Options for BIM/VDC in your MEP Shop

Updated: 2022.03.19

I have a lot of people contact me and ask about software tools. They usually only know of some of them but not all of their options. Often they don’t fully understand what all they do or don’t do and how they may compare to each other.

So I figured I’d throw together a little summary of the better options that I’m aware of. There’s others out there but they’re really not penetrating the market or working toward integrating with other solutions near as I can tell. OR perhaps I’m just clueless and haven’t run across them yet.

I’ve listed the tools below in Alphabetical order to minimize suggestions of bias hopefully. But I tend to be pretty opinionated so take that for what it’s worth.

I’m sure everyone I’ve listed below will have issues with my descriptions to some degree and that’s ok. While I personally know many of people involved with these companies, I’m not an expert on their solutions. I highly recommend you talk to all of them and ask them your specific questions.

Note: I have not listed machine tool specific software like TigerStop‘s TigerTouch or Watt‘s new 3dPP Software. If you have tools like those, you likely already have those software options available to you and are familiar with them.

Other tools specific for Duct fabrication like Autodesk Fabrication CAMduct or Trimble ToolShop (Vulcan) are not covered because the Sheetmetal trades have been using them for years and are quite familiar with them.

The last thing to note is that just because a few solutions have an ‘X’ in the same column does NOT mean they even come close to addressing that category the same way or equally as well. Just that the tool helps with those major/broad categories I’ve listed. These tools do much more than I outline, I’m just covering some of my major observations. Review software demo’s and workflows closely.

ToolContentModel
Authoring
Spool
Automation
Hanger
Automation
Production
Management
Machine Tool
Integration
Allied BIM
– Fabrication Center
– Fabrication Desktop
– Fabrication Tools






X



X



X

X



X
BIMrx (Microdesk)
– BIMrx Core
– BIMrx Fabrication
– BIMrx Fabrication DBS
– BIMrx MEP



X

X
X

X


X



X









BuildCentrix (Webduct) X X X
eVolve
– eVolve Electrical
– eVolve Materials
– eVolve Mechanical
– eVolve Origin




X

X

X

X

X

X

X


X


X

X
GTP
– FieldOrderZ
– GTP Connect
– Stratus
– Syclone
– Wireworks






X


X
X



X




X


X
X
X




X

HangerWorks Pro (Dewalt) X X
Manufacton (ViZZ Technologies) X
MSuite
– BIMPRO
– FABPRO
– FIELDPRO




X


X


X



X
X


X
X
PypeServer
– PypeServer Connect
– PypeServer Enterprise
– PypeServer Lyte














X

X
X
X
Trimble
– BuildingData
– Connect2Fab
– EC-CAD
– MEP Content
– SysQue

X


X



X

X



?

X



?

X


X







X
Victaulic Tools X X X
Virtual Building Supply (VBS) X

Allied BIM (https://www.alliedbim.com)

Allied BIM is a great group of guys. They’re a little smaller than some of their competitors but don’t let that fool you. They integrate with more variety of machine tools than their larger competitors. So what do they do?

  • Fabrication Center – This is your production management system. Helps you keep track of what you’ve fabricated, what’s in process and what’s in the pipeline.
  • Fabrication Desktop – This is a machine control application that integrates with their other tools. It’s a huge upgrade to what you’d get out of the box from TigerStop or Razor Gauge.
  • Fabrication Tools – Help automate model and drawing production, spooling, etc. all in Revit. (you know, all those things Autodesk should have done but didn’t).

Allied BIM also sells machines last I knew. I’ve seen one of their setups and I tell you…if you want “White Glove” treatment and support….these are your guys. I don’t know anyone else installing a camera so they can remotely watch and assist your team on the shop floor. As they started out as a set of in house tools as a fabricator, they’re also the only company I know who’s run by guys who actually worked production. They’ve also recently partnered with ATG USA (Autodesk Reseller) to help support their sales efforts.


BIMrx (https://www.microdesk.com/)

While a well known Autodesk reseller, they’re the new kid on the block competing against eVolve MEP. It’s hard to describe but while they’re competing against eVolve Mechanical, they’re approach to tools they’re building seems quite different. I’m pretty impressed with what they’re doing and where they’re going. General feel is instead of big complicated commands that you use once in a while and do a lot, theirs are more a suite of simpler more elegant tools that you’re going to use again and again putting money back in your pocket.

