AECbytes Product Review (March 2, 2011)
The recently released Eighth Edition of Newforma’s PIM (project information management) solution, Newforma Project Center, finally includes the BIM integration I have been looking for in this application since I first reviewed in August 2007. This integration is currently available only for Autodesk Revit and does not extend to other BIM applications, so those hoping to use Newforma Project Center (NPC) to manage BIM data on other platforms are going to be disappointed. But for those using Revit, which is still the leading BIM application in the AEC industry, the ability to extend NPC’s project information management capabilities to also manage model data promises to be extremely helpful.
In addition to the Revit integration, which is available through a separate Newforma add-in, the Eighth Edition of NPC features several enhancements to the core application including new document control capabilities, the ability to record actionable meeting minutes for a project, improved remote access for external collaboration, support for the iPad, and a new activity center for project images such as site photos and renderings. There are also two other separate add-on products in this release: one is focused on contract management tasks, while the other is a new mobile application that provides access to NPC data from smartphones.
The launch of the Eighth Edition thus marks the evolution of Newforma from a single-product vendor to a multi-product company. In conjunction with the new product releases and campaign launch, the company has launched a new website with the theme of AECconnected, where it is hosting videos showing the capabilities of its flagship NPC application and the three new add-on products. There are separate videos showing how Newforma solutions can be utilized by each of the individual building disciplines: A (architects), E (engineers), and C (construction professionals). The idea was to emphasize the role of the application and its add-ons in providing a framework that can connect project teams as well as project data in the AEC industry.
Let’s take a detailed look at the new capabilities of NPC Eighth Edition, including the enhancements in the core application as well as the capabilities provided by the new add-on products such as the Revit add-in. To get a better understanding of the overall repertoire and capabilities of the application and the progress that it has made in the last few years, please refer to the earlier reviews of NPC Fourth Edition, the Fifth Edition, the Sixth Edition (provided in the article “Collaboration, Project Management, and Project Information Management Solutions in AEC”), and the Seventh Edition which was published last year
The Eighth Edition of NPC includes several new activity centers that significantly expand its project information management capabilities. One of the most critical of these is Document Control, which allows firms to standardize the revision management of “record documents”— typically PDF versions of drawing files—that are issued for review, bidding, permitting, and construction. It allows internal team members to get quick access to revisions and previews of the record documents, as well as any related items. External team members can also get access to this information through NPC’s online collaboration module, Newforma Info Exchange, or the new Newforma Mobile module. New revisions of drawing files in PDF format, or in other formats such as DWG, DWF and DGN, can be automatically imported as new revisions of record documents—the revised files can be automatically linked to the original record document by filename or by drawing number (see Figure 1). Thus revisions can now be tracked on individual sheets, which couldn’t be done in earlier versions of NPC, allowing the Eighth Edition to provide better project visibility and audit control.
Figure 1. Tracking the revision history of record documents in the new Document Control activity center.
The new Document Control capability includes some additional features that make it even more helpful. There is a new document name field which allows friendly names to be input to describe documents, making them easier to identify, in addition to their existing file names which can sometimes be rather cryptic and hard to place. In addition to the Revit integration which will be described in depth in a later section, the Document Control capability also integrates with Microsoft Excel. The list of record documents and the parameters associated with each document can be imported from and synchronized with Excel (see Figure 2). Also, a formatted document register report can be exported to Excel, which can be customized through Excel template support. The new Document Control activity center is integrated with the other Newforma activity centers, allowing the record documents to be related to other project processes and tasks such as action items, markup sessions, RFIs, and change orders.
Figure 2. The Excel integration, showing the Sheet List of the record documents being open and edited in Excel.
