Autodesk’s new conceptual design tool enables planners and engineers to consider geospatial, civil and architectural data together in an interactive 3D environment.
Autodesk has a huge portfolio of Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) software, but most of its products are focused on the detailed design phase. They are about creating dimensionally accurate drawings and models, and products like AutoCAD, Revit and AutoCAD Civil 3D do this very well.
For conceptual design though, a product with a less rigid toolset can enable greater productivity. When planning a new site layout, for example, you do not want to get bogged down in details. There is little point spending hours modelling rigid alignments and earthworks and rendering multiple proposals for visualisation when some will be rejected out of hand.
At these early stages of design you need to be able to explore different alternatives, quickly, and present your ideas in an interactive 3D environment that can be easily understood by non-technical users.
Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler (AIM) is a new product that has been specifically developed to cater for conceptual design for infrastructure projects. According to Autodesk, it is ideal for civil engineering, transportation, and urban planning projects of all sizes, but the software could find itself equally at home in an architectural practice wanting to put a building design in the context of a 3D site.
The key thing about AIM is that it is incredibly easy to use. You hardly need any CAD skills to use it — it is a breeze compared to AutoCAD Civil 3D. In many ways, it is like SIM city, the classic city-building game — lots of dragging and dropping from libraries, while grips make it easy to adjust geometry.
But there is a whole lot more to AIM than simply providing a representation of a design. While it is great for knocking up concepts in hours, or even minutes, it can also see a project right through to its as-built stage. Over time, concept models can be replaced by detailed designs to create living, breathing asset models. AIM can even be used for city scale modelling, a use case which was originally championed by the software’s Autodesk Labs test bed technology, Project Galileo.
Setting the scene
The starting point for any project is to provide the context for the new design. To do this AIM can bring in data from a variety of sources, including, CAD, GIS (Geographic Information System), and a wide range of terrain and imagery file formats.
A good starting point is a digital terrain model over which aerial photography, CAD or GIS data can be draped, referenced to the same co-ordinate system.
2D data can quickly be turned into a 3D model. At the conceptual stage of a city planning project, for example, the planner may be happy giving all buildings an arbitrary height of, say, 10m. Individual buildings can then be tweaked by pulling on grips or dialing in specific values.
When a more accurate base model is required, detailed datasets that feature specific building heights are also available off the shelf. These are derived from LiDAR or stereo imaging data, but costs can be high.
AIM can be used to visualise a wide range of data defined in GIS systems like AutoCAD Map, ESRI ArcGIS or Bentley Map. For example, conservation areas, those earmarked for regeneration, or properties that would be impacted by noise pollution from a proposed road.
Some off-the-shelf GIS datasets already come with attribute data, Ordnance Survey Mastermap data for example classifies buildings by commercial or residential use.
Modelling design concepts
AIM includes a range of modelling tools for quickly laying out roads, underground utility pipelines, housing plots, buildings and land and water features. They are incredibly easy to use and simple proposals can be knocked up in minutes.
As design features are added they automatically follow the terrain, but can be easily adjusted to sit above (bridges) or below the surface (pipes).
2D and 3D designs can also be brought in easily from CAD systems via DWG. All geometry — existing and proposed — can be tweaked by pushing and pulling on grips. Terrain can also be adjusted. We are not talking about accurate civil engineering grading here though; it is really just for visualisation purposes — flattening a sloped site to create a pad for a building, for example.
Design features can be stylised by dragging and dropping items from a library. These include road types (single carriageway, dual carriageway), textures for the sides of buildings, bridges, tunnels and land features such as parks, lakes or car parks. There is also a library of street furniture, including road signs, lampposts, bus stops and trees. Any 3ds Max or Revit model can also be dropped into the catalogue and re-used. With a little bit of attention, models can be made to look quite visually appealing.
AIM’s conceptual design tools are intentionally basic so they are easy to use, but the objects they create are semi-intelligent. For example, a junction is automatically generated when a road intersects with another road. The system will automatically remove any street furniture — lampposts or street signs — that would interfere with the new design.