Here’s a few offerings under the “BIMrx” branding…

  • BIMrx Core – A lot of general Revit management tools.
  • BIMrx Fabrication – Modeling automation and efficiency. Focus here is on Fabrication ITM workflows.
  • BIMrx Fabrication DBS – Don’t have a Fabrication ITM database? Here’s one you can just buy vs build yourself.
  • BIMrx MEP – Modeling automation and efficiency. Focus here is on RFA/Family workflows.

Microdesk has other offerings too but they’re not focused exclusively on MEP so I’m not going to cover them. I do however encourage you to take a look.


BuildCentrix (https://buildcentrix.com/)

Formerly known as WebDuct, they started out as a field ordering tool for Ductwork and other materials. Their Ductwork workflows have various integrations to CAMduct, ToolShop(Vulcan), PractiCAM, etc. But don’t let their Sheetmetal origins fool you. They’re a material logistics tool (pipe, consumables, tools, etc.) that integrates into a number of ERP systems used by MEP contractors like Viewpoint, Coins and others.

One of their more recent additions is an online duct builder which might be a good competitor to GTP’s FieldOrderZ. But because of their field logistics focus, they’re not really competing against Msuite, Stratus Connect2Fab or Allied BIM….yet. There are customers of those products that also using BuildCentrix.


eVolve (https://www.evolvemep.com/)

eVolve MEP is a company and suite of tools spun out of Applied Software. Applied Software ended up picking up Fabrication support after TSI’s demise when they acquired Enceptia (formerly DC CADD).

Their bread and butter (among other things) are tools to help model authoring, spooling, hanger placement, etc. Once again, this is a company that really shouldn’t exist except for Autodesk’s inability to listen to customers. They’ve built all the things you’d need and more to model with ITM content in Revit in contrast to Trimble’s RFA/Family based SysQue. On the ITM side, Microdesk is really the only major competitor with MSuite’s FabPro and Victaulic Tools taking a good sized bite of the apple too.

  • eVolve Electrical – Electrical based model authoring and automation. Not sure but I think this is RFA based.
  • eVolve Materials – This is a materials management and procurement system.
  • eVolve Mechanical – ITM based model authoring and automation for duct, pipe and plumbing.
  • eVolve Origin – This is eVolve’s custom prebuilt ITM Fabrication database.

GTP (https://gogtp.com/)

GTP’s Stratus product is another one of the big competitors in the production managements space. Their differentiator IMO started as a focus on machine tool integration but as other’s have caught up, it’s become their ability to highly customize the system. This makes it a bit unwieldly to manage but if you master it, you can make it do a lot of things nobody ever envisioned and things their competitors can’t do. This flexibility also makes it a little easier to incrementally implement IMO as opposed to a larger more encompassing rollout common with other software implementations.

Here’s some of the products GTP offers…

  • FieldOrderZ – This is a newer offering designed to facilitate ordering materials and even field based sketching of fabrication. It does intigrate w/Stratus but can also be used standalone.
  • GTP Connect – This tool is designed to facilitate procurement from models.
  • Stratus – This is GTP’s production management system. Works with CADmep or Revit as well as both RFA and ITM content. While GTP doesn’t have Spooling solution inside Revit, you can Spool completely within Stratus.
  • Syclone – This is a tool used to import PCF file into Revit to generate a model. PCF is a format that can be exported from a number of applications to exchange piping component data.
  • Wireworks – This is GTP’s model authoring tool but it’s specific to Electrical only. content in Stratus. There is no equivalent for mechanical that I’m aware of.

HangerWorks Pro (https://anchors.dewalt.com/anchors/)

HangerWorks Pro is a Revit Add-In to help with Hanger placement and modeling. It was originally written by GTP for Dewalt. It then disappeared for a while and it’s just recently resurfaced again but completely rewritten by the developers at MSuite from my understanding. I’ve not seen what the new rewrite looks like but do have a demo scheduled.


