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By Michael Rotolo, April 28, 2014
Architectural and engineering firms use BIM to provide a better visual representation of their designs, and to improve the coordination between disciplines. This is true also for construction management firms and contractors, as they now leverage the rich data in 3D models for automating estimation, scheduling, procurement, quality assurance, and facility management.
But from the perspective of an architect or engineer, the "I" in BIM is probably the most overlooked aspect of the term, "Building Information Modeling." Now, most constructors and trades use Autodesk's Navisworks to consume data from models provided by architect or engineers using Autodesk's Revit. They are finding, however, that the models lack the kinds of information they need pre- and post-construction. And so many of them create internal BIM operators to input missing parameters, which are needed to extract comprehensive model data properly.
What I hear from architects, engineers, and construction firms is that there is no common platform for inputting, extracting, organizing, and coordinating graphical and non-graphical data. Although Autodesk has a large portfolio of design software (both desktop and cloud-based), they are disconnected and so require project stakeholders to develop a coordinated process for data management.
Assemble is the name of software (by Assembly Systems) that brings it all together. It is a cloud-based application that allows design firms to manage, coordinate, and control construction projects. Using any compatible Web browser, the work can be done from anywhere (see figure 1). Assemble also manages the hosting infrastructure and upgrades.
Figure 1: Assemble coordinating design data through a Web browser
Assemble is used for viewing models, estimating, scheduling, and project control. It works with a number of 3D modeling applications, such as AutoCAD MEP and Revit. The majority of Assemble Systems' clients are construction management companies operating across multiple markets. Most of them already use software to manage BIM data, and have alliances with architectural and engineering firms.
The software incorporates a mixture of features and functions that is spread throughout Autodesk's AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) products. It has, for instance, the viewing capability of Navisworks and BIM Glue; the ability to mass input data into model parameters and other fields, just like Revit; it handles cost calculations, like Autodesk QTO (now part of Navisworks Manage).
But unlike these applications, Assemble automates the model-based takeoff/inventory process. Project members share model information, and can input data - without using some complicated authoring tool.
A plug-in allows users to upload projects directly to Assemble's hosted Web site. When I tested this, I was able to upload a 40 MB Revit model that included architectural and MEP components in approximately 60 seconds. Assemble keeps a record of every upload iteration (similar to Buzzsaw), and then tracks changes, both quantitatively and visually.
As I review new applications, I notice that software developers today are simplifying the user interface and how functions are carried out. This is the same with Assemble, where the ability to create, manage and share projects is simple and straightforward. After reviewing the online videos, I was able to use the software efficiently within 90 minutes.
In the project setup, I assigned stakeholders and their permissions to view and/or modify data. Project units are established in either Imperial or metric.
The software identifies all geometric properties and parameters in model, which then allows it to extract data such as materials, types, quantities, and dimensions. Part of the project setup includes the selection of assembly codes for costing and analysis. (These are based on Revit's assembly codes found in its UniformatClassfication.txt file.) Assemble's assembly codes allow access and control of assembly code templates.
What I like is that the default assembly codes can be replaced with my estimation software's MasterFormat classification database. I could export the revised codes and so replace the default UniformatClassfication.txt file; in this way, future Revit models are made consistent.
After I uploaded the model, I use Assemble's online model viewer and found it very responsive, and easy to use (see figure 2). The model viewer can either be docked or floating so the application can run on a multi-screen computer. It has the traditional zoom and isolation tools, but the one command I really appreciated was the Zoom Extents. It allowed me to zoom out to the extents of the model, and then when I selected an item it zoomed back into the item itself. This allowed me to perform quick orbiting and inspection of model elements.
Figure 2: Assemble's online model viewer showing an uploaded model
X-Ray mode in the Model Viewer applies transparency to the model, and I found this beneficial for viewing objects within the building. I liked it, because I did not have to deal with turning off layers or hiding objects, making it fast for me to inspect the model.
The Model Inventory table displays instances of objects by group. Built-in groups can be organized by level, layer, phase, and so on. To create custom groups, I simply selected properties listed from the objects in the model.
To help narrow searches, Smart Filters select specific instances of objects, which update the Model Inventory automatically. All assembly codes and costs that I input were visible in the Model Inventory table (see figure 3); it was easy to add or remove the columns I needed.
Figure 3: Model Inventory table displaying quantities and so on
When I finished creating my groups and filtering the information, I was able to export the table into an Excel spreadsheet. Once there, I could share my data with others for estimation, purchasing and for facility management purposes.
In addition, the Model Inventory table can be exported to Navisworks (through XML file format) as a recognized search set. This lets me share my set with someone not using Assemble, and then coordinates queries, reducing the time lost to manual coordination.
After searching and filtering data with the Model Inventory table, I reviewed the properties and added data to selected objects. The same can be done in Revit, but its built-in filter tool is just not as refined as the one in Assemble. For instance, I quickly populated the costs and assembly codes for multiple items, like air terminals, and then use the Estimation tool to get a quick, running, model-based estimate (see figure 4).
Figure 4: Assemble displaying cost estimation of walls
Two key features really impressed me. One is Sync; it synchronizes all new parameter data in Assemble with the original Revit model. Since Assemble makes it easy to select and add data to item properties, a non-Revit user can populate the model fairly quickly and easily.
The other key feature is Model Variance; it compares altered iterations of the model, tracking both the graphical and cost differences between versions (see figure 5). This allows users to see the effect on costs based on the changes to design and construction.
Figure 5: Assemble showing differences between two models in table (center) and graphical form (at right)
Assemble Systems provide both phone and email support. A small issue I had was resolved within 24 hours, as promised on their Web site. The development team encourages user to vote on features and enhancements to the software.
I would make two recommendations to the development team; First, Assemble should be available as an app on mobile devices, because using a Web browser on a phone or tablet can be cumbersome.
Second, they should look at supporting non-Autodesk products that are common in the industry, such as ArchiCAD and SketchUp.
Overall, Assemble does give stakeholders the ability to put the "I" back in BIM. The value is in being able to easily contribute and assess content throughout the project lifecycle. Assemble's cloud-based software coordinates, manages, and enriches information in BIM models. I found it easy to input data and navigate Revit models. The user interface is simple but effective.
With its ability to easily audit a 3D model it allows for greater accuracy for real-time cost estimation, reduces collaboration efforts and keeps all stakeholders up-to-date. I recommend this application to firms looking to incorporate data-rich model information into their workflows.
|Michael Rotolo is a Autodesk Certified Implementation Expert and Trainer and applies his management skills to planning and managing BIM and AutoCAD-based implementations. He was a technical editor "Mastering AutoCAD 2006" and writes The Mad Cadder blog. More...|
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