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From pictures to projects

technical & practice

Keith Bentley of Bentley Systems, purveyors of cad to architects (and others) is ready to concede that there have been diminishing returns from innovation in cad over the last two to three years. Neither functional options nor productivity have made great leaps forward. cad graphics has become a relatively mature technology. His comments are not just about Bentley's Microstation and Triforma software of course. They are an unauthorised recent history of all graphics-based cad.

The next leap forward is widely seen as a focus on the management of projects. The first step, now developing, is the computer-aided management of the project data, usually based on the Internet. It goes under several names. pdm - project data management - is as descriptive as any. As recently as a year ago the us aec show was graphics-focused - as it had been for 20 years. Last month in Los Angeles the majority of stands were either offering some pdm product or trying to tie themselves in through partnership.

As an area under rapid development there can be no exact definition of pdm. What is currently on offer from various vendors is a mix of:

a central repository for all project data, or in some cases, just the 20 per cent or so of project data typically shared

tracking of who has created and changed which data through the project's life and which are the latest versions

the facility to 'publish' drawings on the web as pictures (rather than as cad files), say to clients or subcontractors. These pictures can be viewed but not changed

alongside this picture-publishing comes software for reviewing (red lining), ie marking up the drawing-pictures with comments and other marks. The mark-up overlies rather than changes the drawing - it is the electronic equivalent of using felt-tip pen on a clear overlay

simultaneous web - and telephone - team contact

web video-conferencing

project team diaries and team meetings arrangement

control of security and access rights to view, review or change project data

integration of data captured on hand-held computers, such as from surveys or site processes

and more.

Note that to date these pdm systems are providing an infrastructure for managing project data. They are not project management software though that will come. The players dominating the us show and rapidly infiltrating the uk are either pdm specialists or cad vendors, notably Bentley and Autodesk. The pdm specialists are clearly seen as competitors. One potential advantage the cad vendors have is their ability to integrate pdm with cad and thus the creating/changing of project data - in particular, integrating the changes from several people working on the same project model at the same time. We have only just begun to explore the intricacies of projects as computer-supported cooperative work.

Bentley has been offering ProjectWise, which it describes as a 'project extranet solution', for about a year. In la it launched ProjectBank, which adds project data-change tracking, facilitates for holding of object-based models and some aids for reconciling the different versions of a project model created by several people working on it simultaneously.

Autodesk announced Project- Point as a promised 'project information backbone' but had no details. The us-based aec organisation ran its first uk aec show at Wembley earlier this month, bringing with it several US vendors of pdm. Some, such as Blueline Online and The Pigeon Hole, were testing the uk waters. Others have already gone further in establishing local distribution. For example ReviewIt from Cubus Corporation is now distributed here by Caddnet.

Object standards

In the future we need data to flow smoothly from information providers to project screens and from project team member to team member, despite their using different software. For that we need data standards to allow such data exchange. The main force for this is object standards - for example a standard description of a doorset, including all its performance characteristics, and maybe its operation. Objects are smart in the sense that they 'know' how they behave and how they relate to other objects. In principle a project model of objects could be the basis for simulation of the construction and operations of the whole building.

In la the bureaucratically-named iai (International Alliance for Interoperability) launched version 2.0 of its standards software. Bentley says it will implement version 2.0 by the year end; Autodesk in the new year. The other strand needed for interoperability is for data to be prepared in standard format. Some UK manufacturers of building components are now working on preparing object representations of their components.

Today we can see a lot of loose ends. But the shifting focus of software innovation from graphics to projects underlies them all. The promise is great. The immediate downside for any exhibition visitor is a sea of hardly-distinguishable screens of web databases.

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