Autodesk University 2007

Autodesk University 2007, which was held at The Venetian in Las Vegas from Nov 26 to Nov 30, continued to maintain its explosive growth with 9,500 attendees this year, up from 7,500 last year, 5,000 in 2005, 4,400 in 2004, and 3,300 in 2003. At the rate at which the conference is growing, Autodesk may soon have to look for another location to host its annual user conference, and at some point even consider having separate user events for the different industries it caters to. Networking is certainly getting more difficult as the numbers grow, as familiar faces are harder to find amidst the throngs, and even making new connections is more difficult as the likelihood of meeting people from the same industry is smaller. But on the plus side, there’s an amazing sense of energy and enthusiasm attending an event with close to 10,000 other people, and it is a terrific testament to the health and vitality of Autodesk’s business, which seems to be growing by leaps and bounds every year. The company is responding very well to the demand for better and more efficient 3D processes in all its industry segments including AEC, manufacturing, and infrastructure, by concentrated and rapid development of all its 3D products and by fillings gaps on the technology it is missing through relevant acquisitions (such as the recent ones of NavisWorks and Robobat in AEC). The most exciting aspect of Autodesk’s success so far is that it has given the company the resources to aspire even higher and have grander and broader technological visions of what it can do, as will be evidenced in some of the product prototypes and demos that were shared at this year’s event.

This AECbytes article captures Autodesk University 2007 from the AEC perspective, with the highlights of the general and building industry sessions, along with an overview of some new products and updates that were on display at the Exhibit Hall accompanying the event.

Opening General Session

The opening general session of the conference included a brief presentation by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass who talked about responding to four key trends:  the increased digitization of our lives; increased globalization; the global building and infrastructure boom; and the rising cost of energy and climate change. The new development of cities and buildings around the world is going to require technology not just for designing them, but also for constructing and maintaining them more efficiently. The need to create more sustainable buildings and cities brings many challenges but also brings many more opportunities for design.

Bass then handed the stage to the guest speaker for the session, Yves Behar, who is the founder of the acclaimed industrial design and branding firm, FuseProject. He talked about his firm’s work and approach to design, and described some of the interesting projects his firm has worked on (see Figure 1) including the best-selling Jawbone Bluetooth headset for Aliph and an LED lamp called LEAF for Herman Miller—a sleek groundbreaking lighting fixture that is made up of 40% recycled material, uses leaf bulbs that are more efficient that other bulbs, and is multi-purpose, changing easily from work lighting to soft, mood lighting. Behar is also the designer of the well-known $100 XO laptop, targeted towards children in developing countries for the “One Laptop Per Child” project popularized by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab. The laptop is now in production, and Behar showed its icon-based design and many dual-purpose features, which makes it compact, rugged, and suitable for use in any country irrespective of that local language that is spoken. This was pro-bono work for Behar, and he emphasized the need for designers to focus on values, not just on money. He also spoke of design as being the glue between sustainability, business, and technology.

We then had Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski show how Autodesk was continuing to work on improving interoperability between products to better meet the increasing opportunities as well as challenges for design. He did this by hosting a series of lives demos showing the use of different Autodesk products—both existing as well as prototypes that were in development—in different fields. Several of these were related to AEC, such as the use of GIS technology by the Las Vegas Water Agency to move water more efficiency and pinpoint leaks more easily in the system through 3D visualization; the use of BIM to design stations in a subway system in Hong Kong, which enables various kinds of “what-if” analyses regarding train frequency, seating and traffic, allowing people to travel more comfortably; the use of Maya as a design tool by the famed architect, Zaha Hadid; the integration of Revit Structure with the recently acquired Robobat’s ROBOT Millenium structural analysis application; and the use of NavisWorks Jetstream, now an Autodesk product, for clash detection and 4D sequencing. There were also some tantalizing glimpses of new tools and features sprinkled throughout these demos, such as the ability to do freeform conceptual design in Revit Architecture, and a new design visualization tool called Newport, which allows better visualization of buildings within the context of their sites.

