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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Product Review – Autodesk Model Checker and Model Checker Configurator for Revit

In January of this year, while I was employed by the Seattle District of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), I was tasked with evaluating the Model Checker and Model Checker Configurator tools developed by CADD Microsystems for Autodesk. Specifically, I was tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of the USACE configuration delivered with the Model Checker product with regards to how the checks met the intent of the USACE contract language. I also evaluated the ease of creating new checks with the Model Checker Configurator.

At the time, the Model Checker Configurator had not been released to the public, and so the work was under NDA. Towards the end of my engagement with these tools in July, I became aware of the new BIM Interoperability Tools website through which the tools would be published – prior to this the Model Checker was available on the CADD Microsystems website under Industry Solutions » Government Solutions – but I was told that the tools weren't quite ready to go, and so I held off on writing about them.

Then, on November 5, CADD Microsystems employee Jason Kunkel posted about the tools and the new website on his RVIT blog. I was happy to see that the tools had undergone a round of revisions since I last looked at them, and even happier to learn that some of my suggestions had been incorporated into the product.

All this is to say that this post has been a long time coming, and I'm happy to finally be able to review the Model Checker and Model Checker Configurator for the Revit Add-ons audience.

Concept
Here we look at the need that the applications attempt to fill.

The Autodesk Model Checker for Revit is a free add-in that checks Revit models based on a configuration file – read: a set of BIM requirements – and generates a compliance report.

The Autodesk Model Checker Configurator for Revit is a free standalone desktop application that is used to create configuration files for the Model Checker.

I especially like that the configurator and the checker are separate applications. This provides a mechanism for controlling who can create or modify configuration files. In theory, this also means that the Checker can be streamlined and simplified, whilst complexity is surfaced in the Configurator. It's also nice that the Configurator, because it's a standalone desktop application, is not Revit version dependent.

Concept grade: A+

Installation
Here we look at installation and initial setup of the applications.

Download of the Model Checker was quick and a standard installation wizard installed the add-in correctly so that it was automatically loaded into the Add-ins tab on the Revit ribbon.


The Model Checker Configurator likewise downloaded quickly, and featured a standard installation wizard for installing the desktop application.




On initial launch of the Model Checker and Model Checker Configurator, registration screens were displayed with no options to opt out. This type of forced product registration leaves a bad taste in my mouth.



Installation grade: A-

Discoverability
Here we look at the intuitiveness of the applications, the documentation, and provided resources.

I must confess that I find the discoverability of the applications to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the interfaces and options can initially seem overly complex and non-intuitive (more on this to follow in the Usability section). On the other hand, the help documentation is quite good, and even features quick start guides.


Most helpful though to discovering the kinds of checks one can build and how to build them are the sample configuration files, of which there are fifteen at time of writing.


Still, I think the design of the applications could be made much more intuitive, though, according to the website, this may already be in the works.

Discoverability grade: C+

Usability
Here we look at ease of use and functionality.

The first tool in the Model Checker is Configure.


It opens the Configuration dialog.


The primary thing to do in the Configuration dialog is to choose a configuration file; use the Open tool to create a new configuration from one of the included templates or to open an existing configuration file, such as one of the aforementioned 15 examples provided on the BIM Interoperability Tools website.


For the purposes of this article, I'll use the delivered USACE configuration because of my familiarity with it.

Once a template or configuration file has been selected, back in the Configure dialog, it's apparent that configuration files are XML files that can be deployed on a website – in fact, the templates are deployed from the BIM Interoperability Tools website. Slick.


There are a couple of ways to determine what checks are in a configuration. One can expand the items in the tree view in the left hand pane to the lowest level items – these are the actionable items, the ones above it are simply informational and organizational headings.



Perhaps the easier way is to simply select the Summary tool and review the summary.



There are some other options in the Configuration dialog, but they're pretty intuitive.

Next up is Run Check.


This is one of the things that I don't like about the Model Checker. When I select Run Check, I want the application to... well, check the model. Instead, it opens the Process Options dialog.


The primary thing the Process Options dialog is for is selecting the files to be processed – yes, one can batch process files. One can process the active file and all or some linked files in a single go. One can also manually add files to the list of files to be processed. The default behavior is that only the active model will be processed.

Selecting Run Reports starts the check.


A progress bar is displayed. Processing is quick.


Upon completion, a Report dialog is displayed.


I find the Report dialog a little hard to read and digest so I always use the Export HTML option.


The HTML file may easily be read and understood.


One of the interesting things about the Model Checker is that it embeds the report in the RVT file. This means that if other users have the add-in installed, one can direct them to review the report and correct the deficiencies. Others would accomplish this by selecting View Last Report.


