Published 20 September 2012
|Written by Greg Corke|
In the past year, AceCad has reinvented itself as a provider of BIM collaboration and project management tools. We look at its latest release, a low-cost, multi model, BIM project review and communication tool.
For years there was only one real choice when it came to co-ordinating and reviewing multi-discipline BIM models. That was Navisworks. Launched by Lightwork Design and bought by Autodesk in 2007 Navisworks is undeniably powerful, but has historically been quite expensive.
While it took a while for the AEC market to catch up, there are now a number of lower cost alternatives. Last year Tekla launched BIMsight, a free to download collaboration tool, and more recently Gehry Technologies began a preview of GTeam, a cloud-based 3D collaboration platform (see page 24).
Another new BIM project review tool is BIMReview from AceCad Software. It is new, as in the sense of it has just been released to market, but not in terms of the underlying technology. BIMReview is an evolution of AceCad’s mature StruWalker product, originally a companion to the steel fabrication software, StruCad, which was bought by Tekla last year.
BIMReview is one of a range of new products from a new look AceCad Software that focus on the wider AEC market, from multi-discipline design to procurement, all the way to construction.
AceCad describes its new collaborative BIM project review tool as a visualisation wrapper for rich BIM model data. It can co-ordinate all types of BIM models, visualise data in many ways, detect clashes, annotate, and perform construction planning — and all this for just £350.
BIMReview is designed to be used across the entire AEC sector, from architects, BIM managers, engineers and fabricators, to contractors, site managers, customers and suppliers.
A key part of the software is its ability to bring in data from a variety of sources. In addition to industry-standard formats like IFC, CIS-2, STEP and IGES, AceCad has developed good links to Revit and Tekla Structures. Here, bespoke plug-ins allow users of Revit and Tekla Structures to export their models to BIMReview’s native BSWX format.
Those modelling to an exact co-ordinate system should not have any trouble co-ordinating multiple models. However, when they do not line up, models can be adjusted for scale, size and orientation — by eye or by dialling in values. Typically this will be architectural, MEP or structural models, but could also be different sections of a particularly large project.
BIMReview is 64-bit, so in theory there is no real limit to model size, as long as your workstation has sufficient memory and a 64-bit operating system.
We tested on a more moderately specified 32-bit Windows machine with 3GB of RAM and an entry-level professional 3D graphics card. This handled most models well, but larger models became a little sluggish in 3D and the machine sometimes ran out of memory when combining three IFC models: a 20MB architectural, 20MB structural and a complex 200MB MEP.
Once inside BIMReview there are many ways to visualise the BIM data. Entire models or specific components can be made transparent using a neat slider that controls how see through they are. This is very useful for looking inside buildings, perhaps to reveal the MEP model or specific components such as columns or stairs.
Models can also be cut away using clipping planes in any orientation. There is full control here, with everything happening in real time, so it is easy to drill down to expose a specific section of a building.
For presentations, the tools are pretty basic, but do the job. Materials can be assigned to the model to add realism. It is nothing fancy, and certainly not photo-realistic, but can be a good way of communicating material choices for buildings. For context, background images and terrains can also be included. Models can also be exported to Google Earth.
To add a little more spice to presentations, animations can be created. Simply move the model around to define points (key frames) that the camera follows. Then click play. It literally takes a few minutes to produce a decent animation, which can then be exported as an AVI or WMV file.
All about the data
BIMReview is not just about visualising BIM models. It is all about the data, where the model acts as a 3D index to the underlying attributes. Users can enquire about any object within the model and it will instantly bring up the embedded information.
It is also possible to visualise a model thematically, in relation to its attribute information. Models can be automatically colour coded for example, by member size, material type, with a legend showing corresponding attribute values.
For those that want to dig into the BIM model database, this can be found in a grid panel at the bottom of the screen. This spreadsheet style table enables users to browse the model by all types of attribute data, filter the information, and even perform simple spreadsheet operations, such as ‘sum’ or ‘average’ to produce summaries. Data can also be exported to Excel.
Naturally there are permanent links to the 3D model. To view an object in context, simply right click and it will zoom in on the 3D window.
BIMReview is not just about working with data that has been created in the BIM authoring tool. It is also possible to add custom data. These ‘Extended User Attributes’ can be used to define new collaborative workflows.
Extended User Attribute data can take many forms including length, time, weight and volume. Time is perhaps the most interesting as it means BIMReview can be used to visualise project schedules.
