New products for AEC, developments for the digitalization of construction, fresh ideas, and some future-casting at the first all-digital Autodesk University.
A really big(ger) show
Annual since 1993, Autodesk University, now simply known as ‘AU’, is one of the biggest draws for attendance among AEC events. This due to it being not only a conference and exhibition, but also a prime training opportunity for many attendees, with hands on sessions from Autodesk and partners. Many customers invest a substantial share of their training hours and budget on this event. AU has been held in Vegas for many years, drawing 12,000+ attendees in 2019.
But now in 2020, this first virtual AU could draw far higher number of attendees. There may be as many a s 100,000 who sign up, and this is driven by many factors. For one, there is no cost to attend (made possible without the overhead of running a physical conference), but registration is required. This changes things for many who regularly attend, and those who may not have in the past. Users can drop in ad hoc, focusing on their immediate needs and interests, but also for some it makes it easier to dip into unfamiliar territories.
The full slate of training opportunities and product focused presentations are all there. Navigating this neo-digital landscape might take some getting used to, but in some ways, this could end up being a more efficient use of training time than an in-person event. The one major shortcoming of a digital event is the reduced networking opportunities. But that aside, AU 2020 is shaping up to be really a big show. And like any big show, there should be big announcements. We got a glimpse of the major announcements in the general keynote, and the AEC specific keynote that followed shortly after.
CEO Andrew Antagonist’s keynote
The changes 2020 has forced AEC practitioners and industries to confront were emphasized in the AU keynote. Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost opened the conference by acknowledging the tremendous impact on our lives and industries, and he also praised the hard work everyone has done to adapt. He pivoted to a positive note about how necessity has spurred innovation and growth. “Since the crisis started, I have seen how many of you have adapted, you’re already thinking differently about how you unleash innovation in order to meet shifting demand.” Said Anagnost, “You’ve already rethought your agility and productivity, to reduce the time, cost and risk involved in all your work. And you reimagined how you harness technology, how you better use data, automation, and insights to transform the way you make things. You are turning the challenges you face today into tomorrow’s opportunities.”
While many client sectors for AEC had seen sharp downturns earlier in the year, some of these are showing signs of recovery — with a few seeing sharp upticks. “Look at how much AEC has changed and how much is changed in the last year,” said Anagnost. “Retail development may have stalled, but healthcare and infrastructure projects have skyrocketed. There is no lack of demand. It has just shifted more than any of us could have imagined. Social distancing has accelerated investment in off-site construction methods, keeping people and projects in more controlled environments to the job sites are safer.”
Autodesk’s AEC roots are from CAD and evolved to encompass design software. Strengths have traditionally been in the planning and design phases, but this year has brought a pronounced focus on construction. With this we are seeing new mechanisms to capture and mine data from all phases — data that was often lost in the handover between plan-design-build-operate. This otherwise “dark data” could not contribute to true digital twins, but with the improvements to collaborative solutions, they now can.
Here are a few of the key announcements from AU 2020 that hold particular relevance for AEC:
Autodesk Construction Cloud
Autodesk is jumping deep into construction digitalization, and while some have felt they should have done more of this sooner, this year certainly adds key launches and expansions.
The Autodesk Construction Cloud expands their portfolio in project management, quantification, and design coordination products. Autodesk Docs, which is also being added to the AEC Collection, is key to this expansion: Cloud enabled document management. BIM 360 and Autodesk Construction Cloud will now be operating in a common data environment (CDE).
Autodesk Build combines the strengths of PlanGrid and BIM 360 and adds new functionality for field and project management solution. It also includes the PlanGrid Build mobile app with additional new capabilities, for field workers.
Autodesk Quantify, looks to be a powerful tool for estimators, with rules driven automation for quantification in a single platform. It is encouraging to see that while this can be used in a 3D environment, that there is a nod to those who are just getting used to the transition from 2D to 3D, or are required to still work in 2D environments. There is high degree of automation in both.
Autodesk BIM Collaborate (and Pro) build off of the existing BIM 360 Design offering and makes connections from BIM-centric design to the construction cloud—a long desired (and needed) handshake.
As noted, Autodesk Docs is becoming the core of design-to-construction data channels and project management enhancements. Autodesk describes Docs as “the underpinning of the common data environment for every unified product with centralized document management, providing users with seamless navigation and integrated workflows to create a single source of truth across the project lifecycle. It brings drawings, models, specifications, photos and
markups together in one place for review and management. With version control and standardized approval workflows, project teams have easier access to the right information at the right time, whether a team member is at home on a laptop, at the jobsite on a tablet, or reviewing on the go on a mobile phone.”
“Our vision for construction is nothing less than to connect everything from the very early conceptual design phases, all the way to the final handoff to the owner, and everything that goes in between,” said Anagnost. “What you’ve seen with Autodesk Construction Cloud and with especially with the new rollout of Autodesk Build, is you’ve seen us take all the great technology we have and now built it off on a single platform: Autodesk Docs. Everything hangs off that platform. Now, our best-in-class mobile capabilities are basically from the PlanGrid team, mobile application organization. And the PlanGrid technology is showing up in this new platform.”
Tandem – a path to Digital Twins
It is not a matter of if, but when infrastructure operators demand digital twins as a standard construction deliverable. But again, there have been too many disconnects between the data and models of compartmentalized planning, design and construction phases and environments to build effective digital twins. This is changing rapidly.
Autodesk’s latest offering that should lead to smoother development of AEC digital twins is Tandem. Essentially it seeks to put all models and data in one platform, leveraging Forge, to create a digital view that contains all of the metadata (and history). This could be a powerful project management tool, but also facilitates the hand-offs between architects, engineers, constructors, and operators. While there are details still to be revealed, this really looks promising. (The lead image in this article is from Tandem).
It is becoming an imperative that Autodesk really amps-up their digital twin offerings, not just in AEC but for all of the industries they serve. To that end, in October 2020, Autodesk became a founding Member of the Digital Twin Consortium, an organization whose members are committed to using digital twins throughout their operations and capturing best practices. Autodesk is also a member of the Open Design Alliance, a non-profit technology consortium that provides support and access to design file formats.
The digitization of construction has been going on unabated, and perhaps more rapidly in some segments than others during this time of digital-collaboration-through-necessity. It has all been about BIM for about a decade, but there are areas of construction that have lagged behind others. Like heavy civil, where every project seems to be too unique to apply the same levels of BIM and modular construction that can be done with buildings. But there is progress. And some areas “unseen” that are making great leaps.
“There’s a lot of press around modular housing and hospitality, leading many of you to believe that the only prefabrication happening is that. However, most of the prefabrication today isn’t even seen,” said Autodesk’s Amy Marks, head of industrialized construction strategy. “It’s above the ceilings, it’s behind the walls and in the utility spaces in buildings like hospitals, manufacturing centers, data centers, and pharmaceutical companies. In fact, in the last three years, two thirds of all general contractors and three quarters of mechanical electrical and plumbing subcontractors have been working in these unseen spaces where they are using multi-trade assemblies, and they are being installed. Industrialized construction isn’t just about manufacturing techniques and construction, it’s about the convergence of industries, process workflows, and functional data between design, construction, manufacturing, and operating.”
Autodesk will be extending multi-user licenses for another year, while accelerating roll-out of more cloud-based subscription offerings. Autodesk says this is to give users more flexibility in this time of Covid. And a pay-per-use (PPU) subscription model should be announced in the second half of 2021. This per-use model is particularly intriguing, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come; we wrote about AEC subscription models recently.
While there are some details to be worked out before the 2021 launch of their PPU mode, Anagnost (in a media Q&A after the keynote) sketched out how the PPU model might evolve: “It could give gives access to the entire portfolio, but the customer only pays if somebody uses something for a day,” said Anagnost. “So, you can imagine an environment where a smaller customer does not have a license, or a small customer that owns a few purely named-user licenses for high use individuals. But then they could purchase a capacity pack, or a plan that allows them to access the whole portfolio for a certain number of bytes over several months or a year.” This could address the frustration that AC users, not just of Autodesk but about many vendors, who sometimes must accommodate very short-term needs. Like adding extra hands during a project crunch or wanting to briefly tap a product that is not in a named-user subscription or collection.
“They can use [PPU] for the occasional use user and use that to manage their capacity in such a way that they’re not putting full named-user licenses on the desktop of an occasional user,” adds Anagnost. “So, you’ll see customers blend the two just like they blended multi-user and single-user licenses.” Most important, he adds “It’s all going to be on a single cloud infrastructure.”
From the press release: “Schneider Electric is working to develop a new cloud-based service for electrical designers, leveraging Autodesk Forge, Autodesk’s Cloud-based developer platform. This will provide the user with a cohesive and connected offering, from concept, through schematic design, and into detailed design, better supporting emerging industry demands.”
“The new solution is aimed to fill critical gaps in BIM-based workflows for our collective customers and make Revit a much more intelligent tool for unified connected workflows. Engineers will be able to address key design capabilities, including load distribution mapping, power balancing, equipment sizing, and single line diagramming. Schneider Electric’s tools complement Revit, bolstering electrical design workflows. Using machine learning and generative design, the new solution will be able to propose an optimal infrastructure network from existing building plans, drawing from consumption inputs and performance, such as energy efficiency and carbon reduction objectives.”
Autodesk announced the pending acquisition of Spacemaker, a firm well known for generative design tools and solutions for architecture and planning. By applying machine learning, architects and planners can test alternatives based on multiple criteria. Think of it like ‘nesting’ in manufacturing, finding the optimal arrangement to get the most out of piece of material, except in the case of Spacemaker, the material is tracts of land. But land is far more complex; multiple criteria and considerations need to be balanced, like terrain, maps, wind, lighting, traffic, zoning, etc.
This should be a good addition to the Autodesk portfolio, as such tasks to date often required the use of multiple offerings, 3rd party tools, and sometimes customization.
This is positive development. As AEC firms further digitalize, they need to be able to size up digital environment proficiencies of new staff, or encourage existing staff continuing professional development. Certification programs are common in many industries, great to see more of this in AEC.
While there were not many details available yet beyond the press releases, this looks to be a good thing. From the press release:
“Today we are launching the Autodesk Certification Program, comprising eight new industry-aligned learning pathways and certifications to partner with professionals on their lifelong learning journey, with additional certifications and courses arriving next year. This program is designed to empower emerging and seasoned professionals to build and validate their skills so they can achieve their learning and career goals. We’re offering certifications geared toward both specific products like the “Revit Structure” certification, and specific workflows and industry roles, like the “Fusion 360 Mechanical Design” certification for mechanical engineers and machinists. Our new role-based offerings will continually evolve to support emerging trends and changing industry needs so workers can be confident they’ll always be current.”
This could not be timelier. As altered workplaces may be with us for some time, so such programs could be a good way to upskill or reskill, and to keep ahead of the digitization wave.
Future-casting: End of files?
One of the most interesting ideas touched on in day one of AU 2020, was some future-casting on the subject of “files”. Files have been the currency of digitization to date, but could we be free of the limitations of files at some point, and what would be the new currency moving forward?
“[I] want to impress upon people that the future of our industries is not files,” said Anagnost. “Files are what I’ve classically like to call one of those dead things working. Okay, everybody works on files, everybody uses files today. But what is really powerful is can you communicate about the information that is critical to a particular design at more of a more of a sub-element level, not just a file level.”
The legacy approach of using of file format translations to work across applications and platforms did work, but in fully integrated, distributed, and collaborative AEC environments, might eventually hit functional a wall. “File exchange is great. And you can see us embracing all of these file formats, so that we can bring them all together to make sure that people can use all the data they need,” said Anagnost. “But what is more important is data API’s (application programming interfaces) that allow you to pull information that has been defined by standards. The open standards are just a way for us to make sure that we’re all communicating about the right things, and we’re very committed to this. You can talk to the API’s and exchange information behind the scenes. You might dump or save a file from time to time, but in the future, for most of what our customers do, this is going to happen without a file ever being opened or used. And that is the exciting thing about the future; it is these data API’s.”