Structural design engineers carry the important responsibility of ensuring that building structural systems can withstand extreme forces and loads, whether external or internal. Without this domain expertise, it would be virtually impossible to keep our built world standing.
As technological disruptions sweep the industry, structural design firms wonder about their place in project delivery. How will they keep up with rapidly changing trends? Will automation and its powerful applications eventually replace the structural engineer?
Harnessing disruptive innovation for better structural design
Designers and detailers are no strangers to Building Information Modeling (BIM) and computational design. They wield algorithms and data to produce a large number of design options in a BIM environment.
A key feature of ongoing digital disruptions is the cloud, which has demonstrated plenty potential to be an ally to project stakeholders, big and small. With the cloud, it’s all about intrinsic connectivity, insights gained and shared, and its “infinite” processing powers.
At Autodesk, we refer to this as “Connected BIM”, or the convergence of an integrated BIM process with cloud computing across a project’s lifecycle. It is part of the industry’s ongoing evolution and extends the BIM process with lifecycle integration, interoperable data, and anytime, anywhere access to real-time project information.
Let’s look at some key industry trends next, along with the unique challenges and opportunities they create that structural firms must navigate.
The state of structural engineering today
Macro trends that pressure structural design engineers and detailers today are also characteristically marked by a fast-pace of transformation, for which current resources, systems, and standards are playing catch up.
While this list of trends is not definitive, we will cover them in four broad strokes:
1. Project Complexity
Structures are becoming increasingly complicated to design, not just geometrically, but also in how they are delivered. Owners embark on ambitious projects with tight deadlines, budgets, and contracts that demand better accountability.
But safety and structural integrity cannot be compromised; in fact, it becomes paramount due to the growing frequency of natural disasters, which require BIM to assess hazard and design mitigation.
The more complex the project, the greater the need for collaboration and efficiency. We also see growing adoption of offsite construction methods changing how engineers think about the manufacturing, shipping, and assembly of their designs.
2. Project Collaboration:
Owners and construction managers are demanding better documentation and increased collaboration earlier in the project. This is driving structural designers and detailers to utilize BIM and other automation tools in a more integrated manner, which also helps them save on out-of-pocket costs for changes during construction.
3. New Delivery Models
Technological innovations, project complexity, and the inclusion of constructability factors into the design process are giving rise to new types of project delivery models (like design-build and integrated project delivery).
As a result, structural engineers are extending their services downstream. Likewise, fabricators and construction contractors are providing prefabrication services further upstream in the project.
As project delivery methods change, so do the boundaries between project teams. It can be challenging for teams to navigate and assess contractual delivery responsibilities throughout the different stages of a design.
4. Labor Shortages:
The demand for skilled labor not just in design offices but also in the shop and field faces pressures of globalization. This means that international teams currently fill in any gaps, along with automation technology.
Let’s face it: most of the young workforce of today, especially Millennials and Gen Z workers, just don’t view the structural industry with much interest. Brought up on a constant diet of screen time, the use of communications, media, and digital technologies can spark interest among them.
Integrated Teams for Streamlined Workflows: Will “Connected BIM” Affect You?
Think of cloud-enabled design collaboration technology as the fast-track lane to understanding and maneuvering disruptive changes in the industry.
If you are a structural engineer, detailer, or fabricator, you have likely already adopted BIM in your practice. “Connected BIM” (or BIM plus the power of the cloud) can help you integrate design and detailing workflows, expanding BIM’s benefits by:
- Reducing tedious coordination and rework, saving time for creative problem solving.
- Connecting teams to project information anytime, anywhere.
- Driving data-centric decision-making because of access to exponential computing power and big data analytics.
The long-term effects on your structural firm will look something like this:
- Your team spends less time exchanging data and more time addressing design issues, arriving sooner at critical collective consensus.
- This in turn increases team engagement and extended stakeholder input, and the project moves at a faster pace.
- By leveraging cloud-based generative design tools, you discover structurally sound designs well within cost, time, and accuracy requirements.
- Your designers rely less on intuition and more on mathematical computing to evaluate complex scenarios, less System 1 and more System 2 decision-making.1
With the cloud, you can leverage the “human” advantages we still have over computers. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson describe this as: “ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and the most complex forms of communication are cognitive areas where people still seem to have the advantage, and also seem likely to hold on to it for some time to come.”2
Let’s explore how “Connected BIM” can impact your process as an engineer, detailer, or fabricator.
Structural Engineers can use the cloud to adopt BIM at a faster rate. Cloud tools for exploration, analysis, and automation can increase productivity. Routine tasks, like internal quality checking, can take place on the go. When processes in the office, factory, and job site are digitally connected, standardization can become a reality.
Cloud-based collaboration tools facilitate 3D model integration and model-checking tools to validate data and assess its level of detail (LOD) and suitability for a specific design state. Having a data infrastructure platform in the cloud that supports multiple datasets will further enable collaborative delivery models.
Generative design and analysis tools in the cloud can help you identify and test new materials and structural systems, meeting sustainability and resilience goals. The computational power of cloud-based modeling tools can help you explore a greater number of solutions faster and implement new methodologies like performance-based design.
Supporting cloud-based technologies such as reality capture and sensing technologies can provide high-value services like measurement of as-built project performance.
Concrete & Steel Detailers—the bridge between design and fabrication—are beginning to rely on the cloud for their projects. Cloud-based collaboration allows you to work as part of an extended, geographically-dispersed project team.
And as more structural engineers adopt BIM, their detailers must adapt to BIM and cloud-based methods, including all-in-one code-based design and detailing automation.
Fabricators use cloud-based tools to collaborate and share digital design information with general contractors or their client engineers. Factory and shop workers rely on cloud collaboration for single-source, up-to-date project information such as PDFs or drawings.
As a fabricator, you can utilize cloud-shared model data to generate machine codes, and/or interface with jobsite trade workers. They can rest assured they’re relying on the latest, most up-to-date project information.
Additionally, applying a cloud-based sharing economy to manufacturing can help fabricators react more quickly to design disruptions native to the construction process. Projects can be broken into smaller tasks (the ‘uberization’ of work packages) using cloud tech, allowing teams to concurrently complete tasks in an agile manner.
A digital-enabled structural industry will attract the younger generation and increase the workforce pipeline. In fact, the era of exploding information in living models on hyper-connected devices is in their wheelhouse. The cloud will also make globalized collaboration easier by providing a reliable platform—helping firms lean on international labor for expertise or during deficits.
Now that you know that cloud-enabled BIM is important for your business, where do you begin to implement it? What are some best practices to keep in mind so you can succeed? We will cover some of these questions in Michael’s next post How Integrated Design Teams Can Leverage “Connected BIM”. Stay tuned!
Check out our latest video on “Connected BIM” for design to fabrication:
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
- The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson.