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AECbytes Newsletter #56 (April 11, 2012)

Autodesk’s 2013 Product Launch and AEC Portfolio

It is that time of the year that Autodesk typically launches its next release of products, and this year was no exception—Autodesk has just released its 2013 product portfolio. This includes new releases of applications across all the three main industries it serves, including AEC (which includes buildings as well as infrastructure), manufacturing, and M&E (media and entertainment). This AECbytes newsletter provides an overview of the overall 2013 release and then takes a deeper dive into the more AEC industry-specific details that were shared. Needless to say, with the commanding lead that Autodesk has over competing products, at least in the AEC industry, interest in every new release is always very high, and Autodesk users are eager to know what to expect. Let’s see if the 2013 release holds any surprises, or is comprised more of routine enhancements rather than dramatic changes.

Overview of the 2013 Release

In introducing the 2013 release, Autodesk executives started by reiterating some key themes that had been highlighted at earlier events such as the annual Autodesk University, for example, the cloud. Autodesk has introduced several cloud-based services in recent years, including rendering and different kinds of analyses such as energy, structure, etc. Autodesk is also very interested in optimization technology using the power of cloud computing, which is where the computer would provide one or more optimal solutions to a problem. Recall that AEC product selection using Autodesk Seek was one of the earliest examples of cloud-based services. The ‘power of the cloud” is part of Autodesk’s larger mission to “democratize technology,” which it wants to do by developing software that can be used all over the world for providing basic necessities—clean water, shelter, and infrastructure­—to everyone.

Autodesk is also continuing on the path of more integrated offerings with the product suites that it launched last year (see AECbytes Newsletter #50). An increasing number of users are adopting suites, and Autodesk acknowledges frankly that this is translating into greater revenue for the company. It sees the days of stand-alone products as over. Integrating products into suites has allowed them to be more cohesive and easy to use. Along with the 2013 versions of the suites it introduced last year, Autodesk has launched a brand new Factory Design Suite, which includes all the relevant mechanical as well as building design applications and makes it easier to synchronize data as well as exchange it with AutoCAD.  On the building design front, the biggest change is that the default BIM application is now an integrated version of Revit, instead of separate disciplinary BIM applications for architecture, structure, and MEP. (This will be discussed in more detail in the next section.) For infrastructure, Autodesk’s Project Galileo (see the article on Autodesk AEC Technology Day 2011) has graduated from Autodesk Labs and is now being launched as Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler, intended for early stage city planning and conceptual infrastructure design. Every Autodesk suite includes its flagship AutoCAD product, which now integrates better with other Autodesk applications like Showcase and 3ds Max.

Apart from mentioning this, no details were shared about the new release of AutoCAD, showing that Autodesk is finally moving beyond its flagship CAD application. The focus, however, has moved to a related application, AutoCAD WS, which is available for free on tablet devices, and is enormously popular, according to Autodesk, evidenced by the fact that it has 7 million users despite being launched only two years ago. (In comparison AutoCAD has acquired about 12 million users since it was launched 30 years ago.) Another measure of success of the application is that nearly 30,000 files are being uploaded to AutoCAD WS every week. Obviously, the growing popularity and convenience of tablet devices has a lot to do with the success of “apps” like AutoCAD WS, and it is to Autodesk’s credit that it recognized the potential of this new medium early on in the game, and was one of the earliest design technology vendors to develop apps, first for the iPad and then for the Android platform as well. Another early app by Autodesk that has been very successful is SketchBook, which includes drawing and painting tools for creating a wide variety of art, and now has 10 million users. The new tablet devices are used not only by consumers but by professionals as well, prompting technology vendors like Autodesk to develop apps for professionals as well. Examples include the Autodesk Design Review, Buzzsaw, and Bluestreak apps, which were described in the recent AECbytes articles on iPad apps for design and construction.  Another recent example is an app called ForceEffect, which allows engineers to analyze forces, understand kinematics in motion, and create free-body diagrams on an iPad.
                                             
In a related development, Autodesk disclosed that it has introduced an Autodesk Exchange App Store, which currently lists over 200 apps that work with Autodesk products such as Revit. Unlike Apple, Autodesk does not earn any license fees from the sale of an app; it does not even charge developers any fee to list their apps in its App Store. Autodesk’s objective is to allow its customers to reach third-party developers of add-on products more easily, thereby extending the usefulness and value of their Autodesk applications. All of the apps are first internally vetted by Autodesk and only then listed in the App store, assuring its users with a certain level of quality assurance.

Getting back to the cloud, Autodesk is launching a new initiative called Autodesk 360, which will be the umbrella for all its cloud-based services. This will include its existing cloud-based services such as Green Building Studio for energy analysis, and some new services such as Autodesk 360 Structural Analysis and Autodesk 360 Simulation. Autodesk is also introducing a brand-new cloud-based solution called Autodesk 360 PLM, where PLM stands for “product lifecycle management.”Although PLM is traditionally more of a mechanical design concept, Autodesk is suggesting that the AEC industry can use it gainfully as well, with some plug-in AEC apps in addition to the traditional mechanical design ones. Autodesk 360 PLM integrates with Autodesk Vault, which is its traditional PDM (product document management) solution.

It should be noted that all of Autodesk’s cloud offerings are available for no extra charge to those users who are on its one of its subscription plans. Autodesk still has to decide what is to be made available a la carte to those who are not on a subscription plan. Of course, everything that is on Autodesk Labs in subscription preview mode continues to be freely available to all users.

