Technology Solutions for AEC Exhibited at Autodesk University 2015AECbytes Feature (January 15, 2016)

Last month, we looked at the highlights of the recent Autodesk University 2015, whose theme of “The Future of Making Things” translated into many developments for manufacturing and several cutting-edge manufacturing projects including a 3D printed airplane partition for Airbus designed using generative design, and the development of bionic devices for missing limbs that can even surpass their normal capabilities. We also looked at the extension of manufacturing into construction and a new application for cloud-based document management, BIM 360 Docs, which was the biggest news from Autodesk on the AEC front at this year’s event.

This article provides an overview of some of the key third-party AEC technology solutions that were on display in the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University (AU). With the ever-growing universe of adds-ons, plug-ins, other supporting technologies, and certified hardware products, the Exhibit Hall is a veritable trove of technology riches waiting to be discovered. While I was not able to visit all the exhibitors, I did manage quite a few, some of which were familiar to me while others were completely new. Let’s start with Fuzor.

Fuzor

While AECbytes does not do “Best of Show” awards—is it really possible to select a “best” out of the many solutions so many developers have put their heart and soul into creating?—if I had to pick out one solution that was new to me and I found really impressive, it would have to be Fuzor. Apparently, this is not the first time it is being exhibited at AU, but it seems like I missed it among the vast number of exhibitors that typically attend AU every year. At first, Fuzor seemed to be just another visualization solution, but I soon learnt that it offers many more capabilities. On the design and visualization front itself, it includes a host of features including bi-directional integration with BIM applications like Revit and ArchiCAD, which brings in any live changes that made to the model (Figure 1) and also syncs back any edits that are made in Fuzor; additional support for SketchUp, 3ds Max, and FBX files; the ability to edit materials and make lighting adjustments in real time; drag and drop placement of objects directly into Fuzor; the ability to create multiple design options and switch between them instantly; and an extensive library of foliage and entourage elements to add greater realism to the visualization. 

Figure 1. Bidirectional integration of Fuzor with Revit, showing how moving an object in the model in Revit instantly updates it in Fuzor.

While these features, in and of themselves, make for a comprehensive visualization tool, Fuzor does a lot more. It include a full AEC-specific validation and analysis capability that can import Navisworks files, run clash detection and generate reports, check for height and edge clearances, perform sun studies, generate lighting reports, perform visual inspection through cross-sectioning with multiple planes (Figure 2), manipulate element visibility, and use an array of measurement and annotation tools. The application is available on mobile devices allowing models to be explored on the go. It also supports popular VR and AR devices such as Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, allowing project stakeholders to get an immersive experience of the design. A key capability in the recently released 2016 version of the application is a real time collaboration platform that allows multiple users located anywhere in the world to come together and work collaboratively on a project in Fuzor. There is also a Software Development Kit which can be used by users and third-party developers to extend the capabilities of the application, especially for the FM (facilities management) side of AEC.

Figure 2. Using four cross-section planes to explore the inside of a model in Fuzor. The top image shows the model before any cross-sectioning has been applied.

Given that there is so much useful functionality in a single application, I came away surprised to find that Fuzor is not better known in the AEC industry. It seems to be still relatively new, but I would be surprised to not see it being more widely implemented going forward.

Other Analysis and Visualization Tools

I also had the opportunity to catch up with developments on more established analysis tools such as Sefaira and IES. Sefaira is a cloud-based energy analysis tool for the early design stage, and since its launch in 2012 (see AECbytes Newsletter #59), it has continued to add additional features and functionality. Earlier this year, the Sefaira product family was expanded to include a brand-new application called Sefaira Systems that was targeted specifically for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design engineers. This was followed by the addition of a direct sunlight analysis capability, which allowed building designers to understand where and for how many hours a space receives direct sunlight. The latest development that Sefaira showcased at AU was the integration of EnergyPlus, the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s analysis engine, into Sefaira’s real-time analysis tools, making it more accessible to architects on their desktops. Sefaira also previewed a new collaborative platform for performance-based design which will allow architects, engineers, and sustainability specialists to work on the same performance analysis model, as well as a new product, Sefaira Strategies, that is designed to provide a tailored workspace for sustainability specialists at architectural firms who often coordinate performance solutions at the early stages of design.

