AEC Technology Highlights and Trends: From 2016 to 2017AECbytes Feature (January 26, 2017)

The start of a new year is a great time to take stock of different aspects of our lives, both on the personal and professional fronts, and for those of us in the business of developing, implementing, and studying AEC technology, it is fascinating to look back at what has been accomplished so far and what we can look forward to in the months to come. What were the main highlights of 2016? Were there some anticipated developments that did not pan out? What is the “state-of-the-art” of AEC technology at the moment? What’s “hot” going forward? What is the state of BIM? How are the leading vendors in the field doing on technology development? In general, is technology living up to its promise or not really? Are we past the “heady” days of technological breakthroughs in the AEC industry and have to now concentrate on the difficult, relatively unexciting, and often mundane, challenge of implementing these technologies?

Of course, it is not possible to answer all these questions, or even to find the answers to all of them, within the scope of an article. But this first AECbytes article of 2017 attempts to summarize the main AEC technology highlights of 2016 and identify the key trends going forward, looking at where we currently are and where we are headed. 

2016 Highlights

While there was no breakthrough technological development in 2016 that stood out above everything else, the “cloud” cemented its position, continuing its inexorable march towards becoming the de facto standard for any kind of collaborative work—which pretty much is the case with most design and construction tasks in AEC. Whereas earlier the term “cloud-based” or “SaaS (software as a service)” had to be specifically referenced for AEC applications built using this technology (such as Aconex, EADOC, and Skysite, all of which were reviewed in 2015 in AECbytes), it is now difficult to find any application that is not cloud-based, or at the very least, has some kind of cloud component to it. AEC firms are no longer leery of confidential project data being stored on the cloud storage rather than within their premises on their own servers, and the days of using email or even FTP to send project files back and forth seem to be numbered. All the leading vendors now have project clouds to complement their technology offerings such as Autodesk’s BIM 360 and its new Forge platform (Figure 1), Bentley’s new CONNECT edition, GRAPHISOFT’s BIMcloud, Allplan’s BIM+, Trimble Connect, Newforma Project Cloud, and Vectorworks Cloud Services.

Figure 1. The use of Autodesk’s Forge cloud platform by the construction firm, JE Dunn, to build a custom estimating tool.

In addition to expanding their cloud capabilities, AEC technology vendors continued to make steady progress in their products offerings with new releases and enhancements, many of which were covered in AECbytes in 2016. There were no major acquisitions this year, with the exception of Nemetschek, which acquired the popular space planning and programming tool, dRofus (Figure 2), just last month. (HOK’s use of dRofus was described in my 2015 article on its use of technology). With a portfolio that already includes ArchiCAD, Vectorworks, Allplan, Scia, Solibri, Bluebeam, and Maxon, this acquisition further strengthens Nemetschek’s position as a leading technology provider for AEC. Also, earlier in 2016, Trimble, which has been going strong in recent years with its acquisitions of Vico, Tekla, SketchUp, and GTeam (the collaboration tool from Gehry Technologies that was rebranded as Trimble Connect), acquired the conceptual energy analysis tool, Sefaira, which showcased a new functionality, Design Guidance, at the recent Greenbuild conference.

Figure 2. The space planning and building data management tool, dRofus, which was just acquired by Nemetschek.

Some vendors, however, did not seem to live up to their potential, including the Google-backed Flux, which had seemed poised to become the next go-to cloud technology for AEC (see AECbytes Newsletter #82 for a detailed overview of Flux) but which we haven’t heard much about lately; as well as the global giant Dassault Systèmes, with its deep pockets thanks to its success in aerospace and manufacturing, but which hasn’t made much of an impact yet in AEC.

Among the smaller companies, developers of add-ons continue to proliferate as it is becoming increasingly clear that the “big” solutions are not all-encompassing and cannot handle the multitude of tasks that AEC professionals need to do. These include data management (Ideate) energy analysis (IES VE), lighting analysis (ElumTools), structural analysis (ETABS), specifications (ARCAT), estimating (Assemble), visualization (Fuzor), model coordination (BIM Track), collaboration (BIMcollab), construction planning (Newforma LeanPlanner), and construction scheduling (Synchro), among others. As design and construction get more complex, we are likely to see this universe of add-ons only continue to grow. There may be some consolidation due to acquisitions (such as the acquisition of Interspec, developer of eSpecs, by Arcom, announced just a few days ago), but this is far out-stripped by the pace of new developments and ventures in AEC technology.

