. Allplan’s advanced capabilities make it useful for infrastructure projects in addition to buildings. (Courtesy: Allplan / Leonhardt, Andrä und Partner)

Another new release of a BIM application comes from 4M, developer of the popular IntelliCAD-based BIM applications including IDEA for architectural design and the FINE-MEP suite for building services. It is set to launch a new major release of IDEA next month. IDEA v.19 will include enhancements such as the ability to change the characteristics of BIM objects in the Properties panel (Figure 5), which can also be used as a filter to select specific entities; the addition of a "time" parameter to link building objects with the construction phase and consequently with project planning; the ability to link BIM objects and their construction time to a cost, which would allow cost estimates and budget planning; new IFC 2x3 import and export functions that enable compatibility with other BIM applications such as Revit and ARCHICAD; the ability to model corner windows and walls of any shape; new 3D furniture libraries;  the generalized use of smart grips to manipulate objects of any degree of complexity;  and a new rendering algorithm for higher quality visualizations.

Figure 5. The new Properties panel in IDEA v.19.

A development in the area of BIM content comes from BIMsmith, which has just launched a new cloud-based platform called BIMsmith Market for Revit users to find and select building product data for their models. This follows from the introduction of its BIMsmith Forge application last year which allowed AEC professionals to quickly assemble multiple products from different manufacturers into complete wall, floor, ceiling or roof assemblies, which they could then store and share with other collaborators within their organization (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Product selection and assembly through BIMsmith Forge.

The new BIMsmith Market provides the same product discovery and selection functionality within the BIM workflow. It allows users to search for products based on industry certifications, CSI Master Format, and other criteria (Figure 7). It also has built-in capabilities to compare products. The idea is to provide a better ecosystem for the AEC community to build, specify, and collaborate within the building lifecycle.

Figure 7. The new BIMsmith Market for product search and selection.

And finally, we have a update in the still relatively nascent area of BIM model-checking, with the release of the next version of the cloud-based collaborative mode checker, Invicara BIM Assure, which I had reviewed last summer.  BIM Assure uses rules to check the quality of a Revit model for accuracy and ensure that it contains all the data that will be needed for the purpose for which the model is being created. The model is brought into BIM Assure through a Revit plug-in.  The enhancements in the new version makes it easier to edit model data and fix issues directly in BIM Assure, then sync back the updates  to Revit (Figure 8). The reporting capability has also been enhanced, with the ability to create detailed reports on model data in Excel to help share information with other systems as well as people who may not have access to BIM. Additional updates include the ability to create a focused set of model elements—i.e., “data slices”—to streamline model navigation and data reporting, and improve communication by providing access to building plans and data in interactive 2D views. You can select elements in a 2D view and highlight it in the 3D model.

Figure 8. Fixing issues in the model with BIM Assure.

Construction

Aconex, the cloud platform for AEC collaboration that was reviewed in AECbytes two years ago, continues to gain traction in the AEC industry through adding new features and functionality to enhance its usefulness. The latest solution, “Connected Cost,” integrates project controls and cost management with its flagship project collaboration and document management capabilities, extending the scope of the application to construction management (Figure 9). The addition of features including cost management, forecasting, variance analysis and payment applications provides greater visibility into the project from a financial perspective and enables the cost and change impact to be captured immediately. While this cannot, by itself, guarantee cost reductions, having greater insight into the financial implications of all decisions related to the project or portfolio—from planning, scheduling, change orders, and more—can certainly help tighten the construction process, avoid waste, raise red flags early, minimize risk, and reduce cost overruns.

Figure 9. Aconex's new Connected Cost solution allows different kinds of cost analysis to be carried out on a project.

Analysis

Earlier this year, I reviewed Autocase, a cloud-based tool that automates the "triple bottom line" (financial, social, and environmental) cost benefit analysis of buildings and infrastructure projects, with a focus on sustainability. Since then, the tool has progressed on multiple fronts. There is now a specific module, Autocase for Sites, that can be used by civil engineers, planners, and property owners to analyze the impact of different project proposals for stormwater design, including techniques to reduce the risks of flooding, water conservation and re-use, the materials used in hardscape elements, the type of vegetation, and so on. It can evaluate over 25 design features to quantify and monetize the reduction in flooding, avoidance of gray infrastructure, water and air quality improvement, recreation improvement, reduced carbon emissions, and the property value benefits of green infrastructure. The analysis allows the proposals to be understood in terms of lifecycle costs, benefits, and trade-offs, as well as how they affect the owner, occupants and the community (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Some of the analysis capabilities provided by Autocase for Sites for stormwater projects.

Despite being relatively new, Autocase for Sites is already being used by several leading engineering and design firms such as Stantec, Mott MacDonald, Dewberry, and Barr Engineering, as well as cities such as Dallas and Toronto on various site design and stormwater planning projects, ranging from individual buildings all the way to an entire district.

Other updates related to Autocase include a surge in the adoption of Autocase for Buildings among airports, including San Francisco International Airport, Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, as well as Nashville and Los Angeles International Airport.  Also, there is now in-product access to Autocase from Autodesk Infraworks, allowing its users to apply business case analytics to assess the value—in addition to more traditional design criteria—of their design scenarios.

Additional Updates

In addition to the updates described in this article, there were many more that were brought to my attention, spanning a wide range of tasks and disciplines in the AEC industry. The list includes TAD, short for “The Architect’s Desktop,” which lets you create a BIM model of a project using simple shapes in contrast to detailed building components, and includes a scripting language for querying the model and performing calculations of quantities, areas, etc; TonicDM, a new cloud-based project management and collaboration platform focused on ease of use, built-in processes that streamline common tasks, and structured design data that can be readily mined to provide needed information; ManufactOn, a mobile/web application that helps construction firms plan, track, and manage both prefabrication and regular material handling, bringing the efficiencies of manufacturing into construction; ICE, a parametric visual configurator developed with gaming technology, which can be used in construction to assemble compatible options, calculate their bill of materials and pricing in real time, and automatically order the materials; and finally, Bluesky, an aerial mapping company, which has developed a map providing accurate height measurement for around 40 million buildings covering the whole of England, Wales and Scotland (Figure 11), which will be invaluable for city information modeling (CIM).

Figure 11. A Bluesky map with accurate height measurement of buildings in London.

This wraps up the annual AEC Technology Updates round-up for 2017. While there were many more technologies and updates that I could not cover in this article, I hope to get a chance to explore them in other articles going forward. 

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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