AEC Technology: Hits and MissesAECbytes Feature (January 30, 2020)

The start of a new decade is a good time to take stock of where we are and where we have been.

I have been in the AEC technology industry for over 15 years, in the course of which I have had the opportunity to observe and study its key trends. I have seen applications that have come and gone, as well as applications that have come and stayed. Often, in the course of my current writing when I have needed to go back and research some of my older articles, I come across an application and I wonder: Is it still around, and if so, how is it doing? A lot of applications seemed very relevant and promising when they were launched. Have they stood the test of time?

Based on my own experience and research, here’s a summary of what I found.

The Hits: What’s In

While there was a lot of debate about BIM in the early 2000s after the concept was introduced—including debate about the acronym itself (see my 2004 archived article, “What's in a Name? The BIM Acronym”)—all of that was laid to rest in the subsequent years, and BIM is now accepted, without question, as the technology we should be using to design and construct buildings. In fact, it would be difficult to find any new building project today that is still being implemented using CAD. This is also reflected in the continued stability and development of BIM applications such as Revit, ARCHICAD, Bentley OpenBuildings (which has gone through a few name changes), Allplan, and Vectorworks. In addition to these industry-leading ones, smaller BIM applications such as those by 4M are also holding steady, along with discipline-specific BIM applications such as Tekla Structures.  

In addition to BIM for design, BIM for construction has also seen a lot of growth and development, with several established applications cementing their position. These include Navisworks and Solibri for BIM coordination; ProjectWise, Autodesk BIM 360, and Aconex (now part of Oracle) for project and construction management; and Synchro (now part of Bentley) for construction scheduling. We also have larger vendors like Trimble, which has acquired and consolidated several construction-related applications including Tekla (which is also used for creating fabrication models in addition to being a BIM for Engineering application), e-Builder, Viewpoint, Vico, and GTeam (now called Trimble Connect). There are also some more recent entrants to the field that have demonstrated staying power including BIMcollab for BIM issue management, and STR Vision for construction planning and execution.

While BIM started off with individual buildings, its concept of model-based design has been extended to infrastructure as well. We not only have a “BIM-from-the-ground-up” application like InfraWorks, but also several applications that went from being CAD to BIM such as Autodesk Civil 3D, Bentley OpenRoads, Bentley OpenRail, and Allplan Engineering Civil. While the implementation of BIM for infrastructure is not as widespread yet as BIM for buildings, it is gradually seeping in. This effort is also being enabled by specialized BIM applications for specific types of infrastructure such as Allplan Bridge, which is still relatively new but promising.

Why stop at infrastructure? The model-based approach can also be beneficial when applied at the city level, and while we have plenty of companies creating 3D city models as a service offering, companies that develop actual “city information modeling” (CIM) solutions are few and far between. Cityzenith is the only such company I am aware of, and while it seemed to have gone under the radar for a couple of years, it seems to have resurfaced, which is great. Ideas such as “digital cities” as envisioned by Bentley in its recent Year In Infrastructure conference are great, but just as BIM is the starting point for a building or infrastructure “digital twin,” in the same way, we need to have CIM as an integral component of a “digital city.”

Other AEC Technology applications that have demonstrated staying power include add-ons that extend the capabilities of BIM applications in various ways such as the Ideate suite for Revit; sustainable design tools such as the full-fledged IESVE suite as well as specialized tools such as ElumTools for lighting; other performance analysis tools such as Legion for pedestrian simulation which was recently acquired by Bentley; project information management tools such as Newforma and the relatively new Deltek PIM; design scripting applications such as Dynamo and Rhino’s Grasshopper plug-in; and rendering and visualization applications such as 3ds Max, Twinmotion, and Artlantis. Additionally, areas such as laser scanning, reality modeling, and photogrammetry, often in conjunction with drones, are seeing a lot of momentum, especially in construction, as is virtual reality for immersive visualization and design collaboration; none of these areas, however, has any applications yet that have been around for several years and dominate the space.

