CadFaster speeds up BIM conversations

At COMIT’s (excellent) conference on BIM and mobile technologies (#mobiBIM) at University College London on 11 November (post) I met Tuomas Holma, VP Sales and Marketing of Finland-based CadFaster. We subsequently arranged to meet up, along with CadFaster’s chairman Raimo Kuismin, so that he could tell me more about CadFaster’s flagship product’s collaborative capabilities.

A drawback with most construction collaboration platform is that they mainly offer asynchronous collaboration – ie: dispersed “conversations” proceed like email exchanges, as a series of send-reply steps. Ideally, collaboration should be about real-time or synchronous exchanges with little or no time lag between individuals’ comments and recipients’ responses. Now on its fourth release, CadFaster | Collaborate enables exactly this kind of real-time (synchronous) collaboration regarding 3D designs developed in BIM, CAD and related applications. Tuomas demonstrated the application to me using a laptop and an iPad via a mobile 3G connection in the cafe at London’s Building Centre.

The application is available as a plug-in for Revit, MicroStation or SolidWorks (ArchiCAD capability may be added in the near future) and as an iPad application. Users can open a BIM or CAD file, and then invite other user(s) to simultaneously view the same view of the same model remotely through the application on their PC or iPad – even if the invited users do not have their own BIM/CAD tools (similar to the viewer capabilities offered with most Software-as-a-Service collaboration platforms, where users open viewer tools and do not need CAD software – or high bandwidth – to view CAD drawings). To initiate the online exchange, the originator sends an executable file, which contains a stand-alone viewer and a highly compressed version of the model; recipients then open this file, which can be viewed on almost any Windows-based computer without requiring any special software or tools beyond an internet connection. The application is also quite simple and intuitive to use – non-CAD users (client representatives, perhaps) will not take long to familiarise themselves with its functionality.

The application works like a 3D viewer enabling users to pan, zoom and walk/fly-through to details, with the viewing experience optimised to allow rapid simultaneous access by co-collaborators. When a user annotates the view with a comment or mark-up and saves the annotation, it is immediately shared with others involved in the discussion (Tuomas said this ‘co-view’ capability had comfortably enabled sessions with upwards of 10 users – most online collaborations will involve fewer than this). Text/graphic exchanges happen on-screen; verbal exchanges would need to be separately managed via a tele-conference, VOIP or similar.

So efficient is the file compression and graphics management that, even on a shared mobile 3G connection, there was only a short time-lag between a comment being made and the recipient being able to review it within the same view of the model as seen by the commenter. As well as during design development, the application clearly has potential where designers might need to liaise with contractors on site – CadFaster would enable real-time conversations in the field (assuming some level of internet connectivity exists on-site, of course). Stakeholders unable to participate in the live meeting can access the file later, review comments from the meeting, and adding their own feedback.

Comments are also associated with metadata such as the model name, its ID, and the component. Comments and conversations can be captured by taking and saving screenshots; Tuomas said CadFaster was developing cloud storage tools that would save conversations online (including as PDFs) so that they could form part of the audit trail, with up to 100MB per user of storage space offered. Version control is also something being developed (the application has been tested across firms in the UK and US, said Tuomas, with Arup Associates particularly active in its development – see this Architecture Week review). The application is also inexpensive; CadFaster’s site suggests “Share your SolidWorks models to every stakeholder for real-time review. Only €14.99/month”, while Tuomas suggested a Revit-plugin would cost £249/user/year (the iPad application is available free via Apple’s iTunes). The license enables the originator to create the model views; co-collaborators pay nothing to access the service and provide their feedback to the license holder.

Update (12 July 2012) – CadFaster|Collaborate is now available via the Autodesk Exchange Apps Store. There Revit users can download a simple plug-in tool that enables them to distribute 3D CAD and Building Information Models effortlessly and invite others to view and mark them up remotely in real time, including from a laptop or iPad.

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