ADSK + Esri want to rewrite AEC data flows

Jan 16, 2018 | Hot Topics

I wrote recently about the need to start looking at data from a lifecycle perspective, anticipating future needs and uses as well as likely integrations. This brings me back to one of the big announcements at November’s Autodesk University: the closer relationship that is emerging between Autodesk, a major player in AEC and civil engineering CADish tools, and Esri, the largest supplier of GIS solutions. Reps from both companies were ecstatic about the announcement and the customers I spoke with were excited, too. Why? What’s the advantage of a tighter relationship, when it comes to GIS and AEC data and applications?

To understand, we need to dive a bit into the way building and civil projects are carried out. Say you’re a property developer, putting houses on a large piece of land. It’s not at all like Monopoly, the game where players buy and sell generic houses. The developer carefully works with the contours of the land to create the environment and experience that will enable him to command the highest possible prices. Tree-shaded lots, whose shapes minimize real-estate tax levies given laws that might be based on street frontage and lot sizes, with optimized paths for water and wastewater services, roads, and everything else needed for the community. Larger lots and smaller ones, with the infrastructure to support a huge family and a swimming pool in this location with a smaller, starter home next door. Laying all of this out, optimizing it and creating the details needed for planning and other approvals is mostly not a CAD process — it’s based on the geography and related data about the parcel of land.

That data comes from and lives in a GIS, a geographic information system. GISes enable city planners, developers, assessors, utility companies, politicians and citizens to visualize, interrogate, analyze, and interpret location-based data.  If you ever go to a Registrar of Deeds (apologies, I have no idea what this is called in other parts of the world), you’ll see data going back as far as is possible about who owned what piece of land, what it was used for, whether there were any disputes about it, if a stream was diverted –all sorts of fascinating stuff that gives a great picture of what was happening in a location at a point in time. This data is hugely useful for drawing maps, evaluating land use, locating services and much more. If someone decides to layer on top of that geometry any of the other geo-based data that’s available today, we have a gold mine: this neighborhood recorded more births in a year than expected — perhaps we need to look at school capacity. This street buys more high-end cars than average; perhaps we place a Starbucks here. At its most important, GIS tracks populations and locations, which determines redistricting and government representation. At its most commercial, store locations, cell towers, UPS truck routes — all see significant input from GIS.

At its simplest, the intersection of CAD and GIS lies in tracing over a GIS-generated map to define the outer boundaries of a house lot or the path of a water main. But that’s bare minimum, and can’t adjust in case a road moves or a developer changes house lot boundaries. Esri and Autodesk want to create context for man-made objects in their surrounding environments, since both effect and are affected by one another. Esri’s mapping and spatial analytics software often serves as the underlying layer in AEC projects, the XYZ starting point, if you will. Connecting GIS with Autodesk’s Building Information Modeling (BIM, aka Autodesk Revit and BIM 360 products), can smooth workflows in project projects planning, design, build and, eventually, management.

I spoke with AECOM’s John Kizior, Global Director, Project Technologies. He sees this expanded partnership as a great idea, one that will help AECOM better connect both projects and people. Side note: Mr. Kizior loves innovation and is incredibly proud of the way AECOM looks at the AEC landscape and finds new opportunities to better serve its asset owner and operator clients. I’m going to be writing more about AECOM’s i3 offering that applies data science to the built asset environment — but, for now, Mr. Kizior represents all of the customers I spoke with who are happy that their AEC and GIS suppliers will be playing (even nicer) together.

Theo Agelopoulos, Autodesk’s director for infrastructure strategy, told me that putting BIM and GIS together will optimize the entire process chain in AEC, leading to savings in both time and money. He also pointed out the positive impact that the combo will have on visualizations, simulation and analysis — which should also make the planning and approval processes easier.

While the announcement was short on specifics about timelines and investments, Mr. Agelopoulos said that it will noticeably extend existing capabilities. Users can expect to natively access GIS data from within Autodesk apps to build more robust contextual models for their BIM and civil designs. Part of this, Esri told me, is round-tripping: Autodesk apps will natively write BIM information to ArcGIS databases to minimize data loss — something now done, when it is done at all, by hand. Too, GIS specialists will be able to access BIM data from within Esri applications, which will give them access to data for asset management.

Do you sense a theme here? Data is useful in lots of places and over time, but it needs to be managed and served in a way that makes sense to the user. A GIS specialist likely doesn’t know anything about BIM, and the Revit user knows nothing about the details of ArcGIS. And that’s how it should be.

I also had the chance to speak with Esri’s President, Jack Dangermond, at AU. Mr. Dangermond is a remarkable entrepreneur who built a billion dollar software business that’s still privately held. Mr. Dangermond and is team told me that they’ve been making significant advances in their technology, adding 3D landscape modeling and web GIS to the traditional desktop apps. Mr. Dangermond said that Esri was seeing growing interest from its customers to integrate BIM with GIS. Esri had responded by integrating BIM into ArcGIS Desktop —  natively reading Revit data directly was the next logical step and is a core focus of the new alliance.

“Partnering with Esri is intended to combine the power of BIM and GIS mapping, which will enable our shared customers to build anything, anywhere,” said Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk CEO. “Our goals are to provide industry and city planners the ability to design in the context of the real world. This will allow communities to build more connected, resilient cities, and infrastructure with a focused eye on sustainability.”

You can see where this is all going. If we know what something is, because we have a detailed Revit model, and we know exactly where it is, because we’re tied into a GIS database, we can start making all sorts of better-informed decisions. Fire departments can go into industrial spaces, fully prepared for the chemicals they may find — and be safer, fighting that fire. If a town puts sensors into its roadways, it can detect if a road is frozen and send out the sanding truck. If we know that we’ll have a bunch of 6 year-olds to educate in a couple of years, we can start reconfiguring the school building to meet that new need. It’s about data in context, accessed quickly and easily.

I also tried to find out why this alliance was announced now –rather than years ago– and there’s no real answer. No specific customer situation, no financial stake or acquisition in play … It seems that it’s happening now to take advantage of the attention being paid to smart cities, IT investment by construction and other AEC project components and the idea that data should have life beyond its point of creation. Too, there’s the very real pressure of population flows to cities that will stress existing services to their limits. Housing and urban infrastructures must quickly ramp up to meet these flows –some say it’s almost too late–  and Autodesk and Esri bet that their technologies will be a key element of that push.

Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is courtesy of Autodesk. It shows Jack Dangermond, Esri CEO, and Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk CEO, on stage at Autodesk University as they discuss their partnership and its potential impact on global issues of urbanization, population growth and the need to “build strong and resilient cities”. It’s both daunting and exciting.