Structural Solutions: Minding the Gap in Technology
Reworking a line from a 1970s Saturday Night Live sketch: technology has been “berry berry good” to the design and construction industries.
I remember my first day as a budding engineer, fresh out of college, as if it was yesterday. The firm I started my career with just terminated its contract with a mainframe computer system and was ceremoniously ditching the teletype machine that had been its link to computing horsepower in an office building in downtown Charlotte, N.C.
One of my first tasks was to start some analysis on a computer the firm had just purchased: a Wang SVP with a staggering, state-of-the-art, 256KB of memory (that could be split and shared by two partitions!), an 8MB Winchester internal hard drive, a single-color (green) monitor perhaps 14-inches on the diagonal, and complete with an 8-inch floppy drive. It was a sight to behold and a very exciting time—and long before cloud backups. After several days of entering data for analysis, someone in the office (not me!) formatted a floppy for a backup. However, instead of typing “format B10” for the floppy drive, they typed “format 310” and formatted the hard drive, wiping out all the work I had done in the last few days! I can say it was quicker to enter the second time …
Rise of Automation
Of course, it has gotten a lot more exciting since then. I remember my early design days, having an architectural floorplan for a multistory building on my desk with tracing paper laid over top. I’d draw the steel framing—beams, girders and columns—then one-by-one, analyze and design the beams, then the girders, then the columns, being sure to take advantage of live load reduction as the members accumulated more tributary area. It seemed like it took days, perhaps weeks, to analyze the building all the way down to the foundations.
Today, this can all be done in a matter of hours, with much more precision and accuracy, and with the possibility of checking alternate framing schemes. And we can send team members a 3-D view of that building at the snap of a finger.
The types of buildings analyzed also are much more complicated now. That first building I designed was relatively basic, almost a rectangle. Today, some building designs are started with generative components and passed electronically to engineers for analysis—a feat made possible by computers and technology.
Architects have seen changes as dramatic as engineers. They can create photorealistic renderings of buildings to give owners an intimate understanding of what they’re getting and, when needed, provide virtual walkthroughs of completed buildings. Contractors can perform interference detection among all the construction trades as well as add time to construction sequencing and real-time pricing to generated data.
However, with all the advances and sophisticated computing that can be done with technology, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. In fact, I’ll argue there are opportunities for engineers in particular. As much as technology has made individual silos of building construction more efficient (e.g., design and construction), there’s a significant gap between the two silos. And engineers are in the right place to fill the void.
Think about how a typical steel building is traditionally built. An engineer generates a 3-D model of the frame, adds gravity and lateral loads, and then analyzes and designs all the members. Many engineers use such information to generate a BIM that then can be shared with the design team or down to contractors and subcontractors. However, most deliverables remain 2-D paper drawings, so engineers take all the rich 3-D data and dumb them down to 2-D paper that can be sent to the construction team. In the case of a steel building (and similarly for a concrete building), the 2-D drawings are handed to a detailer who then recreates his or her own 3-D model, from scratch, and only given a fraction of the time to do it.
The information recreated by detailers needs to be reviewed for conformity with design intent and checked for errors, so this 3-D model is dumbed down to 2-D, again, for review. When the engineer’s review has been completed, that information is sent back (in 2-D) to the detailer, so it can be incorporated into the detailer’s 3-D model, because that’s where the data come from for the fabricator’s equipment.
For those not keeping score at home, that’s 3-D to 2-D to 3-D to 2-D back to 3-D. It’s crazy talk for the amount of technology used these days. This is 2015!
I believe this is a perfect opportunity for engineers to add value to their projects, close the gap on an inefficient process, and restore their worth to the design and construction team. It isn’t that difficult. With a little bit of research and some sweat equity, firms willing to champion a new process can gain more work by making their projects more efficient and, in the process, significantly reduce RFIs with improved communication as well as reduce opportunities for change orders, all of which our projects (and industry) desperately need.