Bentley's MicroStation V8 forms base for trio of AEC tools

30 Apr, 2002 By: Lars Hesselgren

MicroStation V8 TriForma
Architecture for TriForma
Structural for TriForma

Tools for AEC design

star rating: Initial release—not rated
pros: Direct AutoCAD compatibility; wide assortment of tools; built-in rendering capability.
cons: First-release hiccups; puzzling tool assignments
price: MicroStation V8 TriForma, $4,795; Architecture for TriFroma, $1,995; Structural for TriForma, $2,750

See also: Features

Bentley Systems Inc.

Two years in the works, MicroStation V8 implements direct support for the AutoCAD DWG format and eliminates a number of historical limitations. MicroStation V8, essentially a complete rewrite of the program, shipped in late September, and Bentley has issued regular updates since then. A third one is due shortly. V8 is brand-new technology, so it's no surprise it needs a lengthy period to settle down. This review looks at the core MicroStation V8 program in its TriForma configuration and also considers two optional add-ons— Architecture for TriForma and Structural for TriForma. The TriForma products shipped in January 2002.

Bentley's strength has always been in its core application, MicroStation. Unlike Autodesk, which has several technologies doing different things (drafting, generic modeling, architectural modeling, visualization, and so on), the Bentley product range almost invariably sits on top of MicroStation. This is both a strength and a weakness. If the core application doesn't support something, the vertical applications don't either. The most obvious example was the infamous 63-layer limit in MicroStation (now eliminated in V8), but there are others.

Autodesk and Bentley go head-to-head in the U.S. and U.K. CAD market. The V8 revolution in part was sparked by many Bentley customers who pressured the company to add support for the AutoCAD file format.

What's great in V8

Figure 1. Using MicroStation TriFroma, KPF (Kohn Pedersen Fox) modeled and rendered this job in about a week. Rendering the above image took less than two hours.
You can now open any AutoCAD file with MicroStation V8 and simply start drawing in it. A little icon at the lower right indicates that you are in AutoCAD restricted mode (you can do less in AutoCAD than in full-blown V8). Apart from that, you use MicroStation's tools, so there's no need to relearn a whole new vocabulary and interface just because you need to produce AutoCAD data. You can plot your file using MicroStation's plotting system, which includes batch printing as standard. You can also attach an AutoCAD file as an xref—again with no translation.

Of course, Bentley has the same curse as Autodesk—legacy users. These people often know the software better than the developers themselves. They know and love the wrinkles in the software, and they don't forgive developers who take away features or, worse, break them.

Bentley invited its users right into the development process. The MicroStation V8 beta group had access to a newsgroup. Once the product was released, the newsgroup opened up to everybody (you don't even need to be a SELECT customer). Recently it split into no less than 37 separate newsgroups. MicroStation developers plug directly into these newsgroups. You are likely to get your answer directly from one of them or even from Ray, Keith, or Barry Bentley. This interaction has cut the time it takes to find a bug and fix it from months and years to days and weeks.

MicroStation V8 is a hybrid—it really is both AutoCAD and MicroStation. All concepts from both environments are there, slightly to the confusion of users more familiar with one than the other.

Figure 2. In MicroStation V8 TriForma, you first build a 3D model, then extract your drawings and renderings from it.

Seen side by side, different features can be compared directly. Take managing the symbology of different layers— things like color, lineweight, and line style. MicroStation has the concept of layer override, and AutoCAD has Bylayer. The difference is that in MicroStation you don't depend on the goodwill of the person who created the file. If you want to apply symbology to a layer, you just do it. In AutoCAD, the graphics must be placed using the Bylayer setting, which the person who created the drawing may or may not have done. In V8, you just switch between the two methods, and you can turn Bylayer off totally if you want.