Next up is Open Sample Model.


If a sample model is defined in the configuration, it will be opened. If none is defined, as is the case with the USACE configuration, the add-in will display an error message.


Open Sample Model strikes me as an idea a developer would fall in love with that has limited or no practical value; users will be concerned about their own models, not sample models. Therefore, this tool primarily serves to confuse, and I'd like to see it removed.

The Help button opens the online help from the website in an Internet browser.



The About button opens an informational dialog.


Interestingly, there's no mention of CADD Microsystems' involvement with the application. Do note though the helpful Click here for support link.


Changes to the Model Checker that I'd Like to See
I'd like to see a lot of streamlining of the tool. My own experience is that, once you've familiarized yourself with the application, you'll use it over and over again in the same way. Imagine if there was an Options dialog wherein you could select:
  • The report output format, i.e.: dialog and/or HTML
  • The models to be processed, i.e.: active and/or linked
  • The configuration file to use

Now imagine that, like the "last report",  the configuration filename was stored in the RVT file. Then you and, more importantly, your users would only need a single tool click to run the compliance check. Heck, you could even set the configuration file in your Revit template. Then you'd really be cooking with gas...

Now, onto the Model Checker Configurator...

As I previously wrote, the Model Checker Configurator is a standalone desktop application, so it is accessed from the Windows Start menu or the Windows desktop.


Here's the initial application screen.


One can open an existing configuration or create a new one.


On the General tab, one may customize the application with items like the dialog icon, dialog image, and sample file.


The icon and image settings provide for custom branding of the Model Checker.


There's even a handy Preview button to see what your branding will look like in the Model Checker.


Now, I'm not going to sugarcoat it, creating working configurations is relatively complex and will require significant trial and error.

Checks may be created and modified on the Check Configuration tab. Before creating new checks, it's a good idea to study how similar checks were made.


To create a check, one must first create a "Header" and a "Section" (1). Then one can set the characteristics of the check, such as if it's required, should be run by default, and the description and message to display in the Model Checker (2).


There are two types of checks, element checks and model checks. There's a toggle to switch between the two in the upper right-hand corner of the dialog box.


There are a couple important differences between element checks and model checks. Model checks have a number of pre-built or hard coded functions. Many of the samples simply use these predefined functions.


In the Report dialog, element checks include an option to show reported elements in the model – more on this in a moment.

To create a check, one creates a series of filters. One can report on either elements that pass the filters or when no elements pass the filters, whichever failure condition makes sense for the situation.

Let's take a look at one of the provided samples, "Element_02_Elements Not Within Rooms or Spaces". This check will report on furniture that does not fall within a room or space.


This is an element check. There are five filters that an element has to pass to be reported on, as follows:
  1. The element category must be Furniture
  2. Or the category must be Furniture System
  3. And it must not be in a room
  4. And it must not be in a space
  5. And it must be an element instance (not an element type)

Of course, one has to input these conditions in the way the application wants them, and this is the challenging part. This is a great check though. And, because it's an element check, the Model Checker even allows one to locate the reported elements in the model from the Report dialog using the Show buttons.


One major nit that I have to pick with the Model Checker Configurator is that one cannot copy and paste checks in the interface. This can only be accomplished through the XML files. Bummer.


Again, when trying to create your own checks, look at the samples provided. If all else fails, go to the About dialog and select the Click here for support link.


According to the website, the Model Checker Configurator will soon feature a wizard-type interface. This may be a dramatic improvement.

Usability grade: C-

Value
Here we look at cost versus benefit.

It's apparent that a tremendous amount of forethought and effort went into the Model Checker and Model Checker Configurator. Regardless of whether the need is to hold contractors accountable to complex contract language or simply designers to modeling best practices, these applications provide BIM Manager types with tools to quickly and consistently verify modeling requirements and standards, as well as general model health. And these tools are free and fully supported.

Value grade: A+

Final Grade
Here we summarize the review.

While there's plenty of room for improvement, I happen to know that the Model Checker is the result of years of hard work and the contributions of many people, including the BIM Program Manager at the Seattle District of USACE who was a primary force in specing out the applications, the Autodesk government accounts manager who worked with USACE to meet their needs, and the good folks at CADD Microsystems who put forth a first class effort in the development of these worthwhile applications.


The opinions in this article are solely those of the author and in no way reflect the opinions of the Seattle District of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The free Autodesk Model Checker for Revit and Autodesk Model Checker Configurator for Revit may be downloaded from the BIM Interoperability Tools website.

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