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Divided by technology

If companies would only share their software development the whole industry could benefit, reports Andrew Mylius.

Jealous guarding of the commercial advantage gained through information technology is holding consultants and architects back from savings of up to 120%, calculates Whitby Bird CAD development manager Nigel Davis. Computer aided design and engineering analysis software is now used almost universally, he notes. IT has revolutionised working methods and improved productivity. But architectural and engineering designers are still a long way short of the kinds of efficiency that IT can, in principle, deliver.

Firms nudging their way ahead of the pack all too often veil the tools contributing to their success from avaricious eyes, says Davis. As a result, IT intelligence in the architectural and engineering sectors is fractured. When it comes to driving forward drafting and analysis software to deliver the next marked improvement in performance, there is little or no collective bargaining power.

Interoperability between the software used by architects and engineers is pivotal to achieving the next stage in the IT revolution, comments Davis. Programmes used by architects and engineers have evolved to fulfil very different functions and have been created by different software houses - much engineering analysis software has been grown in-house.

Huge amounts of time are lost when it comes to translating information between disciplines.

Buro Happold group director Nick Nielson elaborates: 'Virtually everyone involved in design has now moved from manual to electronic drafting. We are producing drawings faster, but what we are doing is still effectively manual.' The computer is by and large treated like a digital drawing board. Architects' CAD drawings are simply shapes. The huge capacity of modern computers to manipulate information is virtually untapped.

Computer aided design needs to combine architects' plans with engineering data in a single digital model, Davis and Nielson agree. Visually descriptive CAD drawings produced by architects are currently 'dumb' - they give no information about materials or performance of the structure as a whole.

Engineers are faced with the laborious manual task of interpreting an architect's work for their own analysis programmes.

A different kind of graphic representation is used by engineers - stick diagrams instead of rendered shapes. Data about the properties of individual structural members contained in engineering analysis models can now be fed direct to fabricators for construction in digital format. But the process of feeding structural information back to the architectural model demands manual intervention once again. On complex projects the iterative design process, involving constant relaying of information back and forth between engineer and architect is labour intensive in the extreme.

What Davis and Nielson want to see is the seamless transfer of information between all members of a project team. 'The really important thing is to get everybody working from common data, ' enthuses Davis.

Information should be added to the project model in virtual 'layers', he says.

From production of the site survey and architect's spatial model onward, each discipline should overlay its own input. For example, design and specification for heating and ventilation, glazing, piling, electrics, water supply, lifts and escalators would co-exist with architectural detailing and engineering information about the position and performance of structural materials.

'With the single, integrated computer model, as the project progresses you get ever finer layers of detail. The single data model enables you to view the layers that are directly relevant to you and to view the scheme in its entirety, ' Davis observes. It also enables clashes between different structural or service components to be identified.

And the single data model can be virtually tested for performance.

The single data model offered by interoperability is about as close as it is possible to get in the construction industry to prototyping.

The construction industry is on the threshold of being able to design and build in a way that is comparable to the automotive industry, believes Davis. By bringing in information about materials and construction techniques from suppliers and contractors 'we can find out whether a design is good, how it works and what its faults are before going into production'.

Exchanging data between all members of a project team is no longer a problem. Use of project dedicated websites, or extranets (see NCE Recommends) is growing.

Interoperability must be the next step, comments Nielson.

A couple of software developers, Bentley Systems and Autodesk, are looking for ways to provide interface between software packages used by different parts of the design team.

But, in a situation reminiscent of battles between Betamax and VHS for supremacy in the video market, or between the Apple and IBM computer operating systems, Bentley and Autodesk are taking a different approach to interoperability and looking to establish different protocols. The contest between two IT giants could take years to resolve. While interoperability may be delivered by each firm making for seamless data exchange across a suite of Autodesk or Bentley design and analysis programmes, it would demand all members of a project team work within the same system.

Project collaboration between users of two different protocols would be difficult or impossible.

Large client bodies like BAA have started to take a leading role in pushing for 'intelligent' design. Establishing long-term working relationships through five year framework contracts makes it viable for BAA's project teams to invest in a common IT culture. Clients play a significant role forwarding interoperability by demanding improved performance and constant cost savings, says Davis.

But consultants themselves must combine forces to develop interoperability if there is to be any collective gain in the immediate future, believes Nielson.

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