In addition to the cloud, another technology that had a strong showing in 2016 was laser scanning for AEC, also known as reality modeling or reality capture. All the leading BIM applications now support point clouds, with some vendors providing multiple solutions for this technology such as Bentley (ContextCapture, Descartes, and Pointools) and Autodesk (ReCap and ReMake). There is even a point cloud tool for SketchUp, not developed in-house by Trimble, but by a third party developer, Undet (Figure 3) Documenting existing conditions is such a key requirement for any design, construction, or conservation project that we should see the use of laser scanning devices and point cloud software ramping up substantially in the years ahead.

Figure 3. Using the Undet plug-in for modeling with point clouds in SketchUp.

Future Outlook and Trends

While we will definitely see more of the cloud and laser canning in AEC, an additional technology that is on the upswing, after years of being relatively stagnant and underwhelming, is VR (virtual reality). VR technology has been around for at least two decades if not more, but is becoming more widespread only now, with the availability of more sophisticated hardware like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that can be used in AEC (Figure 4). In fact, VR is becoming so mainstream that there is even a VR headset for gaming, the PlayStation VR for the PS4. The headsets are now lighter and the software used for VR has evolved to make the experience more comfortable and less choppy, which accounts for the growing success of startups such as IrisVR as well as the investments established companies such as Autodesk, Bentley, and Graphisoft are making in visualization applications such as LIVE Design, LumenRT, and BIMx respectively that support immersive experiences.

Figure 4. Immersive visualization using a VR headset is becoming more mainstream in AEC.

The annual CES (Consumer Technology Association) trade show—which is by far the biggest technology conference with upward of 150,000 attendees—typically provides a good indication of the hottest technologies every year, and while most of these are related to the general public, they can sometimes point to technologies that can be applied in AEC as well. At this year’s CES show, which was held only a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas, the technologies that emerged to the forefront were self-driving cars, IoT (Internet of Things), robotics, AI (artificial intelligence) in the form of devices that can understand and process natural language commands, and drones. While not all of these are applicable to AEC, we should certainly see more development and applications of IoT, drones, and robotics in construction, all of which are already been used to some degree (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Use of drones by Cook Brothers Construction, based in New Zealand, to capture overhead photos and video for land planning and construction monitoring.

On the other hand, a technology such as AI (a.k.a machine learning) is still practically non-existent in AEC. Companies such as Autodesk often refer to AI as the next big thing in presenting their vision of the future—such as at Autodesk University last month—but we still have to see any actual tools embodying AI, let alone understand how exactly it would help. On the other hand, a technology such as generative design is easier to grasp—the computer simply generates all possible solutions to a problem and presents those that are the best fit based on specified criteria. Despite its potential, we haven’t seen as many generative design tools as anticipated: Bentley’s GenerativeComponents lost quite a bit of its momentum and so did the Design++ application it acquired but then divested of. However, Bentley still has SITEOPS as a great example of generative design applied to site design, and it is good to see Autodesk getting into the game with the AEC-specific generative design tool, Project Fractal. We are also starting to see more of algorithmic design or design scripting with tools such as Dynamo from Autodesk, Grasshopper which integrates with ArchiCAD, and Marionette from Vectorworks.

Some technologies that haven’t really gained a lot of momentum despite the hype surrounding them are 3D printing, which has not become as widespread as was anticipated, and augmented reality or AR, which hasn’t made much progress beyond what was captured in my 2015 article, Augmented Reality in AEC. Also, another technology that we haven’t seen much of in AEC is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which was launched with much fanfare in the summer of 2015, with Trimble showing a prototype SketchUp application it had specifically developed for it. It seemed extremely promising at that time, and I hope development is continuing, even though it is not being publicized.

