Autodesk University 2016 AECbytes Newsletter #85 (December 22, 2016)

In a break from earlier years, Autodesk University (AU) was held before the US Thanksgiving holiday this year, from November 15 to 17, in the same Las Vegas location as always. While I was not able to attend the event in person this year, so much of what was shared by Autodesk at the event is available online—including the keynotes that are streamed live as well as available for viewing later—that it is possible to still get a good understanding of the main takeaways of the event, which is what this article attempts to capture. Of course, there is no substitute for actually being there and feeling the “pulse” of the event, meeting other attendees, and exploring the many technologies on display at the Exhibit Hall. But it’s great that communication technology has evolved to the point where you don’t have to miss out on something because you can’t physically be there.

The Big Picture

Autodesk continued with the same theme, “The Future of Making Things,” that it introduced at last year’s AU (see AECbytes Newsletter #78), and while generative design and robotics were again showcased as examples of technologies typifying this theme, the discussion was expanded to also include artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning and virtual reality. AI was described as the most important thing happening in software today, where the computer has evolved from being able to play (and beat) humans at chess, board games, and even Go (a game so complex that it has more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe), to being able to do things such as study art and even create a new “Rembrandt” painting that seems to be virtually indistinguishable from an original (Figure 1). By programing computers how to reason, they are getting better at things that require human style capabilities and can become better creative partners for us.

Figure 1. A computer used AI programming to study existing Rembrandt works and create a new painting in the same style. (Image courtesy: The Next Rembrandt/ING)

While Autodesk does not have any AI tools to showcase yet, it did have developments to highlight for all the other “big picture” themes it discussed. Take the case of generative design, where you don’t tell a computer what to do—as this will most likely be something you already know—but instead, you tell the computer what you want, and it will give you all the possible options that meet your requirements. At last year’s AU, Autodesk demonstrated the use of this technology by Airbus to design a bionic airplane partition with the help of an Autodesk Labs research tool called Project Dreamcatcher. While Dreamcatcher is primarily for MCAD design, Autodesk is now developing a generative design tool specifically for the AEC industry called Project Fractal, which integrates with the scripting design capability of Dynamo Studio (described in the article, Autodesk AEC Summit: 2016 Release and Upcoming Products) to automatically generate a wide array of options that meet the parametric design requirements captured in a Dynamo script. Figure 2 shows Project Fractal being used to generate multiple options for a tower configuration inside Dynamo Studio. Autodesk plans to release both Dreamcatcher and Fractal as commercial offerings early next year.

Figure 2. The use of Project Fractal working inside Dynamo Studio to generate multiple options for the massing design of a tower.

Another key technology in Autodesk’s “The Future of Making Things” AU theme that it has made some inroads into is virtual reality (VR) with tools such as Stingray, a sophisticated real-time visualization application built on a gaming engine, and the more recent Autodesk LIVE, which allows Revit models to be interactively viewed and navigated (see AECbytes Newsletter #81), both of which are VR-enabled and support immersive experiences through a VR headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Collectively termed LIVE Design, the toolset also includes Autodesk’s flagship 3D modeling and rendering software for 3D visualization artists across all the industries it serves. Autodesk emphasized that VR was not just about being able to better visualize a design but about being able to better understand it, and in the future, to be able to actually design in VR, individually and in collaboration with others. While the graphics that Autodesk showed to illustrate this capability (Figure 3)—something that it is working on—were related to automotive design, it’s not difficult to imagine the same capability being applied to building design. (Of course, not all architects find the need to “be” in a space to design it better—in fact, many would argue that they need to look at the design as a whole from “outside” to conceptualize and plan it—but with the new and upcoming generations’ proclivity with technology and gaming, it is quite possible that VR will be an indispensable design tool for them.)

Figure 3. Autodesk sees VR as not just a visualization tool but a medium for actually designing, individually and collaboratively, in the future.

Moving on to robotics, the final “big picture” technology, Autodesk continued to highlight computer-aided manufacturing and construction, both of which advance steadily ever year. Combining robotics with generative design and machine learning makes it even more powerful and able to manufacture designs that would otherwise have been impossible to create. The 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam which had been shown at last year’s AU has now moved on to actually being constructed (Figure 4), and we are likely to see many more instances of robotic-enabled manufacturing and construction in the future.

Figure 4. A section of the first 3D printed bridge under construction.