Manufacton (https://www.vizztechnologies.com/)

Manufacton was really one of the first ‘Production Management’ solutions available in the industry. I’ve been told their original founder was from Autodesk and a lot of their funding came from some Autodesk insiders. However, unlike their 2 primary competitors at the time (MSuite and Stratus) they really seemed to struggle to gain market share in MEP. When I had my demo, they weren’t even able to tell me who any of their MEP customers were…I ended up telling them who they were.

Ultimately they looked for a buyer and were acquired by Vizz Technologies. I’m not familiar with Vizz Technologies or where they’ve taken the product since. However, it still appears to me to focus more as a high level, generic (not MEP focused) production management tool. Executive management may really like it but it doesn’t appear focused as much on the end users in Detailing or the Shop like you see with Allied BIM, MSuite, Stratus. Still, it’s worth a look of you’re looking for a solution to help manage your shop.


MSuite (https://www.msuite.com/)

MSuite is one of the big players when it comes to production management. If you’re looking for a solution and don’t look at them, you’re not doing your due diligence. They have a number of things they do but the big differentiator of MSuite in my opinion is their incredible focus on productivity. If managing the labor (productivity/scheduling) for your fabrication and install is your focus, there’s nobody that does it better IMO.

I hear a number of Union contractors dismiss Msuite claiming they’re not allowed to “track labor” but I find this a bullshit argument and excuse personally. There’s a number of union contractors using MSuite including some of my friends working at one of my competitors locally. I’m more than happy to put you in touch with a number of users if you think production tracking and scheduling is an issue.

Here’s a high level list of some of their tools…

  • BIMPRO – This is MSuite’s set of tools for Model authoring. Spooling automation, Hanger Layout and more.
  • FABPRO – This is MSuite’s production management system. Track everything your shop fabricates and have complete visibility to the labor effort it takes. Works with both RFA and ITM workflows.
  • FIELDPRO – This is MSuite’s tool for tracking in the field. What’s been received…what’s been installed.

While MSuite has it’s roots in MEP, you’ll also see they’re making more headway in the industrial space than their competitors (IMO) near as I can tell. If you also do industrial work….take a serious look.


PypeServer (https://pypeserver.com/)

PypeServer is a little more difficult to explain. Most are familiar with it is from it’s early days as the programming and control system for Watts pipe profiling machines. But it’s changed in recent years and you’re likely not as familiar with who they are today.

Watts has since moved to using their own software 3dPP for their new machines. 3dPP looks to me like an almost identical clone (a very strong nod to PypeServer IMO). But PypeServer now supports a lot more machines…

  • Pre-2020 Watts
  • HGG
  • Machitech
  • Vernon
  • TigerStop
  • RazorGauge

At it’s core, PypeServer is most similar to a CAM program but yet it’s still quite different. So lets try to explain…

How PypeServer is different than other CAM programs from my perspective is their approach to a variety of things. For starters, most CAM programs output a CNC file for programming a part. PypeServer uses a database which can be used to recall production run parts or even queried to run reports on past production.

They also are starting to heavily leverage the cloud to facilitate data transfers eliminating the need to manage lots of files to program parts. One added benefit to this is it makes this a LOT easier to install a machine safely in your corporate network without having to add it to your domain and deal with antivirus or firewall issues that can affect machine performance. Instead, give it a connection to the web and that’s all your IT needs to do.

Another key distinction is that most CAM programs at best import exports from other CAD systems. PypeServer goes out of their way to integrate with others. Their list of importers is impressive. Each custom tailored to the CAD system they’re designed for. The Stratus import as an example, works automatically without the need for any operator actions. This minimizes the work within PypeServer to program the parts.

Another example of this is the ever growing list of Addin’s for other CAD systems to export more streamline the workflow. For our industry, their Add-ins for AutoCAD and Revit will push data to the cloud where it’s easily imported into their products without the need for file management. Here’s a rundown of their core products…

  • PypeServer Connect – This is their Addin that exports parts from Revit, CADmep, Plant3d to PypeServer Lyte or PypeServer Enterprise.
  • PypeServer Enterprise – This is their original program that’s used for Pipe Profilers.
  • PypeServer Lyte – This is their newest addition used to drive linear cutting equipment like TigerStop and RazorGauge.