For example, in order to plan the delivery of building components to site simply highlight the relevant parts of the model in the 3D window, right click and add a date. This data can then be shared with other project participants including engineers and contractors. With bi-directional links to Tekla Structures and Revit, the data can also be read back into the authoring BIM tool.
Extended User Attribute data can also be tied in with detailed Gantt charts for project planning. With direct links to the model, each task can be visualised. For example, showing which parts are completed, or due for delivery on a certain date.
It is also possible to produce sequence animations to help plan construction sequencing on site. Next year, the software will be able to compare planned sequencing with actual sequencing.
For sharing data, Gantt charts can be saved as part of the BIMReview file and viewed by other users. Data from Microsoft Project can also be imported. Primavera and CSV import will come in 2013.
Clash detection is a very powerful feature of BIMReview. Users can dial in specific values for overlap tolerance and minimum distance.
Simply select the models in question, e.g. architectural, structural and MEP and, if required, pick specific parts of the model to focus on. Certain types of elements can be filtered and ignored in the clash check, including nuts and bolts.
Once clash checking begins, the system goes off and does its thing. This can take a while with large multi-discipline models, but our 100MB architecture and MEP IFC test files finished within two minutes. Clashes are presented in the modelling window as coloured 3D icons, and in a spreadsheet-like data grid.
From the data grid, users can step through each clash in turn. The system can be made to automatically zoom to the problem in question, at the same time making the rest of the model transparent so the clash stands out.
As each clash is addressed, the status can be changed from ‘not reviewed’ to ‘reviewed’, ‘logged’ or ‘resolved’. This is also reflected in the colour of the 3D icon in the model window so it is easy to get a feel for progress.
Notes can be added to explain the clash in more detail or how to resolve it. Files can also be attached to the model — a PDF or photo of a hand sketch, for example. These can be embedded in the BSWX file or a link can be added to retrieve the document from a server or website.
Tasks can also be assigned to an individual for inspection. Each clash also shows the spatial location (X,Y,Z) which will help locate the problem in the originating BIM software.
As the clash report is essentially a database, the table can be organised in many ways. Columns can be sorted A to Z, data collated and everything can be exported to Excel for reports or further evaluation.
Annotation and communication
BIMReview offers simple, but effective annotation tools. Categorised Annotations, consisting of a leader and a colour-customisable text box, can be added to any part of a model.
Annotations are ‘3D aware’ and are not specific to any one view. As the user rotates the model on screen the annotations move accordingly so can always be read clearly.
Annotations can also be managed from a data grid that appears on the right hand side of the screen. To help collaborate with overseas teams, a Google Translate plug-in translates text at the click of a button.
To draw attention to an area in the model, as opposed to a specific part, viewpoints can be created and notes added. Then simply click on the viewpoint and the model view automatically zooms in.
Measurements are pretty standard fare, with the software providing a range of selectable snap modes to help pick exact points. Redline tools are a noticeable omission but, according to AceCad, will be included by the end of the year.
Collaboration works best when BIMReview models are shared, but those without access to the software do not have to miss out. Screen grabs can be taken at any point and then sent via email in a single click. When annotations are included, this can be a simple but effective way of sending out a Request for Information (RFI), though there is no traceability.
To enhance workflow back to key BIM authoring tools, annotations can also be brought back into Revit and Tekla Structures, though these are embedded in the model as Extended Attribute Data, and not as a visible markup.
AceCad has packed a vast amount of functionality into BIMReview, particularly considering it costs a mere £350. Its model review tools are impressive, but there is a lot more to the software than model co-ordination, visualisation and clash detection.
Where BIMReview really excels is with its tight integration between BIM data and 3D model. With good application of Extended User Attribute data there is huge potential to take more control over a project as it moves from design to procurement and into construction.
Having been privy to some future developments in the pipeline it is clear AceCad has big plans for the software. Improved markup tools, enhanced construction planning and support for major point cloud data formats are some of the highlights to look out for in the next two releases.
One downside of BIMReview is that it is file-based, which makes it more of a challenge to work with geographically dispersed teams, though standard collaborative tools like GoToMeeting get around this to some extent. It will be interesting to see how AceCad’s forthcoming BIMServer product solves some of these challenges by offering similar capabilities in a web-browser.
BIMReview is available as a 200MB download on a free seven day trial. If you are looking for a simple, yet powerful BIM review tool, with an upgrade path to handle more managed workflows throughout the supply chain, we recommend a test drive.
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