Five Tips for Selecting Quality Apps

July 24th, 2013

So you’ve conquered the toolset in the most current release of Autodesk® Revit® and optimized the tools in a production setting. However, time will reveal the flows and limitations of any program. Let’s take a look at how third-party applications will help you break through the technology ceiling and propel your productivity to new levels.

Luckily for all of us, Autodesk gives us access to customization tools found through Revit API and SDK.  API (Application Programming Interface) is a source code interface that an operating system, library, or service provides to support requests made by computer programs. The API gives us the code fragments for commands that speak directly to the Revit application. SDK (Software Development Kit) provides the framework and instructions on how to format these strings of code into a chronological order for Revit to execute.

Figure 1

Since 2006 Autodesk has been providing open access to Revit API and third-party development tools. This source code enables users and developers to customize functionality of Revit and enhance the variety of ways Revit interfaces with other systems. 

The Revit Developer Network is a rapidly growing group of users focused on harnessing the power of the Revit API and making custom utilities for the rest of the industry. With all the custom applications that are beginning to surface it can be difficult to weed out the good apps from the great apps. Many developers are releasing similar tools with similar features. It can be challenging to pick the right tool for the job. Here are five key factors that will help us identify a quality app.

  1. What is the potential ROI (Return on Investment) for this utility?  Although there are several free apps that feature basic tools, the more powerful tools on the market are going to range from $5 to $2,000 (on subscription or one-time payment). Take time to analyze the cost associated with using your standard workflow and the potential savings utilizing a specialized app. Most developers offer a 30-day trial period; use this time to evaluate the app against your other similar options before committing to purchase.
  2. Will the app require any training or is the tool intuitive to use? A $2 app and a $200 app are only good investments to the degree they are used.  If you happen to find a good tool with a complex interface, inquire about training resources, user guides, or tutorials available through the developer. Spread the knowledge—make documentation available from your internal wiki, do a scrum on new features to keep your customization current.
  3. Does the developer offer trouble shooting or tech support?  We’ve all heard the horror story of risks taken on untested technology.  Depending on how the add-on is integrated into a project, this could make or break your efficiency.  If all else fails, Autodesk has an approved list of third-party apps that meet certain criteria.  These are a safer bet, although the better tool might be a risk worth taking.
  4. Does the developer have a history of providing updates to align with newer releases of Revit and other interfacing programs?  Dependency on an add-on could result in unintended consequences of dictating if or when you’ll be able to upgrade to newer releases of software over the lifecycle of a project. 
  5. What credentials does the developer have to reinforce it is producing quality products?  Many seasoned developers are connected through Autodesk’s partner program or involved in Revit Developer Network. This can quickly make the difference between a clean, reliable app and one that is prone to crashing or corrupting project files.

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As with any new technology, it is best practice to shop around and test out add-on applications, especially before committing to buy them or before deploying them in a production environment. Here are a handful of starter apps you may wish to consider. 

Starter Apps

D|C|Tools by D|C|CADD – This isn’t your typical re-number tool.  Many of the free apps that address numbering functions are specific to elements such as rooms only or doors only. In addition to renumbering capabilities for both doors and rooms, this tool also allows renumber by type or instance of several family categories such as Casework, Electrical Fixtures, Electrical Equipment, Floors, Furniture, Grids, Lighting Fixtures, Parking, Specialty Equipment, Structural Columns, Walls, and Windows. There are also utilities included for changing case for Revit text and updating door parameters. D|C|Tools application is a free download and can be found on the Autodesk Apps Exchange site. http://apps.exchange.autodesk.com/RVT/Home/Index

Figure 3

Easy Dimension by Shanghai YeahSo Software Co., Ltd. – This little tool enables you to add dimension strings by element.  Simply choose the type of dimension string and select the category of elements to measure.  Though not all categories are available from the selection list, the basics include grids, walls, lines, ducts, pipes, cable trays, and conduit. In an MEP environment this could prove to be a great time saver in documentation or shop drawing production. Easy Dimension is a free download and can be found on the Autodesk Apps Exchange site or at http://www.yeahso.cn/en/revitproducts

Figure 4

View Template Controller by CASE Inc. –  This easy-to -use tool enables you to visualize and change view template assignments for any and all views in the model. Unassigned views can be dragged and dropped into the view template header and the view template will apply automatically. This is a quick and easy way to ensure that views are all formatted to a standard and consistently across the entire project. View Template Controller is a free download and can be found on the developer’s website: http://www.apps.case-inc.com/content/view-template-controller 

Figure 5

Ideate BIM Link 2013 by Ideate – Database migration can sometimes be a little tricky because the limitations (or lack of limitations) on editing rights can leave your data open for corruption or tampering by non-Revit users.  I found Ideate BIM Link has a safe balance of editing controls and was easy to customize the export and import settings.  Another excellent feature is the summary of updates that are itemized before importing data back into Revit. Ideate BIM Link is available as a free 30-day trial and capable of exporting/importing up to 25 columns of data.  Ideate Revit DB link 2013 can be found on the Autodesk Apps Exchange site or at http://www.ideatebimlink.com/ 

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There are a lot of places to find the growing number of apps and add-ons available on the web today.  Let’s take a look at the most common sites for showcasing third-party developer applications.

Autodesk Apps Exchange – This is a web service provided by Autodesk that makes it easy to search and download plug-in extensions, companion applications, content, and learning materials to customize and extend many Autodesk design products. This is the most common location to find Autodesk supported third-party applications. The apps exchange site is accessible directly from the Revit UI by clicking on the blue and gray “X” icon docked in the InfoCenter located above the ribbon.

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Autodesk Labs – This site outlines some of the most innovative new technologies being tested for customers in design-based industries. Labs provides public, free, early access to prototypes, technology previews, and experimental web services.  Much of what is offered here is still in conceptual development, but it’s a great testing ground for new apps and emerging technologies. Most of what you’ll find here is not recommended in a production environment.

Autodesk Partner Products & Services – This is a great source that showcases add-on applications authored by developers from around the world.  Add-ons are available in a variety of different languages. Most applications are in the higher price range, but by contrast are very powerful and tend to expand on tools used for managing manufacturing and fabrication data.

Individual Company Sites – There are many apps beyond the Autodesk umbrella of approved products and developers.  Some of these developers are individuals with a passion for coding and developing customized technologies. Some developers are actually companies in the AEC industry who are choosing to share their custom apps with users outside the corporate loop.  Whatever the case may be, I would recommend a little extra testing and research to weed out the novice applications from the professional ones.

With all the complexities and challenges existing in the modern AEC industry, you will find that knowing the ins and outs of the Revit tools is the threshold of maximizing the software. Third-party applications can enhance your project as well as your process. Truth be told, there is always the real possibility that the tool you need just hasn’t been developed yet.  Dare I say, there may not be an app for that…yet. 

The best third-party app could be the one you create yourself. If you’re interested in learning more about third-party application development please visit Autodesk’s Revit API network to explore applications in development and review tutorials and educational resources on developing custom Revit add-ons.

Monica Petersen currently works for ISEC Inc. in Fremont, California. She is the BIM Design Technician for the Northern California Region. She grew up in the Portland Metro area and attended the Art Institute of Portland where she received her Bachelors of Science degree in Interior Design.  She has almost six years of experience in the BIM Coordination and Interior Design field, working on projects ranging from hospitals and bio medical facilities to golf resorts and private residences.  She is a Revit and AutoCAD certified professional looking forward to continuing exploration of integrating BIM technology with emerging manufacturing and fabrication strategies.

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