The second new activity center in NPC Eighth Edition is Meeting Minutes, which allows the content discussed in project meetings to be better organized and captured along with other project data. Prior to this feature in NPC, meetings were typically coordinated and scheduled using email (typically Microsoft Outlook), with the meeting minutes captured in Word and again distributed by email. While these Word documents with the meeting minutes could be added to the project data folders, any “to-do” items that were identified and documented in the minutes remained passive and did not have actionable or assigned tasks with due dates. The new Meeting Minutes capability was developed to address this problem. As shown in Figure 3, Microsoft Outlook is still used to set up the meeting, but the difference is that it is now a Newforma meeting that will be recorded in NPC’s Meeting Minutes. In addition to the meeting time and conferencing information—which is typically included in a regular email—a Newforma meeting allows the convener of the meeting to specify the agenda, any additional items to review and discuss, attach any related project items, and easily select the participants for the meeting from the project team list.
Figure 3. Setting up a Newforma meeting in Microsoft Outlook and specifying additional meeting details including the agenda and the items to be discussed.
Scheduling a Newforma meeting adds it to the Meeting Minutes activity center in Newforma, thus capturing it as part of the project data. It can be opened and reviewed at any time. Once the meeting has concluded, its minutes can be recorded in the Meeting Minutes tab, as shown in Figure 4. The minutes can also be published as a report in PDF format and distributed to all the participants. Just as with document control, external team members can get remote access to meeting minutes and related documents through Info Exchange and Newforma Mobile. Thus, the new Meeting Minutes feature can help to streamline the management of agendas, minutes, and commitments associated with project meetings. Using the ability to link a meeting with other project tasks and documents, it can be used to track action items, RFIs, and other open items across a series of meetings until they have been resolved. Not surprisingly, Meeting Minutes was the most requested customer feature that has been implemented in NPC Eighth Edition.
Figure 4. Capturing the minutes of a meeting after it has been concluded, and subsequently publishing the minutes in PDF format for distribution.
Project Images is another new activity center, which is developed for storing site photos, renderings, and any other digital images related to the project. It is used to manage and control the ever-expanding volume of such content, organizing the images so that they are easier to find and avoiding the current practice of duplicating them for quicker access. The Project Images interface shows thumbnails of the images, as shown in Figure 5, and allows them to be filtered, sorted, and searched by any property, including EXIF (exchangeable image file format) properties such as Camera Model, Date Taken, etc. There is an “Exclude” option for excluding photos with a specific attribute, as well as a “Group By” option for viewing images grouped by attributes. Images can be tagged with project keywords for easier search and retrieval.
Figure 5. The Project Images activity center, showing thumbnails of project images and the different properties that can be used to group, filter, and retrieve images.
In addition to these three new activity centers, NPC Eighth Edition includes several enhancements to existing features. The online Info Exchange collaboration module has been expanded to allow remote access to project data for both internal and external team members, allowing them to stay connected with live project data using any standard web browser or tablet device with mobile web access, such as the iPad (see Figure 6). This is especially useful for accessing project information on site. There is more granularity of control over access to data—a new “Permission Sets” feature specifies the kind of access that can be assigned on a per project basis to individual team members, based on their role on the project. It is now possible to open files directly from Info Exchange, rather than having to download and save them locally before opening them. Local project folders can be synchronized with Info Exchange Folders, which requires only changed files to be updated rather than manually re‐publishing the entire folders. Additionally, this folder synchronization can be scheduled to run automatically at a specified frequency and in the background. Uploading files to Info Exchange now supports multi‐file upload and drag and drop, making the process much easier.
Figure 6. Accessing project data remotely through the use of Newforma Info Exchange on an iPad.
The list of enhancements in NPC Eighth Edition extends to most of the other functionalities of the application as well. For example, the Newforma Viewer has several PDF-related improvements such as the ability to create password‐protected PDF files and edit PDF files by inserting, deleting, or re‐ordering pages. When creating a PDF, Newforma markup entities are now written to the PDF annotation layer for enhanced interoperability with other PDF markup tools, such as those from Adobe and Bluebeam. Markups can also be imported from the annotation layer of other PDF files. The reporting feature of NPC has been significantly enhanced by the ability to use Excel‐based templates to customize the formatting of reports. Action items can now be exported to an Excel spreadsheet, where they can be edited and synchronized back to the same project. Using this feature, companies can also define standard sets of action items and use them as templates to ensure that a consistent set of check lists and procedures is utilized across all their projects. Most of the “Create and Modify” dialog boxes throughout NPC have been made modeless, a helpful interface enhancement that allows users to access other functions before completing or cancelling certain tasks. Also, interactive previews are now displayed throughout the application for Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and for PDF files, which allow users to scroll and page within the document previews and zoom or search within PDF files.