In the interest of disclosure, I am on PypeServer’s Board of Advisors. That means that for whatever reason, the listen to my ramblings about the industry. They’ve not in any way compensated me to write this and I’ve not submitted anything written here for their review. These are just my thoughts…consider them bias or not as you see fit.


SysQue (https://mep.trimble.com/)

I’ve been a big critic of Trimble for a long time. They’re history of buying multiple solutions, allowing them to get obsolete and then buying new ones always bothered me. However….I’m seeing signs of a new Trimble. A Trimble that’s interesting in bridging their solutions together and providing more open access via API’s an integrations.

So imagine my surprise to see their new Connect2Fab product in Tampa this January at the MEP Innovation conference. This looks like it’s going to go head to head against GTP’s Stratus, Msuite and Allied BIM.

So it’s new and that likely means it’s not as mature as some of their competitors. But it looks good and is impressive for just getting out of the gate. Considering all the other things Trimble offers in the market, this should be considered a real threat to competitors and a viable option for contractors.

Trimble’s other main tool is SysQue, their Model Authoring offering. Unlike eVolve Mechanical that’s focused in ITM/Fabrication Part workflow, SysQue is based on Revit’s RFA content. SysQue comes with it’s own content making it an attractive offering to many who don’t have the time, skills or money to invest in making their own.

Once again, this is a tool that shouldn’t need to exist except for Autodesk’s gross neglecte of the MEP contractor industry. But if you want to do fabrication modeling in Revit efficiently, you’ll need something so it’s worth a serious look.

Let’s face it…Trimble’s had everything they’ve needed and more to compete directly against Autodesk for some time. But their offerings didn’t integrate well and that wasn’t ever really a big strategy within Trimble. But that seems to be changing….from Detailing w/SysQue, Content (RFA & ITM), Submittal Management, Estimating, Collaboration and even ERP….imagine if (when) all that’s connected.

If Trimble manages to pull this off well and repair some of trust they’ve lost with some customers in the past, they’ll be well positioned to knock Autodesk flat on their ass IMO. Autodesk rarely shows up with a booth to any event with actual trades people in attendance. On the other hand you always see Trimble with a well staffed booth. I suspect you’ll see where this is going and how much traction it’s getting within 2-5 years.

  • BuildingData – This is Trimble’s Fabrication ITM content library. Hands down, the largest collection of ITM on the planet.
  • Connect2Fab – Trimble’s new Production Management solution for managing your shop from models.
  • EC-CAD – This is Trimble’s AutoCAD MEP based modeling tool (Formerly East Coast CAD)
  • MEPContent – This is Trimble’s AutoCAD Block, IFC and RFA content library.
  • SysQue – Trimble’s Revit Addin for Model Authoring

Note: In the interest of disclosure, I’m not a user of SysQue and RFA content for MEP fabrication modeling. I use ITM content. That said, a lot of folks think I’m anti-SysQue. That’s not the case. I actually was involved in it’s early beta testing/development at a past employer. It’s a perfectly valid tool and is the right tool for many companies. The only thing I was ever against were some of the early marketing tactics like “Native Revit” and other bullshit sales tactics which for the most part have ceased now that Trimble acquired it.


Victaulic Tools (https://www.victaulicsoftware.com/)

Victaulic Tools is another interesting software offering. They’re not really a software company trying to capture the fabrication modeling market. Rather they built the tools in large part for their own BIM Services group and they sell them for a very modest cost to customers. Regardless of which tools people buy, they often also buy Victaulic tools due to it’s low cost and very helpful utilities.


Virtual Building Supply (https://itembuilders.com/)

Virtual Building Supply (VBS) provides ITM content for Autodesk Fabrication users. Whether you work in CADmep, ESTmep, CAMduct or Revit with Fabrication Parts, if you need ITM’s added to your database, VBS is a good source of high quality content. If they don’t have what you need, reach out and they’ll quote you to build it. Unlike many other content providers who provide “subscription” content services, VBS content is a “buy it once” model.

