Allplan FT takes object-oriented approach to AEC projects

31 Jan, 2002 By: Steven S. Ross

Software delivers amazing array of design and project management tools.

Allplan FT V16.2
Object-oriented AEC modeling

star rating: 5 stars out of 5
pros: More nimble than ever before; includes tools for all stages of the AEC design process; allows multiple concurrent users; all icons relating to all the modules' drawing and calculation tools appear on screen.
cons: Interface still not pure Windows (in particular, no VBA or ActiveX support); project file system dialog boxes take some getting used to.
list price: $4,995

See also: Features

Nemetschek North America/ CAD Consulting USA


File translation is strong in both directions, although object intelligence tends to be lost. Lots of extras (even terrain modeling) are included at no extra charge for U.S. customers. This complete package eliminates the need for add-on programs. You'll have to go back to using a hardware lock, however, and the interface is more suited to power drafters than occasional designers.


With each new upgrade, Allplan becomes easier for drafters to use. Allplan FT v16.2, released this summer, continues the trend. It is faster than its predecessor (more on this later) and has a cleaner on-screen look with more room for drawing. But its feature-laden, not-quite-Windows interface and its comprehensive file handling system remain barriers to the casual CAD user—the designer who spends only 10% to 15% of his or her time in front of the tube. Allplan can convert a scanned sketch into a vector drawing, and add-on hardware lets you sketch directly on the screen with a wand. But opening a clean screen for drawing and opening a drawing file from a project require special non-Windows commands. Setting up drawing files and layers can require some classroom training, or at least a close read of the tutorial.

One example of how things can be easier and harder at the same time: I quickly fell in love with the new mouse navigation commands. The moves you make most are now just a click away, especially with a three-button mouse. To pan, click the middle button when no tool is active. The screen window moves in the direction you drag. Double-clicking the middle button zooms to the drawing extents (that is, sets the view so that all of the drawing is visible on the screen). Clicking on an element when a drawing-element tool is active sets the linear snap points. When the tool for selecting elements is active, middle-clicking in two corners of an imaginary box on-screen selects all of the elements within the box. You can then use Allplan's filter assistant to pick the elements you want. Click with the middle button, then the right button, to select items with the same pen thickness or linetype as what you clicked on.

A single mouse click is all it takes to back out of full-screen mode to standard control mode. But let's face it— the casual user is not going to know those commands. I'll forget them myself once I'm no longer immersed in the program's features. Standard scroll bars at the edges of the window would be useful.

Figure 1. Allplan's main drawing screen, with tools menu activated.

Speed statistics
In raw speed, v16.2 seems 10–20% faster than v15, which Cadalyst reviewed in February 2000. I could not perform a firm benchmark because I reviewed v15 on a slower workstation and a different operating system (Windows NT 4.0 at 450MHz with 256MB of RAM).

For this review, I ran Windows 2000 at 1.6GHz and 512MB, a setup with more than twice the raw throughput. Tools pop up nicely, with a delay of a half-second the first time you use a new module in a session. Modules stay in memory thereafter and pop up instantly. Zooms and screen refreshes also seem faster, as Nemetschek claims. A Windows XP version of Allplan (v16.3) should be ready by the time you read this.

Figure 2. Formats are easy to catalog and change. Here we modify pen colors and weights for walls.

Allplan essentials
AllPlan is the top architectural design progam in Germany. Based on a single 3D object-oriented database, it creates and maintains the relationship between 2D and 3D. Plans, elevations, sections, and other views are different representations of the same 3D data. You can even have 2D and 3D views open at the same time. AllPlan also uses the 3D database to automatically generate area calcuations, door and window schedules, and materials reports. This review focuses on features added since our February 2000 review.

New features
You can customize the Allplan text editor as required. It remembers the settings when you sign on again. In fact, Allplan seems to remember all settings.

Clipboard functionality is also improved. You can cut, copy, and paste elements from file to file within a project or to and from other applications with the Windows clipboard.

Users have more control over Allplan layers, and it's easier to affect the display of elements on passive layers. A new setting controls layer visibility and how you activate layers.

Figure 3. Allplan provides these options for architectural drawing. Note that the close box (X) on the upper right corner is not functional because Windows is not fully implemented.

If you like to present your models inserted into an existing view, you'll like the new 3D Model in Photo tool. You tell the software an area where a 3D model and a bitmap match. You then use this view to render an image with the Rendering tool. The option to save and reload views after they have been successfully fitted into the image is new in v16.2.

Allplan lets you use scanned images as the basis for 2D and 3D CAD work. Display a scanned image of a room on the screen and use it to calculate the area of the structure or draw new elements to add to the structure. You can also save scanned images, or sections of them, as symbols.

An integrated interface connects to the Docuware archiving system for storing the current status of planning data in an archive. You no longer need to switch between different programs.

Allplan has a strong project file system. A project is a directory folder that contains all of the files for a project or part of a project. Each project can have a thousand file sets, each with 128 drawings. Project maximum is 3,000 drawings. Plotter and printer files don't count against that total—you can have 1,000 more of them. Administrative tools let you set file access controls and implement standards at the office, project, and personal levels.

Figure 4. This dialog box specifies what happens when elements intersect. It's fairly deep in the menu system, but shortcut keystrokes and mouse clicks get you there faster.

As we noted in greater detail in our review of v15, you can display and edit up to 40 files at once. The one you are actually editing is locked so that others can't change it. AllPlan's network administration tools allow many users to work on the same project at the same time.

Drawing files can be layered or unlayered. The unlayered structure is particularly useful when many users must collaborate at the same time. Each person draws in a separate file rather than on separate layers of the same file. Updates reflect on all workstations when files are saved. Version 16.2 makes this easier to handle, because you can now easily copy whole files into layers when things quiet down.

You find your way around project files with the ProjectPilot module. Its arrangement is somewhat similar to Windows Explorer, although the file icons look superficially different. You can sort the long lists of drawings and file sets alphabetically by name or by number. You can search for specific items by filtering, but that command appears on the main menu, not through ProjectPilot. You can copy and move documents back and forth by dragging and dropping.

Figure 5. Layer management boxes are well thought out, particularly with regard to styles, selections, and modification rights.

As with many applications, right-clicking on an element opens a menu that contains tools specific to editing that element. Allplan is particularly complete in what shows up on its right-click menus. They can each contain 15 or 20 commands.

The American version of Allplan provides many commands and icons because it includes, at no extra charge, modules for landscaping and city planning, construction engineering, and so forth. As you switch from module to module, toolbars specific to the module appear on screen. It was easier, even on the limited real estate of a 19" monitor, to simply tell Allplan to load them all.

Allplan ships with plenty of symbols. You can buy more libraries and, as you'd expect, you can turn parts of your drawings into symbols as well. Allplan's clever smart symbol technology lets you tell the system how to display the symbol at various scales and in 2D or 3D. With the Smart Symbol Designer, you define smart window and door symbols in a dialog box. You click on the opening to transfer the geometric data and then define the frame, posts, sashes, and so forth. Allplan automatically generates representations of the symbol for different scales. The symbols adjust to different opening sizes.

Figure 6. You navigate through the Project Pilot window to select items to work on. This dialog box is fully Windows compatible.

If you place a symbol in a drawing, the first instance is the actual symbol itself. The drawing does not check the library for updates each time it loads, so modifying the symbol in the library does not automatically change it in the drawing. As the window symbol adjusts to its opening, for example, only the size of the panes changes. The arrangement of the sashes stays the same. In effect, the system creates a "local project-specific" symbol library.

There's also a nice detailing feature with which you define a drawing area that can be displayed at different scales. The large-scale detail is updated automatically when you make changes in the base drawing.

You draw in 2D most of the time with Allplan, but you can set the system to consider each item's third dimension. The 3D modeling module also works well, with good primitive shapes and fast Booleans. Once you turn part of a project into 3D, you can shade it and fly around it. The animation module can even save a walk-through or fly-by as a portable AVI file to view in any Web browser. Interestingly enough, most of the time the shadows and highlights are vectors, not bitmaps, even in 2D.

