Event Report: Autodesk University 2007, Part 2

5 Dec, 2007

Like Las Vegas itself, AU showcased everything from the flashy to the gritty for the AEC community.

Postmodern architect Robert Venturi coauthored a 1972 treatise that proposed lessons all designers could learn from Las Vegas. If one of those lessons was "the decorated shed," or building-as-billboard legible at highway speeds, then today's Las Vegas has learned its own lessons all too well. Die-hard modernist Paul Rudolph borrowed Venturi's concept to limn his own contrasts among modernism, postmodernism, and deconstruction: "We used to design sheds. Then we designed decorated sheds. Now we design decoration without the shed."

The Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino, host venue to Autodesk University 2007 (and AU 2006 before that) comes as close as possible in the physical world to decoration without the shed. Both the decorated facade and the cavernous unspaces for meetings have their appropriate uses and suit their respective purposes. In a similar way, Autodesk University pairs a grandiose facade with gritty functionality.

The Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino, host venue for Autodesk University, sports a grand and decorative facade that encloses many equally grand interiors, yet masks some utterly utilitarian spaces as well. (Photo by Jerry Laiserin)
AU attendees could look forward to each day's meals in these vast halls -- with all the cold-lit charm of a subterranean high-bay warehouse. The Venetian has a vast array of nicer spaces, but apparently none that can seat 10,000 for lunch. (Photo by Jerry Laiserin)

AEC Program Highlights
Encompassing more than 130 exhibitors and several hundred courses, AU offered something useful for each of this year's 10,000 attendees, but far too much for any one attendee to absorb. This year, I focused on AEC-related offerings, as defined by Autodesk's new AEC Solutions Division (a combination of the former Building Solutions and [Civil] Infrastructure Divisions). If any themes surfaced at AU 2007 that filtered down to AEC, I would identify them as green design, digital prototyping, and "Share it in Design Review."

The AEC Industry main stage presentation was a drama in three acts. First up was a live demonstration of AEC software from Autodesk and partners, running the gamut from site planning (Autodesk Civil 3D with Google Earth, Hydroflow, and AutoTurn); to building design, structural, and energy analysis (Revit Architecture, Structure, and MEP with Robobat and IES); clash detection and estimating (Autodesk's newly acquired NavisWorks, and newly developed Quantity Take-Off); and art-to-part product design of specific building components (Autodesk's Inventor for 3D manufacturing design). Some of the demo'd workflow was supported by APIs and product-specific plug-ins, the rest via Autodesk Design Review and/or posting to Autodesk Constructware and Buzzsaw collaboration services. Of course, presentation and visualization chores were handled by Autodesk 3ds Max and Viz. In all, an impressive showing of what's achievable with current technology (albeit technology exclusively from Autodesk and favored partners; there was no hint about that interoperability stuff, with customers free to mix and match any software of their choosing).

In the same way that Autodesk's Manufacturing Solutions Division folks are "democratizing" PLM (product lifecycle management) under the banner of digital prototyping, the AEC folks were starting to sound as if digital prototyping could be the key to "democratizing" BIM (building information modeling). I use ironic quotes around democratizing because the process also entails a kind of simplification of essential features that makes the democratized technology accessible to the mass market necessary to feed Autodesk's business model. Although some may see this as negative, I think that Autodesk does the design and construction world a service by making significant chunks of advanced technology affordable to and usable by large numbers of people.

Where Act One of the AEC main stage presentation covered digital prototyping and sharing in Design Review, Acts Two and Three were green and greener. Autodesk showed slick video of a no-code concept, named Project Chicago, outlining a possible future collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in which evaluation, scoring, and trade-offs of USGBC LEED points (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design project rating system) would be embedded as assorted filters, widgets, and wizards in Revit platform software. On one level, this sounds like a cool idea. However, there is a growing body of opinion that sees LEED as a reductive system rather than a globally comprehensive solution -- certainly much better than nothing, but still far less than ideal.

