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Virtual belief Mike Walter reports.

Sales of computer software designed specifically for civil engineers have grown steadily in recent years, according to manufacturers and suppliers of advanced computer-aided design tools. They claim that an increasingly wide range of applications can be used to provide a large number of customer benefits.

There is a growing recognition, however, that while the new technology is warmly welcomed by some in the industry, not every engineer is convinced. Reality Computing's marketing manager John Wood says: 'It can be difficult to sell our products to some people in the industry as there is a degree of scepticism about the validity of 3D designing. There are misconceptions about computer-aided design. It is not realised, for instance, that within 30 seconds you can actually create a realistic 3D world.'

For those in the know, the ability to produce or modify structural 3D images instantly on screen is one highly regarded advantage of such software. Basic virtual buildings, bridges and tunnel shells can often be created from only a few critical lines entered by the user. This is because the application includes extensive technical data.

Such structural component details, including fixings, can be displayed on screen, with the user able to build visual structures and apply proven load tests quickly and efficiently. Such virtual designs are claimed to save the user time and effort in comparison to drawings mapped using pencil and paper.

Vectra Technologies business development manager Chris Cartwright says: 'The rate at which technology is advancing is frightening. The power and clarity of images that you can now generate with a lap-top computer are superb. Enhancing software can only be good for civil engineering. You can optimise structural designs far more easily, saving the customer time and money.'

Much of the design criteria is held within the program, thus eliminating the need to re-enter hundres of co-ordinates for each alteration.

Bestech Systems sales and marketing manager Chris Austin says: 'In our niche field, most civil engineers have given up using pencil and paper, and most bridge engineers are au-fait with computer systems, although some remain to be convinced.'

Bestech has developed a program which calculates influence surfaces for various load effects, and analyses load cases, comparing them with code requirements. Called SAM, it has code-checking modules which analyse critical engineering components such as reinforced concrete bridge sections.

Advanced technology has also given users the ability to view their creations from any angle while redefining the design. Acecad Software's international sales manager Ian Maxwell says that a project's commercial success often comes down to clear and logical operation.

'We think it is important for programs to be kept nice and simple, without removing the need for human involvement,' Maxwell says.

Acecad's parametric solid modelling program Strucad gives steelwork designers the ability to create and view a solid or wireframe model while giving immediate access to walk-through colour-rendered, animated views. At any time, the program can produce general arrangement drawings and accurately give weights of main structural members. The program can also access a central library of standard steelwork connections that lists key criteria regarding shear, tendon and moment connections.

Manufacturer of IT software CADS says that customers are increasingly looking for comprehensive packages which deal with most of their needs. Reinforced concrete product manager Iain Lockhart says: 'Software is continually developing, so demand is stimulated all the time. Engineers are looking for a whole package, a design tool which has all the technical detail preprogrammed.'

Deciding which package is best suited to your company's needs can be difficult, especially when so many new features are described as ground breaking. So how should you choose? Sales and marketing manager of Masterbill Micro Systems Paul Watkins says that it often comes down to what you can afford.

'There is definitely a payback period, but you don't necessarily get the best product if you pay more for it. You could have an all-singing, all-dancing program with many features you don't use at all,' he says.

The revolution in computing design has made many products easy to control and simple to manage. 'Data transfer systems were very time-consuming and only supported an analysis model. Now, you actually work with one consistent model throughout,' says Chris Austin of Bestech.

There is a long way to go before such computer based tools are universally accepted. Many feel that the take-off for analysis and design software will come when today's younger, computer literate engineers come through. 'The adoption of IT is not an overnight thing - at the moment there is a generation gap, with management and directors in the forty-plus bracket less likely to embrace new software,' says Paul Watkins of Masterbill.

'It tends to be the younger generation who are driving the IT revolution, while their directors keep hold of the purse strings. I would say targeting older civil engineers with information about the new technology available to them is crucial.'

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