Technology is Key ... When Used Correctly
Editor's Note: This month's Professional Practices focuses on "information technology," a broad term that CSE has adopted to include coverage on all types of computer hardware and software applications for engineers. Four times per year, we will visit topics along these lines, including engineering design and performance modeling programs, as well as general applications for the engineering o...
Consulting engineers have been the afterthought of technology vendors for many years, despite the fact that the vendors' technology is so crucial to the engineering process these days. The deployment of building systems for many of today's construction projects is one of the most important elements next to the structure itself, and computer technology simplifies things greatly. Yet engineering firms have had a limited selection of products to choose from.
However, many leading M/E/P firms across the country have been successful in implementing and managing these computer products to make their practices more efficient and profitable, especially when it comes to two of the most crucial areas: communications and design.
Communication is one of the most important, yet least considered issues that firms are faced with. External communication with building owners and client architects continues to be the leading issue with most firms I've spoken with. In this fast-paced world of fast-track schedules and complex building systems, many issues fall through the cracks, creating costly mistakes. What is even more disturbing is the internal communication breakdown within these firms. A typical firm could have as many as five different design groups working on five different disciplines in a typical building project. Time after time, it has been discovered that these groups normally do not communicate well with each other and must have a communications agent to disseminate information to the teams. In most cases, these agents are not in place. These agents take the form of intelligent e-mail systems, intranets and extranets that compile updated databases of ongoing activities and decisions about a project.
Unfortunately, as Scott Frank, associate partner at JB&B Consulting Engineers, New York City, explains, "We are at the mercy of systems initiated by the owner, architect or construction manager. They are usually very cumbersome and difficult to use. In many cases, these systems are bought and used for a few months and then abandoned. This is usually due to lack of training and lack of flexibility in features needed for large complex building projects. Instead of focusing on trying to do it all, but doing it poorly, they should concentrate on the few important tasks and do them well."
The right way to CAD
The engineering design and documentation process is the other major issue of concern with engineering firms I have talked to. AutoCAD-based products have been the standard for 2D-based CAD production for the AEC industry as a whole. Unfortunately, most firms produce flat, non-intelligent data files that simply reproduce the manual drafting process only for the finished drawings. The process for producing those drawings has more or less been the same for the past 20 years, as engineers take an architect's backgrounds and mark up data from computer- based engineering programs, then add this information manually to those drawings in the form of redline markups. A separate craftsperson—usually not an engineering professional—adds the information in a CAD program such as AutoCAD in the form of layered lines, arcs and circles to produce a finished drawing that then gets plotted and sent for review and ultimately, construction. Although some of the individual processes have been somewhat automated, the process as a whole is still a series of redundant steps taken by many parties with errors and omissions as a common part of the process.
Over the past few years, vendors such as AutoDesk, as well as Bentley and Graphisoft, have been developing object-oriented 3D tools to make this process more in line with the construction process itself. These tools can take intelligent engineering data and directly add the information to the architect's electronic building model without the need for a separate person. The introduction of a separate person—especially a non-A/E—leads to mistakes in the transcriptions and a lack of quality control, which leads to construction errors and omissions. With intelligent processes, information that is placed using 3D object technology can be used for many other applications such as interference checking, quantity counts, energy efficiency studies and in the future, facilities management data for the owner/operator. These systems are still very much in their infancy, but a tremendous amount of resources is being allocated to make them a reality. According to Tony Sinisi, AutoDesk product manager, "The industry has to change from a 2D CAD drafting process to an intelligent building model process. Without this fundamental change in process, the promise of real efficiency in design and engineering will never take place. The systems of today have gotten us as far as we can [go]."
Data standards such as the International Alliance for Interoperability's (IAI) AECXML language addresses building component data, such as walls, doors, ductwork, pipes and lights, that can be defined by a variety of applications from analysis programs to fabrication programs used by manufacturers. Properties and relationships can be defined so that the real construction process can be mocked up at the design stage, when it is relatively inexpensive, rather than in the field. The raw technology is here today; it just needs to be developed and accepted for the AEC industry as a whole. These standards will be necessary in order for different programs to be able to exchange information without translation.
It pays to train
In addition to these issues, training is, and should be, a major concern to many of these firms. Many firms, due to budget constraints—and in some cases, bad judgment—have completely eliminated training for their professional staff and have suffered because of it. Many professionals who have state-of-the-art hardware and software have limited skill levels to take advantage of the existing tools at their disposal. With proper training in simple tools such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and even AutoCAD, a professional staff could add at least a twofold jump in its efficiency, due to time savings and the removal of a need for computer professionals to help them with basic functions.
Tomas Hernandez has 20 years of experience in technology in the AEC industry. He writes and lectures throughout the country at universities and trade associations. Mr. Hernandez welcomes feedback and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org .