MicroStation now supports four billion layers (literally!) and therefore has layer filters that work the same way as in AutoCAD, although in V8 the implementation is more elegant. A huge discussion has sprung up about layer standards. You can read more at the U.K.'s TMC (The MicroStation Community) Web site

The way AutoCAD uses xrefs is also mirrored in V8. You can have nested xrefs, with all the confusion those cause in most AutoCAD shops, but mercifully V8 also supports overlay xrefs, which is the way MicroStation has always dealt with this issue.

Built on MicroStation
Though the MicroStation V8 core product has changed radically, this is not the case with the add-ons. Bentley develops two types of add-ons for MicroStation. The first are called Engineering Configurations and are included as part of MicroStation at no extra cost. The configuration for AEC design is TriForma. It provides basic tools and families of parts that support the parametric modeling of objects (walls, columns, slabs, windows, and so forth), drawing extraction, quantity takeoff, and cost calculation.

Figure 3. TriForma includes all MicroStation rendering tools, including the new particle tracer.

The fundamental TriForma workflow is shown in figure 2—build a 3D model and extract drawings and renderings from it. Rather like with Architectural Desktop, you can choose whether or not to run TriForma with MicroStation. Though TriForma simplifies 3D modeling with a focus on creating intelligent building objects, many more-experienced users and those who, for instance, do 3D modeling for rendering only tend to do without TriForma. They feel it gets in the way. All the solid modeling tools exist in core V8, as do the rendering tools, including the excellent new particle tracer (figure 3). Particle tracing is a technique one step up from radiosity. Both are concerned with simulating indirect light, so they are mostly used for interiors. The old ray tracer is still there and improving in every generation. The speed of the visualization engine increases with each release. I can generate four perspectives, four elevations, and an image panorama in Apple MOV format overnight on my dual-processor machine. MicroStation has a script editor, so you can run multiple renderings while you are fast asleep.

To supplement TriForma, you can buy Architecture for TriForma and Structural for TriForma for an additional fee. These packages provide a number of additional tools. As you consider the added cost, remember that not only must you pay for the software, but there's little point in buying Bentley software unless you take out a SELECT subscription as well. All upgrades are free to SELECT members. The V8 upgrade did not cost my company an additional penny (except for angst and training).

Figure 4. Architecture for TriForma adds these menus for its toolsets.

To complement the rich toolset in TriForma, Architecture for TriForma provides ten additional sets of tools (figure 4). Some are new, but some just repackage what is already available in TriForma, which actually started out as Bentley's architectural application more than five years ago. Let's look at a few of the toolsets in turn.

Spaces are an item long desired by architects who work with MicroStation. You can of course draw shapes, measure their areas, and tag the areas with names in ordinary MicroStation. The Architecture for TriForma tools are a little more sophisticated, but have one real downside in this initial version. If you change a space (really just a shape), you must remember to update the area. Bentley says that this issue will be addressed in the next version. The output from spaces is also available only in CSV (comma-delimited) format. I would by now expect XML with dynamic linking. Incidentally, part and component libraries are already in XML format.

Figure 5. Architecture's Guide Maker.

The curiously named Columns toolset actually lets you place beams and even arbitrary steel sections. It is inferior to what is available in Structural. The Guide Maker (figure 5) looks almost identical to the grid generator in Structural for TriForma, but both seem unnecessary. You draw a building grid only once. It takes a few minutes, and typical grids (at least in our buildings) are far more sophisticated than this tool generates.

Most Architecture wall construction tools are also available in TriForma. Only some compound (cavity) walls are unique. These you can use to add further walls, finishes, and skirting boards to walls you've already placed. Architecture also lets you join walls associatively. Why not in TriForma? The Architecture roof builder is genuinely neat, once you get it to work. Many users struggle with it. But all it builds is a series of shapes, not the purlins and rafters and so on.

The Architecture doors and window tools are wrappers to TriForma tools, in particular to an abomination called the Frame Builder. The Frame Builder is really more like a procedural language or macro generator and has long been the bane of TriForma users because of its complex user interface. Bentley has promised to do a complete redesign of Frame Builder soon. The casework builder is designed for people who do kitchens in detail.

