Autodesk AEC 2017 Product Portfolio AECbytes Newsletter #80 (April 20, 2016)

Autodesk has just released the 2017 version of many of its products, and this article looks at the highlights of its 2017 AEC product family, including Revit, InfraWorks 360, AutoCAD Civil 3D, Navisworks, and Advance Steel. Autodesk also instituted a licensing change a few months ago, so perpetual licenses of these and earlier releases are no longer available; instead, they will only be available on a subscription basis.

Revit 2017                                                                             

Starting with this release, Revit is now a single product rather than available in the separate disciplinary flavors of architecture, structure, and MEP. This means that all the different disciplinary functionalities are now consolidated in a single application. In addition to this major change, there are over 50 enhancements to the application, distributed across three main categories: modeling, communication, and efficiency. On the modeling front, a key new feature is Global Parameters, which allows users to define relationships between building elements and use parameters to drive dimensions and values across a project. An example is shown in Figure 1, where the depth of a room is defined in terms of the hall width and building depth so that if either of these two values is changed, the room depth is automatically changed to maintain the relationship. This parametric capability has been available only in the Family Editor until now; with the 2017 release, it is now available in the regular project environment as well, reinforcing the “intelligent” modeling ability that differentiated Revit from the start and made it such a hit.

Figure 1. The new Global Parameters capability in Revit 2017 which allows design intent to be captured in the model by defining parametric relationships between building elements and dimensions.

Other modeling improvements include the ability for more detailed modeling of structural components such as rebar and steel connections and route and fill functionality for MEP modeling. In addition, a Design to Fabrication tool can automatically convert detail model elements from the design level to the fabrication level (Figure 2), improving Revit’s capability to create fabrication models.  It’s not clear if Revit, by itself, eventually aims to compete with applications like Tekla Structures that provide full-fledged fabrication modeling capabilities, but it certainly seems to be moving closer towards this goal with every release.

Figure 2. The Design to Fabrication tool in Revit 2017 can convert generic design elements to fabrication-capable elements.

On the communication front, a useful new feature is Depth Cueing, which lets you add depth to elevations and sections, so that parts of the model that are further away get progressively lighter as they recede. Using this feature can lead to some dramatic visualization improvements, as shown in Figure 3. On the rendering front, Autodesk Raytracer, which was introduced in the 2016 release, is now the default visualization engine, and by making use of efficient settings, video card agnostic CPU operation, and physically accurate lighting and materials, it allows photorealistic renderings to be created quickly and accurately.

Figure 3. The use of the new Depth Cueing feature to add depth to elevations and sections.

The other key enhancements in Revit 2017 include improved performance, more multi-threading, and faster view refresh and user navigation through occlusion culling (disabling the rendering of hidden objects); an improved text editor for easier documentation; and improved interoperability with support of IFC4 (the current IFC release), and a new Autodesk FormIt 360 Converter that can convert FormIt and Sketchup files to Revit. Some additional details about the new features in Revit 2017 were included in the Tips and Tricks article that was published earlier this week.

Enhancements to InfraWorks 360

I have written about InfraWorks extensively in recent articles, both in the context of infrastructure design (“Extending BIM to Infrastructure” and “High Speed Rail and BIM”) as well as in general appreciation of its “smarts” as a design tool (“Why Isn't There a Smarter BIM Tool for Building Design, Yet?”). In the 2017 release of the application, Autodesk has continue to add to its intelligent infrastructure modeling capabilities with support for multi-lane merges and diverges, weaving lanes, complex intersections, and easier editing of roundabouts, allowing all these elements to be modeled more accurately and in detail without resorting to workarounds. The traffic simulation feature that was introduced in InfraWorks about a year ago has been expanded to support more configurations including on/off ramps, center turn lanes, and offset roundabouts. In addition, the concept of simulation itself has been taken to a whole new level with a new “mobility simulation” capability which can analyze not just the movement of vehicles in a proposed design but also pedestrians, bikes, taxis, buses, and other modes of transportation (Figure 4), bringing InfraWorks close to the holy grail of computer-aided design where a design can be fully analyzed and simulated before being built. It would be great if, at some point, actual traffic data from our cities could be plugged into InfraWorks for the simulation, so the design could be evaluated to see how well it works for real-life traffic conditions.

Figure 4. The new Mobility Simulation Feature in InfraWorks 360 allows a proposed design to be analyzed for the movement of multiple modes of transportation simultaneously.

Bringing real-life traffic data into InfraWorks for its mobility simulation is not that far-fetched, given that the application already pulls in real-life GIS, CAD, and other public data for its Model Builder application, which can build entire city models in minutes to provide the real-world context for new infrastructure design proposals. The new latest release of InfraWorks improves this capability and makes the city models more detailed by linking to more data sources that are also richer, including Open Street Map (OSM) data, 2D DWG files, and raster overlays. It is now possible to overlay a DWG file, in addition to raster images, over an InfraWorks model with accompanying location, scale, rotation control and correlation tools, allowing users to model more accurately with reference to an existing AutoCAD drawing or Civil 3D design (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The new ability to overlay a DWG drawing on top of an InfraWorks model.

The new version also greatly improves interoperability with both Revit and AutoCAD Civil 3D so that a design conceptualized in InfraWorks can be transferred for more detailed design and construction documentation to either of these applications with minimal loss of information. With Revit in particular, the interoperability is quite amazing, as the design is exported not just at a high level but in full detail, with all the structural components and the families that would be needed to continue the design in Revit, right from where it was left off in InfraWorks (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Exporting an InfraWorks model to Revit brings it into Revit in full detail for a user to continue working on it.