The Misses: What’s Out

It is the nature of technology in general that of the multitude of applications that are developed, only a handful go on to survive and thrive, both by virtue of being well designed and very effective in the task they were developed to tackle, as well as by “being in the right place at the right time.” In the AEC technology industry, we have also had a large number of applications that didn’t make it. Here are some of the high-profile ones that do not exist today.

I have to start with Autodesk Architectural Studio, which still remains one of the coolest products I have seen in AEC. It was a conceptual design application with tools for sketching, CAD, as well as modeling; the design content was created in translucent document windows that simulated trace paper and could be placed over one another. It was formally unveiled at the AIA 2001 Convention and Expo. With an interface especially designed to appeal to architects, the product was a major crowd-puller. In fact, the highlight of Autodesk's presentation at that show was a sketch created in Architectural Studio by the renowned architect, Micheal Graves, who was also the recipient of the AIA Gold Medal that year. The application relied heavily on pen-based input, which was a rarity at that time, and Autodesk eventually discontinued it in 2004. Quite simply, it was a product that was ahead of its times—it would have fared a lot better now, with the ubiquity of tablets and touch-based interfaces.

Another cool application that was discontinued was Piranesi, an image-editing application specifically designed for architectural sketch rendering that understood depth and perspective. It allowed you to take a plain, computer-generated 3D scene or 2D drawing and transform it into a sophisticated rendering in varied styles reflecting different moods. It was a unique application, the only one of its kind, and I remembered being wowed every time I saw it in action. Very likely, it could not compete with the might of Adobe Photoshop, although Photoshop does not have the kind of architecture-specific image editing capabilities that Piranesi had.

With regard to BIM applications, one extremely high-profile one that has faded away is the CATIA-based Digital Project, which was extremely powerful and sophisticated, and was the BIM application of choice for “signature” architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. (See the articles, “Technology at Work at Gehry Partners” and “Zaha Hadid Architects.”) Digital Project was one of the six BIM applications that was reviewed in detail in the comprehensive “BIM Evaluation Study Report” that was commissioned in 2009 by the AIA Large Firm Round Table (LFRT) CEO Committee. At that time, it was developed by Gehry Technologies, a spin-off technology firm from Gehry Partners, whose GTeam collaboration product was acquired by Trimble in 2014 and consolidated into its construction portfolio. Digital Project, on the other hand, has sadly seemed to have slipped away into the ether.

Another prominent disappearance was that of Adobe Acrobat 3D, and along with it, Autodesk’s DWFit campaign. Autodesk’s DWF (Design Web Format) file format is a highly compressed version of a CAD file for viewing, printing, and sharing design data, and in 2003, Autodesk launched a concerted DWFit campaign to promote the use of DWF over PDF. This was the time when Adobe started targeting the AEC and manufacturing industries in a big way to promote the use of PDF for electronic publishing, and it developed a 3D-specific version of Acrobat for this purpose called Acrobat 3D. In a few years, however, Adobe gave up this industry-specific initiative, discontinued Acrobat 3D, and folded its 3D PDF creation capabilities into its main Acrobat Pro product. This made the DWFit campaign no longer necessary, and while DWF still exists as a file format that Is supported by most Autodesk applications, it has been several years since I have heard any discussion about it. In this manner, the “PDF versus DWF” war died a natural death.

Other applications that have either been discontinued or are no longer being developed include Trelligence Affinity and Archetris for space planning and programming; Autodesk Seek for finding BIM content;  GRAPHISOFT EcoDesigner, an energy analysis plug-in for ARCHICAD; Ecotect, an energy analysis tool which was acquired by Autodesk; DProfiler by Beck Technology, which was marketed as a “macro” BIM software for use at the planning and conceptual design phase to get an accurate cost estimate of a proposed design; Visual Estimating, one of the first BIM-based estimating solutions developed by a company called Innovaya; and FM:Desktop, Autodesk's dedicated tool for facilities management (FM) that could automatically interpret room data from DWFs published from Revit.

