AECbytes Product Review (April 11, 2013)
I last reviewed the BIM application, Allplan, from the Germany-based Nemetschek Allplan Systems GmbH (brand of Nemetschek AG), in April 2008, just after version 2008 had been released. In that review, we looked in detail at the Allplan product family and other Nemetschek products and companies. Subsequently, Allplan was also one of the six BIM applications reviewed and compared in detail in the BIM Study Evaluation Report published in 2010. Nemetschek has recently released version 2013 of the application, and it seems like a good time to take a fresh look at it and see what has changed since it was last explored in AECbytes.
In this review, we will look at both the architecture and structure modules of Allplan, since many of the enhancements in the new release are common to both packages.
Allplan has had built-in tools for creating photorealistic images using various rendering methods for several years. While these are of acceptable quality, Allplan has had bidirectional integration with Cinema 4D for more sophisticated renderings, and dedicated interfaces to export the model to other rendering applications, which has allowed many stunning project images to be created with Allplan, as shown in Figure 1.
Allplan 2013 further enhances its visualization capabilities through several improvements. It includes a new rendering method called “Global Illumination Render” (GI) which allows a more realistic portrayal of the lighting conditions in a scene, particularly when it comes to lighting interiors. It does this by displaying not only direct light sources but also indirect lighting that results from the refraction and reflection of light on other surfaces. Compared with ray tracing, the GI method optimizes the nuances of brightness and produces smoother shadows, allowing architects to create more convincing and photorealistic built-in renderings from the building model within Allplan. They can also better evaluate the effect of materials selected for different surfaces of the project at an early stage.
Figure 1. Photorealistic renderings of Allplan projects created by its integration with Cinema 4D and other rendering applications. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Allplan; Projects featured are, top row, from left: Fraunhofer Institute for Nondestructive Testing IZFP, Saarbrücken, Germany; Music Theatre Graz, Austria; Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, France CHP GmbH, Freiburg, Germany; middle row, from left: Dry Dock in Duqm Port, Oman; Wuhan Library, Wuhan, China; Gotthard Main Tunnel, AlpTransit Gotthard AG, Luzern/Switzerland; bottom row, from left: Dance Arts Centre, Sofia, Bulgaria; Rimske thermal baths, Rimske Toplice, Slovenia; Dry Dock in Duqm Port, Oman)
Another key visualization enhancement in Allplan 2013 is a new “hidden line image with shadow” function, which allows shadows to be displayed in hidden-line drawings (plans, elevations, and sections) as well as 3D views (including 3D sections). The resulting images provide more realistic views of the project and also make for more visually arresting presentation graphics, as shown in Figure 2. It should be noted that these images created are not real sun studies but idealized representations that are calculated based on the values that can be specified freely for the angle of incidence and the intensity of the light. A special module for sun studies is also available.
Figure 2. Views created by using the new “hidden line image with shadow” option.
For engineers, another new visualization capability in Allplan 2013 that is very helpful is the color-coded reinforcement display, shown in Figure 3. The reinforcements with different diameters are displayed in different colors, which helps the engineer in orienting them better in complex reinforcement models. Users can customize the colors that are assigned to individual diameters of the reinforcement.
Figure 3. Color-coded reinforcement display in Allplan 2013.
Until the 2011 release, Allplan did not have any parametric modeling tools for the creation of BIM content. It came with predefined content for objects like windows, doors, and curtain walls; predefined tables of sections (such as steel sections); and fixtures from industrial suppliers. There were dedicated country-specific content packages that were available, and additional content could be imported in supported file formats. In Allplan 2012 released last year, parametric modeling for content was introduced in a feature called “SmartParts,” and this capability has been enhanced in Allplan 2013 with a new SmartPart content palette, from where you can select SmartParts and drag and drop them in the workspace. Objects created as SmartParts behave intelligently and support object changes and variations. They include both 2D and 3D representations that are used depending upon the view that the object is inserted in. For example, Figure 4 shows an example of a set of dining table and chairs available as a SmartPart being inserted into the model of a residential project. As the table length is changed, the number of chairs is automatically adjusted to the table size. Another intelligent behavior of this SmartPart is the automatic detection of the center line of the wall so that the table group can be placed in line with it. As shown in the Properties palette on the left, the SmartPart includes both 2D and 3D representations that appear correctly in the 3D window on the left and the plan window on the right.