New Features in Other AEC Applications       

The 2017 version of Autodesk’s flagship application for civil engineering design and documentation, AutoCAD Civil 3D, has its own share of improvements and new features to help streamline legacy workflows, centralize the management of design and drafting standards, and better integrate with InfraWorks 360. Users can now create data shortcuts for corridors (DREFs) and reference them in other drawings, create multiple DREFs at once, and simplify the management of drawing styles, allowing teams to work better together and enforce standards more easily. Additional improvements for corridor modeling include the ability to use feature lines as a corridor baseline, automatic and more accurate clean-up of corner shapes, the ability to extract multiple feature lines from corridor regions, and assigning property data to corridor solids that is retained throughout the design workflow. This property data can also be extracted for use in other applications such as Navisworks and the BIM 360 Glue cloud-based service (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Accessing the property data assigned to a corridor solid in Civil 3D when it is brought into Navisworks.

With regard to Navisworks itself, the main highlight of the 2017 release is the ability to create Shared Views that can be used in BIM 360 Glue, allowing project teams to more tightly integrate their workflows between the desktop-based design coordination capabilities of Navisworks and the cloud-based design coordination capabilities of BIM 360 Glue (Figure 8). The shared views retain view fidelity, including object visibility, overrides such as color and transparency, and section planes and boxes. Navisworks 2017 also includes closer integration with other Autodesk AEC applications such as Revit, ReCap, and Vault through updated file readers and exporters.

Figure 8. Creating a new BIM 360 Shared View in Navisworks.

Autodesk also has some updates to its main structural analysis application, Advance Steel, which forms the mainstay of its Structural Fabrication Suite that also includes AutoCAD, Revit, and Navisworks and is intended to support the workflow from model-based structural design to fabrication. The 2017 version of the AutoCAD-based Advance Steel provides a new automatic and parametric tool for inserting cold rolled sections (such as purlins and side rails) and their corresponding connections; improves access to customized fabrication data information; supports user defined formulas such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in Bill of Materials (BOM) templates for greater flexibility; and includes several documentation improvements such as new and improved drawing styles, custom clipping symbols, snap points on anchors, grid balloon placement control, templates for lists on drawings, displaying the beam offset value labels, and improving the display of structural member symbols. In addition, there is also an updated Advance Steel Extension for Revit that can synchronize steel connections between models created in Revit and/or Advance Steel while still keeping them as intelligent parametric connections, allowing them to be modeled with a higher level of detail than in Revit alone (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Synchronization of steel connections between a model created in Advance Steel and Revit.

Analysis and Conclusions

The 2017 release of Autodesk’s AEC products continues to add to their usefulness and functionality for model-based building and infrastructure design, detailing, and construction coordination. With the exception of the expanded modeling and simulation capabilities in InfraWorks, however, most of the enhancements can be considered as incremental upgrades rather than ground-breaking improvements. For Revit, perhaps the most dramatic change is the consolidation of the three disciplinary BIM tools (for architecture, structure, and MEP) in a single application, which certainly simplifies implementation and licensing but can also make the tool very “heavy.” From a comparative standpoint, it also makes Revit seem like it is following the footsteps of Bentley’s AECOsim Building Designer, which also consolidates all disciplinary capabilities into one BIM tool.

With regard to Revit itself, the “guts” of the application itself are still so powerful and user-friendly that it’s a mystery why Autodesk does not make a free version of Revit available for anyone to use, similar to the free version of SketchUp. Sure, there’s Revit LT, but it is still designed for professional users and is not free. I think it would be terrific to have a very lightweight version of Revit for non-professional users, even if they are still students in school. A recent personal incident brought this to light for me. A few weeks ago, my middle-school son was assigned a math project, as part of a team, to design a residential floor plan and calculate floor areas and surface areas of walls to determine quantities of carpet and paint. While designing the plan and doing the calculations was easy for the team, they were also required to model the plan on the computer. They spent a long time struggling to do this in various online design applications including Autodesk’s own Homestyler and Floorplanner, and even the free version of SketchUp that they downloaded, but they found it extremely difficult. Finally, the day before their deadline, I offered the use of Revit on my computer, and after just a brief demo of how Revit works, they were able to model their design in Revit in less than 10 minutes. While they were thrilled and raved about how easy Revit was to use, I found it sad that middle-school students had to resort to a professional-level BIM application for their project. I wish Autodesk as well as the other BIM vendors would step up and provide free trimmed-down versions of their applications for the public at large. 

I was also disappointed to find there were no new design conceptualization capabilities in Revit 2017, making it increasingly removed from the early stage design process—unless it involves the floor plan approach, in which case it works very well (like the middle-school project I mentioned). Autodesk did not share any updates at this time to its FormIt and Dynamo design conceptualization tools, and it’s possible that these will be revealed at the upcoming AIA Convention, similar to how they were shared last year at AIA 2015. While both FormIt and Dynamo are valuable applications in their own right, I think it’s a pity that Revit is becoming increasingly tuned primarily for detailed design, given how much potential it has for early stage design. If we compare Autodesk’s building design applications with its infrastructure design applications, Revit seems to be becoming more like AutoCAD Civil 3D which is intended for detailed design and documentation rather than an intelligent design tool like InfraWorks that has a lot of built-in automated smarts for modeling and analysis.

What does it take for Autodesk to come up with a BuildingWorks application, à la InfraWorks, for building design?

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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