The use of new methods and software is one of the most important tools that structural engineers are using nowadays to stay competitive. Engineers are constantly looking for new ways to improve and keep the pace of today’s economy, reaching new heights in the aspects like productivity, coordination and problem-solving. Building Information Modelling (BIM) can potentially help with these important aspects. The core feature that BIM offers is the ability to integrate intelligent objects in the model. These intelligent objects contain all the data regarding a specific component, from geometric characteristics to the way they interact with other components, making the entire model full of information.
Structural engineers can take advantage of BIM in different ways, as the model can be constantly updated with any changes in the design or general specifications, keeping all the data as accurate as possible. BIM transforms the way we handle and visualize components. It has a grave impact on designing activities like conceptual design and structural analysis. BIM ensures a reduction in design and drafting errors and hence provides with lower designing cost and improved productivity. It also allows for better analysis of situations through simulation. The fact that the use of BIM lets one visualize the whole picture lets one identify potential design issues, and come up with new and creative ways to solve problems.
The evolution of BIM
The evolution of 3D modeling in the steel industry began in the 1990s. In those pioneering days, the software had already been developed to automatically produce drawings and reports, extract CNC data, and process individual parts. Even then, BIM had clear benefits, with fabricators eliminating errors using 3D models. To work even more effectively, they encouraged software vendors to develop an interface with CNC machines, and the first standards, such as SDNF and DSTV-NC, emerged. DSTV-NC, however, was not a permanent solution. Fast forward to the 2000s, and fabricators began using BIM to solve even bigger challenges, such as the costly and laborious assembly phase. Using proprietary interfaces, which could harness the power of CNC machines, they enabled fitters to draw information directly onto parts. This fantastic development was made even better in 2004 when automatic layout marking technology became common. From this moment onwards, the industry began to see the huge potential of using BIM to increase productivity.
The advantage of BIM for Structural Steel
The use of BIM can completely change the way infrastructure projects are developed, executed and managed. The beginning of BIM was to focus in the architectural area, but as part of the evolution and adoption of different industries, the different BIM software is on constant evolution to address the needs of structural engineers, offering better tools that increase its use in the field. One big difference between BIM and CAD in the initial state of design is that buildings are modeled using separate components instead of drawn. BIM skips the 2D design of its cousin CAD and jumps directly into modeling the structure. As a result, drawings are of secondary importance and no longer the first place to look up for design information, becoming reports of design information that are created automatically from the BIM model. The structural buildings that are more dependent on scheduling and prefabrication are taking a great advantage from BIM. Elements like steel and precast concrete can be coordinated more easily with BIM, improving its delivery and installation and handling, with less storage. Some of the general advantages are:
- Building Information Modeling, or BIM, benefits architects by letting them fully construct a building virtually and in detail.
- BIM presents and visualizes building components, construction sequences, resource allocation and other disciplines of the construction process.
- BIM provides a solid estimation during bidding and procurement, as well as material tracking and ordering.
- BIM improves coordination in construction sequencing. It produces effective marketing presentation of construction approaches and it identifies possible conflicts that may arise during building construction.
- Users can select and position the materials making up the finished structure, including concrete slabs, rebar, steel structure, wall and ceiling components, HVAC, plumbing and electrical. Users can visualize, understand and evaluate these objects to see how they come together, instead of having to rework later in the field.
- BIM provides firms with an opportunity to take advantage of intelligent 3-D models to produce higher-quality work, save time and money, and design more sustainably.
Adaptation For Structural Steel
The demand for productivity drove innovation. Unsatisfied with traditional CNC equipment, the market demanded an automated assembly phase. Thankfully, their dreams came true. Automation has made material handling more productive. Robotic welding, while not always research- and cost-efficient has become common. The fabrication-specific software is growing, streamlining processes using BIM information and allowing optimized schedules. However, as innovation changes the industry, so the tools must change too. For example, robotic welding is more complex than simple replication, and consequently, the requirements for information exchange have evolved. To meet new needs, tools like proprietary interfaces have been further developed to transfer information between model and workshop.
With these challenges resolved, the next step was to resolve logistic and scheduling problems using models. Schedules were added, serving as the basis for production schedule planning. Production offices used models to plan logistics before sending information to actual production planning.
Models allowed more information storage, which led to more efficient communication regarding changes. Better, faster understanding of potential changes was possible, even in the midst of on-site work. Due to the success of these innovations, the demand for more modeled information skyrocketed. Consequently, vendors created proprietary applications with a bidirectional interface (SW or CNC) as a solution. One challenge, however, remained: these technological innovations did not openly communicate with existing tools.
It was time for a new standard. In 2009, leading vendors worked together to create a better workflow for the entire steel fabrication industry. Their goal was to enhance the IFC file format to meet the industry’s needs, making the model a more meaningful part of project workflow. Today, IFC is the industry-standard neutral file format for exchanging BIMs between disciplines.
Future and the challenges
Today’s industry needs more than current standards provide. The one-way information channel of DSTV-NC-based fabrication doesn’t complement the BIM workflow, while IFC files mean there are too many files and drawings produced. The challenges of the current process, include:
- Multiple files and settings required for MIS/Production planning
- NC files required for individual parts
- NC files do not contain revision control mechanisms
- NC settings in detailing software must be adjusted according to the specific fabricator set up, equipment type and process
- Status feedback from the shop floor/equipment to MIS and detailing systems is rare
IFC allows the transfer of digital BIM and data, but there’s still one obstacle: file-based information transfer doesn’t use model information effectively in the entire delivery chain. Therefore, IFC doesn’t resolve how models could optimize projects’ internal processes and workflows.
These days BIM tools are standard in construction and other disciplines. What’s more, productivity has increased within design disciplines. However, improvements elsewhere have yet to happen. For this reason, we believe, BIM’s full potential remains unrealized. History has shown how building project organization changes as tools develop. The decentralization of organization is now common, and the software industry constantly develops tools to support global projects. But we can’t rest on our laurels. In order to support construction industry workflows, web technologies still need to be adapted.