It’s time to place some renewed vigour behind an idea structural engineers, architects and others have discussed for years: the extension of Building Information Modelling, or BIM, throughout the entire enterprise and industry. The core idea of BIM, applied to structural engineering, is to deliver information that is co-ordinated, internally consistent, and computable - that is, where the computer knows how to treat the aggregated data like a building. For many engineers, this is already accepted practice - and it has already begun delivering efficiencies and bottom-line benefits. Indeed BIM has reached acceptance among many architects as well, and in some cases the resultant collaborations have led to tremendous productivity gains.
Properly integrated into the traditional processes between designers and engineers, BIM offers the chance to not only reduce the disruption of frequent or late changes, freeing up the engineers’ time for more challenging work, but also to greatly improve client satisfaction.
Instead, what it does provide is a common modelling front-end to interface with those applications and a common model to document the results. This provides both technical and tactical business advantages to structural engineering firms - improving communication with clients, speeding up the process of making changes that are out of the control of the engineer, and delivering final work products more efficiently. This can both improve profit margins and free up time to take on additional projects.
BIM can serve as an effective bridge between a structural design’s analytical model and its physical representation and a link to the rest of the building process, offering breakthrough opportunities for efficient collaboration across design to construction - and a lot less paper. Purpose-built BIM models now exists for architects, structural and even building services engineers; technology that literally blends CAD with the data and 3D models resulting from performance analysis, in a high-fidelity, functional model.
By adopting technology that supports the use of BIM - and encouraging its adoption throughout the AEC industry - structural engineering firms can address four major areas of concern: creating greater efficiency through concurrent modelling; increasing the quality of work using parametric change management; improving design flexibility by better accommodating design alternatives and supporting more effective collaboration
Creating greater efficiency
For structural engineers whose work long has depended on analytical models that predict performance, the immediate promise of BIM and related tools and technology is greater efficiency. Structural engineers must be particularly adept at reacting to late-stage changes that demand compromise because it’s often “too late” or too expensive to alter physical design. One of the major issues with last-minute changes to a project is the need to re-enter information for those changes. First, models must be updated to perform the variety of analyses demanded by changes in structure or materials. After those analyses are completed, the results must be communicated across the project team and require meticulous insertion of new data in all building documentation. Too often the resulting data isn’t completely co-ordinated into the production documents, creating further difficulties in the field. Typically those changes have been made using paper as the medium, or with multiple entries into discipline-specific software, both within the engineering firm and with designers and other partners. This kind of manual co-ordination and redundant data entry isn’t engineering - it’s tedious inefficiency, and a tremendous waste of the experienced professionals and highly-trained staff at an engineering firm. BIM technology, by contrast, aggregates all the relevant data into a consolidated, dynamic model that is integrated with analytical models, architectural design and rendering software and that treats the data in that model holistically. Late-stage changes can be made with a minimum of data entry, drastically reducing the expense of those changes (which can wreck havoc on what little of a project’s budget remains toward a project’s end). By eliminating the need to set aside large chunks of an engineer’s time for the tedious redrafting and co-ordination of inevitable changes, that time can be used for a better purpose: engineering and problem-solving, which add far greater value to a project.
One of the natural by-products of the reduction in repetitive data entry made possible under the BIM structure is a reduction in the errors introduced by design changes. Errors are always a possibility whenever changes are made, because humans make mistakes. But errors are practically a given when the changes are complex, and are accompanied by the stress and rush associated with the late stages of a project. When a client is demanding a completed set of documents to hit a delivery deadline, it’s easy to imagine small computational mistakes cropping up - even in just one model, they will create errors, add to lost time, and translate to lost reputation as well. BIM can help avoid that problem through parametric change management capabilities. In other words, a change made once to any parameter or element in the design is instantly reflected in every representation of that element in the design - including, with the right technology, bi-lateral links with existing specialised tools for analysis. Any other parameters that are linked to the change are also changed appropriately. The approach improves quality, because not only can engineers rely on the results, design team partners can count on the information provided to them to be the best possible quality.
Better design flexibility
As long as the tedium of change management rules the day, what are the chances that engineers will examine all the structural design alternatives that present themselves with a late change in a project? Chances are the team will choose one or two alternatives their experience tells them are likely to work, methodically enter the data for the changes, run the numbers, repeat the process, choose the better of the two alternatives, and call it a day. It’s always possible that another approach - a different strategy, or an alternate material, for example - would provide a better, more elegant or more efficient solution. With the time and budget freedom afforded by the use of BIM across the project, engineers are free to consider such alternatives - the kind of work for which they have trained. More flexibility also leads to more satisfied customers.
More effective collaboration
Even applying BIM in the structural engineering office alone offers great benefits. No matter how a project’s architects prefer to share design information, even on paper, BIM at the engineering firm makes it easier to analyse late changes and rapidly return the data to the architect for examination. Within the last few years, however, technology has come to market to help architects make the transition to BIM themselves. The best of these technologies use parametric change management technology for the structural engineer. Linking these technologies together further eliminates errors while automating the communication of changes between the partners in the AEC process. By now, it’s clear that employing BIM from design to build creates a new kind of faster and more efficient collaboration. And that leads to better decisions all around - the kinds of decisions that involve big money. The IT Construction Best Practice Service notes that in the UK, the annual cost of rectifying construction defects caused by poor drawings and incorrect instructions has been put at £1 billion. The experience of structural engineering firm, Atkins Global is typical of firms that have begun examining tools for BIM and the potential impact on its work for clients in the government, commercial and industrial sectors. So far, the company has seen great benefits from using the one model for multiple third-party analysis, cutting this process down from two weeks to two days. The firm expects even greater gains, anticipating that overall, its teams’ documentation, drawing production and co-ordination, and integration of design changes will take place in a far timelier manner.
More than simply a collection of tools for representing designs and engineering parameters, BIM is a practical technology shift that directly benefits engineers’ productivity, collaboration, and accuracy. While investment in training and transitioning staff is required to implement building information modelling, it is an investment that will quickly lead to tremendous benefits in both profitability and client satisfaction.
BIM also opens the potential to another transformation in the industry, one that’s key in this world of pressure on razor-thin margins and multinational teams and projects. These realities demand new business models that integrate design and construction, such as design/build, that combine some of the tasks and responsibilities that traditionally belong to separate architecture, engineering and construction entities. BIM offers the key to consolidating them within one organisation or project team. Given that modelling abstract concepts forms the foundation of the discipline of structural engineering, BIM affords an outstanding opportunity for structural engineers in particular to take a leadership role as the rest of the building industry begins to adapt and adopt model-based tools to coordinate design intent, structural performance and execution and achieve quality design that yields high-performance buildings.
Unfortunately, BIM remains underused throughout the building process. Even if some professionals on a given project are using BIM and technology that supports it, the conventional design and construction process typically transfers information from one phase to the next via paper. Time has always been money, but in the modern building environment, this kind of disconnect among disciplines is too expensive and time consuming to continue.
Its promise is not to create some incredible shift in the fundamentals of structural engineering. It won’t change the use of carefully constructed analytical models engineers have built over the years. Nor does it replace proven analysis applications like Robobat, CSC or Sophistic.