Autodesk AEC Summit: 2016 Release and Upcoming Products AECbytes Feature (June 17, 2015)

The last time that Autodesk hosted a dedicated event for media professionals in AEC to provide more details about its annual product release was in 2011, shortly after the launch of its 2012 product family. After a gap of several years, Autodesk hosted an AEC Summit for the media once again this year. Held in the last week of May, just after the AIA 2015 convention, the event was intended to provide not only more details about Autodesk’s recently released 2016 AEC product family, but also some information about upcoming technologies that Autodesk is working on, as well as its strategic outlook and future vision. The event was held in Autodesk’s new facility in downtown Boston, where its AEC headquarters are being relocated from their earlier location in Waltham. It provided Autodesk with the opportunity to also show some work being done in downtown Boston by its AEC customers as well as a high-profile large-scale art installation that was facilitated by one of its M&E applications.

While not strictly AEC-related, this art installation over Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway (Figure 1) by artist Janet Echelman provided a rare opportunity for many of us to learn first-hand, from the artist herself, about the process of designing and constructing such an enormous sculpture that spans across several buildings surrounding the open space of the Greenway. To me, personally, it also suggested a blurring of the lines between what we traditionally think of as AEC—buildings and infrastructure—and large-scale art installations such as this one that seem to be very much a part of our built environment. Perhaps, we will someday have architects, urban designers, and city planners working in conjunction with artists at the outset to routinely integrate art into the design of buildings and infrastructure well before they are constructed.

Figure 1. Different views of the art installation over Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway by Janet Echelman. (Photo credits: Melissa Henry)

In the meantime, getting back to traditional AEC applications, here are more details about Autodesk’s 2016 AEC product lineup, upcoming products, and strategic vision. 

2016 AEC Product Family

Given that BIM is still in the early stages of adoption in many parts of the world and some years away from the ubiquity of 2D CAD in the AEC industry, Autodesk is continuing to focus not only on its existing BIM applications but also on expanding its BIM footprint to other processes in AEC such as construction and operations—in addition to design and engineering—as well as to infrastructure—in addition to buildings. This was evident not only in the 2016 product updates and new releases, but also in the upcoming products that it is working on.

Let’s start with Revit, still Autodesk’s main BIM authoring application for buildings. The 2016 version of Revit includes several platform enhancements as well as improvements to each of its disciplinary applications for architecture, structure, and MEP. The most significant enhancement is in the area of speed and performance, implemented by increasing the number of operations that can use multi-processing. (Recall that Revit start implementing multi-processing starting from its 2012 release, and has been gradually improving this capability with every release). This means that several operations are now faster including opening files, viewing, printing, rendering, and others. Other enhancements include a built-in rendering engine that is also much faster than the mental ray rendering engine that was the only option for generating high-quality photorealistic images earlier (see the recent AECbytes article, Revit 2016's New Physical-Realistic Rendering Engine), perspective view editing, and improved IFC linking, allowing existing geometry in a linked IFC model to be used as a reference for dimensions, alignment, snapping, etc. (see Figure 2). Additional discipline-specific enhancements include improved structural reinforcement detailing, improved workflows specific to steel connection design and detailing, and the ability to create fabrication-ready MEP models within Revit using content from other MEP applications (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Defining room boundaries in Revit Architecture 2016 using a linked IFC model as a reference.

Figure 3. Creating a fabrication-ready MEP model inside Revit MEP 2016 using external MEP Fabrication parts.

For infrastructure design, Autodesk reiterated the key capabilities of its InfraWorks application (which was described in detail in the article, Extending BIM to Infrastructure), including its Model Builder capability which can create entire city models in just seven minutes by putting together freely available CAD and GIS data; its rule-based design capabilities for roads, bridges, and drainage (which inspired the recent Viewpoint article questioning why we don’t have a smarter tool for building design yet), and its conceptual design and presentation capabilities that are useful not only to civil engineers and urban planners but also to city planning departments and for public outreach. A good example of this came from the event city, Boston, itself, which had used InfraWorks in the development and presentation of its bid for the 2024 Olympics. While there are several new cloud-based analysis capabilities being planned for InfraWorks such as parking analysis, traffic analysis, optimization for cut-and-fill, road drainage analysis, etc., what has been implemented for the 2016 release is improved bidirectional integration between InfraWorks and AutoCAD Civil 3D (Autodesk’s application for detailed infrastructure design and engineering); support for IFC and DGN files for improved collaboration and coordination with those using non-Autodesk applications; and improved visualization of details such as roads, bridges, and buildings in city models (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Improved visualizations of city models in Autodesk InfraWorks.

