New Technology in Structural Design = Improved Efficiencies

This is the first in a two-part series discussing new technology in structural design. The second part will be published later in the year.

Technology is pervasive in our daily lives; our mobile phones are also computers, we have entertainment and safety systems in our automobiles (self-parking, blind spot warning, etc.), even the appliances in our homes are smart (wi-fi connected thermostats)! As with our personal lives, new technology is ever-present in our civil and structural engineering professional lives. When it works, technology is wonderful; when it doesn’t, it can be frustrating and feels like a waste of time. The proper use of technology in engineering can help improve mundane tasks, reduce the uncertainty of a big decision, and save significant costs in construction and beyond.

3-D Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a Collaboration Tool

Over the last 25 years of my design practice, one of the biggest technological changes I’ve witnessed is Computer Aided Design (CAD) and, over the last decade, Building Information Modeling (BIM). The drawing process is an inherent design tool in architectural and engineering design. We conceptualize design ideas in our head and then put these ideas to paper to document them, communicate them, and especially to refine them. To draw is an important part of the iterative design process.

CAD first enhanced parts of this process by giving us the ability to replicate design elements with ease. You could easily array, stretch, and copy design elements and details with relative ease. We could import architectural and site backgrounds with relative ease and draw over the top of them to further the design and enhance our communication with the design team.  For more on this, read this post by Senior Drafter Walter Ciridon.

About a decade ago, 3-D BIM became commercially available, and we started using it more as a collaboration and visualization tool then a “copy, paste, stretch and array” tool. BIM is parametric drafting – that is, drawing objects that have properties as opposed to the old CAD way of objects being an assemblage of lines. BIM technology removes the need to manually track and edit sections and details within a set of design drawings. In BIM, we edit and refine our 3-D model, and the sections and design details are updated in our design drawing sets in real time. We can also visually “test fit” our design ideas virtually with BIM in efficient ways that allow us to “change our minds” without big impacts to our project budgets.

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One of the biggest benefits of BIM technology within a multidisciplinary design team is its use as a collaboration tool. Working with an architect, engineers in the mechanical, electrical, fire protection, plumbing or other disciplines, and even contractors when working in design-build or other alternative contracting method — we all have the ability to simultaneously work on the model while refining our design ideas. Today, it is common to have team meetings with the BIM model as the central feature to focus the efforts of the design team and the client.

Just this week, we hosted a Concept Design Workshop at our client’s office for an aircraft hangar expansion project. Our architectural partner brought an entire Revit BIM workstation to the workshop where design elements of the project were drawn in real-time as they were devised and discussed. The 3-D BIM model was displayed on a large screen that allowed the design team and the owner to collaborate in a visually-informative way. Once the workshop was complete, we had a 3-D BIM record of our design ideas and concepts that were shared with the design team for subsequent refinement. When technology works and works well, we love it!

Advanced Structural Analyses Technology for Improved Design Efficiency

In structural engineering design, as in most design, uncertainty in loads, resistance, geometry, wear, or even lifespan, may require that we increase the size or thickness of a design element to achieve the expected performance or service life of a structure. These types of design decisions that may need to be more conservative due to uncertainties are ever-present not only in design, but life. How many times have you left early for a trip to the airport due to the uncertainty of the weather or a ball game on that day’s traffic? If time is money, then this extra time allotted to our airport commute costs something. It’s a good thing that uncertainty affects us this way. It forces us to plan for unforeseen circumstances and conditions and even helps us get to the airport to catch our flight on time with limited stress. This same type of decision-making to allow for uncertainty also allows us to design structures for unpredictable environments and conditions.

Over the last 40 years, advances in 3-D structural analysis software and techniques have helped structural engineers design some amazing structures that would not have been possible before. Prominent examples are the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai and even the world’s largest building by volume, the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington. Both of these landmark buildings are dramatic examples of how advances in 3-D structural analysis modeling and simulation reduces uncertainty in the design process allowing engineers to push the envelope of structural design to accomplish some amazing  structural design feats.

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In our structural design practice, we make use of advanced structural analysis techniques to improve our understanding of expected structural performance and to optimize our designs. These advanced analysis techniques make use of 3-D finite element modeling, non-linear dynamic and static analyses, time history analyses, vibration analyses and measurement tools, and 3-D prestressed design analyses. Not every project gets this high level of analysis, but the thought and care used in our project approaches is employed across all projects.