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Scene on the screen

The recent Construct IT and ICAT exhibitions provide the year's main showcases for developments in computing for designers

In a mixed bag of new offerings, especially at the ICAT (nee CADCAM) exhibition which includes engineering as well as construction, a few broader trends emerged. The bigger CAD system names such as Autodesk (AutoCAD, 01483 303322), Bentley Systems (Microstation, 01344 412233) and Graphisoft (ArchiCAD, 0171 700 9930) are increasingly focused on tools for collaborative working, networked across design teams, and on the management of project data.

Helped by standardisat ion on Windows 95 and NT, the wider area networking is generally carried by ISDN or the Internet.

Generally, there is caution about relying on the Internet for critical applications. Its security limitations can be addressed in some cases by setting up project intranets, but its speed and reliability limitations are more problematic.

One way round this is offered by Cadweb (0181 964 5040), an Internet service using a central project database for transmitting, storing and retrieving electronic project messages and files.

Cadweb provides the network infrastructure for a project team.

Several companies are developing Internet applications in which any authorised project member with a web browser can look at any project information on the network, including panning, zooming and red-lining comments on drawings. In some cases the person with the browser needs to have software tools to do this. But another approach is for the tools to be downloaded over the web as applets alongside the information to be viewed.

Fully object-oriented CAD software is still just about to be delivered. Bentley, for example, is now moving in this direction with Microstation Modeler and plans to launch Objective Microstation in the autumn. Generally, work is proceeding on object-oriented standards (IAI standards) for product models which will allow you to drop component drawings and details from manufacturers straight into your CADmodel. Several manufacturers may have examples to offer in the next few months.

Visual Technology (0870 606 0665) has come out of the lab (AJ 10.4.97) into the commercial world with both proprietary systems and a service. Its claim to fame is to integrate any databases with any drawing systems. It does not create a central database but co-ordinates information on demand from different sources. For Tesco, for example, the databases range from data and drawings about where stores are located down to data and visualisation of a particular product range in a particular display cabinet in a particular store. Similar integration of databases and drawings is finding a range of facilities management customers with its FM Focus product.

Co

Facilities include 3D modelling, viewing of project data, conferencing, workflow management and project data management, available in 10 languages.

The price of design While the bigger system names in CAD focus on the project and its management, a range of smaller-system vendors claim to offer much the same design functionality for much less money. Or at least that since you don't need all the bigger systems' functionality most of the time, you can have one or two of those systems and do most of your work on the cheaper software. AutoCAD reacted specifica l ly to this threat a few years ago with its own AutoCad LT . Its latest version is LT 97, with a street price around £430.

Other systems following this approach are usually compatible with the de facto standard AutoCAD file structures to allow data transfer between systems.

This £100-1000 software bracket includes:

Turbocad Professional V4 from IMSI (UK) (0181 581 2000), costing £259 Flexicad, newly arrived from Germany, distributed by Crucial Technology (01564 794040), costing £595 IntelliCAD from Visio International (01372 227900) is due from the US next month, priced around £400 Caddie comes from Advanced Computer Solutions (01234 834920), costing £995. After 10 years in architectural CAD it remains a 2D system, but that does not mean it is unsophisticated. A wide range of tools includes facilities for handling scanned images and presentation graphics, and it runs on Windows 95 and NT Minicad 7 from Gomark (0171 731 7930), one of the biggest sellers worldwide, costs £595. Gomark also has an animation package, Art*lantis 3.0 (AJ 10.4.97) and a rendering package for the Apple Mac called RadioZity.

This last is unusual. From almost any vantage point at either exhibition you could witness the near-full eclipse of the Apple Mac.

Something completely different in computer graphics is Piranesi from Cambridge Data Systems (01480 398353), a painting program that understands geometry. So a scene from a 3D model is understood in 3D, not as a picture plane.

Textures are applied exactly to surfaces because their edges are understood without masking, and they are automatically applied in perspective on surfaces in perspective. Shadows are cast. And so on.

Piranesi will be reviewed in the AJ's Architech supplement next week.

Practice computing While previous shows have been very CAD-focused, this year's had more to think about for the practice as a business.

The linking with other offices and project data management, noted above, could of course have long-term strategic implications. More particular exhibits included:

CDM Toolkit from Ai Solutions (01525 850080) which has a core library of CDM documents that you can add to.

Data on organisations and personnel, competence, preferred suppliers, etc, can also be held in the database. There are facilities for preparing reports and documents for specific projects, and for audit trails as documents change. Toolkit comes in versions for the designers to use at concept, scheme and detail design stage as well as for planning supervisors, contractors and clients.

Arena V from Arena Software (01223 464194) is the recent Windows version of its job-costing and resource-management package. It handles data on projects, clients, fee budgets, staffing, activities, timesheets and expenses, all protected with tailorable password security. Arena also has a bought-in accounts package which it has adapted for designers, and the long-established Time-Piece software, for small practices, which covers time sheets, expenses, invoices and work-in-progress.

Technical Indexes (01344 426311) provides a desk-top search engine to a very wide range of scanned technical information (including some AJs) held on CD-ROMs. Currently, abstracts are being written to documents so these abstracts can be fully text-searched; around 95 per cent of construction BSs are complete to date. Cost £2000/year, with quarterly updates.

Also, Environment Online is its Internet service on UK and EU environmental legislation, costing £1295/year.

Building Online (0171 837 5072) uses a viewdata search engine for users to access scanned technical and product information held on the Building Online's file server. The search aims to take you to specific pages rather than the whole document, as downloading scanned image files can be a long job.

The information now includes construction British Standards. Annual cost £995.

NBS Services (0191 232 9594) has been moving gradually on. Specification Writer is now screen-based, linked to clauses on CD-ROM, rather than using floppy disks in text editing. For fuller specification preparation, Specification Manager now includes updating and tracking of revisions, links to Technical Indexes' information (see above) and to BRAD, its CD of Building Regulations and Approved Documents. (BRAD is also available separately. ) Specification Manager is web-enabled; both products can run under Windows NT.

There is also a new clauses set, NBS Landscape, prepared with the Landscape Institute and the Horticultural Trades Association. From £200/year.

Autodesk is investing £1million over three years in CPD for the construction industry. Many of its training events are now accredited by the Construction CPD Certification Service. For details of this CPD programme call 0181 579 3991 or use Freepost LON 3046 W55BR.

Demystifying the print room might be the description of the 8830 Digital Document System from Xerox Engineering Systems (01635 517401). It comprises a black-and-white plotter and a scanner, and also has a lot of chips inside, though it has simpler-than-photocopier control panels outside. The equipment does not need its own PC; it is fed plotting requests from the office network.

The printer holds three rolls of paper or other media to provide drawings from A4 to A0. The A0 scanner can take existing drawings and output them to computer file or to the plotter to make copies.

Plotting requests can be queued, the queue broken into for a rush job. Plots can be scaled, multiple, collated. Your hesitation may be the £20,000+ price tag.

ENERGY AND HEALTH MONITOR

If you are buying a monitor, look out for ones that have power-saving modes, dozing when not actively used. The US Environmental Protection Agency has its Energy Star label, with a saving mode of less than 30W. The Swedish Nutek system is similar in effect.

This information is a detail from Monitors Matter: the Definitive Guide to a Healthy Monitor . Focused mainly on monitor health issues, this pamphlet is available from CSF (the Computer Suppliers Federation, 01905 613236). It can be seen on the web at http; //www.csf.org.uk and then click 'Select the right monitor'.

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