Figure 7. The symbols library shows 3D symbols. The interface area at the lower right lets you choose which symbol view (plan, right elevation, etc.) you want.

As you draw in 2D, the default reference planes are set at floor level and one story above. A wall, therefore, is drawn one story high by default. You can reset the defaults globally or locally and tilt the planes with respect to one another. The local custom planes have priority over the global settings and over earlier local planes that overlap. This is normal in high-end CAD packages. But in tight spots, it can be annoying. Instead, set elements to their own heights, irrespective of planes. The most difficult places where planes tumble into one another—roofs and stairs—are generated with automatic modules. Those modules are among the best I've seen in full-featured CAD packages, although you must design roof frames, rafters, and roofs in separate modules.

AllPlan lacks some of the flashier object-oriented features, such as a facade object. But Allplan draws such things fairly easily. Its opening modeler, for instance, draws window and door openings by accepting specifications for facing blocks, roller blind housing, lintels, etc. The Smart Fit module generates intelligent placement algorithms for ceiling tiles, facades, and lighting.

You can link symbols—for example, a door to a handle symbol or to a wall switch symbol. And when you start to draw a room, you can have it pick up the wall specs from adjacent rooms, even when the adjacent rooms are drawn in different files and aren't "adjacent" on the screen. A dazzling number of engineering add-ons aid structural work.

Figure 8. One of dozens of human figure sketches in 2D available.

File translation has always been an Allplan strong point. It imports and exports DXF and DWG (Release 12–2000), MicroStation DGN, Allklima ESS, and IFC. Allplan also imports HPGL/2 and Spirit files. We found the imports to be of high quality. AutoCAD objects come in with lack of "intelligence" but in highly editable form. Allplan provides excellent control over DXF scaling. About the only things that didn't import cleanly were bitmaps from 2D DXF/DWG files, but you can bring those in separately. Allplan translates uncompressed BMP bitmaps and all major flavors of TIFF into compressed RLC/RLE bitmaps.

Allplan had a major file format change of its own when v15 was introduced, but there is no change from v15 to v16.

Wrinkles to watch for
Allplan uses Microsoft Data Access for ODBC and installs it if it is not already on your computer. MDAC (Microsoft Data Access Components) can clash with SQL Server 7.0 thanks to network clustering issues that have nothing to do with Allplan. But if you are also running SQL Server, your technical support people should pay close attention to the issues laid out in Microsoft's documentation.

Figure 9. Allplan converts drawing entities to symbols.

Allplan allows unlimited Undo operations, but only until the file is saved. This happens automatically after a preset number of tool switches and also when you export data and switch to a different drawing file or to the Plot Layout module.

Most windows lack functional minimize, full/part screen, and close buttons (underscore, X, and open boxes) at the upper right corner. Allplan usually replaces these with UNIX-like command boxes at the lower right.

Don't get accustomed to using the middle mouse button to snap new elements to old. This linear snap works fine, but as the number of entities in the drawing increases, you get a lot of unwanted snaps. Allplan offers an almost endless array of snap methods— to a point or grid of points preset by drawing coordinates, to an offset to point or line, midpoint, intersection, and on and on.

Figure 10. Checking symbol for door (in the 2D drawing, the door is at upper right corner).

When symbols are linked, subordinate symbols behave differently when moved, modified, or copied than the main (superordinate) symbols to which they are linked. That can be tricky. I linked a door handle to a wall switch so that the switch always appeared on the same side of the door as the handle. But which symbol was subordinate in my drawing? There's no reliable way to know before you start copying.

All about Allplan
Allplan sells for $4,995. An annual service agreement ($420) covers all point upgrades and various technical support options. With Allplan's lease plan, you pay $199 a month for 36 months. At the end, you own the soffware.

Figure 11. DWG/DXF import dialog box.

Once you get familiar with its nonstandard interface, Allplan rewards you with a multitude of tools to handle all aspects of AEC design. AllPlan's support for multiple users and project management tools make it a solid choice for AEC projects. Highly Recommended.

About the Author: Steven S. Ross

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