Behind the Scenes with BIM 360 Docs

January 13, 2016 | Comments

Building information modeling (BIM) users the world over have already had a chance to experience the evolution of Project Alexandria into BIM 360 Docs. After all, it was announced with quite the fanfare at Autodesk University 2015 in early December.

BIM 360 Docs, soon to be released, will be usable on iPhones and iPads. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

We were left with many questions, but since then our only hint of what’s yet to come has been an elusive software preview with a waiting list a mile long.

Without a confirmed release announcement date, the idea of having to wait patiently to learn more was too much to bear. So instead of toughing it out, we decided to go behind the scenes with Autodesk’s Senior Product Manager Joan Allen to learn a little bit more about BIM 360 Docs and what it will mean for those in AEC.


Have a Look at Project Collaboration

The first order of business is to clarify what BIM 360 Docs is—and what it isn’t.

Thumbnail View
A look at the BIM 360 Docs thumbnail interface. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

What it isn’t: an average collaboration platform where you download and install a piece of software exclusively for your device.

What it is: an entirely cloud-based document management system developed in-house at Autodesk for reviewing and collaborating on project files. This means you can open up a file, have a look and mark it up for review later when you get back to your BIM software.

Did I mention that it works through your web browser? That’s right. Users can download an app for iOS devices, but the service is entirely browser-based. Autodesk hinted that Android could eventually join the roster, but for now there’s no solid timeline.


How BIM 360 Docs Measures Up

In my last post on the subject, I questioned the differentiation between BIM 360 Docs and products like Bentley’s ProjectWise. As I took a tour of the software, however, I noted that there isn’t much of a comparison.

“ProjectWise is an on-premise legacy system and what we’re doing with BIM 360 Docs is very different, not only in that it’s cloud-based, but in that it’s bringing the entire team together on all the project documents,” Allen explained.

What does this mean?

It means that the two platforms aren’t on the same stage.

ProjectWise is a downloaded and installed platform for working on a project simultaneously with team members. With it, users can work on versions of projects—potentially at the same time as another user makes different changes.

Users have the ability to markup drawings within the BIM 360 Docs project viewer. These markups can be reviewed later using BIM software. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

The key point to BIM 360 Docs is that it isn’t an editing platform in this sense. When Allen talks about BIM 360 Docs, she talks about bringing all of those documents confined in storage silos out to play. The platform stores and organizes documents in its online repository so that team members have up-to-date document versions at their fingertips.

It does this with its version control feature. Autodesk also hopes to implement an issue-tracking feature down the line.

Version control lets users upload a new version of a project document while retaining any former versions for future reference. In the event that a mistake is made with a more recent version, users have the option to revert to a previous version.

Issue tracking will let users mark an issue in one version of a document and track its resolution through subsequent versions.


A Different Way to Look at Docs

“We’re doing some very innovative things with the documents themselves, like being able to separate out the individual sheets from Revit models, for example, making them easy to consume,” Allen said.

In a summary tour of BIM 360 Docs, Allen demonstrated what exactly this means.

As part of the upload process, the Revit file used for the demonstration was deconstructed into a series of sheet files that were then organized by project. Each sheet can be marked up and revised individually without the task of dealing with a large Revit file in a browser setting.

Here’s how it works:

Note: this video has no sound.

Users can browse through documents with a navigation system reminiscent of online photo albums, scrolling sideways through a list of individual documents. This means 2D and 3D versions can be reviewed side-by-side.

2D and 3D documents are displayed in the BIM 360 Docs photo-viewer-style navigation system. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Wouldn’t this cause a problem with storage?

As far as Autodesk is concerned, the massive databases that will be generated by these files and documents aren’t a concern.

“We fully expect a lot of data and we’re ready for it,” said Allen.





Managing Collaboration, Too

You might think that allowing all members to access documents would get messy, but Autodesk thought of that, too.

BIM 360 Docs is built as a permissions-based collaborative system, which means that project team members are assigned abilities to perform certain actions by the project’s owner.

It uses a four-point scale to determine these abilities, which are categorized in ascending order of authority as Publish, View, Edit and Control.


A Flexible Environment

Instead of tailoring the application to Autodesk offerings, the company built BIM 360 Docs as a multi-CAD environment that uses the same derivative services as A360—meaning it can work with whatever industry-specific file type you happen to have.

“BIM 360 Docs supports not only the Autodesk products, including full support for Revit models and AutoCAD drawings and models, but also many other industry formats,” said Allen. “We have some great tools for managing, viewing and reviewing PDF drawings as well.”

When a PDF drawing set is added to the project in BIM 360 Docs, it is separated into individual sheets. Title block data (such as sheet number and sheet title) is extracted and displayed in the document list.


The Future of AEC Collaboration

At this point, Buzzsaw users may be concerned about the future of the platform, but Autodesk says they’re just fine for now.

“The capabilities of BIM 360 Docs will meet and eventually exceed those capabilities in Buzzsaw,” said Allen. “We see this as a natural progression.”

However, “we continue to support and invest in Buzzsaw as needed to meet the needs of our customers,” Allen continued.

So why didn’t Autodesk choose to adapt Buzzsaw’s existing infrastructure rather than build from the ground up?

“We have best-in-class cloud technology that is modern, new and highly scalable in order to meet the needs of our global customer base,” said Allen. “We have built this [BIM 360 Docs] on this new technology because we think it is the best approach for meeting the needs of our customers now and in the future.”

Autodesk will be announcing the full release of BIM 360 Docs (and its pricing) in early 2016. This announcement will also reveal the exact scalability and capacity of the software. Until then, we’re just going to have to sit tight.

In the meantime, you can sign yourself up for a free preview of Docs here.


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