Bentley's Year in Infrastructure 2018 ConferenceAECbytes Newsletter #94 (October 25, 2018)

Last week, Bentley held its annual Year in Infrastructure (YII) conference in London, and while the event had a similar format as earlier years—with corporate, technology, and product updates from Bentley in the many infrastructure disciplines it develops software for, and presentations from the finalists vying for the YII 2018 Awards in different project categories—there were so many new developments and updates from Bentley that it was almost impossible to keep them straight. In contrast to previous years where most of the discourse was centered around Bentley’s software, this year’s event had a more visionary tone to it, with the concepts of “digital twins” and “open source” taking center stage. With regard to the software itself, there were acquisitions and integrations galore as well as several brand-new products developed inhouse, not to mention a rebranding of many existing solutions.

Let’s take a look.

Digital Twins

For those of us in the AEC technology industry, the concept of a digital representation of a building that can be analyzed prior to actually building it, as embodied by BIM (building information modeling), is hardly new. The concept is also on its way to being extended to infrastructure (see Extending BIM to Infrastructure) as well as entire cities (see City Information Modeling). However, our industry cannot claim to have invented the concept, as it came to us directly from the manufacturing industry and is now common in fields such as medicine as well. In fact, but for the geometrical representation, mathematical models are almost as old as programming itself, and have been used wherever analysis and simulation are necessary, whether it is in predicting hurricanes, understanding traffic patterns, designing structures for safety, improving energy efficiency, and so on.

This concept of a digital representation morphed into the concept of a digital replica with the growing popularity of IoT (Internet of things), and it has acquired the catchy moniker of “digital twin.” What makes this different from the “digital representation” that we have been using in AEC so far is the dynamic element. A digital twin is a “live” model of a physical asset that is continuously updated as its physical counterpart changes, and this is where IoT comes in, with sensors continuously monitoring what is happening to the asset and being used to guide the updates to the digital twin. In short, it is no longer enough to create a static model that will be used for analysis and design; the model has to be kept up to date with the entity as it is built and throughout its operation. According to this article, while the concept of “twinning” was used by NASA as early as in the 1960s for its space program, the term “digital twin” only took off in the last couple of years after Gartner started naming it as one of the key current technology trends (Figure 1), predicting that within three to five years, billions of things will be represented by digital twins that can allow them to respond to changes and improve operations. Those on the O&M side of AEC will certainly appreciate how valuable this would be.

Figure 1. Gartner's top 10 strategic technology trends for 2018.

While Bentley is the first AEC technology vendor to bring the “digital twins” concept and terminology to our industry, how exactly it would do this was not really clear. For the actual modeling of the digital twin, its iModel technology would be used (for more on iModels, see this article on YII 2017), and for keeping the digital model in sync with the actual physical asset, its sophisticated reality modeling (laser scanning) software, ContextCapture, would be helpful (Figure 2). Both these technologies, in addition to a project collaboration solution such as ProjectWise, would be bundled together into something called “iTwin Services,” which Bentley plans to roll out in 2019 (Figure 3). Presumably, there will be some way to bring in the IoT inputs that capture the physical conditions of the asset once it is in operation.

Figure 2. Bentley’s concept of how a digital twin of an infrastructure element would work. Top left: The model of the element as it is designed. Top right: The model of the element as it is built. Lower left: The actual physical element in operation, as captured by laser scanning. Lower right: Meshing up all these models together helps to identify what has changed.

Figure 3. Bentley’s PlantSight development with Siemens is an example of its iTwin Services applied to plant design, engineering, and operations. It creates an up-to-date, as-operated digital twin by synchronizing the real plant and its engineering representation that can be used to for more efficient operations.

Open Source Library

While we hear a lot about “open standards” in AEC technology such as IFC, COBie, etc., which promote interoperability, we don’t hear much about “open source.” That’s because there is hardly any of it. The earliest and most well-known example of an open source software was the Linux operating system, followed by the Android operating system for mobile devices that was derived from it, as well as the Firefox web browser. This is now a growing movement, with open source software available in a wide range of fields. In contrast to proprietary software that is developed by a company and not publicly available, open source software is published in a public repository such as GitHub under a license which grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Surprisingly, the largest contributor of open source software currently, going by GitHub statistics, is Microsoft, which became the largest technology company in the world by developing proprietary software. Google is a close second, which is more understandable, given that most of its software is free.

In the AEC technology field, open source software is almost unheard of. We have organizations like BuildingSmart and the Open Design Alliance, but their focus is on interoperability and open standards rather than on developing open source software. I did manage to find a few examples on GitHub, such as OpenAEC which develops open tools for Revit, and BIMserver, an open source platform for building AEC tools.

Bentley has now joined the movement, announcing an open source JavaScript library called iModel.js that any developer can use to work with iModels and create a variety of web and cloud applications for creating, visualizing, querying, mining, and synchronizing digital assets. This ties in with the iTwin cloud services that Bentley is rolling out for creating digital twins. While again, how exactly this would work was not clear, a sample demonstration has been provided to showcase iModel.js (Figure 4). While this is a simple model viewer with zoom, pan, and orbit functions, what is noteworthy about it is that it is created entirely with the open source library provided by Bentley.  We should hopefully see many more examples of what can be done with iModel.js in the coming months.

Figure 4. The iModel Viewer that was created as a sample demonstration project using the open source iModel.js library.