Another developer of energy analysis tools, IES, whose products span the whole analysis spectrum ranging from early stage design to detailed MEP models, showed me what it was doing along the building operation/maintenance side of AEC—which has been relatively neglected in terms of technology application so far. IES has launched a CI2 (which stands for Collect, Investigate, Compare and Invest) consulting service which uses the latest technology from its R&D division to analyse and model operational data from buildings. The service enables an organization to identify areas of operational improvement, and uses building and meter data to find hidden cost and resource savings through smarter system control and smarter ways to gather and analyze data. IES had several interesting case studies to show how CI2 was being put to work, including a Walgreens store in Illinois where IESVE was used as a commissioning tool throughout the design/construction progress to validate and inform the team about the anticipated performance of the building, making it the first potential net-zero energy retail store in the US (Figure 3); the Glasgow City Council in the UK where advanced analytics were used to refine building management, energy investment strategy and ROI targets for all the schools, museums, and other building types within its jurisdiction; and the La Jolla Commons II Office building in California, where detailed simulation as well as analysis of operational data from similar buildings to inform design led it again to be a net-zero building, the largest in the US.

Figure 3. Use of IESVE in the design of a Walgreens store in the US for energy analysis and validation about the anticipated performance of the building throughout the design/construction progress.

Another analysis tool I had the opportunity to catch up with was ElumTools, which is an integrated add-in lighting software for Revit that I first had the opportunity to see at Autodesk University 2013. ElumTools uses sophisticated calculations to predict the performance of electric lighting systems and daylight within Revit Architecture or Revit MEP, avoiding the need to rely on external software for detailed lighting analysis. It calculates point-by-point illuminance on any workplane or surface utilizing lighting fixture families and surface geometry already present in the Revit model. It runs completely inside of Revit, with its own ribbon toolbar to provide quick access to analysis tools for any Revit Room or Space (Figure 4). An interactive Radiosity-based visualization is a by-product of the calculation process and helps designers better understand the interaction of light and surface. The solution does not rely on cloud processing for its calculations, yet it is still extremely fast. Unlike other daylighting tools that only work with single scenes and therefore not capable of annual simulations, eLumTools should have the ability for full annual simulation within the first half of 2016.

Figure 4. The eLumTools plug-in for detailed lighting calculations inside Revit.

On the visualization front, I was introduced to a new tool, Twinmotion, which also includes 3D immersion capabilities and has been developed specifically for architecture, urban planning and landscaping professionals to allow them to present their designs or landscaping projects in a realistic and life-like environment. It supports the import of 3D models from all contemporary modeling applications and file types including FBX, DWG, DAE, SKP, C4D, and LI3; it also has a plug-in for direct import from Revit 2014, 2015, and 2016. Multiple files can be merged into a single scene, if required. Imported models can be updated at any time, while retaining any modifications and materials created in Twinmotion. One imported, a model or scene can be enhanced by several capabilities including the ability to easily sculpt terrains and 3D surfaces, apply materials, modify natural and artificial lighting, and add people, foliage, vehicles and other entourage. What adds to the realism is the ability for all the entourage to be animated: you can draw the path along which people and vehicles should move, add waves to the ocean, make trees and 3D grass react to wind, as well as control the effects of wind, rain or clouds in real time. The new 2016 version of Twinmotion includes the option to make a Twinmotion project available as a free, self-executable file that anyone can navigate, support for project phasing, support for navigation using popular game consoles such as Xbox and PS4, and improved speed through graphics optimizations.

Figure 5. Two examples of renderings created with Twinmotion.