Figure 4. Inserting a SmartPart object in Allplan 2013.
Another example of a SmartPart object, this time for structural engineering, is shown in the top image of Figure 5. The intelligence of a SmartPart object comes from its parametric values, which are controlled by a script that can be edited using a SmartPart Editor dialog box. Here, you can add new parameters or edit the script text to change the SmartPart (see lower image of Figure 5). Having a script language allows advanced users to create and exchange their own parametric objects and content. They can turn complex geometries of basic elements into new, independent and intelligent objects, using all the modeling tools available in Allplan and the ability to join, slice, or subtract objects from each other. Once a SmartPart has been inserted, it can be edited graphically using handles (as shown in Figure 4) or through the settings in the Properties palette.
Figure 5. The top image shows SmartPart with reinforcement, while the lower image shows the SmartPart Editor dialog with the parameters and the script for a SmartPart structural object.
While Allplan comes with a collection of built-in SmartParts for both architecture and engineering, the collection can be expanded by downloading additional SmartParts from the Allplan international service portal, Allplan Connect, which hosts a large amount of quality-controlled content that is constantly being added to. It includes manufacturer-specific objects (for interiors, exteriors, fixtures, etc.), as well as complex, prefabricated components and assemblies. All the objects in Allplan Connect have a country ID, so a targeted search is also possible for international projects. While architects can accelerate their design process with the availability of ready smart content for both building interiors and exteriors, Allplan 2013 has some additional benefits for engineers, with SmartParts for reinforcement, formwork, and other components, making it easier to model and edit geometrically complex structures as well as subsequently document them.
A survey commissioned by Nemetschek Allplan of 1,200 architects in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands in 2012 found that architects spend over 22% of their time on administrative rather than creative tasks. Further, a major part of this administrative work was exporting, sending and archiving CAD data, over 86% of which was done using email. This pointed to the potential for a web-based project collaboration platform for managing and sharing digital data, and was the impetus behind the development of Allplan Exchange, a new electronic publishing and digital sharing platform that is integrated with Allplan 2013.
With Allplan Exchange, the layouts created in Allplan can be saved in seventeen different formats, archived locally, as well as sent to project partners via the web, all at the same time with a multi-export tool. As shown in top image of Figure 6, different formats can be assigned to different recipients, allowing every person involved in the project to get the exact information they need. The user can also specify the email note that should accompany the links to the selected layouts. At the receiving end, shown in the lower image of Figure 6, the recipient receives an email with the links to the selected files that can be downloaded from Allplan Exchange. The files are also available for viewing on mobile devices.
Figure 6. The top image shows the Allplan Exchange dialog within Allplan 2013, allowing selected layouts to be sent to selected recipients in specific formats. The lower image shows the email notification a recipient gets with a link to download the sent layouts from Allplan Exchange.
In addition to making it easier for the current layout data to be made available to all those involved in a project at any time over the course of a project, Allplan Exchange creates a log whenever data is sent and/or downloaded, allowing users to keep track of who has opened or downloaded which layouts and when.
It should be noted that Allplan Exchange is currently limited to exchanging only layout files, i.e., 2D CAD data, via its integration with Allplan. If any file types are to be distributed, such as Word, Excel, PPT documents, images of renderings/stills, IFC data, etc., it is possible to select them manually by the file browser and add them to the deliverables. This means that the entire BIM model in Allplan cannot really be sent (since it is not contained in a single file), unless it is exported to an IFC model.
