Autodesk Forma is positioned as a cloud-based platform that will unify workflows for those that design, build and operate the built environment, but could those users also end up ‘caged’?
Earlier this month (see its 8 May 2023 news release) and ahead of Digital Construction Week in London, Autodesk unveiled the first set of capabilities of Autodesk Forma. In Autodesk’s words, this is “an industry cloud that will unify workflows across the teams that design, build and operate the built environment”.
The Forma backstory
Forma was initially announced at Autodesk University in New Orleans in September 2022, alongside two other industry clouds. Autodesk Forma is “the industry cloud for AEC” (architecture, engineering and construction). Autodesk Flow is the industry cloud for M&E (mechanical and electrical). And Autodesk Fusion is the industry cloud for D&M (design and manufacture). Underpinning the three clouds is Autodesk Platform Services, a set of cross-industry APIs and services formerly known as Forge.
In an AU keynote, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost explained that the company’s cloud ‘platforms’ aim to connect the tools, data, processing and workflows for every phase of Autodesk’s customers’ projects. They would take Autodesk from providing point solutions like Revit, to supporting the full lifecycle, from concept to operation. This will not happen immediately. Building and moving to the new platforms will take three to five years, with a progressive, phased release of new features and capabilities.
In AEC Magazine, Martyn Day discussed Forma in magisterial detail after the AU announcement (see his 5 October 2023 article, Autodesk Forma: one platform to rule them all?). Looking back to 2016, Day said Autodesk’s vision has long been to shift AEC data to the cloud. In late 2019, for example, several of the company’s AEC offerings branded as Autodesk Construction Cloud (see my January 2020 EE post: Autodesk converges its Construction Cloud). And the ACC later expanded (November 2020: Autodesk Construction Cloud is reshaped). Forma is the culmination of this data-centric work, looking to break down data silos, both between professional disciplines and between Autodesk’s own applications.
According to Autodesk, Forma’s initial capabilities target the early-stage planning and design process. Automations and AI-powered insights, simplify exploration of design concepts, offload repetitive tasks, and help evaluate environmental qualities surrounding a building site, giving architects time to focus on creative solutions. Following this first step, new features and capabilities will be added to Forma on a continual basis. Amy Bunszel, Autodesk’s Executive Vice President of AEC Design Solutions, says:
“Forma gives architecture professionals the agility to work iteratively rather than sequentially between planning and detailed design, supercharging what they can accomplish. From rapidly evaluating a large set of factors–from sun and wind to noise and operational energy– to offloading computational tasks to the cloud and connecting with Revit, Forma unlocks great value for our customers.”
Forma will help users to rapidly evaluate dozens of design options and improve upon the desired qualities of a design. Productivity gains can be realised from quick project setup. Users can unlock advanced capabilities without requiring deep technical expertise. And data can be used to tell a convincing story about the design vision to secure buy-in and bring stakeholders along.
With Forma, Autodesk says it now offers a full end-to-end solution for building design–from early-stage planning through to design in Revit with its ecosystem of connected products including Autodesk Construction Cloud.
Towards ‘BIM 3.0’
Extranet Evolution joined an online press conference about the launch of Forma and heard from Nicolas Mangon, VP of Autodesk’s AEC Industry Strategy, and Carl Christensen, VP of Unified Design (formerly at SpaceMaker – Forma’s initial offering leverages Spacemaker’s AI engine).
Mangon talked about an evolution from CAD to ‘BIM 1.0’ (offline) to ‘BIM 2.0’ (cloud connected) and, now, to ‘BIM 3.0’ – “an outcome-based approach”. Designers need to define the outcomes they want and then use AI to help them achieve them, he said, before outlining how Forma would help granular data flow seamlessly through project phases, stakeholders and asset types.
Christensen talked about Forma’s use for managing conceptual design, supported by automations, analyses and ‘interoperability’. The definition of interoperability wasn’t easy to follow – talk of adapting ‘hybrid workflows”, and synchronisation between Forma and Revit enabling fluid connectivity downstream. While Forma was being launched globally on 8 May, the initial target markets were the US and selected European markets including the UK. The platform will be available free to existing users of Autodesk’s AEC collection; for others, it will cost $1250 but there is a free 30-day trial offer.
“After project completion, will asset owner-operators be able to export asset-related data to their own operational systems and use it independently of Forma?”
Mangon described how Forma is based on a data repository, aggregated data from apps, Revit and other tools. Forma has two principles, he said: one is around sustainability, the other around openness. The aim is to enable ‘plug and play’ connectivity to third party cloud and SaaS developers (no names yet), and to “be open and responsive and build outwards with customers”.
The Extranet Evolution view
I am a little sceptical about the Forma vision and how far it will support interoperability – or at least my own understanding of interoperability. The recently launched Interoperability Code of Practice for Technologies, which I helped draft (see previous post) defines interoperability as “the ability of two or more systems to exchange information securely and to use the information that has been exchanged, ensuring that information is independent of the technologies used to deliver it” (my emphasis).
However, Forma appears to impose reliance upon an Autodesk technology stack, an Autodesk data repository, and a proprietary cloud. Touching upon the ‘Open letter to Autodesk’ movement (read previous EE posts), AEC Magazine‘s Martyn Day summed it up: “Forma is a cage, but a multi-platform, multi-device gilded cage“, adding:
“Autodesk needs to prove that their openness talk is not ‘openwash’ and that connectors give good file output in both directions. Connectors need to be two way and there needs to be a clear way to get your data out should you want to leave.”
Cloud services concerns
We have seen expanding adherence to open standards that have underpinned adoption of tools built for the internet, worldwide web, telecommunications and mobile devices over recent decades. The net effect of such standards has often been to make information flow more seamlessly between technologies, devices and users. However, there has recently also been concern about the increased reliance we have upon the leading cloud services providers to which we connect – firms like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google, for example.
In the UK, Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority have begun to scrutinise the cloud services market. This follows concerns raised by two UK Government departments (DCMS and BEIS) in July 2021 about open choices. On 5 April 2023, Ofcom highlighted, among other things, service providers’ technical restrictions on interoperability which prevent some services working effectively with services from other providers (read news release). Some customers had become concerned about their ability to switch and use multiple providers. As a result, Ofcom has proposed to refer the cloud infrastructure market to the CMA to carry out a market investigation. Such moves might helpfully alert Autodesk that any constraints on portability of services and data could be seen, in the UK at least, as hampering how the market works for customers – particularly for major asset owner-operators and their supply chains – and for the wider public good.