In addition to the building and infrastructure design products, there are also some enhancements in applications common to both fields. For example, a key new feature in AutoCAD 2016 is the ability to bring in a Navisworks model and use it as an underlay to avoid potential design clashes and improve multi-disciplinary BIM coordination, enabling users to take advantage of Navisworks’ vast file format support to bring models into AutoCAD from other applications (Figure 5). Another significant enhancement in AutoCAD is improved PDF export, with PDFs that are smaller but that still maintain fidelity and are more searchable, retain hyperlinks, and can be attached to drawings more quickly. Enhancements to Autodesk Recap, Autodesk’s point cloud software for capture and integrating 3D data from laser scans and photos into design applications like Revit, InfraWorks, and AutoCAD, include support for new native laser scan formats; smart measurement tools to help measure diameters and distances with automatic shape fitting; and the ability to add tags, notes, pictures and hyperlinks to ReCap files and have them automatically sync between the desktop and the cloud.

Figure 5. The ability to underlay a Navisworks model in AutoCAD 2016 for clash avoidance and improved design coordination.

In addition to its core building and infrastructure design applications and supporting tools, Autodesk is also focused on developing and promoting its conceptual design portfolio, comprising FormIt and Dynamo. In fact, it concentrated its recent AIA 2015 presence primarily on these two application (see the recent article on AIA 2015 for more details), showing the new FormIt 360 Pro which includes solar analysis and model collaboration capabilities, as well as the standalone Dynamo Studio for design scripting. Autodesk is attempting to make the flow from what it calls conceptual BIM to constructional BIM smooth and seamless, examples of which include the ability to use Revit content in FormIt Pro and making Dynamo compatible with a large range of applications for detailed design and engineering (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Using a form created in Dynamo for further engineering design and analysis.

And finally, Autodesk showcased its growing array of cloud-based applications based on its A360 cloud platform. I had been somewhat underwhelmed with A360 when I explored last September, and while many of the issues I had pointed out at that time—the lack of comprehensive project management, document management, model coordination, and collaboration capabilities; greater focus on MCAD than AEC; inability to pull Autodesk cloud services such as renderings, energy analysis, structural analysis, etc., to work directly with the project models stored on A360; and the lack of a clear explanation about the scope and objective about the service—still remain, there have been some improvements. One of the main ones is an expanded 3D model viewer that allows a model stored on A360 to be viewed by everyone on the project team and enables markups for review and collaboration. While almost all collaboration solutions have a model viewer, what is impressive about the A360 Model Viewer is that it supports over 100 file formats and lets them be viewed in high resolution.

While A360 is Autodesk’s core cloud platform, it is the AEC-specific BIM 360 extension of it that Autodesk seems to be expanding in a big way. In addition to existing cloud services like BIM 360 Glue for cloud-based model management, BIM 360 Field for managing construction logistics on site, and BIM 360 Layout for site positioning, Autodesk has introduced BIM 360 Plan, a new service for construction planning intended to help eliminate many construction problems such as scheduling bottlenecks, lack of coordination between different crews, overlapping tasks, delay of material deliveries, and so on. The production planning software in BIM 360 Plan incorporates the principles of lean construction to reduce construction waste associated with overproduction, excess inventory, and task rework. By providing an easy-to-use visual interface for everyone involved in the construction project—from superintendents and crew foremen to project engineers—to create and update their own production plans, a consolidated view of the entire construction plan becomes available (Figure 7). Not only can this be adjusted by the construction manager to make the schedule tighter and the plan more efficient, everyone on the construction team can get real-time visibility on their own work commitments, timelines, and hand-offs, as well as on what others will be doing and where. As with the other BIM 360 services, BIM 360 Plan is also available on mobile devices, making it convenient for work plans to be created and updated from wherever the work gets done, from the trailer to the field. The service can also track and report on key performance metrics, with the ability to drill down to see metrics for a specific phase, location, or trade partner on the project. 

