On the crest of a global infrastructure boom, civil engineers must harness building information modelling technology to their advantage to stay ahead, says Autodesk’s Pete Baxter.
Despite newspaper headlines heralding commercial Armageddon, many firms − particularly in the civil engineering community − find themselves in strong competitive positions amid the pipeline of ongoing infrastructure projects. Rather than worrying about the economic downturn, they are instead focusing on the things they do well and on bringing innovation to their projects.
Civil engineering leaders are also concerned about how they can offer greater value within their projects and generate more profit from their services.
Anything that helps make the engineering process faster and more efficient is likely to make such a contribution, which is why building information modelling (BIM) has been on the civil engineering radar for some time.
A familiar concept
BIM − the use of a single model dataset encompassing parametric change and used from the earliest stages of design − is a concept that came out of the architectural and construction communities where it has been used and widely accepted for some years. Even the mechanical engineering and automotive industries have long factored BIM into their operations, so the concept is hardly foreign. Yet despite being embraced by so many other industries, BIM has yet to become a fixture within civil engineering.
The burden on civil engineers is great, tasks are complex and their skills are often unacknowledged. On any given project, there may be architects, construction engineers, utilities, mechanical and electrical people, all involved at the early stages.
The usual to-ing and fro-ing of multiple iterations between architect, client, civil engineers and so on become a thing of the past when a 3D BIM model is adopted.
If the civil engineers, from the outset, are working on a single model basis, they can interact with all these people simultaneously, which means the whole construction community can work together as a team, rather than as separate entities. The usual to-ing and fro-ing of multiple iterations between architect, client, civil engineers and so on become a thing of the past when a 3D BIM model is adopted.
The BIM method also offers a tempting view into the future by allowing engineers to predict the performance of projects − through analysing, simulating and visualising them − before they’re ever built. This means a civil engineer can leverage a BIM model to arrive at, for example, a highway design plan that has already taken into account the issues of sustainability, constructability and even road safety, years before the proof of that particular element of design integrity is ever borne out.
Opportunities for the taking
Indeed, adopting a BIM process can be easily shown to translate into real benefits for road and motorway design. Because design and construction documentation are dynamically linked in a BIM model, the time needed to evaluate more alternatives, execute design changes and produce construction documentation is reduced.
Because design and construction documentation are dynamically linked in a BIM model, the time needed to evaluate more alternatives and execute design changes is reduced.
Beyond this is another issue crucial to modern road design − that of safety. By integrating sight distance simulation into the design process, an engineer using a BIM model can quickly identify whether the road geometry meets critical safety requirements relating to sight distances for safe stopping, overtaking and other key driving decisions.
These might include grades, curvature and visual obstructions on a road, such as foliage or barriers on a central reservation.
Civil engineering firms that grasp the BIM mantle can position themselves competitively amid the inexorably growing public sector infrastructure projects that include the wholesale redevelopment of major road and transportation systems throughout the developed world.
These huge public projects − where there is far greater scrutiny of the processes as well as the result − continue unabated in the UK, where they include the London Tideway Tunnel projects, Crossrail, London Underground renewal and the 2012 London Olympics. All of these continue to create great opportunities for those civil engineers who can demonstrate speed, efficiencies and transparency.