VBS also will provide a full database if you are in need as well. They’ll even manage your database. So if you need a full database or just a few ITMs, they’re well worth looking at.


Summary

So that’s my list of many of the major software tools available. There is no perfect solution. Many can be used alone or in conjunction with the others on the list. Some are even both competitors and partners with each other.

I really encourage everyone to look at all these tools if they address the issues they’re trying to solve. Just don’t get caught up on buzzwords. There’s a lot of users in the industry that will give you the pros and cons of each of these tools.

Intolerance of Tolerances

In a recent LinkedIn post, the topic of Tolerance Stacking was brought up. I’m not a machine designer, but I’ve spent a lot of my past life in Manufacturing. In that world, the term was used frequently. If the term was used in Construction, it certainly wasn’t when I was listening.

Tolerance Stacking can be described (in my mind) as the accumulation of allowable tolerances to a point where the design is no longer suitable for it’s intended purpose. Errors resulting from Tolerance Stacking are caused by a few things…

  • Lack of tolerance awareness
  • Poor annotation and documentation of tolerances
  • Both of the above

Tolerance Stacking Explained

The best way to understand Tolerance Stacking is from a few examples. In our first example, we see a part 10 Units long with 9 holes, equally spaced 1 Unit apart. Take note of the RED dimension on the right.

10 Unit Long Part with 9 Holes Spaced 1 Unit apart

You may have seen parts dimensioned like this. Looks pretty normal. Now lets consider this same part and assume the dimensions have a tolerance of +/- 0.0625 (1/16 Inch). Now lets also assume that all the dimensions are in the negative -0.0625. The following graphic illustrates this condition. Again, notice the RED dimension on the right.

Tolerance Stacking using the an allowed -0.0625 on each dimension.

Is the overall length really have enough tolerance to compensate for the accumulation of those tolerances?

Now lets look at the same part, same tolerances but annotated/documented differently. It’s not as “pretty” and takes up a lot more real estate on your drawing.

Same part as before but dimensioned differently.

But lets look at that same -0.0625 extreme case tolerance in this scenario. Once again, keep an eye on that RED dimension to the right.

Using an alternate annotation approach solves the Tolerance Stacking problem.

This latest example solves the Tolerance Stacking issue by clearly outlining where the tolerances are allowed. In fact, in construction, we’re already doing this. We just don’t call it Tolerance Stacking.

In construction, one of the ways we eliminate Tolerance Stacking is by dimensioning to gridlines and columns. Dimensions in relation to known fixed points minimized Tolerance Stacking.

Are you old enough to remember when rafters were layed out by hand on the job site and cut individually? You would cut one and use it as a template and use that to mark the others. You never installed the template and used the next cut as your template for another. This minimized Tolerance Stacking as well.

Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing – GDT

What’s less familiar, is another concept used heavily in automotive and other precision manufacturing. It’s called Geometric Dimensioning & Tolerancing or “GDT” for short.

Traditional linear tolerances have flaws. GDT on the other hand more accurately describes “features” and allowable deviation from the desired location using a more complex form of graphics and symbols.

Once again, the best way to explain this is with some illustrations. The following example shows a square part with a hole in the middle. Pay close attention to the RED dimensions.

Top Left – Perfect Part (not real world)
Top Right – Hole moved 0.0625 to the right
Btm Left – Hole moved 0.0625 up
Btm Right – Hole moved 0.0625 in both directions

In this example, you see when the hole is moved to the maximum tolerance in both directions, it’s actually further away from it’s desired position than 0.0625.

This is where GDT comes in. In this last example, GDT is used to “Describe” the allowable deviation from it’s ideal position.

GDT can more accurately describe tolerances.

There’s actually an ASME Standard for GDT (Y14.5.2) and a full explination of GDT is not only beyond the scope of this blog but my knowledge, There’s a lot of courses out there specifically for this but a good “101” description can be found here.

Given trends in Prefab, Modularization, and Construction becoming more like Manufacturing….Makes you wonder….should there be a “GDT” style of documentation for construction?

