Autodesk Envisions the Future of BIM at AU 2017
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on November 22, 2017 | 2639 views

Autodesk University 2017 demonstrated the expanding reach that the software giant has across all industries, including architecture, engineering and construction (AEC). In particular, the AEC keynote saw Autodesk Vice President Nicolas Magnon, Autodesk Director Sarah Hodges and Autodesk Vice President Jim Lynch discuss how the company’s plans for the industry aim to reshape the ancient art of building into something better suited for the 21st century.

Here, we break down each speaker’s perspectives on this transformation and how Autodesk seeks to play a role, from Magnon’s thoughts on the Internet of Things (IoT), construction and the cloud to Hodges’ discussion of the new BIM 360 roll out and ending with Lynch’s view of the industrialization of construction.

IoT, Construction and the Cloud

The AEC’s shift toward building information modeling (BIM) is seeing documents associated with a construction project become increasingly rich with data. And, where there’s data, there is the cloud and a whole host of other Industry 4.0 technologies that come with it, such as IoT and machine learning. 

The benefits of BIM, such as design optimization and efficient collaboration, are now well established; however, those benefits are just the beginning, according to Mangnon. He pointed to the possibilities of generative design for AEC as an example.

As someone versed in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, I’m accustomed to generative design used for optimizing geometries for 3D printing. Autodesk has pioneered such methods that rely on the “infinite computing” of the cloud to run numerous design iterations based on a series of user-selected parameters.

Autodesk and its partners are now extrapolating this technology to such applications as urban planning and office layout. Dutch AEC firm Van Wijnen, for instance, was able to use generative design when planning an urban neighborhood. Using generative design software, the firm set such performance criteria as backyard size, sunlight access and views, as well as performance criteria for the land developer, such as cost of development, quality and time to market. The software then created a number of iterations to create more housing within project parameters.

Autodesk used a similar generative design technique to iterate the layout of its Toronto office based on an employee survey. (Images courtesy of Autodesk.)
Autodesk used a similar generative design technique to iterate the layout of its Toronto office based on an employee survey. (Images courtesy of Autodesk.)

A similar approach can be used in civil engineering, setting parameters such as the shape of the existing land plot and applying geometric constraints, to model such works as bridges and roads in ways that will have a lower environmental impact.

While generative design can utilize the cloud to iterate countless complex designs, the IoT can harness the cloud to gather and process data from the IoT . SmartVid, for instance, takes photos and video from smartphones, tablets, cameras and drones located at a construction project and, through a connection to BIM 360 Field and BIM 360 Docs, mines the data for safety information, such as missing helmets or other safety equipment.

Triax Technologies uses wearable sensors to monitor safety information in real time, tracking worker falls for emergency response or initiating an evacuation plan in the event of an incident. Pillar Technologies hopes to use embedded sensors to identify humidity issues that might lead to mold growth or help to limit worker exposure to harmful materials.

Through Autodesk partners and customers, such a smarter and more-connected building environment is slowly taking shape. The goal is to one day make information-rich BIM models contain and visualize it all in real time, almost creating a digital twin to the world of the construction site. According to the company, Autodesk’s platform to make this possible is BIM 360.

The New BIM 360

Hodges used her talk to showcase the evolution of BIM 360. The biggest takeaway from the announcement is that the platform is no longer a set of disparate software, but a single, unified interface.

In response to BIM 360 customers, Autodesk has integrated all of its BIM 360 products into one platform, launching 100 new features based on 5,000 pieces of input. Available as a public technology preview, BIM 360 begins with the digitization of your AEC info, which is stored in a central repository for all project stakeholders and automates such tasks as design coordination and clash detection. 

BIM 360 now integrates all BIM 360 products into a single platform. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
BIM 360 now integrates all BIM 360 products into a single platform. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

BIM 360 also includes the Connect and Construct Exchange, an app store for integrating third-party data. Through Autodesk’s Forge platform, it’s also possible for AEC users to leverage open APIs to create custom tools applicable to user-specific applications.

Also embedded in BIM 360 are submittal-based workflows, which make it possible for all stakeholders, including subcontractors, to access the relevant submittal information, which is all tracked and auditable. Checklists, punch lists and issue management are all integrated into the cloud-based platform as well, making it possible to minimize rework. A cost management module will be included in BIM 360, after a pilot program run with select customers is used to validate it.