Neither Hits nor Misses

This list includes applications that are still around but not that much in the news anymore, including Autodesk Formit, a “conceptual BIM” app for iPad and Android tablets that was introduced in 2012; the Autodesk Insight 360 energy analysis cloud service that was launched in 2015 and was based on Autodesk’s acquisition of Green Building Studio; Sefaira, the cloud-based conceptual performance analysis tool that Trimble acquired in 2016; SketchUp, the hit conceptual modeling tool which was launched in 2001 by @Last Software and was acquired for a brief period by Google and is now part of Trimble’s portfolio; form•Z, the powerful 3D design and modeling application that was once considered the gold standard for any serious modeling work; and object-based CAD applications like AutoCAD Architecture (formerly called Autodesk Architectural Desktop or ADT) and AutoCAD Mechanical (formerly called Autodesk Mechanical Desktop).

Then there are the relatively new applications that still have to cement their position in the AEC technology industry, including Layer, which organizes and integrates the vast amount of data that is typically collected on site during the retrofit or construction of a building project; Visicon, a solution for model viewing, data visualization, model interrogation, and design coordination, and which  includes some additional functionality for structural engineers; TonicDM, a cloud-based solution for project information management; Join, which is focused on preconstruction intelligence; OpenSpace, which uses AI to automatically stitch together the video frames recorded by cameras mounted on construction hard harts into a single record of each point at a job site; and Invicara BIM Assure, a cloud-based collaborative model checker.

Some other questions and observations that come to mind looking back at AEC technology developments over the last two decades:

  • Is automated code-checking in AEC, which we have been trying to do for over 20 years, ever going to take off? Granted, this is a notoriously difficult field, why is why we have seen such little progress, but I am still hopeful.

  • Similarly, progress on the IFC effort for interoperability has been quite slow. Will a commercial solution, such as Bentley’s iModel, have more success?

  • Augmented Reality seemed a very promising technology in AEC a few years ago, but it seems to have fizzled out.

  • What happened to 3D printing in construction—large-scale 3D printing that allows building and structural components to be 3D printed rather than manufactured using traditional means? There was so much discussion and research on the idea about 5-6 years ago.

  • Remember the whole debate about “centralized versus distributed” BIM between Autodesk and Bentley in the early 2000s shortly after BIM was introduced? With the dramatic improvements in bandwidth and the decreasing cost of digital storage, the size of a BIM model is less of a big deal than it was earlier. That is why we don’t hear this debate anymore.

  • Another topic that is no longer such a hot-button issue is BIM outsourcing. While firms are still relying on external service providers for some tasks such as rendering, most of them have developed sufficient BIM capabilities in-house.

Conclusion

As this brief history lesson shows, you can never really know whether something will be a hit or a miss, and I applaud those entrepreneurs who put themselves on the line and develop new applications for AEC professionals to make their jobs easier. A common statistic is that 90% of technology start-ups fail, despite which the innovators persevere. They deserve our highest admiration, serious attention, and a chance at a fair shot.


Hope you have enjoyed this walk down memory lane. Let’s see what this next decade has in store for AEC technology.

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.


AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.

Related Archive Articles

  • The "Internet of Things" in AEC
  • While the "Internet of Things" can be used to make buildings with smarter controls and sensors once they are built, and inhabited, can it also be applied in the design and construction phases?
  • Around the World with BIM
  • This article attempts to capture the key developments in BIM implementation in different countries around the world, so that we have a better global perspective on BIM.
  • Extending BIM to Infrastructure
  • Now that BIM has conquered the building industry and is here to stay, this article explores the application of the same "information modeling" concept to infrastructure.
  • Hurricanes and their Aftermath: How Can Technology Help?
  • In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this article explores how technology is being used in the relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction efforts along the Gulf Coast, and what technologies we might need in the future for cities prone to natural disasters to combat them more effectively.