Let us now move on to look at the added functionality of the Newforma PIM solution that is enabled by the three new add-on products, starting with the Revit add-in.
The objective of the new Newforma add-in for Autodesk Revit is to enable the model data in Revit to be better managed as well as integrated with the project information management tasks and processes that are being captured in NPC. The add-in works for all the three disciplinary applications of Revit: Architecture, Structure, and MEP. When the add-in is installed, it adds a toolbar to the Revit ribbon menu that provides access to the key functions connecting NPC to Revit (see Figure 7). At the same time, a new Building Information Management activity center is added to NPC that can be used to link one or more Revit models to the project. Once the link has been made, it can be used to synchronize sheets, spatial information, as well as building elements and their associated properties between the two applications for a project.
Figure 7. The Newforma toolbar that is added to the Revit ribbon when the Newforma add-in for Revit is installed.
Let us first look at how sheets are synchronized between the two applications. The process is initiated through the Synchronize Sheets command in the Newforma add-in toolbar in Revit. It maps sheets in Revit with the corresponding sheets in the Document Control activity center of NPC, as shown in Figure 8. Note that this does not actually publish the sheets from Revit into NPC—you still publish sheet revisions to project folders as PDF, DWF or DWG files using Revit’s built-in capabilities or tools such as Adobe Acrobat and Bluebeam Revu. What the Synchronize Sheets option does is create a connection between the live Revit sheets in the model with the corresponding sheets in NPC, so that the attributes of a sheet can be modified in either application and still remain synchronized.
Figure 8. Synchronizing sheets between Revit and NPC. (Model provided courtesy of HOK, Inc.)
To make modifications to sheets easier, the Newforma add-in to Revit includes the same Excel integration that has been implemented for the new Document Control capability in NPC, which was shown earlier in Figure 2. Thus, the Revit sheet data can be added or modified in Excel (see Figure 9), which is much easier to do than in Revit itself, where modifications can only be made for one sheet at a time. For example, the process of sheet renumbering in Revit is very cumbersome. Any changes that are made using Excel can again be synchronized with NPC by selecting the Synchronize Sheets command in the Newforma toolbar.
Figure 9. The Newforma add-in also enables Revit sheet data to be conveniently opened and modified in Excel.
While the synchronization of sheets between Revit and NPC might not be a game-changer by itself, the Newforma add-in goes a lot further and is actually able to access the individual spaces and building elements in the Revit model, enabling them to be synchronized with their counterparts in NPC. In the case of spaces, it requires the creation of a spatial index in NPC, for which another new dedicated activity center has been provided. You can define space types with default finish, occupancy, and other requirements as parameters in the spatial index in NPC and then assign them to room and space instances in the Revit model using the Synchronize Spaces option, which is shown in Figure 10. It is also possible to import space information from Revit and use it to populate the spatial index within NPC, as shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10. Using the Synchronize Spaces command in the Newforma add-in to Revit to populate the spatial index in NPC with space and property information from the model.
If you have the Revit model open, you can select a space in NPC’s spatial index and select the “Show in Revit” command to zoom in on the space within the model, which is very convenient. Similar to sheets, room data can be created and modified in Excel, and later synchronized with the spatial index, making it much easier to manage. Any additional data related to the rooms such as room data sheets, action items, punch list items, and so on can be associated with a space in NPC, automatically linking it to the same space in the Revit model as well (see Figure 11).
Figure 11. Information associated with a space in NPC is also linked to the same space in Revit when it is synchronized.