BIM and Beyond

BIM is no longer a new technology in the AEC industry. While the idea of building modeling originated decades ago, it has been close to 15 years that term BIM was formally inducted in the AEC lexicon. It has taken that long for BIM to dislodge CAD as the go-to technology for the building industry and for it to be implemented across the board by AEC firms. Of course, there are still hold-outs that are using CAD, just as there were some firms still using hand-drafting in the CAD era. From a technology standpoint, there really has been no new innovation as far as BIM is concerned, and projects that win awards for their BIM implementation are no longer as outstanding as they used to be, indicating that BIM adoption is becoming more routine and less revolutionary as time goes by. This can also be gauged by conferences like BIMforum and AIA TAP, which were once hotbeds to discuss and showcase innovative uses of BIM. Now, the focus is on “how-to” conferences such as the Revit Technology Conference and on blogs with tutorials and tips-and-tricks, a clear indication that we are past the novelty phase of BIM and knee-deep into its implementation.

At the same time, there is still a lot of untapped potential with BIM, such as in the arena of code-checking and granting permits and approvals. What is the point of intelligent design and construction if it still has to be dumbed down for approvals and permitting? And this is not just for speed and efficiency but also for safety. Take the case of the recent building collapse in Iran—what if code-checking had uncovered the structural vulnerabilities in advance of the building being constructed? This is why priority should be given to the development and implementation of automated code-compliance, and the government should step in as well instead of just leaving it commercial efforts such as the venerable Solibri Model Checker (Figure 6) and the more recent Invicara BIM Assure.

Figure 6. Use of Solibri Model Checker for model-checking a building project in Italy.

Extending the use of BIM to the O/M (operations and maintenance) phase of building design is faring better than the application of BIM to code-checking. There is much more awareness among building owners about the benefits of BIM for lifecycle management, especially in its impact to the bottom line. There is also relatively more software development in this area from vendors such as FM:Systems, Onuma, and EcoDomus, not to mention a dedicated standard, COBie, designed specifically for the operation and maintenance phase of a building.

What has really taken off after the establishment of BIM as the de facto technology in the building industry is the extension of the same “information modeling” concept to infrastructure, where all the individual components making up a road, bridge, or any infrastructure element are represented by intelligent data-rich 3D models that carry information about themselves and their relationship to other components (see my 2014 article, Extending BIM to Infrastructure). No matter on which side of the political spectrum one is on, there is unanimous consensus that infrastructure is the need of the hour and that we need to find more efficient ways of developing, upgrading, and maintaining it. From that perspective, Bentley’s long-standing focus on infrastructure solutions—for roads, railways, bridges, water, wastewater, drainage, and so on—is very prescient. Autodesk is starting to expand its AEC portfolio to include infrastructure, and we also have smaller vendors such as Transoft Solutions and Eagle Point Software developing applications for specific aspects of infrastructure design and construction.

And then, of course, there is the further extension of the BIM concept to entire cities in what I refer to as City Information Modeling or CIM, for which we not only have infrastructure modeling solutions from Bentley and Autodesk but also CIM-specific solutions from companies such as virtualcitySYSTEMS, Cityzenith, SmarterBetterCities, CyberCity 3D, and Agency9 (discussed in my recent article, City Information Modeling). By applying intelligent information modeling and analysis to city design, we can not only improve their efficiency and livability (Figure 7), but also respond better to disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, etc., avoiding a repeat of what happened, for example, during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 (see the AECbytes Archived Article, Hurricanes and their Aftermath: How Can Technology Help?).

Figure 7. Line of sight analysis applied to a city model of Canary Wharf in the UK created by CyberCity 3D.

Conclusion

2016 was similar to most years in that was there no one special development in AEC technology that stood out above everything else. In a way, this is as it should be—the industry needs many years to absorb a breakthrough technology like BIM, figure out how to work with it, and then get down to the hard task of implementing it. Developers also need time to iron out the kinks in the software and improve it to make it work better. The large number of solutions that BIM has spawned is heartening, and this combined with general technological advances, has definitely improved the overall “state of the art” of AEC technology. Progress may not as be fast as some would like, but it is happening at a steady pace.

I hope, though, that we as an industry do not stop our innovation with BIM and the next technological breakthrough is just on the horizon!

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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