Shop Floor Computer Tip

We’ve all been there. Moving our mouse around trying to find the pointer on the screen. This can be especially troublesome in a shop floor environment. Computer screens are small. Full of dust and dirt. Poor lighting and perhaps even a poor mouse surface. All of these factors can make use of a computer on as shop environment annoyingly painful.

Beyond the obvious improvements like a larger, regularly cleaned monitor and improved lighting, there’s a couple simple tweaks you can make to keep your staff providing value as opposed to looking for a mouse pointer.

Advanced Mouse Options

Using your Additional Mouse Settings, you can make a couple quick changes that will significantly improve the usability of a shop floor system. Simply press the Windows key on your keyboard and type Mouse.

This should display the Mouse Settings option in the search results, that’s what you’ll want to click. This will bring up the Mouse Settings window. Here you’ll want to click the Additional Mouse Options link.

Now from the Mouse Properties dialog, there’s a few things, you should make adjustments to.

  1. Select a pointer speed – You may want to turn down your pointer speed. It can be hard to find and track a mouse if it’s moving really fast.
  2. Automatically move pointer to the default button in a dialog box – This setting may help depending on the software used on the shop floor. It may also be annoying. However, every time a dialog or window is opened, you’re cursor will be in a predictable location.
  3. Display pointer trails – This leaves a few images of your cursor trailing around as you move your mouse. The longer the trail, the easier it will be to spot your mouse as you move it. Longer trails will have the most visibility.
  4. Show location of pointer when I press CTRL key – You’ve likely seen this trick in software presentations. Press and release the CTRL key and a series of circles will radiate out from your mouse position.

A Word About Machine Controls

A lot of machines now are using Windows based controls. If these systems rely on the use of a Mouse instead of a touch screen, you may want to make these same changes. However these systems can often launch upon startup and make it appear you have no access to the Standard Windows interface. You can often simply plug in a keyboard and mouse into a USB port for quick access. You can then use standard Keyboard tricks to get you to a more familiar interface.

  • Press the Windows key on the keyboard to bring up the standard Windows menu.
  • Press Alt-Tab to gain access to other running or hidden applications.

If the control is running in Kiosk mode, you may not have access to the standard Windows options. In this case, press CTRL-ALT-DELETE to bring up the Task Manager. From the Task Manager, you can launch a new process or run a new program. You can simply type Explorer.exe and this will reload the Windows interface you’re use to allowing you to make the mouse changes.

TigerStop – Tip #1

More and more mechanical contractors are installing and using TigerStops. The company has been around for a long time in a number of industries but only recently have they started to get noticed by mechanical contractors. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you can find out more from their web site www.tigerstop.com. You may also want to view their Blog post about one mechanical contractor’s experience with them here.  I’ll be posting a few tips going forward as I get more familiar with them. To get you started, here’s my first Tip.

Install TigerTouch software on your computer

One of the options you can buy when getting a TigerStop, is the Tablet package that consists of a Windows Surface PC with the TigerTouch software. This package provides your TigerStop with a much friendlier interface that can be used to control your TigerStop controller.

While this software is used to control your machine, you can also install it on any computer. Simply download the Full installer from TigerStop’s web site and install. Installing on another computer has several benefits….

  • Test, and learn some of the software workflow in a safe more comfortable environment. This is a great way to train your shop staff how to use the interface without taking your machine out of production and without wasting any material.
  • Allow you to more easily get screen captures and produce documentation for your staff.
  • Test new software builds before updating your machine.

When the TigerTouch software starts, it notifies you that it can’t find a machine connected. That’s perfectly fine, just click cancel so it doesn’t try to look again.

From here, you can now use many of the functions of the software. When you click START, instead of the software waiting for your saw to operate, your cut lists are just processed automatically for for each stock size you enter. Here’s a video of the software opening a Cut List and processing it on my system which is NOT connected to an actual TigerStop machine.

One last item…When TigerTouch installs, it assumes you’re installing a machine so it’s configured to automatically run when you log into Windows. To stop this, simply remove the TigerTouch Shortcut in the Windows Startup folder. The shortcut is located here:

C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp

When you’re browsing to this folder you may not see the ProgramData folder because it’s a Windows System folder which by default is configured to be hidden. Simply type in the folder name and you’ll be able to browse to that folder.