Two questions occurred to me before and after attending Autodesk University last week in Las Vegas, after a personal hiatus of a few years. The “before” question: Does Autodesk do GIS anymore … or rather does it still consider itself as offering geospatial technology to its users? The “after” question: What the heck is this conference and what am I doing here? For a moment I thought I was at SXSW, a unique conference that mixes technology, thought leadership, music and film. More on that later.
The answer to the first question is "Yes," it's just that Autodesk doesn't tout it very much. This is unfortunate because as the senior industry marketing manager for civil engineering and AEC solutions, Terry Bennett, told me, all Autodesk products are geospatially enabled. Okay, I get that and Bentley Systems' solutions are, as well. Both CAD companies are focused on 3D and building information models (BIM) such that the software requires an absolute georeferencing system.
Let's face it: Bentley, Autodesk, Esri and Hexagon all recognize that the world wants 3D. Working in 3D requires new software tools that must accommodate an object's (e.g. building, road, wall, fire hydrant, manhole, etc.) awareness of its place on the Earth's surface. This is why you are hearing catch phrases like "geodesign" sprouting up. Plus, there must be better metadata and object attribution.
Here's an example that both Bentley and Autodesk are keen on demonstrating: clash detection. If you are designing a building, design elements such as pipes, doors, walls and the foundation must “know” their position relative to every other object. If someone designs a new structure for the building, such as the plumbing system, they will need to know if it interferes with the electrical wiring and also where it can connect to the main line sewer system. The designer must be made aware of any objects that interfere with the placement of the plumbing and it's expected that the software will send those alerts. In fact, Autodesk says its software will not only do clash detection but also clash "resolution," offering suggested repositioning of objects.
What tools do you use for true 3D and BIM? Autodesk has Revit; Bentley has Bentley Architecture (and other products, as well). Do they take more work? In talking with Mike DeLacey, president of Microdesk, an Autodesk partner with many years of GIS and AEC project work experience, there is more work on the front end to capture the design elements in a way that facilitates true BIM. But, the result of this preliminary work provides the project manager more information about the design and the implications for construction once that phase begins.
The bottom line is that BIM is no longer something that projects will leverage in the future. It is required as a means to support major infrastructure projects. One example of this is the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ (USACE) requirement for contractors to supply models compliant with its BIM guidelines. Steve Hutsell, chief of the geospatial section, UASCE, Seattle District, and the BIM contract language lead says, "[We] do BIM in just about everything we do." The USACE expects you to use BIM. Contractors must submit models (such as barracks, dining facilities, etc.) in the format requested and be fully operable, compatible and editable with native BIM tools.
AU or SXSW?
Autodesk University featured sessions called "Innovation Forums" to focus on topics such as cloud computing, the "future of making stuff," designing things to tackle major world challenges like climate change and pollution, and capturing the collective ideas of innovators and entrepreneurs. This was not the AU I knew from a few years ago. In his keynote address, Carl Bass said, "As toolmakers, we see it as our job – in fact we see it as our obligation and promise to you – to develop tools that allow you to maximize your creativity, your imagination and your skills.” And that's what these Innovation Forums were designed to do … encourage you to dream and make the impossible possible.
I was particularly intrigued by the session called, "The Future of Making Things." There was one particular discussion on taking simple sketches and sending them immediately to a 3D printer to get instantaneous visualization of the object. Iterating designs that you can touch are more possible today than in the past. Final drawings might even go immediately to fabrication. In short, the cycle time from idea to product development is being vastly compressed. So, this entire forum (and others, as well) gave attendees an opportunity to step back and “think,” and not simply worry about which product was needed to satisfy project requirements. It was a refreshing change from what most conferences present.
I was left with the feeling that Autodesk wants to make this conference more about new ideas, new ways to utilize technology with the objective of encouraging geospatial professionals, architects and engineers to think boldly and innovate quickly.