It’s been a while since I’ve been updated on Autodesk news, and the recent Autodesk University event that was held a couple of weeks ago gave me a chance to find out what’s new and interesting from the company on the AEC front. While I did not attend the event in person, the key announcements as well as the videos of several sessions are available online. This article distills the main AEC-specific technology updates that were shared and also provides a brief overview of some of the third-party products that were exhibited at the event.
Here is a summary of the main technology updates from Autodesk for building design and construction:
Let’s look at them in more detail, starting with Autodesk Connected Cloud.
Autodesk has acquired a number of construction-related applications over the last few years, including Assemble, which provides design checking and coordination, quantification and takeoff, and construction management capabilities (see this article from 2015 for an overview); BuildingConnected, a web-based suite of bid management, risk analysis, and other preconstruction tools; and PlanGrid, a construction management solution which captures all project data and is accessible from any device. Autodesk is bringing all these together along with its own home-brewed BIM 360 into a new platform called Autodesk Connected Cloud, intended to better integrate these different best-of-breed solutions with each other as well as with Autodesk’s design authoring tools for a smoother, more collaborative workflow. Integrations are the key to making this happen, allowing data to flow between the different products, and Autodesk has been developing several of these including integrations between Revit and PlanGrid, BIM 360 Design and Civil 3D, BuildingConnected and PlanGrid (described in my “AEC Technology Updates, 2019” article), BIM 360 and Assemble, and Navisworks and Assemble (Figure 1). The plan is also to develop BIM 360 as a Common Data Environment (CDE) for all these applications, going from design to construction.
At the Autodesk University event two years ago, Autodesk had announced a partnership with leading GIS vendor ESRI to build a bridge between BIM and GIS in order to expand the BIM concept to infrastructure design. (See the articles. “Autodesk University 2017” and “Extending BIM to Infrastructure.”) This partnership has led to an integration between the online version of ESRI’s flagship ArcGIS application (see the recent AECbytes article, “Mapping with ArcGIS”) and Autodesk’s building and infrastructure design applications, Revit, Civil 3D, and InfraWorks (Figure 2). The integration is bidirectional in the case of Civil 3D and InfraWorks, allowing ArcGIS datasets to be brought in as well as saved back to the application. In the case of InfraWorks, it is also live, which allows field data collected using the ArcGIS mobile app to be imported into InfraWorks as well.
Autodesk has been talking about generative design for several years now. Generative design is where you don’t tell a computer what to do, as in the traditional design process, but instead, you tell the computer what you want, and it will give you all the possible options that meet your requirements. Autodesk started off with developing a generative design tool for the MCAD industry called Project Dreamcatcher that it showcased at Autodesk University 2015, followed the next year by a generative design tool for the AEC industry called Project Fractal (see the article on Autodesk University 2016). Project Fractal has been evolved into a new application called Project Refinery, which is currently in beta and was shown at this year’s event. The intent behind the application is to make generative design more mainstream and allow it to be used more easily for design exploration without having to know how to code. Unlike its previous avatar, Project Fractal, which was integrated with Dynamo and therefore required some scripting know-how, the new Project Refinery is also integrated with Revit to make it more accessible (Figure 3).
In my recent article on Bentley’s YII 2019 conference, I highlighted the overwhelming focus of the company on Digital Twins. Autodesk, too, talked about this at Autodesk University, but in Autodesk’s case, it is focusing more on “Smart Spaces” rather than “Digital Twins.” While both technologies appear in the Gartner’s Top Ten list (Figure 4), Autodesk’s focus on Smart Spaces is more closely aligned with its product portfolio for individual buildings, primarily Revit.
While we are all familiar with individual smart devices such as thermometers, lighting switches, doorbells, home monitoring systems, etc., a “smart space” takes the concept a step further by the integration of sensors (IoT devices) with BIM to make an entire building smarter and more responsive to its occupants. Autodesk showed a fascinating example of a “smart door” to illustrate this. Designed by Autodesk-incubated start-up, Hacka Labs, using Autodesk Fusion, the door incorporates multiple sensors that can track smoke, humidity, temperature, etc., as well as more specialized air qualities such as particles, air pressure, etc., that would be needed in a building like a hospital where it is critical to monitor real-time conditions. The smart door has its own operating system that communicates with Autodesk’s mobile facilities-management application, BIM 360 Ops. Any issues with the door would automatically trigger an alert and a technician would be notified to go fix it, with the door’s location highlighted in the Revit floor plan. While this “smart door” is still a prototype in development, it is not hard to imagine how useful this could be, in conjunction with similar smart elements such as windows, walls, floors, etc., in making entire buildings smarter, more responsive, and safer.
In addition to these updates, some of the other developments that were shared include the launch of Unity Reflect for real-time visualization in Revit, the launch of BIM 360 Design for Civil 3D, the integration of EnergyPlus with BIM 360 for performance analysis, and the expansion of the visual scripting capabilities of Dynamo to automate repetitive tasks in modeling. I was particularly impressed by a new Path of Travel tool in Revit that calculates and shows the shortest path of travel between two spaces in a Revit model, taking into account obstacles that might be in the way (Figure 6).