You can also create color-coded space plans in Revit based on whether they have open action items, outstanding punch list items, and so on, as shown in Figure 12. Another example of the use of color-coding in Revit with data from NPC is also shown in Figure 12. You can specify parameters for target minimum and maximum areas for space types in NPC, which can then be used to compare the actual area of a space in the Revit model with its specified minimum and maximum. The calculated “area exceptions” can be graphically displayed using color-coding.
Figure 12. Two examples of color-coded displays in Revit created by NPC items associated with spaces. The upper image shows punch list items, while the lower image shows room area exceptions.
The same synchronization option is available for all or selected building elements in the model as well. The entire list of building elements from the model can be brought into NPC. Once the link has been established between the building elements in Revit and the corresponding elements in NPC, you can edit their parameters or add custom parameters to them in NPC or in Excel (as shown in Figure 13). Just as with spaces, you can select an element in NPC and use the “Show in Revit” command to zoom in to a view of the element in Revit, if the model is open. Using this element synchronization capability, parameters for building elements such as doors, curtain walls, equipment and structural components can be edited and managed more easily using NPC or Excel, and can be done even by non‐Revit users without a Revit license.
Figure 13. Using the Newforma add-in command, Synchronize Elements, to get the model data into NPC and subsequently editing building element parameters in Excel.
The Newforma Add-in for Revit also allows the integration of some of NPC’s core PIM processes into the model to facilitate the coordination of design and construction issues with other project stakeholders. You can create NPC tasks such as action items, markups, RFIs, and so on within Revit, link them to specific elements within the model along with any supporting documents (see Figure 14), assign them to other members of the team for their review or input, and track them to closure within their respective logs in NPC. The resulting audit trail provides a robust accounting of each and every BIM-related design and construction decision over the course of the project. It should be noted that the Newforma Add-in works only with the non-geometric attributes of the building elements—while their geometric properties can be seen in NPC, they are read-only and cannot be modified to change the geometry of the model.
Figure 14. Linking building elements in Revit to action items in NPC. (Model provided courtesy of HOK, Inc.)
While NPC has had some capabilities for contract management in previous versions starting from the Fourth Edition—which introduced support for submittals—and the Fifth Edition—which introduced activity centers for RFIs in addition to making submittals easier to create and manage—the new Contract Management (CM) module supports additional construction management processes with new activity centers for contracts, bulletins, addendums, change orders, change order proposal, punch lists, and so on, as shown in Figure 15. The RFI and Submittal activity centers have also been moved to the new Newforma Contract Management module and are no longer part of the core NPC application.
Figure 15. The dedicated CM module supports a wide range of construction management processes, each with its own activity center.
In addition to clearly differentiating CM tasks from other project requirements and work processes, having a dedicated CM module in the new release has allowed the CM capability to be greatly expanded. It streamlines and standardizes CM processes during construction for all projects and can be used by all roles, providing a log view of all CM items and facilitating a lightweight, flexible workflow for the various tasks. A Related Items tab allows the relationship between the different CM items to be captured, as shown in Figure 16.
Figure 16. Using the “Related Items” functionality to capture the relationship between different CM items such as contracts, RFIs, proposal requests, and change order proposals.
Another noteworthy aspect of the CM module is that it uses flexible terminology, allowing project items to be renamed as required rather than enforcing firms to follow a specific naming convention, which is helpful because there is currently no standardization of CM terms in the AEC industry. The CM module also includes custom reporting capabilities, for example, the Contract Summary Report shown in Figure 17 provides a detailed status report on the current contract amount and contract end date for a project. If the CM module has been added and deployed by a firm, all of the CM tasks can be accessed through Info Exchange by both internal and external team members.
Figure 17. Generating a custom report showing the status of the current contract amount and contract end date for a project.
The third add-on product, Newforma Mobile, provides a version of Newforma’s Info Exchange remote access and collaboration module that is optimized for viewing on the small screen of a smartphone. It supports not only the iPhone but also additional mobile platforms such as Android and Blackberry. It provides access to project information, team contact data, project logs, and any required item details including action items, meeting minutes, RFI, submittals, change orders, etc. The project contacts information is particularly useful to mobile AEC professionals, allowing them to click on links to email, place a call, or retrieve directions for any contact on the project team without the need to store contact information across all projects as personal contacts.
