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How to create faster, cheaper 4D construction animation

June 22, 2016

Showing clients how their project will be constructed over time is often cost-prohibitive and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be

By Chris Waight

“I need you to create a 4D construction animation for an upcoming project presentation for our client,” our boss declared.

Cool! we thought, ready to dive right in. Trouble was, our primary role as structural technicians doesn’t include creating 4D animations—i.e. adding the dimension of time (or a schedule) to the 3D Revit models we create. Which is another way of saying we didn’t know how to do it. But hey, how tough could it be?

Really tough, we learned, after asking our boss what his expectations were. He sent us this  “Cadillac” of 4D animations, produced by Visual 5D, a “creative design studio that specializes in 4d construction and site logistics animations.” But we didn’t have weeks; we had two days until the presentation. And as much as we love their work, we had zero budget to outsource to experts like Visual 5D.

So we attempted to figure it out ourselves. But as hard as we tried, we could only create a “jalopy” animation, and we had to devise a workaround to get there. Nonetheless, the client liked our animation and wanted to see another one as the design progressed. However, we knew our workaround wasn’t a sustainable way of creating animations, so we set out to develop one.

Our goal

Our goal was to develop a 4D construction animation process that would take no more than two days of project time to set up the first animation and one day maximum to produce subsequent ones, as design progressed.

Daunted by the task, we found inspiration in a Steve Ballmer quote we came across while working all this out: “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

We knew the technology to make this possible existed. All we had to do was be creative in figuring out how to make that technology work for us.

How we achieved our goal

To develop high quality 4D construction animations, we knew we had to start by linking the animation software to our 3D Revit model so the animation could automatically update based on the ever-changing design and schedule. Linking to Revit provided the starting point of our workflow.

The catch: the documentation model—used to generate 2D drawings for building permits, tender, and construction documents—must not be adversely affected by being the source for a 4D animation. Sometimes we model elements in the 3D environment so they look right for 2D drawings. But for a 4D animation, the 3D model may require more or less information. For example, if we will model connection plates for a construction detail, but don’t want those connection plates shown on the animation.

So what did we do? What anyone else would do: Google!

After hours of research, we concluded that we wanted this workflow to end with 3DS Max, which can create stunning renderings and top-tier animations. However, 3DS Max doesn’t work with construction schedules. So now we had a beginning (Revit) and an end (3DS Max), but no idea what had to happen in the middle.

That’s where Navisworks, an out-of-the-box 4D simulation software, came in. Navisworks does everything we originally wanted with one fatal flaw: it lacks the “wow” factor of a 3DS Max animation. Through more research and experimenting, we eventually found a way to link Revit, Navisworks, and 3DS Max into a single workflow.

By finding a way to make 4D simulations economical, we completed the journey over the mountain, only to find ourselves in the vast sandbox of 3DS Max. Once our model is in this software, the potential to improve and refine the animation—i.e. to spend time on money on the animation—is endless. Information technology gives you the potential to create, yes, but also to tinker!

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