Autodesk had its annual event, Autodesk University (AU), a couple of weeks ago, and as with all other technology events this year, this was also held virtually, allowing attendees to zero in on what was most interesting and relevant to them. Autodesk used the event to provide key technology updates across all the three main industries it serves: AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction); D&M (product design and manufacturing); and M&E (media and entertainment). This article captures the key AEC industry updates that were shared, including some new products, most notably Autodesk Tandem for digital twins and Autodesk Build for construction, the acquisition of Spacemaker for generative design in urban planning, and updates to existing products including generative design in Revit and site optimization in Civil 3D.
Digital Twins is the currently the hottest topic in AEC technology, and we heard a lot about it at Bentley’s recent YII event. While Bentley has been talking about Digital Twins for some time now — it was also featured prominently at last year’s YII event — Autodesk hasn’t really talked about it that much until now. At AU last year, while the term “Digital Twins” was mentioned in passing, what Autodesk focused on instead was “Smart Spaces,” enabled by technologies such as a “smart door” that was being developed by an Autodesk-incubated start-up. This made sense, given that an important component of Digital Twins technology is IoT enabled components that can track their current status and keep the physical asset in sync with its digital representation.
Now, however, Autodesk is embracing the terminology in full force. Not only has it joined the Digital Twins Consortium as a founding member, it has also developed an application for Digital Twins called Autodesk Tandem. The fundamental idea is the same — having a digital replica of a physical asset that remains in sync with the physical object throughout its lifetime. In the context of the AEC industry, the concept applies to buildings as well as infrastructure (see the white paper, Digital Twins in AEC), and the new Autodesk Tandem is specifically geared towards buildings. Unlike a static BIM model — in Autodesk’s world, this would be a Revit model — which is of limited use beyond the construction phase of a building, Autodesk Tandem would be a dynamic digital resource combining the as-constructed BIM model of a building with real-time operational data of all its systems and components, allowing building owners and operators to run the building more efficiently. Essentially, it would be the tool for the “digital handover” of the project from the design and construction team to the owner (Figure 1).
The details about how exactly Autodesk Tandem would work — how it would collect and collate all the physical and operational data — were not provided, as the application is still in a pre-beta phase, far from a commercial release. I was particularly interested in knowing whether it would be closed — limited to only Autodesk products like Revit — or open to a universe beyond Autodesk. It seems like the intention is to be open — I did hear (very briefly) that it would be open to formats like the IFC, at least for BIM. This is good news, as it is important for a Digital Twin application to be able to work with multiple tools and formats, not just for BIM but also for building product data and IoT.
At AU last year, Autodesk announced the integration of its many construction applications — some developed inhouse and others coming from acquisitions such as PlanGrid, Assemble, and BuildingConnected — into a new portfolio of products called Autodesk Construction Cloud so that they could work together. This year, Autodesk is extending this platform with several new applications, including Autodesk Build, a project management and field collaboration solution; Autodesk Quantify, for integrated 2D and 3D quantification; and Autodesk BIM Collaborate, for model coordination and design collaboration. All of these are built on another new offering called Autodesk Docs, which will provide a Common Data Environment (CDE) for all data related to a project on the cloud, so it can be also be accessed from anywhere, including the jobsite.
In addition to being cloud-based, better integrated, and having a more unified look and feel, these latest applications in the Autodesk Construction Cloud have several new capabilities such as progress tracking markups that allow teams in the field to report progress in real time directly on drawings (Figure 2), the ability to do 3D take-offs in addition to 2D for greater accuracy (Figure 3), and the ability to coordinate multiple models on the cloud with Navisworks integration (Figure 4).
The conceptual design stage in AEC, where you are exploring different options to satisfy the specified design criteria, is one area ripe for the development of “smarts” through the application of technologies such as rule-based design and generative design. This is because the entities that you are dealing with are not yet that complex and it is easier to apply computational algorithms to them. Also, given that the design decisions made at this stage are so critical, determining what is actually going to be built, investing in smart tools to facilitate these decisions seems like a no-brainer. This was precisely the reasoning behind Spacemaker, a cloud-based generative tool for urban design coming out of Norway, that Autodesk has now acquired to add to its AEC portfolio.