What is important here is the creation of an open ecosystem, not just with open standards as we have been doing so far in AEC, but with actual source code. No doubt, this is eventually a good business strategy for Bentley as it will encourage greater adoption of its iModel technology, similar to how contributing to the open source movement by Microsoft eventually comes back to benefit it. (The more code Microsoft gives away, the more likely it is that developers will run that software on its Windows Azure cloud platform.) iModels haven’t really caught on in the non-Bentley universe so far, and it will be interesting to see if this open source approach changes that.

Products and Acquisitions

Bentley is rebranding all its core applications so that they start with the word “Open” (Figure 5). It already had applications like OpenRoads, OpenRails, OpenUtilities, OpenPlant, and OpenBridge, and therefore the rebranding is a smart idea. In particular, the rebranding of AECOsim Building Designer to OpenBuildings Designer is very welcome, as I don’t think the name AECOsim really caught on. All these products continue to be built on its base MicroStation platform and can therefore “openly” communicate with each other. As shown in Figure 6, the actual number of solutions in its portfolio is much larger.

Figure 5. Bentley’s core products in the different infrastructure disciplines it serves have been rebranded so they all start with the word “Open.”

Figure 6. Bentley’s entire product portfolio categorized by discipline.

In addition to the rebranding of existing solutions, Bentley has developed several new solutions in-house. Of these, the most noteworthy are OpenBuildings Station Designer, a customized version of OpenBuildings Designer (formerly AECOsim) for the design of railway stations (Figure 7). It’s great that we are finally starting to see BIM applications customized for specific building types, which is important to make them smarter and easier to use. Also exciting is the new OpenSite solution for site design, OpenCities for city information modeling, and OpenFlows for water and wastewater. OpenFlows also includes a flood analysis application (Figure 8), which should be extremely helpful in flood forecasting, a critical area I wrote about last year in light of the barrage of hurricanes and flooding we saw.

Figure 7. OpenBuildings Station Designer, Bentley’s BIM application customized for the design of railway stations.

Figure 8. The new OpenFlows FLOOD application, which can be used for flood analysis of a neighborhood based on its 3D model.

Bentley also had several new acquisitions to showcase, including Synchro for 4D construction modeling, LEGION for pedestrian simulation, Agency 9 for city information modeling, and Plaxis for geothermal (subsurface) simulation. All of these applications, which are leading in their respective fields, add substantially to the breadth and depth of Bentley’s portfolio for infrastructure design and complement the capabilities of its own solutions. For example, the pedestrian simulation application, LEGION, which is used by over half of the transit agencies in the UK to improve pedestrian safety and operational efficiency, can work hand in hand with OpenBuildings Station Designer to guide the design of stations in improving pedestrian traffic flow and avoiding congestion (Figure 9). Agency 9 would be an invaluable addition to OpenCities for city information modeling (Figure 10), and an application like Plaxis could work across all Bentley’s infrastructure disciplines for subsurface analysis (Figure 11), predicting geotechnical failure to potentially avoiding well-known mishaps such as the tilt of the new Millennium Tower in San Francisco.

Figure 9. Potential congestion minimized using LEGION’s pedestrian simulation capabilities.

Figure 10. City model created by Agency 9.

Figure 11. Geotechnical analysis using Plaxis.

Integrations and Partnerships

In addition to its products and acquisitions, Bentley also had some integrations and partnerships to showcase. Its long-standing partnership with Microsoft has been further deepened by the integration of ProjectWise with Microsoft 365. For those not familiar with Microsoft 365, it is a package that includes Office 365, Windows 10, and additional collaboration, management, analytics, and security applications including SharePoint, Teams, Flow, and Power BI. The integration of these solutions will allow all their capabilities to be applied to the digital workflows in ProjectWise, such as the example shown in Figure 12, in which the data analytics capabilities of Power BI are used to derive project insights for better decision making in ProjectWise.

Figure 12. ProjectWise Project Insights powered by the integration with Microsoft Power BI.

Bentley continues to strength its partnership with Siemens by developing an integrated Asset Performance Management (APM) solution for power plants intended to speed up digitalization and provide intelligent analytics to improve maintenance operations and planning. It is also partnering with Atos, a global IT company, to provide a solution for creating and operating digital twins on behalf of industry and infrastructure asset owners.

Conclusions

If the annual YII conferences reflect the “state of the union” of Bentley Systems, it seems to be very much alive and well. The 2018 event, in particular, showed a company with a lot of activity and momentum, showcasing a dizzying array of products, some really smart acquisitions, and continued partnerships with leading companies like Microsoft and Siemens. Going by the projects that were showcased in the YII 2018 Awards, the use of Bentley software worldwide seems to be steadily growing, with increasingly larger and complex projects. This seems to have emboldened the company to pursue more visionary ideas such as “digital twins” and “open source” technology. I was struck by how there was no mention of Autodesk at all this year, indicating that Bentley no longer feels any competitive pressure from it and does not have to show comparisons of its revenue and usage vis-a-vis Autodesk as it used to do in previous years. It points to a strong, stable, and solid company that should make its users feel confident about their choice of vendor and software.

The only criticism I have of Bentley is its penchant for complicating things. There is so much jargon in its rhetoric that it is not only off-putting but confusing. A case in point are the “eering” words it is so fond of using: conceptioneering, optioneering, constructioneering, inspectioneering, and even operationeering. My brain just shuts down when I start hearing this terminology. Whatever happened to the KISS (keep it short and simple) mantra? The AEC industry is tough enough—we don’t need to make the software that we use complicated as well.

In order to write this article, I not only had to sift through a lot of information and distill the essence of it but also do additional research on many of the technologies that were mentioned. While that is part of my job, practicing AEC professionals who actually have to use the software shouldn’t have to get a Ph.D. to understand it.

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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