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AECbytes Newsletter #44 (March 30, 2010)

Autodesk’s 2011 Product Portfolio Launch

Last Thursday, Autodesk hosted a webcast to officially launch the next version of its design software portfolio. While it did not discuss any of its products in depth, the webcast summarized the main enhancements in the 2011 versions of AutoCAD, Inventor, Revit, and 3ds Max, which were identified as the key applications of its product portfolio. The highlights of Autodesk’s launch webcast from an AEC perspective are captured in this issue of the AECbytes Newsletter. Autodesk is holding another event next month to provide further details of the 2011 AEC product portfolio, which will be covered in a separate article at that time.

The AIRMax Initiative

Autodesk came up with the codename, AIRMax, to refer to the key four applications of its product portfolio— AutoCAD, Inventor, Revit, and 3ds Max—and has been working on an initiative the last few years to make the user experience more consistent across all of them. This has included implementing the ribbon-based interface to provide a similar—and modern—look and feel, as well as making common tasks such as model navigation, material selection, and so on work the same way across all of them.

Autodesk is also working on improving the overall visual experience of its products. Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass, explained the rationale for this by candidly admitting that the graphics of low-cost video games were much better than those of the high-cost Autodesk products that were being used to create them! This wasn’t something to be proud of and it motivated Autodesk to work on enhancing the graphics so that users could actually see and interact with photorealistic models during design instead of simply generating photorealistic renderings later.

The third key aspect of the AIRMax initiative is data interoperability, which is focused on improving the data flow from one Autodesk application to another without losing data fidelity. Autodesk is finding that an increasingly larger number of its customers are using several of its applications, so better interoperability will enable them to move data from one application to another more seamlessly. It is also a great way for Autodesk to encourage its customers to stick with the applications in its product portfolio when their software requirements diversify beyond a single application.

And finally, Bass identified the ultimate objective for Autodesk as continuing to make all its applications more powerful and sophisticated to better serve users’ needs while at the same time making them simpler and easier to use. The balance between power and simplicity is undoubtedly the toughest challenge for any software developer, and it is good to see Autodesk emphasizing this as a key priority. At least in the AEC field, many Autodesk products rank higher than their competitors in ease of use, and one of the main reasons for this may well be the emphasis that Autodesk’s top management places on this aspect.

AutoCAD 2011

Recall from last year’s product launch that AutoCAD 2010—which included new freeform mesh modeling tools, greatly improved PDF support, and the ability to create intelligent, parametric drawings—was referred to as a “watershed event” in AutoCAD’s history, unmatched by any previous release. Autodesk continued its use of superlatives including “most exciting,” “fantastic,” and “best ever” to describe this year’s release of AutoCAD. While the application does include some very useful enhancements that build up nicely upon the last release, it is ultimately the users who will determine if these are indeed as ground-breaking as Autodesk makes them out to be. The enhancements fall under three main categories: improved conceptual design capabilities, increased productivity in document production, and better parametrics.

On the conceptual design front, AutoCAD 2011 includes a whole new set of advanced surface modeling tools in addition to the mesh modeling tools that had been introduced in AutoCAD 2010. The new tools, shown in Figure 1, enable users to easily create smooth surfaces and surface transitions, with automatic associativity that maintains relationships between all of the objects. In addition, the surfaces stay associated to their underlying geometry and automatically update when the geometry is changed, providing a fluid interface for 3D design. While the new surface modeling capability is undoubtedly most helpful for the manufacturing industry, as evidenced by the example shown in Figure 1, it can be extremely helpful in AEC for exploring organic building forms that can subsequently be exported as NURBS surfaces or solids to Revit for further development. And given that the majority of AEC users already have AutoCAD for their drafting needs, the new freeform modeling capabilities may reduce the need to use a different application such as Rhino or form.Z for conceptual design.