Project email can be filed with other project data, but it works a little differently on a smartphone compared to the automatic filing of project email using Newforma’s Outlook plug-in on a regular computer. Project email is sent from a smartphone by CC-ing the project’s email address; incoming email is filed by dragging and dropping into project folders that are created by Newforma Mobile in the user’s Inbox.
Project documents can also be opened and viewed, although the exact viewing capabilities of drawings will depend upon the formats (PDF, Flash, JPEG, etc.) supported by the smartphone. Figure 18 shows a drawing in PDF format being viewed on an iPhone. The Newforma Mobile product is very helpful for those who need to access project information in the field, since viewing the regular web version of Newforma’s Info Exchange on a small screen is very cumbersome. For the iPad and other tablet devices that have larger screens, the regular Web version of NPC can be easily used, as shown earlier in Figure 6.
Figure 18. Viewing a drawing accessible through Newforma’s Info Exchange using the new Newforma Mobile add-in on an iPhone.
While building information modeling (BIM) has received the lion’s share of attention in the AEC technology industry in the last decade, it has also brought with it the need for project information management (PIM) because of the greatly increased amount of information that is being created which now needs to be better managed and shared. Up until now, the development of these technologies by vendors, as well as their implementation by AEC firms, were proceeding more or less independently from each other. At the same time, it was very clear that they needed to come together and work together, since both technologies were really dealing with the same set of building data—BIM was focused on defining what that data was while PIM was focused on the work processes required to convert that data into an actual building. This was also the conclusion of my 2009 article on “Collaboration, Project Management, and Project Information Management Solutions in AEC,” where I found that none of the three solutions I reviewed (one of which was the Sixth Edition of NPC) had achieved BIM integration yet; however, their developers were aware of this need and were working towards it.
It’s terrific to see that the Eighth Edition of NPC has actually achieved this long-sought BIM integration, and not just in a superficial manner but in a very substantial way—it can actually dig deep into the Revit model and import every building element, space, and sheet into NPC, where you can attach real-world property and process information to each element and manage them all much more easily and effectively. Prior to this, managing the “I” in BIM and tying the model to design and construction processes was always problematic. Now, it can actually be done, without firms having to invest their resources to develop custom tools for extending the use of the model for downstream processes. Of course, this capability is currently limited to Revit, and will not work for those using other BIM applications—at this point there are no plans to extend the BIM integration to ArchiCAD, Bentley, and others. It would have served a wider audience if Newforma had developed this integration using a neutral file format like the IFC, but then it may not have been so responsive to the iterative nature of design by being able to go back and forth between the BIM model and the PIM processes. Thus Newforma is, for now, solidly in the Revit camp. For those firms that are already using both Revit and Newforma, choosing to implement the Revit add-in will be a no-brainer. For those firms using Revit that have not yet adopted a PIM application, Newforma is now a much more compelling solution for them to consider. Overall, the new BIM integration makes Newforma a much more exciting application that can become more central to the core practice of an AEC firm.
It is also important to not overlook the other improvements and extensions in the Eighth Edition, all of which serve to continue improving the PIM capabilities of the Newforma solution. The new document control capabilities, the ability to record actionable meeting minutes for a project, the new activity center for project images, improved remote access for external collaboration including from devices such as the iPad, and a whole slew of other enhancements all help to increase the scope and effectiveness of the core application. Those using Newforma for contract management will greatly appreciate the expanded range of CM processes that the Newforma Contract Management add-on supports, and the new Newforma Mobile add-on would, of course, be indispensable to the increasingly mobile AEC workforce, allowing them to access NPC project data much more easily from their smartphones.
Overall, the Eighth Edition will be remembered as a watershed release for Newforma, when it finally delivered the BIM-PIM integration that can potentially revolutionize how BIM is managed and deployed in the AEC industry.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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