Lending itself towards the uses Magnon mentioned, BIM 360 is also built for machine learning and AI. Autodesk’s Project IQ machine learning engine has already analyzed 225 pieces of data, including 30 million reports of issues that occurred on construction sites. This data will be used to predict the outcomes of future projects, making it possible to avoid incidents before they occur.

Additionally, Autodesk is aiming to facilitate better team coordination through Collaboration for Revit. Architecture firm McMillan Pazdan Smith used Collaboration for Revit to handle projects in the cloud. After Hurricane Irma left the firm with little to no electricity, McMillan Pazdan Smith was still able to access a number of projects in the cloud and has since decided to move 100 percent of its projects there.

This will be taken a step further when Revit ultimately becomes a part of BIM 360, making it possible to view design data and BIM models alongside documentation and other important information. This means that dynamic mechanical, electrical, plumbing and architectural models will all be hosted and visualized in the cloud for all stakeholders to access.

“No upload and no export is ever required,” Hodges said. “BIM 360 will introduce the idea of multidisciplinary teams being able to coordinate together in a way never before possible. No more traversing from complicated PDF file systems; no more leaning over the shoulder of a designer to see the status of a project. Instead, simply isolate a view and you can see where you are in the project as well as the status of it.”

The same will be true for other Autodesk AEC programs, such as Civil 3D, Infraworks and Plant 3D. Hodges foreshadows a future BIM 360 in which complete multidisciplinary teams will be able to access the same centralized data to work on complex projects, from individual buildings to complete infrastructure projects. BIM 360 isn’t quite there yet, but Autodesk is taking the steps to get there by integrating existing BIM 360 products into a single platform.

Industrialization of Construction

Lynch began by underscoring the needs of AEC to evolve in order to catch up with the demand associated with a booming population.

“In the next 20 years or so, there will be 2 billion more people on the planet,” Lynch said. “Just think of the demands for buildings and infrastructure that will be required to support this population, most of whom will live in cities. With the lack of predictability and historical low productivity, we must ask ourselves, are the same old methods the best approach to meet the demand?”

The key, Lynch answered, is through the industrialization of construction. Similar to points made in a recent interview with, Lynch explained that, in order to bring better quality and efficiency to construction, it’s necessary to learn from mass manufacturing in the automotive and consumer products industries. This means taking building components and modules and standardizing them in such a way that they can be mass produced offsite.

To facilitate this design-for-manufacture-and-assembly (DfMA) approach, Autodesk is working toward the creation of DfMA assistants for façade panelization and modular construction. The former would help designers with smart libraries containing all of the manufacturing knowledge and constraints for façade components. This would connect design and fabrication in a way that makes it possible to streamline the estimation and engineering of the façade.

A modular construction assistant would give designers access to a library of standard, but configurable, modules. Designing would begin with conceptual parametric geometries that would help with initial design layouts, making it possible to perform early estimates and procurement. As the project progressed, so too would the modules, with geometry and supply chain data that would become increasingly detailed. These modules might be flipped, reconfigured and adjusted based on designer needs.

The modules might then be associated with assembly instructions, making it possible to have them made offsite and shipped to the construction site with the information required for proper assembly.

In the future, Lynch envisions both offsite factories, where multimaterial, multidiscipline panels and modules can be manufactured in the same location. Machining would be performed in an automated manner based off of information directly from BIM data. Integrated assembly instructions would then make it possible to assemble the modules onsite. As the process becomes increasingly automated, it might even be able to have an assembly line set up onsite.

The groundwork for such a future is already being laid. ETH Zurich, for instance, is using robots to build rebar before laying brick walls. There are numerous 3D printing projects in which large-scale structures are being printed from a variety of materials. Lynch believes it may even be possible for virtual-reality construction robots with machine learning capabilities to learn how to perform installations onsite over time.

From Autodesk’s perspective, the future of AEC is bright and built upon a BIM 360 platform that connects all things and people to make for an increasingly smarter and more efficient construction process. How that vision matches reality may be a different story.

In an Autodesk-controlled vacuum, perhaps we will have intelligent robots building housing for the 2 billion people that will spawn on this planet. However, there will be a lot of convincing to do in order to onboard stalwarts in the construction industry accustomed to the traditional way of building things.

How do you convince a business that holds its workers’ safety in little regard—such as Koch Industries, which is notorious for unsafe work conditions and toxic practices—to adopt IoT safety strategies? How will increased automation in construction affect the workers that depend on stable employment? It may not be Autodesk’s job to answer these questions, but they are relevant to consider when comparing the glossy vision of a software company with reality.

To learn more and consider your own questions, watch the AEC keynote from AU 2017.

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