As technology changes and improves at an ever-increasing pace, the construction industry has changed with it. New tools and techniques always bring a multitude of new challenges, questions and opportunities. Building-industry professionals must sift through many options and determine what new tools can help their processes and businesses.
“During the past few years, software used in the design and construction community has improved dramatically,” says Mario Elcid, senior structural engineer, at the New York office of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., a Boston-based engineering firm. “Software companies are continuously competing to release new products and patches to existing structural-design software to stay competitive. Regardless of the construction material, most likely there is a software company that provides a product that can assist with its use in design.”
“The available products range from ‘expert-mode’ design tools to easy-to-use costing programs with everything in between,” explains Judy Pedersen, marketing director with Frisco, Texas-based Loseke Technologies Inc., a provider of software for the metal-building industry. “There are inventory-control systems, labor-tracking systems, proprietary software tools, project-management programs and much more. It is understandable that consumers struggle when selecting software tools.”
The Human Element
Software can be found in traditional stand-alone applications that specialize in one particular component of a business or element of construction, but integrated software systems are becoming the norm. For example, a single-software application may include design, costing, detailing and plotting in one step.
As technology improves and the scope of software becomes more robust, software providers strive to keep the applications as accessible and user friendly as possible. “The user should not have to be a computer expert, and navigation through the input and output should be orderly,” Pedersen asserts. “If an integrated, one-step job-costing software application is well written, its basics should be accessible to a new user in a matter of days. Of course, there is always more to learn. Most of the software we use has hundreds of features of which a single user perhaps uses dozens. Software providers have an obligation to provide clear documentation, training and ongoing support to ensure their customers are effective users of needed features within a reasonable amount of time.”
Usability is an important consideration because, for all its capabilities, any software ultimately is a tool of its users. “It is important to remember that while software has progressed and developed, it has not and will not replace human judgment and experience,” Elcid says. “With the reliance on software to design metal components, it is always crucial to evaluate and understand the design criteria going into a project. Relying completely on technology can produce grave errors based on input inconsistencies. It is important to spend the time checking that the information entered into the software matches the design criteria and to perform hand calculations to verify the validity of a software output.”
According to Elcid, a common mistake that occurs when designing using analysis software is that, in the midst of deadline pressures, an engineer might overlook updating the default settings in a new model. As an example, entering load combinations into a steel model based on the Allowable Stress Design method while the software default member sizing is set to the Load and Resistance Factor Design method will result in undersized members.
Errors also occur when an engineer relies entirely on software without controlling the design process. When 3-D software is used to perform a lateral analysis for a steel building with a rigid diaphragm, typically the lateral-load distribution is performed based on the stiffness of lateral-resistance members. Most software flags the user to any lateral-member sizes that do not pass the code check and, in many cases, the software would increase the size of the failing members. This can send an inexperienced engineer into a design loop where increasing the member sizes would increase the stiffness of a frame and ultimately would attract more lateral forces into that frame, potentially creating torsional problems within the building. Having a basic understanding about how the lateral-load distribution is performed and controlling where to add or eliminate stiffness prevents over-sizing the lateral system and creates a realistic understanding of a building’s lateral behavior.
3-D or Not 3-D
Although relatively new to the scene and still growing in functionality, 3-D modeling and design software is becoming more commonly used in the construction world. When looking at software for design and structural engineering, however, the question remains whether it is better to go with traditionally less-complex 2-D design tools or whether the benefits offered by 3-D design programs make them the better choice.
“There is an irreversible trend we are noticing within our design group—the reliance on design software with 3-D capabilities rather than 2-D has increased,” Elcid says. “This is because of two main factors. The first factor is the advancement of 3-D software. Software companies are releasing updated versions of their programs that are more user friendly and can make modeling in 3-D easier than modeling in 2-D. The second factor is the adoption of building information modeling into our industry.”
BIM—which typically is based in 3-D, real-time, dynamic modeling software—covers geometry and spatial relationships in a building, as well as the quantity and properties of building components based on manufacturers’ details. Systems, assemblies and sequences are able to be shown in a relative scale with the entire facility or group of facilities. The technology, which is still in its early stages, requires interoperability between construction documents, drawings, procurement details, environmental conditions, submittal processes and other specifications.