Design and Construction

While I didn’t see any new design tools for buildings—have we reached the saturation point for this technology?—it seems that the infrastructure field is still “up for grabs” as far as design is concerned. We have, of course, Autodesk’s own InfraWorks 360 for model-based infrastructure design (which was described in detail in the article, Extending BIM to Infrastructure), and we are seeing more traction in this area from other vendors as well. Transoft Solutions, developer of several point solutions for site design and civil engineering—such as roundabouts and intersections—that work mostly with Autodesk products like AutoCAD and Civil 3D, is expanding its product line with two new tools for road and site design under the umbrella of what it calls Civil Engineered Models or “CEM.”  A regular exhibitor at Autodesk University, Transoft Solutions showed sneak peeks of both these upcoming tools at this year’s event, While both of them still work on top of AutoCAD and Civil 3D (and Bricsys BricsCAD), they span a broader design spectrum than point solutions and are intended to be simpler and easier to use than existing infrastructure design solutions.

Coming back to building design, we may not be seeing any brand-new offerings, but we still seeing plenty of add-ons and plug-ins. Ideate, one of the leading Autodesk resellers and consultants that also develops add-in tools, showed the latest enhancements to them. Its Ideate Explorer tool, which is intended for more efficient and effective management of Revit models by allowing users to search for and find elements in the current view or entire Revit file, has two new features: Navigate and Ideate Query. Navigate provides an efficient way to search, select, and filter the project documentation including Legends, Schedules, Sheets and Views, without altering the Project Browser organization (Figure 6), while Ideate Query lets users dig more deeply into the Revit model to make complex selection sets or to audit the model. Another plug-in, Ideate BIMLink, which creates a bidirectional link between Revit and Microsoft Excel that allows the BIM data from a Revit model to be pulled into Excel as well as pushed back from Excel to Revit, has updated features to improve usability and enhance the creation and implementation of project standards. It also provides new discipline-specific content for architecture, structure, MEP, as well as construction to support better quality control of Revit models. And finally, Ideate Sticky, which provides the ability to link non-BIM Excel data directly into the Revit project, has improvements such as the ability to support embedded graphic images in the Microsoft Excel schedule and the ability to support many Excel line styles, enhancing the graphic fidelity of the Sticky Schedule within the Revit environment and reducing the need for additional schedule editing.

Figure 6. The new Navigate option in Ideate Explorer allows project items to be easily accessed without altering the Project Browser organization.

There is little doubt that with each passing day, a greater proportion of our work resides on the cloud, and companies such as Autodesk are developing many applications specifically for the cloud—a case in point being the entire A360 product family. However, in AEC at least, we still very much have our desktop applications, which far outnumber any clouds apps that we might use. Virtualization technology, however, turns this on its head, and is best exemplified by the company, VMware, which first developed a commercial version of it. At Autodesk University, we had the opportunity to see virtualization technology being applied in the AEC industry through a product called Frame. Simply put, Frame enables any desktop application to be installed and run in the cloud, accessed from any browser without requiring any plug-ins or client software to be installed. It works by running the application on powerful servers in the cloud and delivering the user interface to the browser as a video stream. Mouse and keyboard actions are sent back to the Frame Cloud in real time. The main selling point of the application is that the user interface updates so quickly that it feels like the application is running locally, even when the user is thousands of miles from the Frame servers. Also, since Frame can run on powerful servers with dedicated graphics processors, the applications are often faster in the cloud than on local computers which may not be as high-end. And finally, the data files can be on their cloud storage platform from where they can be accessed by Frame. Multiple users can access a Frame session, allowing it to be used as a collaboration platform as well. Frame works with many different applications including not only Word, Excel, etc., but also intensive design applications from Adobe, Dassault, and Siemens. At AU, Frame showed its support for AutoCAD and Revit as well, allowing users to run these applications on the cloud from any device.

