By Brian Armour, PE
The construction industry is in the midst of a digital transformation driven by the need for greater productivity, true collaboration and more connected and efficient workflows. Tech-driven innovation is now seen by many firms as critical for expanding margins, growing market share, increasing operational efficiency, and delivering new services.
As BIM has evolved — along with its supporting technology — the 3D digital models at its heart have become increasingly robust. At this point, a state-of-the-art 3D model produced by skilled professionals across every phase of the construction workflow is bursting with construction data that can be referenced and even updated in real time. As a result, the expectation for using that data to collaborate with project stakeholders, from architects and engineers, to technicians, fabricators and construction teams, has grown.
And still, a single project may require engineers to use a number of disparate analysis and design tools – one for steel frame design, another for concrete slab design and so on. After the various models are created, they are usually combined into a new BIM model, from scratch. Adding to the problem has been a lack of interoperability between software programs, many of which claim to easily integrate with others but in reality, fall short. Without the ability to easily move a model from analysis and design tools to a BIM software program and share it with other stakeholders throughout the design, fabrication and construction process, the benefits of using a 3D model in the first place are diminished.
This lack of integration between solutions wastes time, increases risk and makes collaboration difficult to do well.
The Search for Efficiency and BIM Integration
In the 1980s structural engineering firm LeMessurier set out to find a more efficient way to work but was unable to find a commercial solution that would eliminate the need to use multiple design and analysis solutions. Instead, the firm developed its own application which evolved into a powerhouse of capability and served the firm well for many years. Eventually, the firm needed to modernize its application so that it could leverage emerging platforms, support normalized data structure integration and keep up with code changes. Instead, LeMessurier began looking for a commercial structural design tool that would “fill the shoes” of its proprietary application but also integrate with its BIM solution.
After testing multiple options, LeMessurier decided on Trimble’s Tekla Structural Designer because it allowed the firm’s engineers to work from one model for structural analysis and design and round-trip the model to and from Tekla Structures or Autodesk Revit without compromising vital design data. According to Derek Barnes, an associate at LeMessurier, this has streamlined workflows and saved time. “Our engineers work more efficiently because they don’t have to switch between multiple software packages for concrete and steel design,” said Barnes. “We’re able to import geometry from Revit, design in Tekla Structural Designer and export that information for import back into Revit. If an architect makes geometry updates or changes a slab edge, we’ll send those changes back into Tekla Structural Designer, rerun the analysis and design and push updated design information back into Revit.”
LeMessurier’s path is common among structural engineering firms as they seek out ways to work faster and collaborate upstream and downstream with ease. However, the search for true BIM integration isn’t always easy. Dan Kilbert PE, LEED AP and director of health care services at architecture and engineering firm GRAEF, tried several different analysis and design software tools, all of which promised to integrate seamlessly with various brands of BIM software, but none delivered.
“We were using multiple analysis and design tools but couldn’t successfully pass the model from those tools to BIM software being used by architects,” said Kilbert. “On several projects, we tried to pass an analytical model to our BIM software, but it was very fickle and if we were to pass it back to make adjustments, the link between the two programs would often break. It was hard to get that working, so we would end up doing things the old way of hand sketching or handing it to a technician to have them draft or model it.”
GRAEF also discovered Tekla Structural Designer and has now phased out other programs. “In terms of efficiency alone, we’ve seen about a 5 percent savings in time, which may not sound like a lot but is significant considering the margins that engineering offices run these days.”
The “I” in BIM
BIM is not just about modeling, it’s about sharing and managing information – and there are heaps of data that can be used to enrich models. Most engineers don’t have the budget to really efficiently design every member and as a result, approximate or over-design parts of a structure. They often may resort to the mindset of “when in doubt, make it stout.” Whether it’s a snow drift or wind condition, engineers don’t have the luxury of economically designing individual members or conditions.
By eliminating the integration problem, engineers can leverage the architectural model as a starting point to develop their analysis and design model instead of recreating one from scratch. There is a tremendous time savings that comes with eliminating the recreation of duplicate models and management of multiple models. Not to mention, the efficiency and ease integration brings to change management.
BIM integration will also lead to better models that focus on the “I” in BIM. Most engineers create an analytical model and a BIM model – separately. In this workflow, the BIM model is typically used only for drawing purposes so it doesn’t require the level of accuracy that is needed for an analytical model. With true BIM integration, engineers only need to create one model in which the data increases throughout the process of collaborating with others as stakeholders continue adding constructible data throughout the project lifecycle.
Today, BIM models and analytical models can be fully integrated and one in the same. The time engineers spend creating, updating and managing disparate models can be eliminated completely. It’s no longer advancements in technology that hold engineers back from working smarter and faster. It’s possible today to focus on the “I” in BIM and take advantage of constructible data embedded within 3D models and technology to efficiently and accurately work and collaborate across the entire design and construction team.
Brian Armour, PE, Business Manager, Analysis and Design at Trimble, Structures Division.