The highlight of the session, however, was saved up to the very end—the demonstration of a prototype application called Metropolis for developing and visualizing “digital cities.” These would integrate various kinds of information such as the BIMs of all the individual buildings, along with geospatial information from sources such as Google Earth and NASA, and models of utilities, roads, trees, and so on. You could fly around and explore these cities not just visually—as with the current Google Earth and Virtual Earth applications—but also fly through the building models as well as go below the earth’s surface and explore how the utilities have been laid out. All of this information is not just visual, but actually has the real-world data associated with it, so that it can be queried as well as analyzed. Various kinds of applications could be built on top of this system, both by Autodesk as well as third-party developers, for different aspects of city planning and administration. The opening session ended with a major spectacle—large-size video screens that were positioned in a continuous sequence all around the auditorium flashed a 360º view of images from Metropolis, accompanied by music. Both the vision, as well as the grand manner in which it was presented, were absolutely awe-inspiring, which I imagine was exactly the impact Autodesk was hoping to have on the attendees. I can’t remember having this kind of “Wow!” reaction since I saw both SketchUp and Autodesk Architectural Studio debut at the AIA Convention all the way back in 2001.

Building Industry

What was formerly called the “Building Solutions Division” (BSD) at Autodesk was renamed as “Architecture, Engineering, and Construction” (AEC) earlier this year and it was expanded to include Autodesk products for civil engineering as well as construction. The Building Industry session at Autodesk University was led by AEC heads Jay Bhatt and Phil Bernstein, who again discussed key trends such as globalization, the growing volume of construction worldwide, and the scarcity of labor, resources, and energy, and how the AEC Division at Autodesk was responding to these trends with a three-pronged strategy: continued innovation across its technology portfolio, notably with its BIM products and Civil 3D; investing in analysis and simulations with relevant acquisitions such as NavisWorks and Robobat; and driving a better coordinated and collaboration process with products such as Buzzsaw and Constructware.

This was followed by a demo designed to show how the different AEC products could work together in an integrated manner across different disciplines for a hypothetical fast-track library project in Brazil. The project was started in Revit Architecture. When a decision was made to use a louver system, the design of this sub-component of the building was moved to Autodesk Inventor, which not only allowed the louvers to be modeled precisely but also analyzed for stresses and deformation. It allowed the shade angles of the louver system to be animated using dynamic simulation to study its shading performance and fine-tune the design accordingly. Once the design was finalized, Inventor also allowed its manufacturing process to be specified, allowing it to be sent directly for fabrication. In the meantime, the building model that was developed in Revit Architecture was exported to Autodesk Civil 3D where it was placed on a model of the site to study aspects such as drainology and hydrology.  The demo also showed the use of a partner product called AutoTURN for designing the curves of the roads on the site so that they could satisfy the turning radius requirements for different kinds of vehicles. Other multi-disciplinary processes that were demonstrated included using Revit Structure on the model created in Revit Architecture and sending the structural model for analysis to tools such as Robot Millenium, eTABS, and RISA; the use of IES in conjunction with Revit MEP to determine the heating and cooling loads for the building; the use of NavisWorks to combine all the 3D design data from the different disciplines into a single 3D  model to detect conflicts, and once all the conflicts were resolved, to determine the best construction sequencing; and the export of the structural model through the CIS/2 format to a steel detailing application for fabrication.

There was also a brief demo of a new Quantity Takeoff tool, which can input the architectural, structural, and MEP models, itemize all the elements, and associate them with a cost database, allowing a cost estimate of element categories as well as that of the entire project. All of this information can then be uploaded to Constructware, where it can be pulled into the construction-related processes. A prototype of the Quantity Takeoff tool had first been demonstrated at Autodesk University 2005, but it seems as though the project ran into some problems, which is why we didn’t hear of it again until this year’s event. It is good to see the product finally coming to fruition, as it will bridge a critical gap between the BIM-enabled design and construction processes of a building.

After the multi-disciplinary demo, Autodesk showed a fascinating video of “Project Chicago,” a project it is working on in collaboration with the US Green Building Council (USGBC). The objective of the project is to investigate how modeling, analysis, and sustainable validation could converge into an improved design process.  Using scenarios from BNIM Architects’ Lewis and Clark State Office Building in Missouri, a research team developed alternative concepts for sustainable design environments and studied their impact on the design process. The video shows a hypothetical scenario in which several members of a design team gather before a large touch-sensitive video screen and explore various energy-related scenarios for the project interactively by just using their fingers to navigate through the project, make selections, and so on. Figure 2 shows a few snapshots from the video, which can be seen in its entirety at: While this is purely a speculative idea at the moment and no code has been written yet, it is a compelling vision of one possible way in which technology can be used to facilitate sustainable design.