The third and greenest act of the AEC Industry presentation was a stark contrast to Act Two. Architect and environmental visionary William McDonough gave a riveting presentation of his cradle-to-cradle design philosophy -- an approach that ironically undercuts much of Autodesk's own green message, at least to my ear.

McDonough was too polite to directly offend his hosts, and his presentation was too rich to summarize here, but one quote conveys what I heard as the essence. McDonough commented that if you left Las Vegas driving 100 mph toward Canada when your real destination was Mexico, slowing down to 20 mph wouldn't solve your problem, because you'd still be going the wrong way. Even with a hangover from the previous evening's AUGI Beer Bust, intensified by a 6:30 a.m. breakfast meeting, I was still able to draw an analogy to LEED as the "20 mph" palliative to a global infrastructure establishment headed in a fundamentally wrong direction. By the way, that's my personal reaction to McDonough's remarks and in no way a characterization of his opinions of LEED, Autodesk, or anything else.

AU Exhibit Hall: Workaday Trends in the Making
If the AEC main stage presentation was part of AU's grandiose facade, the exhibit hall embodied the gritty functionality. This is where one looks for trends in how people are actually working with and using design tools. The multiscreen, rear-projection, high-definition marketing videos stayed upstairs; down in the basement, it was all about face-to-face selling.

One clear mini-trend on the show floor could be characterized as round-trip, 2D-3D, digital-analog workflow integration. On the analog-digital front, Adapx was showing a digital pen-and-paper process for making field notes and annotations directly available in Design Review. Capture of dirt-world information into digital form was on display from InteliSum (LIDAR plus GPS), kubit (as-built documentation), Leica Geosystems (laser scanning), and Spheron (photogrammetry and measurement). Of course, Trimble was there as a leader in physical world data acquisition for civil design, as was Ideal with scanners to convert paper drawings to CAD models (accompanied by Consistent Software for raster-to-vector as well as 2D vector to 3D digital model conversion).

Going from digital to analog, Dimension and Z Corporation showed new 3D printers, while model printing services were offered by QuickArc and Redeye RPM (an affiliate of 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys). Unlike competitors who rely on the additive modeling process of 3D printing, newcomer 2Bot relies on a subtractive process to carve 3D models from diverse materials at low cost. Finally, 3Dconnexion demonstrated its line of multidimensional input devices designed to ease navigation in digital interfaces.

Another clear trend was the extension of Autodesk's core 3D products for AEC -- the Revit platform and Civil 3D -- by entire ecosystems of third-party add-ons and add-ins. Structural analysis and/or fabrication software included offerings from Adapt, Computers & Structures, CSC, RISA, and Robobat (shown in partnership with Adapt). On the MEP side, East Coast CAD/CAM and QuickPen showed fabricationware for sheet metal and piping, while IES expanded its strong presence in MEP analysis with a direct Virtual Environment (VE) plug-in for Revit Architecture. (Previously, IES VE was available only for Revit's MEP flavor.)

The number of third-party products to enhance and extend Civil 3D is a clear sign that product is gaining traction in the market. Tools from 3am Solutions and RDV provided visualization for civil models. Automation Software for Engineers, CADApps Australia, Carlson Software, and Robert Steltman all showed products to extend Civil 3D, while Eagle Point showed its Pinnacle Series, a unique workflow analysis, navigation, and monitoring suite for enhanced productivity.

Moving data and working remotely with multidimensional models requires increased WAN bandwidth and/or distributed applications -- needs met by exhibitors Availl, Citrix, and Riverbed Technology.

Finally, for hesitant adopters of model-authoring tools such as Revit, there was the outsourcing option -- represented at AU by London Infotech, which provides full Revit Architecture, Structure, and MEP services in India. Such offshore outsourcing of model-authoring and documentation is increasingly popular among U.S.-based AEC businesses, although perhaps not so much among the CAD managers and CAD users attending AU.

Other highlights of AEC at AU 2007 include the outstanding course offerings, ever-informative AU Unplugged sessions, and exciting developments under way at Autodesk Labs, but those lessons from Las Vegas will have to wait for another time.