There are over 30 new functions in Allplan 2013, some of which have been explored in depth in the preceding sections. Of the remaining, the key ones include the availability of a 64-bit version in addition to the earlier 32-bit version, allowing access to more memory and faster processing with large volumes of data; improvements in the user interface with a cleaner design and more intuitive icons for greater clarity and efficiency; adjustment of the folder structure to be line with Windows 7, allowing Allplan to be installed in line with the Windows standard folders; and support for up to 9,999 drawing files and 9,999 layouts in a project instead of 6,000. Allplan 2013 also improves the creation of associative views with improved accuracy and more display options (see Figure 7). Finally, for engineers, there is simplified labeling of bar and mesh reinforcement, as well as an extended and revised report functionality for structural components like meshes and reinforcement.
Figure 7. The new display options for associative views in Allplan 2013 produce more realistic results and an impression of depth.
The enhancements in the new version of Allplan serve to further improve its usability for its existing user base, including the new rendering and visualization options, the availability of smart content in the form of SmartParts and the ability to create your own smart objects using scripting, the availability of a 64-bit version, the improved user interface, and the ease of reinforcement modeling and labeling for engineers. The ability to send drawing layouts to other project members from within Allplan will also be welcomed as a much easier and more efficient way than email, FTP, or even post/courier to distribute project drawings. The resources for learning the application have also been greatly improved since I last reviewed the application: in addition to the extensive Help documentation, there is a separate New Features document, which is very helpful for getting an overview of the new functionality of the application. There is also a QuickStart tutorial which can be downloaded and installed; it is accompanied by videos which provide a step-by-step guide to the application and allow you to try out all the steps for yourself.
At the same time, I was disappointed to find that the method to set up the project—that I found so complex and non-intuitive when I last explored the application—has not changed. There is still a “fileset structure” that corresponds to a “building structure,” which in turn is linked to a “floor manager” that defines the heights of the different floors of the building. The setup is file-based, and you have to constantly access the Fileset/Building Structure interface to activate the individual file of the floor that you want to draw or model in. Sections and elevations have to be generated and updated manually, and these are also in their own individual files. Since all project data is distributed across multiple files, Allplan’s approach is similar to that of the Bentley BIM solutions and makes it easier to be used on large, distributed projects. At the same time, it is missing the ease and intuitiveness of project setup in centralized BIM applications like Revit and ArchiCAD. Allplan does provide via its service portal a predefined project set-up for different project types, and also allows the building structure from existing projects to be re-used by firms for their future projects, which definitely helps but does not really mitigate the problem.
In addition to the complexity of setting up the building structure and managing all the diverse files containing different parts of the model, what Allplan also loses out on with the distributed rather than the centralized approach is the intelligence, associativity, and automated change management capabilities that centralized model applications provide. So, for instance, if you move a wall using the Move tool, the walls connected to it do not automatically adjust to maintain the connectivity and the room element too does not automatically fill out to the new boundary. While a Stretch Entities tool is available to make these kinds of simultaneous modifications, it is based on geometry rather than on understanding and maintaining the relationships between building elements. Therefore it cannot fully make up for the lack of associativity. This was a limitation I pointed out in my review of Allplan 2008 and it still exists in the current release.
Also, it seems as though Allplan hasn’t fully embraced the BIM methodology yet—its literature often refers to “CAD drawings” and “CAD systems” rather than “BIM.” The fact that its new Allplan Exchange system is limited to exchanging drawing data only points to the fact that most of its existing users are still using CAD rather than BIM. Of course, the application can hardly be faulted for doing its best to serve existing customers, but at the same time, it needs to expand its vision and adopt better BIM capabilities if it hopes to expand beyond Europe—where most of its current users are—and attract new users from all over the world. Given its many strengths—including an extensive repertoire of CAD and building modeling capabilities with a large array of options for each tool, comprehensive 3D modeling tools that allow complex organic forms to be created, multi-disciplinary capabilities, integration with the wide set of other Nemetschek tools including Cinema 4D, strong support for IFC and other interoperability initiatives, and add-ons for building cost management/efficiency in some countries—it would be a great pity if Allplan did not emerge as a strong contender when BIM solutions are being evaluated for adoption by AEC firms worldwide.
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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