Engineers use 3-D technology to transform design process

By on Friday, January 8th, 2010

HUNTSVILLE, Ala: The U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center Huntsville is using cutting-edge computer technology to speed up and improve the quality of standard facility designs. Building Information Modeling, or BIM, is a new three dimensional design approach to facility design, construction and maintenance.

“Developing and maintaining a capability to design a facility in BIM is crucial to Huntsville Center’s ability to meet our mission and lead our industry in engineering and construction design tools,” said Boyce Ross, chief of Huntsville’s Engineering Directorate. “BIM is just the next tool in the evolution of how engineers and architects design a facility, but it is crucial for us to stay on the leading edge of our profession.”

“BIM technology is the cutting edge in regard to facility design, not just for Huntsville Center and the Corps of Engineers but for the whole design and construction industry,” said Sandy Wood, the Engineering Directorate’s Center of Standardization integrator. “Although BIM has been around for years, no large agency or organization has really pushed its use or development until the Corps became involved. The goal is to use BIM as a tool to help lower construction costs and shorten schedules for COS facilities.”

Wood explained, “Being a leader in BIM development and implementation is allowing the Corps to both define and set the standards to be used by the entire architect-engineer community. Such leadership and initiatives are important strides in moving from good to great.”

For years, the Army Corps of Engineers has maintained standard designs on a variety of facility types, such as fire stations, physical fitness facilities and child development centers. However, these standards were based upon traditional design and construction methods.

To improve the design process, the Corps is applying BIM technology in coordination with the existing standard design program. Based upon the success of the COS program, it appears that in the very near future USACE will mandate the use of BIM on all new design projects, Wood said.

The BIM process is very similar to a conventional design process with the exception that the design team focuses about the first 65 percent of the effort on developing a data-rich, 3-D model of the facility. BIM also makes the design process easier:

  • Information is entered into the computer one time and linked accordingly
  • Most 2-D drawings are generated automatically
  • Quantity take-offs are much easier and more reliable
  • Interferences between disciplines are readily known

“BIM is a hot topic in the industry right now and many public and private owners are mandating BIM on their projects and even when it isn’t mandated, many design/construction firms are adopting it on their own,” said Arthur Dohrman, chief of the Geotechnical Branch in the Engineering Directorate, and a COS expert. “The immediate benefit is clash or interference detection, which can pay for itself in avoided rework during construction. It has the potential to allow electronic design data transfer from designers to constructors to suppliers.”

The use of BIM can reduce change orders during construction because it improves visualization of the end product and links vital construction data. It also helps in improved cost estimating and allows for the linking of operations and maintenance data to the design.

The Huntsville Center’s in-house personnel have developed seven preliminary BIM designs to date for the Centers of Standardization program. Six of the designs are child development centers while one design is a fire station. For fiscal 2010, the Center has been funded to develop a training support center, an Army Community Service center and various medical facility modules.

“With BIM, we can take a project that normally takes four months to design and design it in two months,” said James Dunn, lead architect for the child development center design.

BIM is able to achieve such improvements by modeling representations of the actual parts and pieces being used to build a building. This is a substantial shift from the traditional computer aided drafting method of drawing with vector file-based lines that combine to represent objects. BIM applies the four components of engineering – mechanical, electrical, structural and architectural, but it also uses intelligent graphics.

“The intelligent graphics feature of the software is very beneficial,” Wood said. “This new tool allows us to place a pipe in a design and find all the attributes of the pipe. Each graphic is linked to a database that contains various attributes and reports. Before you would just draw a line to represent the pipe, and you couldn’t extract useful information.”

BIM also allows the team to see their mistakes before they finalize the design. “If a designer is unsure of a particular aspect of the design, he can run an interference check,” Wood said. “This check will quickly identify any conflicts in the design. Once he sees the conflict, he can easily go back and correct deficiencies.

Attributes are assigned to each element within the model, such as size, material of construction, what system it belongs to, etc., and if those attributes include maintenance requirements (e.g., when to change air filters) then the building operator can use the model to generate a comprehensive maintenance schedule and budget and actively manage the maintenance program.

“The potential to use BIM for operations and maintenance of the building through its life cycle, even to the point of telling the demolition contractor what materials are in the building at the end of its life is a plus,” Dohrman said.

“The Army hasn’t gone that far yet, and I don’t think very many private owners have gone that far, but I believe in five to 10 years it will be the norm throughout the industry to use BIM for O&M,” Dohrman said. But with every new design approach comes challenges and lessons learned.

“BIM forces engineers and architects to look at all aspects of a design at a much deeper level since most objects are interrelated with one another,” Wood said. “Unlike typical 2-D designs where a lot of the decisions about details can be left up to the contractor, BIM forces very detailed decisions from the very beginning. These extra decisions typically require additional time and research, but in the end, the designs are worth the effort.”

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