Figure 1. The new surface modeling tools in AutoCAD 2011 allow for easier creation of freeform surfaces. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Also, because the surfaces created with the new tools stay associated with their defining 2D geometry, the ability to add various kinds of geometric constraints to drawing objects in relation to other objects—which was introduced in AutoCAD 2010—can also be used to control the geometry of the surfaces parametrically. For example, you could use a dimensional constraint to parametrically change the size of a circle, which in turn will automatically change any 3D surface object that has been defined from it. This is not full parametric 3D modeling that is available in sophisticated mechanical CAD applications, but is a useful extension of AutoCAD’s 2D parametric capabilities to 3D design.

Another new feature in AutoCAD 2011 that is relevant to conceptual design is point cloud support. Users can now bring in a point cloud created with a laser scanning device and use that as the basis for creating a 3D model, similar to how a drawing can be created by using a raster image as a reference. Point clouds with up to 2 billion points are supported. However, there is no way to automatically convert that point cloud into a 3D model—you still have to create the model from scratch. In time, however, third party developers could use Autodesk’s powerful API to develop enhancements to the point cloud functionality and provide some automatic conversion capability.

The third main enhancement on the conceptual design front is the expansion of the materials library to include an enhanced set of materials that enables users to create rich visual representations of 3D models (see Figure 2). It includes over a 1000 predefined materials that can be dragged and dropped to apply them to objects. The same library is also now included in all Autodesk applications, providing consistency and ensuring that material information is fully retained when the model is passed from one application to another. Users can customize the materials and save them to their own library. Libraries can be imported and exported as well as shared with other users.

Figure 2. The expanded materials library in AutoCAD 2011 that is also now implemented in other Autodesk applications. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

On the 2D documentation front, one of the main improvements in AutoCAD 2011 is in hatching. The Hatch command can be accessed more easily through a contextual tab. A hatch’s scale, rotation, and origin can now be directly edited using an expanded object grip functionality. There are additional options for hatches include transparency, background colors, and gradient fills, which enable users to add more colors and shading to drawings. In addition to hatches, transparency can also now be applied to entire layers as well as specific objects, providing users with new options for managing the appearance of drawings (see Figure 3). There are new “Hide Objects” and “Isolate Objects” tools to control the visibility of objects regardless of layer, so designers can focus on the objects themselves without having to think about what layer they belong to. Polyline editing has been improved with enhanced grips that can be used to add, remove, or stretch vertices, and to convert straight-line segments to arcs, enabling a more direct manipulation of these elements.

Figure 3. The new ability to apply transparency to layers in AutoCAD 2011 provides more control over drawing appearance. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

AutoCAD 2011 also introduces two new commands that can speed the process of creating or selecting objects based on the properties of existing objects: the “Add Selected” tool, which can be used to create new objects based on the properties of an existing object; and the “Select Similar” tool, which enables quick selection of objects that include the same type and properties in the selection set. While these are not novel ideas and have already been implemented in several design applications, they should certainly help AutoCAD users do their work more quickly and efficiently.

Rounding off the set of improvements in AutoCAD 11 is the ability for design constraints to be inferred in real time, as the designer is drawing, rather than manually defining all the object relationships desired. This feature builds upon the constraint-based parametric drawing capability introduced last year and is a good step towards making the application smarter and easier to use.

Last but not least, AutoCAD 2011 is optimized to leverage Windows 7 functionality. It is compatible with all editions of Windows 7 as well as with Windows Vista and Windows XP operating systems. Also, it should be noted that there is no file format change that users have to worry about for AutoCAD 2011.

Improvements in Revit and 3ds Max Design 2011

Moving on to the other key applications that were presented in Autodesk’s 2011 launch webcast, there are four main enhancements in the Revit platform that were highlighted. Building upon the new conceptual design capabilities that were introduced in the last release (see the review of Revit Architecture 2010), Revit 2011 includes new surface rationalization tools that allow the creation of even more complex forms. Surfaces can now be divided by levels, reference planes, or 2D lines. Another new feature is “adaptive” components, which allows a component such as a curtain wall panel to simply be drawn out to fit in a specific spot on a complex surface. Some useful enhancements targeted towards large team collaboration and distributed workflows include the ability to change workset visibility by view, which offers more flexibility in visualizing specific parts of the model, and improvements in linked files that allows operations in a host file to be performed on all linked files as well, essentially allowing the linked files to behave as one consolidated whole (see Figure 4). Another nice feature is the new Interactive Sunpath tool, which allows the sun to be directly manipulated—instead of having to change the sub settings in a dialog box—to evaluate the lighting conditions in the building and its shadows at different times of the day and year. We will explore these enhancements and others in Revit as well as other AEC applications in more depth after Autodesk’s AEC event next month.