Elcid sees an inherent benefit in bringing these pieces together. “Using 3-D software not only helps facilitate coordination between different design parties and trades, but also speeds up the design process because you can transfer 3-D files from BIM software to design software and back,” he says. “This saves time and minimizes errors. In the past, an engineer would have to create a structural BIM model for coordination with the architectural and mechanical/electrical/plumbing BIM models. This BIM model would be used to document the construction documents. Then in a separate effort, the engineer would have to create a 3-D analysis member. The process is not only time-consuming, it also is difficult to verify both models have matching member sizes, grid lines and floor elevations. BIM- and analysis-software companies worked on developing links that make it easy to transfer one model back and forth between both software packages. Linking and transferring between different software, although not ideal yet, has come a long way and became significantly more reliable.”
The time savings and increased level of detail using integrated software solutions are particularly useful on more complex projects. “Performing a complicated analysis on an aluminum and glass bridge or spiral cantilevered steel staircase can take days and result in less than desirable details,” Elcid continues. “Having the capability to take a 3-D design model from an architect and change it into a finite-element analysis model reduces the design time significantly. It also provides more realistic, accurate and sophisticated load distribution that allows us to understand the different structural-component interactions and capitalize on material properties. Whether it is deflection-, stress- or vibration-driven, this software allows for quick and convenient checks for sizes and connections, especially in cases where the architectural design progresses and changes throughout the design phase.”
Although many consider BIM to be the future of design and construction, at this stage it may not be an appropriate solution for every project. “BIM with related 3-D modeling is a popular concept, involving shared data among all parties involved in the creation of a building, from architect to subcontractor,” Pedersen remarks. “Certainly this concept emphasizes the importance of standard file formats to expedite information sharing and openness between the various parties. However, in the metal-building sector, a lot of designers, contractors, erectors and local governing agencies are not using or requesting BIM. As these parties become more tech-savvy and project requirements become more complex, we are likely to see the application of BIM increase.”
Points to Ponder
No matter what the application, there are many things to consider when deciding what software solutions best suit your company’s needs. “Part of the responsibility of the software vendor is to get to know the customer, learn about the specifics of his or her business and assist in the selection of tools with appropriate features at an appropriate price,” Pedersen explains. “Also, the software must continue to be of service in the future. An atmosphere of trust has to exist because the customer will need to share specifics with the vendor for the process to succeed.”
According to Pedersen, there are a few important considerations when selecting an application and software provider:
- Determine what value the application brings to your business and, hence, your clients. All other considerations ultimately relate back to this one.
- Make sure there is a financial return on investment within a reasonable time period. Your business should have or plan to have a large enough volume of work that will be expedited by the software tool. Your time frame will depend on your business plan and level of capitalization; however, in most cases, the ROI should occur within a year or two.
- Ensure the software generates accurate results. Remember that if the input is correct, the output also should be correct.
- Examine the software manufacturer’s record for ongoing development. We live in a changing world with new building codes, specifications and other requirements, as well as hardware and software advancements, so ensure your vendor has a plan for keeping both the software and user updated.
- Be sure the software vendor will be available when help is needed. Learn in advance about any charges or fees for assistance.
- For companies and clients with unique needs not met by off-the-shelf products, seek a software vendor that will listen to your requirements and be willing to work with you to provide custom solutions appropriate for your business.
By doing your homework and spending some time discussing your wants and needs with potential software vendors, you can arrive upon a solution that is affordable, usable and adds efficiency to your business and projects.
“Our client architects rely on us to translate their visions into constructible reality. We often are involved in projects that push the envelope and utilize metals in combination with other materials to create one-of-a-kind structures,” Elcid says. “The time we save in our modeling approach, or to make changes to an existing model, allows us to spend more time making quality checks and ultimately minimize if not eliminate costly changes to our clients.”
In spite of challenges posed by the current economy, now can be a good time to invest in technology. It’s important to keep the big picture in mind. “This is the time for businesses to consider the short-term situation and how to make the most of current opportunities,” Pedersen says. “It’s a good time for them to look at the longer-term picture and position themselves for upcoming opportunities. A software solution that is flexible and can be enhanced over time is a great way to be efficient now and to take the first steps toward a great future.”