FFE (fixtures, furniture, and equipment) is limited to placing cells. Again, cells can be associated with walls and so move when the wall moves—very neat, but associativity should be in TriForma or in core MicroStation.

The floors and ceiling tools construct shapes quickly and automatically. The construction method is actually called Extrude to Freeform by Flood. The Flood command is also available in core MicroStation, so these tools save you extruding the shape to a solid. Finally, the stair module is the same as TriForma's. It's good for simple stairs, but lacks key concepts such as handrails and offset treads on landings.

As you can tell, I am a bit critical of the initial release of Architecture for TriForma. It seems to provide only a small increase in functionality over TriForma, and it's arguable whether it is worth the extra money. With TriForma's port to MicroStation V8 completed, Bentley promises to add a lot of new functionality to Architecture within the next half year—for instance, drawing extraction and resymbolization rules for output at different depth of detail, scale, etc.

Structural for TriForma is a different story altogether. This is an excellent tool for structural designers, particularly in the steel and concrete areas. Note that it's a modeling package, not a structural analysis package. You can extract the simple centerline model from the design model either directly to some common analysis packages or via the CIM Steel CIS 2.0 standard, but the analysis must be done elsewhere. The name is confusing—most people expect a structural package to do calculations. STF does some structural basic sizing, but no analysis.

For steel detailing, you can export data in SDNF (Steel Detailing Neutral File) format.

You can access all the TriForma tools from the Structure toolbox (figure 6). Structure tools handle walls, wall utilities, form construction, and solid modeling (also available in core MicroStation V8).

Figure 6. Structural for TriForma's toolset.

The top row holds the tools for steel, concrete, and timber. They all bring up a standard form, which is clear and consistent and does useful things such as automatic coping and trimming. Now these are tools architects want to use all the time! It's not only engineers who place columns and beams (figure 7). Right at the end of the row is the absolutely excellent XML report writer, which produces reports on length of steel straight out of the model—a complete delight.

Figure 7. Structural's beam placement dialog box.

Architects often want to model handrails—and lots of them. Where is that tool? In Structural (figure 8)! It really has all the options you could want (and a few more).

The next tool is a bit odd—it's the truss builder. TriForma has a truss builder, but it's not very good. The one in Structural is excellent, so hopefully Bentley will combine them.

In summary, Structural for TriForma is an excellent package for any architect or engineer who models the bones of a building. This is a package for the productive professional, not just a scaled-up version of software for small houses. Architecture for TriForma, in contrast, aims at the designer doing small jobs, houses, and bungalows, although Bentley thinks otherwise.

Figure 8. Structural's handrail tool.

On the wish list
I often complain that all manuals and reviews tell you what the software does, but never what it doesn't do. Well, here is my list of what professionals doing building design want and what Architecture and Structural for TriForma don't currently do.

  • We need serious tools for curtain walling. They need to be completely customizable, because your idea of a curtain wall is surely different from mine.
  • We need better tools to measure areas. Hard-coding what a department is is laughable—XML dynamic linkages are essential.
  • We need the best possible tools for door and window schedules. Again, embedded XML will do, with dynamic linkback (delete a door, and the schedule updates dynamically).
  • A decent terrain modeler for site works and road and parking layout is a must for any architectural package.
  • And pretty well all of Structural for TriForma should also appear inside Architecture for TriForma.

Final Judgement
MicroStation V8 is probably superior to AutoCAD as a DWG editor and may be worth getting as a replacement for AutoCAD just to get superior AutoCAD tools. MicroStation v8 has a complete set of rendering and animation tools built in. It combines modeling and rendering in one environment so you don't need special, separate packages. TriForma is essential if you want to use 3D modeling to extract drawings and quantities. If you install TriForma, expect to spend some serious time to understand its quirks.

Architecture for TriForma is probably not worth the extra money over TriForma today. Given Bentley's dynamic development pace, this will likely change in a few months. Structural for TriForma is an excellent buy, even or especially for architects who seriously model 3D structures.

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