On the construction side of AEC, I had the opportunity to see a demo of LeanPlanner, a new tool Newforma launched a few months ago, designed specifically for superintendents and foremen. It is a tool for production planning with a visual interface, incorporating the concepts and methodology of “lean” planning and delivery (Figure 7). LeanPlanner is based on a technology Newforma has licensed from a company called LeanKit, whose lean planning solutions are used in many fields including IT, software and product development, operations, sales, marketing, HR, legal and finance, etc.—essentially anything that requires a team of people to collaborate on, manage, and execute a project. For construction teams, LeanPlanner could be used to digitally plan the production schedule, specifying which team does what, where, and when. The ability to do this with a visual interface, and on any device including a smartphone or tablet, makes it much easier to schedule the plan so that it is as lean as possible, and has many additional advantages over the use of the traditional sticky notes and even spreadsheets for planning, including greater transparency, improved tracking, easier reporting, and deeper insights. The end goal is to improve production schedule reliability, which will lead to more predictable project outcomes. Newforma LeanPlanner reminded me a lot of a similar tool, vPlanner, developed by Ghafari Associates, which I explored in detail shortly after it was launched two years ago.

Figure 7. The LeanPlanner dashboard showing the different tasks and to-do items planned for a week on a construction project.

Another construction-related technology I was able to get an update on was Assemble, a cloud based tool that allows AEC firms to interrogate a BIM model, extract its data, and leverage it for increased project insight, collaboration, and data-driven decision making.  Being cloud-based, it works over a standard web browser and has an easy to use interface. Assemble’s ability to quickly access and visualize quantities and model changes makes it the most compelling for preconstruction and construction teams, even though it accelerates a number of BIM activities and can be used by the entire AEC team. At Autodesk University, Assemble Systems showed its latest release, Assemble Insight, which includes model aggregation, performance improvements, a redesigned user interface, and more powerful tools to support organizing and managing aggregated model inventories for an entire project (Figure 8). Users are no longer restricted to creating a dataset from just one model, but can create datasets from any model within a project. The redesigned interface gives access to more data and more data visualization within just a few clicks of logging in, providing users with speedy access to model information. The new platform allows project teams to access, organize, manage and condition models, versions, properties and changes, in a federated environment.

Figure 8. The ability for model organization in Assemble’s new Insight tool (top image), as well as compare models (lower image).

Learning

As the AEC industry ramps up on technology implementation, we are seeing more targeted learning solutions for enabling professionals to get up to speed on new technologies and learn to use the different applications deployed in their organizations more effectively. There are, of course, plenty of free resources out there including those provided by the vendors of an application as well as blog posts, tutorials, how-to’s, and so on. Often however, these may not be sufficient and many professionals prefer to be enrolled in a structured course or class for learning an application. Earlier, the only option was to enroll in a traditional in-person class, but in the Internet age, you could just as well take a class online.

Not surprisingly, online learning is rapidly gaining momentum, and several learning companies have emerged that provide courses specific to Autodesk and other AEC-specific applications. I was able to get a chance to learn about two of these at Autodesk University. The first is SolidProfessor, which started off being focused on Solidworks training­—hence the same—but has now expanded its offerings to include Autodesk applications such as Revit, 3ds Max, Navisworks, Civil 3D, Inventor, and AutoCAD, as well as other applications like SketchUp, Onshape, CAMworks, and Mastercam. The company is focused on on-going professional development, and it not only provides comprehensive video tutorials and skills assessment but also concise reference videos and year-by-year update guides.

The second online learning provider that I had a chance to learn more about was PluralSight, which provides training content in many more fields including software development, IT, business development, creative production, and so on, in addition to “architecture and construction” and “manufacturing and design.” The Architecture and Construction section includes courses in Revit, AutoCAD, Rhino, Navisworks, and other popular applications. As with  SolidProfessor, PluralSight offers learning assessment, 24/7 access to the training content, and support for tablets and smartphones in addition to computers to make it possible to take a course anywhere, at any time, and on any device. However, being much broader in scope and not as domain-specific, I did not find it as comprehensive in its course offerings as SolidProfessor.