Also worth noting is that Autodesk now has dedicated executives for simulation as well as reality capture (using laser scans), indicating that it intends to focus more deeply on these areas going forward. Its simulation portfolio is already well established with desktop as well as cloud-based analysis tools, and we should see more simulation tools in the future which would enable us to better understand a product’s performance before it is made. For reality capture, laser scanning devices are continuing to get cheaper, and Autodesk is now focused on enabling access to point cloud data on mobile devices, so that as-built models in any field can be created more easily. In addition to architecture and historic preservation, reality capture is being increasingly used in defense, science, education, geography, and other fields.

2013 AEC Products

As Autodesk reminded us, this year marks the 10th anniversary of its acquisition of Revit, which  started out as an architectural design tool, and has come a long way since then, evolving into a multi-disciplinary platform for the three distinct AEC disciplines—architecture, structure, and MEP. Revit is popular among these disciplinary professionals as well as among contractors that need to work with all the individual disciplinary models. This seems like a good time to come out with an integrated version of the application, which is the most dramatic new feature in the 2013 version of Revit. All of the disciplinary tools are now available in a single application and can be turned off and on as desired. While the individual disciplinary professionals will still primarily continue to use the toolset relevant to them, the integrated capability could be helpful for temporarily re-creating the work of another disciplinary professional to understand it better. It would be of bigger benefit to integrated A/E firms, but undoubtedly, the biggest beneficiaries would be construction firms who need to access all disciplinary models and can now get all their information in one place using a single application. The idea of a single integrated multi-disciplinary BIM application is hardly new—Bentley’s new AECOsim Building Designer is built on exactly the same premise, to have all the multi-disciplinary BIM applications available in one product.

It should be noted that the individual disciplinary applications will still be available as stand-alone products, updated to the 2013 versions, for those who need them. However, the two building suites that include Revit will now have the integrated version of Revit rather than the stand-alone versions.

Both Revit and Navisworks have been updated in the 2013 release to improve integration between the two applications. Revit models can now be directly opened in Navisworks without the need to save them in the special NWC file format. The new integration method also makes it possible to pull only parts of a Revit model—for example, those that would be needed for construction—into Navisworks. As I mentioned in my review of Navisworks 2009, written shortly after its acquisition by Autodesk, the deeper integration with Revit was only a matter of time, and we are seeing it at last.

Other new features in the 2013 version of Revit that were mentioned were improved integration with Autodesk Showcase and 3ds Max Design, new raytracing and backdrop tools for improved renderings, the ability to adjust the dimensions of an object graphically using shape handles, and capabilities to merge parts, add a divider gap when splitting parts, and add a profile, all of which would be very helpful for adding detail to a model. An overview of Revit’s new features is provided in the recent AECbytes Tips and Tricks article, The New Materials User Interface in Revit 2013. Additionally, we will look at Revit 2013 in more detail in an upcoming product review. Navisworks itself has some improvements of its own, including a brand-new interface for clash detection where all the tools are now upfront instead of being buried under layers of options and commands, and several enhancements to the scheduling capability, including a new easy-to-use button, connections between all the tasks, and drag-and-drop capability from the model to the task list.

A few more AEC-specific details were provided about Autodesk’s new cloud initiative, Autodesk 360, which was mentioned in the last section. The cloud-based rendering for Revit is called Autodesk 360 Rendering, and it can create rendered still images as well as panoramic views. The rendered results can be brought back into Revit, if needed, or viewed on tablet devices like the iPad. In addition to the rendering service, Autodesk 360 includes cloud-based energy analysis in the form of an updated version of Green Building Studio, as well as cloud-based structural analysis in the form of Robot Structural Analysis 2013, which features enhanced integration with Revit and now includes capabilities for seismic analysis as well. It should be noted that this cloud-based structural analysis is not as comprehensive or detailed as Autodesk’s desktop Robot Structural Analysis application (which is based on the Robobat application it acquired some years ago).The cloud-based tool is primarily intended for early stage structural analysis; however, it is based on the same Robot engine that powers the desktop tool.

Conclusion

Apart from the integrated version of Revit—which itself is not an original idea—Autodesk’s new 2013 line-up is more evolutionary than revolutionary and can hardly be described as having many visionary qualities. For all the talk about optimization and generative design, where are the tools for this from Autodesk? Another omission that stuck out like a sore thumb at Autodesk’s 2013 product launch event was Autodesk Ecotect, which was not mentioned at all. There was also no mention of the collaboration solutions, BIM 360 or Vault Collaboration for AEC, which had been introduced with so much fanfare last year. Every year, it seems as if a new concept or initiative for collaboration is introduced, and it’s not clear if the new initiatives are being added to the earlier ones or are replacing them. Either way, it paints a very confusing picture and indicates a lack of clear thinking on collaboration at Autodesk.  

On the other hand, while it may be easy to be underwhelmed by the new release, we should also keep in mind the efforts of the engineers and developers, who are often working very hard behind the scenes to bring these applications to a state where they can be used to solve complex real-world problems. The continued development of software tools is not an easy task, and we need to appreciate the hard work of the people behind each new feature enhancement, even as we criticize Autodesk’s management team for either not having a compelling vision, or at least for failing to articulate it effectively.

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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