Figure 7. The BIM 360 Plan interface allows users to create their production plans in either list, gantt, or swim lane modes, providing a consolidated view of the overall project plan.

There are several more BIM 360 products in development, which will be described in the following section. This focus on BIM 360 is not surprising, given that, according to Autodesk, BIM 360 is the faster growing product in its history. Needless to say, there is still a lot of scope for technology to facilitate improvements in construction, and any cost and/or time savings that can be achieved would be very significant as they would directly impact the construction budget of a project. Therefore, any such tools would be highly sought after both by contractors as well as owners, and would, in all likelihood, command a good price as well.  

Upcoming Products and Future Outlook

Continuing the discussion on BIM 360, which is almost entirely focused on facilitating improvements in construction, Autodesk has several more BIM 360 products in the pipeline, slated for release later this year. These include BIM 360 Scheduling, which is integrated with Revit and can enable model-based scheduling; BIM 360 Docs, which can manage project documentation and provide up-to-date project information on the field, and BIM 360 Enterprise Insight, which can comb through data across all projects, providing a consolidated view as well as firm-wide analytics and insights. While many of these tasks already have dedicated applications from other vendors addressing them such as Primavera, Prolog, Microsoft Project, BIMx Pro, and so on, the advantage for users implementing these upcoming Autodesk solutions is that would be built on the common platform of BIM 360 and hopefully, better integrated with each other. 

An additional area in which Autodesk is expanding its technology footprint is in the area of building operations. This is keeping with the mission of BIM—as it was envisioned right from the time it was introduced—to span the entire spectrum of AEC, all the way from design to the facilities management (FM) and operations and maintenance (O&M) of the building. While Autodesk does not have a dedicated FM application—it discontinued its internal FM tool, FM:Desktop, several years ago and prefers to rely on third-party FM vendors like FM:Systems and ArchiBUS to provide FM tools that integrate with Revit—it is launching a new product called Building Ops in the O&M space. The main objective of the application is to improve the handover experience and place operations data collected during the BIM-based design and construction phases of a project into the hands of the team maintaining the building from day one. This connection happens through integration with BIM 360 Field, allowing all the relevant documents, models, photographs, and videos associated with the building components and asset data to be migrated and conveniently available in Building Ops. Those in charge of operating and maintaining the building can then use the mobile or web interface of the application to continually update and manage asset information such as location, operation, maintenance, repairs, service requests, and so on.

The timing for Autodesk’s new Building Ops tool is opportune, given the growing momentum of “The Internet of Things” in technology as a whole as well as in the AEC industry (see the article, The "Internet of Things" in AEC). With the ability to embed sensors in practically every object, we can have smart homes, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, smart cities … in fact, smart everything. Autodesk recently made a strategic investment in a company called Panoramic Power that can attach sensors to building components to obtain real-time information on their performance, defects, malfunctions, and so on. This information can be combined with the capabilities of the Building Ops tool to provide operations and maintenance personnel with an insight into the overall performance of the building and fix any problems that are detected. In fact, if the sensors can also detect upcoming problems with equipment, it is possible for buildings to have predictive maintenance as opposed to just be on reactive maintenance mode as they currently are. This ability will certainly make buildings “smarter” in the sense of at least being easier and cheaper to maintain. Eventually, Autodesk sees the same concept also being expanded for field asset management in infrastructure, again, making for “smart cities” in at least the maintenance aspect.