Figure 4. New options for workset visibility and linked files that enhance large team collaboration and distributed workflows. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

While Autodesk is incrementally improving the in-product visualization capabilities across all its applications, it still sees these as more suited to creating intermediate, in-process renderings rather than the high-quality renderings and animations needed for design bids, client presentations, competition entries, and so on. For this, it advocates the use of applications such as 3ds Max or 3ds Max Design, which allows for the addition of special effects, embellishments, and that extra pizzazz to design visualization. The enhancements in the 2011 version of 3dsMax Design (which is identical to 3ds Max except that it is optimized for design fields such as AEC and manufacturing) include a new Object Paint feature that allows 3D elements to be “painted” on a surface, for example, cars in a parking lot, or foliage on a site (see Figure 5). The same tool also allows 2D patterns and shapes to be painted on a 3D surface and it will correctly be wrapped around the surface. The FBX file format introduced in version 2009 that allows a Revit model to be imported into 3ds Max Design has been improved so that it can maintain a link to the original Revit file, notify the 3ds Max Design user of any changes to the Revit model and bring in those changes automatically without any re-work. A new hardware renderer called Quicksilver Hardware Renderer has been introduced that helps produce higher-quality images at much faster speeds. Other enhancements include the addition of many interface tools and elements commonly found in image-editing applications like Photoshop, and the inclusion of the materials library that is now common to all Autodesk applications.

Figure 5. The new ability to paint objects in a scene in 3ds Max Design enables special effects to be added to a rendering. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Analysis and Conclusions

In contrast to the 2010 release last year where Autodesk did not have any common or over-arching themes running across all the applications, it is good to see some clear objectives in the 2011 product release: enhanced conceptual design capabilities, improved visualization, consistent look and feel, improved data interoperability between the applications, and enhanced simplicity and ease of use. Individual product enhancements that stand out are the advanced surface modeling capabilities in AutoCAD, which will go a long way towards strengthening its capabilities for design rather than just drawing production; the large team workflow enhancements in Revit, which will make working with linked files more efficient; and the Object Paint tool in 3ds Max Design, which allows renderings to be quickly enhanced by painting 3D objects as well as 2D shapes on objects.

The consistency of the interface and the inclusion of common features such as the materials library in all the applications allows users to leverage their learning from one product to the other, and the improved data interoperability allows them to work together more cohesively This is especially important for Autodesk since all of its applications are not built on top of one base application like Bentley, which has all its individual disciplinary applications built on top of MicroStation. As Autodesk’s senior VP Amar Hanspal, who hosted the launch webcast, put it: “The whole is now indeed truly greater than the sum of its parts.” Of course, Autodesk would like its customers to use as many of its applications as possible, so the focus on making the applications more integrated is entirely understandable. Autodesk also claims that each of its applications are now “best in class in their own right.” It’s hard to actually believe such exalted statements, especially when they come directly from the vendors. It would be nice if the company could learn to be more subtle and let the compliments come from users rather than itself.

It has been very interesting to see the 3D capabilities of AutoCAD continued to be enhanced in every release since they were radically overhauled four years ago (see my review of AutoCAD 2007). It can help in the resurgence of AutoCAD as a design tool in the AEC industry rather than simply being a drafting tool, which it has been relegated to since BIM gained momentum and became the key technology. Since most AEC firms using Autodesk applications already have AutoCAD—and for those that don’t, an AutoCAD-Revit bundle is only marginally more expensive than Revit alone—it can once again come to the forefront and be used for conceptual design. It already has powerful surface and solid modeling capabilities—all it needs is SketchUp-like ease of use to become the tool of choice for conceptual design.

Stay tuned for more details on Autodesk’s AEC applications next month!

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

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