At the conceptual stage of urban design, there are typically dozens of criteria that need to be considered, and SpaceMaker generates multiple design options that can be explored to determine how they play out on the site (Figure 5). For any given design, you can also analyze all these criteria, including buildable area, façade area, solar exposure and shading, wind exposure, lines of sight, noise, density, and so on, allowing you to quickly explore multiple options and optimize the design (Figure 6).
While the Spacemaker acquisition is exciting, it will take a while for the application to become integrated with the Autodesk product family and make its presence felt. In the meantime, the ideas of generative and rule-based design are becoming more mainstream and being implemented in existing Autodesk products. For example, generative design is now a full-fledged feature built into Revit, rather than an extension that requires knowledge of Dynamo and some coding expertise to use. It can be used to quickly run through optimal solutions for a specific scenario such as the furniture layout in a room, the distribution of lights, window placement to maximize views, etc., that satisfy key design requirements. An example that is especially relevant at the current time is social distancing, and Revit 2021 comes with some out-of-the box scripts that allow designers to experiment with room layouts that follow social distancing guidelines (Figure 7).
A different flavor of generative design has been implemented in Civil 3D, which now has an extension for grading optimization. You can specify key parameters for the grading and the system helps you find the most optimal solution satisfying these options (Figure 8). It seems similar to SITEOPS, the generative tool for site design that Bentley acquired in 2014.
Other updates include a renewed commitment to interoperability with IFC4 compliance for Revit and ISO 19650 certification for BIM 360 Doc. In addition to continuing to work with buildingSMART which is spearheading the OpenBIM movement, Autodesk has joined the Open Design Alliance, another key industry organization focused on interoperability. Also, Autodesk Docs is being developed to support over 50 file formats when it is released.
Autodesk is also partnering with NVIDIA to participate in its recently announced Omniverse, which enables synchronous collaboration between various applications through the cloud. Through Omniverse, Autodesk solutions can be connected with applications such as Unity, Unreal, Sketchup, Rhino, and ArcGIS, allowing design professionals using different tools to be able to work together in one environment. This is not just relevant to AEC, but also to the other industries Autodesk serves, especially M&E, where professionals using Autodesk solutions like Maya and 3ds Max need to work with a range of other modeling and visualization solutions (Figure 9).
It is always interesting to get an annual update on the Autodesk world from the sessions at Autodesk University, especially given the dominant role Autodesk has played when it comes to the design and construction of buildings with its Revit application. Now, however, the technology focus is (finally!) moving to the operations phase, and not only has Bentley taken the lead here with Digital Twins, it has also joined forces with formidable players like Microsoft and Siemens. The market, however, is so vast — we could potentially have a digital twin of every building and infrastructure element on the planet! — that the more, the merrier. From what I saw of Autodesk Tandem, it looks very good — well organized and intuitive to use. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and its success will depend upon how well it works.
With regard to the other applications and updates that Autodesk announced, the increasing move to the cloud is in line with what is happening in the technology world as a whole, and it especially makes a lot of sense at the construction stage, given the pervasiveness of tablets and smartphones at construction sites to monitor and track construction progress. The Autodesk Construction Cloud is shaping up to become a well-rounded suite of applications for pre-construction as well as construction management. However, it is still missing a construction scheduling application (see the list of “Construction Planning and Scheduling” applications on the main AECbytes VendorHub page). Hopefully, Autodesk is already working on plans to fill in this missing piece.
For design applications like Revit, Civil 3D, and the new Spacemaker, it is good to see the application of computing technology to increase the level of automation and smarts. Going forward, I look forward to seeing more of these, so AEC professionals don’t have to spend their time doing tedious and mundane tasks that can be off-loaded to the computer, but can instead focus on designing and constructing better buildings for all of us.
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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