The Building Industry session also featured a keynote presentation by guest speaker, William McDonough, a world-renowned architect and designer who has won three U.S. presidential awards and was recognized by Time magazine as a "Hero for the Planet" in 1999. His architecture and planning firm, William McDonough + Partners, executes a diverse array of projects around the world with a design approach that draws inspiration from living systems and processes and integrates environmentally intelligent design strategies such as roof gardens, solar panels, natural heating and ventilation, and so on (see Figure 3 for some examples). It was fascinating to hear McDonough’s story and understand how it impacts the way he thinks about sustainable design. He grew up primarily in Tokyo and Hong Kong at a time when resources in those places were scarce and everyone was careful about waste. This bequeathed him with the ecological mindset that has permeated his life and is reflected in his firm’s design work. As early as in 1989—long before “climate change” became the hot issue that it now is— he had the concept of planting trees to offset pollution while working on the competition-winning design for the proposed Warsaw Tower in Poland, and the idea was actually made fun of in a cartoon that ran in the New Yorker. Times have certainly changed, with many of his firm’s projects now recognized as landmarks of the sustainability movement. While he believes that growth is good, he cautions that we need to choose how we want to grow and that being “less bad” towards the environment is not the same as being “good.” Another aspect of ecological consciousness that is of key concern to him is the selection of safe, healthy, and non-toxic materials, not just for buildings but also for furniture, fabric, furnishings, and other products that we use in our day-to-day lives. Towards this end, he has also established a firm in collaboration with a German chemist which provides a “Cradle to Cradle” certification to products based on tangible measurements of aspects such as the use of environmentally safe and healthy materials, material reutilization such as recycling or composting, the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, efficient use of water and maximum water quality associated with production, and strategies for social responsibility.

What was conspicuously absent in McDonough’s presentation was the mention of any use of software technology by his firm for the highly acclaimed sustainable design projects they work on, whether it is BIM applications or energy analysis tools. In the context of an event such as Autodesk University, this omission does beg the question of whether genuinely great work in sustainable design—such as McDonough’s­—has anything to do with software application at all. All the AEC software vendors of course, would like to believe—and have you believe!—that their software tools can help in the creation of better architecture, but architects like McDonough are evidence of the fact that design which is great in any aspect comes first and foremost from the philosophy, vision, and expertise of the designers. Without this, even the smartest technological tools cannot help to create good design. This might seem like an obvious statement, but it can be easy to overlook given the increasing power and sophistication of the applications that are being developed for AEC professionals to use.

New Products and Updates from the Exhibit Hall

As always, Autodesk University included an Exhibit Hall featuring close to 130 exhibitors showing hardware and software solutions that work with Autodesk products. This section captures some of the new and interesting products and updates I saw that were relevant to the AEC industry.

An intriguing product that was demonstrated was Capturx, a new digital pen and paper software for the CAD market. Developed by Adapx, Capturx is one solution for those AEC professionals who still prefer to mark up drawings by hand, but would like to also capture them electronically so that they can fit into the new digital workflows in AEC firms. The Capturx technology includes paper printed with a special pattern of almost imperceptible dots on which a drawing needs to be printed. You would then use the Penx digital pen that comes with the application to add mark ups, annotations, and redlines to the drawing. All these markups can subsequently be uploaded to the electronic copy of the original drawing in AutoCAD or Autodesk Design Review using a USB docking station for the pen. Capturx is also a good solution for markups on the field where using laptops or PDAs might not be easy or convenient.

Another new product that made its debut at Autodesk University is WebAxis, a web-based collaboration and project management solution developed by a leading CAD technology consulting firm in the Midwest, CADworks (formerly known as SimplyCAD). WebAxis is based on Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Virtual Server technologies, making it one of the first Sharepoint solutions that is specifically customized for AEC. It provides scheduling and workplan sharing, task lists, issues logs, document libraries, viewing and markup capabilities for drawings, 3D model navigation and fly-through, contacts lists, discussion forms, webcam viewing of construction sites, and other capabilities. It can be deployed internally within a firm on servers, and is also available as a hosted/managed solution.  

I also had the opportunity to see another new solution related to project management called ProjectControl by OFCDesk. This is a time tracking tool designed to help project teams cut costs and increase productivity through information management. It can run within AutoCAD, Revit, Word, Excel, and OFCDesk’s own CAD solution for the interior design industry called IDC. It requires team members to login before working on a task. Subsequently, it compiles all the information on the development of projects from the users’ activities into reports, which can be customized based on time, costs, usage, people, dates, and so on. This kind of information can help project managers efficiently track the development of projects, from assigning tasks to keeping track of time and costs. It is available in a free version that can handle up to 3 account and 2 projects in each account, as well as a professional version for unlimited accounts and projects.