For architects and city planners, the system includes some basic building design tools, but AIM is not great for anything more than simple massing studies. To add more detail, conceptual models can be brought in from Autodesk’s Project Vasari or Google SketchUp Pro via Autodesk’s FBX format. Detailed designs can be imported from Revit or 3ds Max Design.
AIM is perfect for presentations and a great tool for communicating proposals. Models can be navigated in real time using Autodesk’s view cube, and because designs can be edited in a flash, it would be perfect for bringing more interaction to client meetings or public consultations — rather than suffering ‘death by PowerPoint’.
The software has a built-in proposal management tool, so design variants do not have to be stored as separate files. This not only makes it easy to present ideas — three different layouts for a site, for example — but makes file management a lot easier.
There are some other presentation features. Time can be incorporated into the model and assets given start and termination dates, so you can see how a project will change over time. It is no NavisWorks Timeliner, which is used for construction simulation, but a useful way of communicating how a site may develop over time nonetheless.
Custom tool tips can be added to assets, which reveal themselves when you hover the cursor over them. This could be simple attribute information, but can also feature thumbnail images, web links, or direct links to files — PDFs, TIFs, AVIs or even Revit files. With a little bit of time investment, this could become a really powerful feature to reveal more detail about a design.
At present there is no standalone viewer for AIM, but the good news is Autodesk is developing a technology for sharing models online. Available on its Autodesk Labs site (labs.autodesk.com) Project Galileo Online enables users to publish AIM models to Autodesk’s cloud, and invite others to access, download, and commit changes to shared models.
Not all ‘Labs’ technology makes it into shipping products, but we’d be very surprised if this doesn’t graduate in some form or another. It would be an extremely powerful way of getting stakeholders more involved in a project and perfect for public consultations. Imagine being able to navigate around a model to see the true impact of a design proposal from all angles and give feedback in context — all without having to use up an expensive software license. Animations do a good job of telling a story, and AIM can be used to put together AVIs in a flash, but you can’t beat an interactive environment.
From concept to as-built
While AIM is purpose-built for conceptual design, things do not have stop at this early stage. As a project evolves, concept models can be replaced with detailed design models. Then, once a project has been completed, AIM can be used to help manage constructed assets. Here, the custom tool tips can perform a very powerful role of providing a gateway to as-built information.
Everything in IM is written directly to a SQLite database, which means there are good connections to most third party GIS systems. AIM also offers a direct link to AutoCAD Map and AutoCAD Civil 3D, which is good for workflow.
Users can swap seamlessly between AIM and Civil 3D without having to export or shut down model files. A road design can be started in AIM and developed further in AutoCAD Civil 3D. There are no rigid check in/check out processes and with good communication within the design team, both can be carried out in parallel, simply press F5 and the road alignment will instantly update in AIM.
For sharing architectural data the process is manual and as a design evolves, files can be swapped in and out manually, via Autodesk’s FBX format. Level of detail needs to be considered here though. Bringing in detailed models for an entire housing estate is likely to slow the system down, so models may need to be simplified prior to import.
Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler is a powerful conceptual design tool. It offers an environment where all types of data, geospatial, architectural, civil, can be considered together, presented in an interactive 3D environment that is easy for anyone to understand.
The software also scores highly on its usability. Even those with only a modicum of CAD experience should be able to pick it up in a matter of hours. With its intuitive design and editing tools, new proposals can quickly be explored, making design reviews or client meetings much more interactive.
AIM is great for exploring initial proposals in context, but can also see a project all the way through to the as-built stage. AutoCAD Civil 3D can be used to develop the detailed design, complete with cut and fill, and then be brought back seamlessly into AIM. Architectural massing models can be replaced by detailed Revit models.
With such big benefits from linking to Autodesk’s design apps, it may not be the best time to be buying AIM, which costs £5,500 a license. Launched in Summer 2011, mid-way through Autodesk’s yearly update cycle, it did not make it into Autodesk’s infrastructure design or Building Design suites. It could be worth waiting until Spring 2012, when the 2013 suites are announced to see if you get more for your money — though Autodesk suites do offer less flexibility as all software has to run off a single machine.