Other AEC-Specific Product Updates

In other product updates, Autodesk’s Forge platform that was launched last year to serve as a hub for its many cloud services for different aspects of “making” including design, engineering, visualization, collaboration, production, and operations—which seemed quite nebulous and very MCAD focused at that time—has gained traction, with developers as well as customers using it to build and deploy applications for different uses in manufacturing as well as construction. The idea behind Forge is to provide a common set of application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate applications and services. Currently, over 4,000 of these have been built on the platform. A case in point that is very AEC-specific is the use of Forge APIs by the leading construction firm, JE Dunn, to custom build Lens, a model-based estimating tool (Figure 5). Autodesk will be using Forge itself as a common data environment and engine for simplifying its own product offerings, and as a foundation for its cloud services like Fusion 360 (for MCAD) and BIM 360 (for AEC).

Figure 5. The custom-built Lens estimating tool created by JE Dunn using Forge APIs.

As for BIM 360, Autodesk showed several updates to the BIM 360 Docs application for cloud-based document management that it had previewed at last year’s AU, including the ability to manage submittals, Request for Information (RFI) functionality, and availability on the Android platform. And at this year’s AU, Autodesk previewed two new BIM 360 tools being developed at Autodesk Labs specifically for the AEC industry:  Project Quantum, which essentially puts BIM on the cloud, connecting multidisciplinary teams and enabling them to better collaborate on a project (Figure 6); and Project IQ, which can provide risk assessment on a project by mining construction data and applying machine learning and analytics to it (Figure 7). Project Quantum, in particular, sounds exciting, and even it is still at a very early development stage, it seems poised to overtake “old-school” Revit as the next-generation BIM technology.

Figure 6. A conceptual diagram showing how Project Quantum would work to connect different BIM disciplines in real time.

Figure 7. A Project IQ dashboard showing potential project risks based on analyzing its construction data.

AEC Excellence Awards

The other main highlight of Autodesk University was announcing the winners of its annual AEC Excellence Awards, which are intended to showcase the best AEC projects in the world being designed and constructed using Autodesk’s technology solutions. The winners in the three main categories of these awards—Building, Construction, and Infrastructure—are shown in Figures 8, 9, and 10 respectively. In the Building category, the winner was BIAD (Beijing Institute of Architecture Design) for the Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing, whose visually striking design was inspired by the endlessly curving form of a Möbius strip and realized through the exclusive use of BIM by the project team (Figure 8). In the Construction category, the winner was long-time Autodesk user Mortenson for its use of BIM in the recently completed U.S. Bank Stadium, a complex project featuring a massive transparent roof, zinc metal exterior panels, and the largest pivoting glass doors in the world (Figure 9). For Infrastructure, the Rambøll Sweco ANS team captured first place for their work on a project to lay 75 kilometers of double track between Norway’s Sørli and Lillehammer cities, navigating complex terrain and landscapes that had significant environmental and cultural restraints (Figure 10). The project team used Infraworks 360 to analyze, design, visualize, and negotiate these environmental complexities, as well as provide a central platform for collaboration between the participants, which numbered close to 120.

Figure 8. The Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing designed by BIAD (Beijing Institute of Architecture Design).

Figure 9. The U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota Vikings for which Mortenson Construction won in the Construction category.

Figure 10. Design and analysis using Autodesk Infraworks 360 of the proposed railway in Norway by the Rambøll Sweco ANS team.

Several additional projects won in specialized categories such as simulation and analysis, fabrication, collaboration, computational design, and energy and natural resources. The complete list and description of the winning projects can be seen in an eBook available for download at: http://damassets.autodesk.net/content/dam/autodesk/www/campaigns/excellence-awards/autodesk-aec-excellence-awards-2016-web-version.pdf.

Conclusions

Compared to last year’s Autodesk University which I did not find terribly exciting from an AEC technology perspective, the technology outlook for Autodesk’s AEC users seems much more promising in 2017, with tools such as Project Fractal and Project IQ in development, and of course, Project Quantum, which could even become a game-changer if it will work as described by Autodesk. It is also promising to see some AEC-specific development on Forge, even though it was developed by a customer rather than Autodesk itself. It remains to be seen if Forge overcomes my initial perception of being more MCAD-focused—which, by the way, the name “Forge” only serves to accentuate—and morphs into a platform that can equally serve all the different industries that Autodesk solutions cater to.

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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