On the hardware front, a new workstation brand was introduced at Autodesk University: the ThinkStation from Lenovo, which is an IBM spin-off. The ThinkStation is based on the upcoming Quad-Core Intel Xeon processor 5400 series and Intel Core2 Extreme Processors, which nearly double the density of transistors on the chips allowing higher levels of energy-efficient performance. Additionally, it is equipped with sophisticated data security and recovery technologies. Two models of the ThinkStation were on display, the S10 and D10. Both are additionally designed to offer high performance and reliability for professionals in demanding data and graphics-intensive environments, such as CAD and BIM, and are currently being certified by Autodesk for their applications. With the entry of these new models to the market, Lenovo becomes a serious competitor to HP, which currently dominates the workstation market.

Other new products and services that caught my attention at Autodesk University include PlanTracer, an application for AutoCAD and AutoCAD Architecture that can automatically or semi-automatically convert 2D floor plans, in the form of raster graphics or CAD primitives, into models with 3D objects; InteliSUM, which has developed a technology for capturing 3D images of real world scenes using laser scanning devices where each pixel in the scene is intelligent and contains XYZ spatial coordinates, GPS coordinates, and RGB information, and which can be quickly transferred to CAD software; and Broutek, a London-based company providing product families for Revit that are built using real manufacturer specifications.

Existing product updates that were showcased at Autodesk University include an IES plug-in to Revit Architecture, now allowing architects to work directly with IES’s high-end energy-analysis software; integration of ARCHIBUS, one of the leading Facilities Management solutions, with Revit Architecture, allowing the building information captured in Revit to be tied to the enterprise infrastructure databases of ARCHIBUS; the integration of ADS’s product selection and spec-writing capability with Revit Architecture; the bidirectional integration of Trelligence Affinity, a space programming and planning tool, with Revit Architecture; and AcroPlot Repro from CADzation, designed as a high-end replacement to the Ghostscript processing utility to improve print quality and reduce processing times of PDF and DWF files on large format engineering plotters like Oce, KIP, HP, and Xerox.

I also saw a preview of the upcoming version of VisionREZ, a BIM application customized for residential design, which was recently acquired by Illinois Tool Works (ITW), a global, publicly traded Fortune 500 company that produces engineered fasteners and components, equipment and consumable systems, and specialty products. The acquisition can allow VisionREZ to grow from being a niche product (see my review of the application published in 2005), to unify the processes of design, engineering and manufacturing in the traditionally fragmented housing industry. AmeriCAD, the original developer of VisionREZ, is currently working on creating a link between the Autodesk DWF file and ITW products. Once a designer or architect completes the 3D envelope in VisionREZ, then other manufacturing applications will be able to retrieve data directly and eliminate duplication.

Last but not the least, there were several intriguing new technologies and prototypes on display in the Autodesk Labs section of the Exhibit Hall, including a feature-rich web-based vector drawing application; a web service that allows architects and engineers to search and find generic or manufacturer-specific building products or components and associated design content; another service that allows search using visual input such as a sketch, image, drawing, or model; and the touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display that was used in the “Project Chicago” video shown in Figure 2. AECbytes will take a more detailed look at these technologies in a dedicated article next month.


Stepping back a little in time, this is what I had written in the conclusion of my article “Hurricanes and their Aftermath: How Can Technology Help?” published in August 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas:

What we also need is an extension of the BIM concept to the level of neighborhoods and cities, perhaps in the form of a "city information model" (CIM) which can capture all the critical data about a city's geographical location, topology, major roads, bridges, buildings, and so on in an intelligent format. In time, we could also find a smart way of integrating the BIM models of individual buildings within the city's CIM, so that we have a highly accurate and detailed digital replica of a city which can be subjected to sophisticated analysis and simulations. We could then predict the impact of a hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, gas leak, bioterrorist hazard, or any other kind of conceivable disaster not only on the city as a whole but on individual buildings and neighborhoods within the city as well. Just as BIM technology can help to better integrate different aspects of a building such as space, structure, mechanical systems, and so on, CIM technology could eventually help to better integrate the different structures and services within a city, allowing it to operate in a more holistic manner and deal with a disaster more effectively.”

To me, the most exciting aspect of Autodesk University 2007 was to see Autodesk working towards the same vision in the form of its Metropolis application. Of course, there is an enormous gap between a prototype and an actual functioning product, but the fact that Autodesk has already made a start brings with it the possibility that the CIM concept I had envisioned may be realized a lot sooner that I had anticipated!

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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