One of the main draws of Autodesk University is the opportunity to see the depth and breadth of third-party add-ins and plug-ins that work with Autodesk solutions. For the AEC industry, the majority of these are solutions that extend the capabilities of Revit. Ideate Software, a long-time developer of plug-in tools for Revit showed the latest version of its IdeateApps, a collection of tools that streamline the tasks Revit users perform most often such as creating views, spell checking, aligning, cloning, managing sheets, renumbering, smart deletion, and quick selection. The recent updates include improved searching, enhanced batch editing, improved sheet composition, selecting multiple unplaced views and turning them into sheets (Figure 7), copying and pasting legends across multiple sheets, and some additional enhancements.
Another long-time developer, Lighting Analysts, showed the new features in its Revit add-in for lighting, ElumTools. These include PPFD calculations for Horticulture and projected calculation points for easy multi-elevation applications such as topography, stairs, facades, and more (Figure 8).
A relatively new exhibitor, The Wild, showed its immersive collaboration platform that uses virtual and augmented reality, and integrates with Autodesk tools including Revit and BIM 360. The members of a project team can use the platform to be immersed in a shared virtual space and experience the design together at human scale (Figure 9). The platform also includes tools for commenting, sketching, and annotation, allowing the team to collaborate more easily and make design decisions while they are together “in” the space.
Newforma, developer of the flagship PIM (project information management) application for the AEC industry, Newforma Project Center, showcased its integration with Autodesk BIM 360, along with other applications like Procore and Bluebeam. It also demonstrated many of the popular benefits of these integrations such as reduced administrative workload, enhanced automation for repetitive tasks, streamlined workflows of common AEC processes, and improved collaboration.
Another long-time third-part developer, Kubus, showed its BIMcollab issue-management ecosystem which includes the flagship BIMcollab cloud-based solution for sharing issues based on OpenBIM; the wide range of connectors, which are called BCF Managers, to a large number of BIM tools (Figure 10); and BIMcollab ZOOM, a model viewing and validation tool integrated in BIMcollab issue management. BIMcollab now includes Autodesk BIM360 integration, which provides BIM teams access to models stored in BIM 360 Docs directly from the BIMcollab web application. Team members can review the federated model, create issues, or review existing issues without the need for uploading files to a secondary repository or installing a model viewer.
Autodesk is clearly gearing up for a big push into the construction sector of the AEC industry, with the large number of construction-related applications it has acquired over the last few years and bringing them together into a new Connected Cloud offering, along with its BIM 360 collaboration platform and modeling tools like Revit. It is not clear if the Connected Cloud will be more than one of Autodesk’s existing industry collections such as the AEC Collection comprising tools such as Revit, AutoCAD, Civil 3D, InfraWorks, Navisworks, and 3ds Max. Many of the construction tools that are now in its portfolio have overlapping capabilities, and it remains to be seen what, if anything, Autodesk does about that. Will they continue to remain independent applications that exchange data with each other, or will they be more closely integrated?
Comparing this year’s event with previous events I have attended in the past, what also struck me was the renewed focus on Civil 3D for infrastructure and the “demotion,” for want of a better word, of InfraWorks, which was, until recently, showcased as Autodesk’s leading solution for infrastructure design. I find this such a pity, as InfraWorks is still one of the “smartest” design solutions I know. (See my Viewpoint article, “Why Isn't There a Smarter BIM Tool for Building Design, Yet?” in which I asked why we don’t have an “InfraWorks” for building design.) I guess business realities trump technological achievements—possibly, Autodesk’s infrastructure design customers still need the full-fledged design and documentation capabilities of Civil 3D.
For building design, on the other hand, it’s great that at least Revit has caught on and AutoCAD Architecture (previously called Autodesk Architectural Desktop) is hardly talked about. I am also happy to see some of the advancements towards “smartness” being made in Revit, such as the new Path of Travel tool. This might not seem like such a big deal among the host of other announcements and developments that Autodesk showcased, but as a technologist, I can appreciate the kind of algorithms and coding behind the development of such a capability. I hope Autodesk continues to put more development resources into features like this to make Revit smarter, so that it can be used not just for modeling buildings but designing better buildings.
And finally, it was also heartening to see the progress Autodesk is making towards a different kind of “smarts”—namely, smart spaces. I was fascinated by the “smart door” prototype that was shown and the promise that it holds towards “smart buildings.” Having just written about Bentley’s focus on digital twins, I was especially intrigued by what I see, for the first time, as a possible synergy between the two companies. While Autodesk is also talking about digital twins, its focus is on a micro level, with the design of the individual components that make a building smart, unlike Bentley, which is more focused on the macro level, on the broader infrastructure. This makes sense for Autodesk since it has a range of MCAD applications, while Bentley has a wide variety of infrastructure solutions. We need both approaches to meet the ultimate objective of a smarter, safer living environment, and I look forward to both companies recognizing that their products and their visions are no longer competitive but complementary.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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