Laser Scanning and Hardware

Some of the other technologies I had the opportunity to catch up on were in the area of laser scanning and hardware products. Laser scanning continues to gain momentum, not just in AEC, but in many other fields as well. Just yesterday, I heard a CNN news report on how laser technology was used in creating the display of a new dinosaur—one of the largest ever discovered—that was being unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History. Given that the use of laser scanning is only going to increase—perhaps in ways that we do not even anticipate right now—developments in both the hardware and the software are noteworthy, and we got a good sense of this at Autodesk University. In addition to Autodesk’s own ReCap and Memento software (described in the article “3D Scanning, Printing, and Visualization at the Inaugural REAL Conference” in the Q1 2015 issue of AECbytes Magazine), Autodesk is investing in a drone startup company called Skycatch, which not only makes automated drones equipped with laser scanners but also the software that synthesizes the data that is captured, allowing it to be viewed, analyzed, and shared (Figure 9). For the AEC market, Skycatch will integrate with ReCap as well as Autodesk BIM 360 so that construction professionals using Autodesk software can leverage reality capture to manage their projects more efficiently.

Figure 9. The Skycatch Dashboard provides various capabilities for analyzing the scanned data including the ability to import and overlay it with drawings.

On the hardware front, Dell unveiled a new line of Precision mobile workstations that pack more power and performance—with the latest graphics technology, new processors and faster memory and storage—into a thinner, lighter form factor. Dell also announced the Dell Precision Appliance for Wyse, a virtual workstation solution, to support the growing use of graphics-intensive, workstation-class workloads in a variety of work settings. Essentially a workstation in the cloud, multiple devices like these can be stacked to provide a scalable virtual workstation environment that can be far more powerful than an individual workstation, especially for the kind of graphics-intensive computing that we have in AEC.

Another leading computer maker, Lenovo, unveiled three new products: the ThinkPad P40 Yoga, a multimode mobile workstation that combines a digital sketching experience with high performance and reliability, and includes 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity for precision sketching as well as an integrated ThinkPad pen built into the chassis; the ThinkPad P50s, which features more affordable premium functionality and advanced performance in a thinner, lighter mobile workstation; and the ThinkStation P310, which builds on the Lenovo ThinkStation P300, offering an entry-level machine with the technology of a high-end workstation.

You would think that printing must be surely impacted with the increasing move towards electronic storage, access, and sharing of project data, but this was not at all in evidence in the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University, where vendors like Epson and HP continued to have a large as presence as ever. Epson showed its new SureColor T-Series for scalable, cost-effective and versatile technical printing that can be done in-house. This series is available in 24”, 36”, and 44” models; can print extremely fast; supports dual-roll capabilities and an optional multifunction module for PC-free color scanning and copying; has high line accuracy with resolutions up to 2880 x 1440 dpi; and supports five color (CMYK) and front-load loading capabilities for thicker media (Figure 10). HP, in turn, unveiled five new HP DesignJet technical printers, including a compact, affordable, and transportable integrated multifunction printer with a damage-resistant design specifically for deployment in rugged environments such as in mobile offices at construction sites. It also includes a built-in scanner and a front panel that can be extended and operated from a tablet. 

Figure 10. Epson’s T7270 printer of its SureColor series in action, printing out an architectural drawing.

And finally, I was able to catch on the latest developments with AMD and see its lineup of FirePro professional graphics cards that support Autodesk products, in particular the FirePro W4300 card that integrates a powerful GPU and 4GB of GDDR5 memory within a low-profile design that fits both small form factor (SFF) and tower workstations. This allows organizations to simplify their IT management by standardizing on a single, capable professional graphics solution throughout their workstation deployment. The AMD FirePro W4300 professional graphics card is optimized for the latest versions of CAD applications including AutoCAD, Inventor, and Revit from Autodesk, as well as many more from other vendors. A powerful graphics card like this enables design and engineering professionals to efficiently work with large geometry-intense models and apply GPU-accelerated features in their projects; it can also help increase productivity by allowing users to visualize their work across up to six displays, and up to 4K and 5K resolution.

This concludes my overview of the key technology solutions for AEC that were exhibited last month at Autodesk University 2015. It may seem really long, but keep in mind it does not cover even a quarter of the technologies showcased in the Exhibit Hall, giving those who do not attend Autodesk University an idea of what it is like. Hopefully, this also helps to give you a sense for what you might have missed.

Now on to 2016!

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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