There are also some upcoming applications for design and analysis, both for buildings as well as for infrastructure. There was a brief but intriguing mention of a tool called Akaba which can provide spatial alternatives for early stage design based on program requirements (Figure 8), drawing on the “infinite computing power” of the cloud—a theme that Autodesk frequently references at its annual AU events but hasn’t shown much evidence of in its tools until now. For infrastructure design, Autodesk is coming up with Urban Canvas, a “SimCity”-style urban planning tool (Figure 9) originally developed by a Berkeley professor that it acquired a few months ago. At this point, it is not clear how Urban Canvas and InfraWorks will work together, although it does seem like they should. InfraWorks itself will have several enhancements including site planning tools, the ability to import point clouds with classification and feature recognition to facilitate the creation of models, and a Presenter mode which will allow models to be viewed independently.

Figure 8. Autodesk Project Akaba, currently in development, provides different spatial alternatives satisfying project goals.

Figure 9. The Urban Canvas tool for city planning that Autodesk recently acquired.

For analysis, Autodesk is phasing out separate applications like Vasari and instead developing comprehensive energy analysis capabilities within design tools like Revit and FormIt. Also, as mentioned earlier, on the infrastructure front, several additional cloud-based analysis capabilities are being planned for InfraWorks such as parking analysis, traffic analysis, route finding and mapping, optimization for cut-and-fill, road drainage analysis, flood simulation and analysis, etc.

For all its current and upcoming products, Autodesk will continue moving towards a subscription model instead of the perpetual licensing that has been the mainstay of the company’s applications until now. The concept of SaaS (Software as a Service) is a growing trend in the technology industry, and it seems to be working even for vendors that develop large and complex applications. Autodesk cited the example of Adobe which successfully transitioned its Creative Suite applications, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and others, to the cloud. (In fact, a financial report that just came out today highlighted the success of Adobe’s Creative Cloud since it was launched.) Adobe’s ability in effectively transitioning its sophisticated set of graphic design applications to the cloud serves as a great model for vendors like Autodesk to attempt to do the same with their products.

Conclusions

While innovation in Autodesk’s core platform, Revit, seems to have hit a brick wall—the 2016 release had more of incremental updates than dramatic new capabilities—it was heartening to see the range of new and coming products that Autodesk is working on, and its expansion in a big way to the construction and O&M phase of a building. In particular, the post-construction phase is still very nascent in terms of technology implementation—the tools have simply not been there for the efficiencies gained in the design and construction phases to be continued in the operation and maintenance phases. Hopefully, new tools, upcoming technologies like IoT (Internet of Things). as well as the mindshare of vendors like Autodesk will go a long way towards remedying this problem, making buildings not only more cost-effective to maintain for their owners but also much more comfortable and responsive to their occupants—not to mention being more sustainable for the planet as a whole. Eventually, these tools and concepts can be applied to infrastructure as well, making our cities greener, easier to live in, and less expensive to maintain.

On the building design front, while the upcoming Akaba seems promising, I was disappointed to find no indications of any tool in development that addressed my recent question of why we don’t have a smarter tool for building design similar to the intelligence of Autodesk Infraworks in the realm of infrastructure design (see my recent Viewpoint article). Building some rule-based design capabilities in Revit might give it some badly-needed fresh air (a point of view that was also reflected in James Vandezande’s recent Viewpoint article—see the section on “Identity Crisis”), and given that Autodesk already has in-house expertise in rule-based design on its Infraworks team, is it really that difficult to apply that to Revit for building design? Tools like FormIt and Dynamo are useful and have their place for conceptual design, but they cannot really substitute for “smarts” in building design that should automate much of the creation of a detailed, constructable, BIM model.

Likewise, it would also be helpful to the AEC industry for vendors like Autodesk to address one aspect of AEC practice that seems to have been completely untouched by technology so far—the process of getting approvals and permits from regulatory authorities. Why are we still submitting drawings instead of models for approvals? Why are design proposals still being checked manually for code enforcement instead of running automated code-checking on BIM models? The AEC technology industry really needs to address this bottleneck to derive efficiencies from BIM across the entire AEC spectrum.

Hopefully, Autodesk, with its growing momentum in AEC technology development, some of which are in areas that have been under-served by technology so far, will be able to take on these challenges, and we can look forward to seeing some potential solutions for them in future releases.

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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