CAD Enhancements Go Beyond Design to Project Management

Now more than ever, consulting engineers are faced with the task of finding the right solutions. And nowadays, since their responsibilities aren't limited just to engineering, they need more than design tools. Design professionals are also managers of construction projects. They manage enormous volumes of information generated by the architect and other engineers to produce documents needed for...

By Tomas Hernandez, Jr., Principal, DBC Technologies, Inc., New York July 1, 2003

Now more than ever, consulting engineers are faced with the task of finding the right solutions. And nowadays, since their responsibilities aren’t limited just to engineering, they need more than design tools. Design professionals are also managers of construction projects. They manage enormous volumes of information generated by the architect and other engineers to produce documents needed for contractors to build facilities and for owners to maintain them.

One new solution that fits all needs—both for design and project management—is Autodesk Building Systems 2004. This fourth release of ABS combines mechanical, electrical and plumbing functionality into a cost-effective building modeling application.

The latest version of ABS takes advantage of Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2004, which is based on the Autocad 2004 Architectural Program. But it goes even further to incorporate new project management functionality, as well as enhanced construction document creation and coordination. These project management features provide capabilities such as automatic scheduling by equipment type, improved layout and added fit and finish features.

But the heart of CAD is design, and it is the design function upgrades in ABS 2004 that make it a major project management tool—and open up a whole new way of developing projects.

One valuable new design tool is the suggested layout path feature. The software evaluates a range of suggested solutions to layout problems between two known points and determines optimal pipe, duct and conduit routing strategies.

Making it even more valuable is an enhanced interference detection feature that pinpoints potential conflicts between M/E/P system designs and architectural structural elements. Moreover, improved layout preferences enable engineers to quickly lay out systems using preferences for fittings, insulation, connectors and labeling. Armed with these new program capabilities, designers can preview bends and turns in distribution systems before they lay them out.

But what is especially significant about this new ABS version is that in place of 2D lines, arcs and circles, it can make use of “intelligent objects” to illustrate ducts, cable trays and pipes in 3D. It handles mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection in both 2D and 3D, and now, users can use 3D to create a building model that dynamically links all design changes, ensuring that the entire project team is working on the most up-to-date building model. Instead of a drawing, one has an accurate model of the design. Construction drawings are created from different views of the model, ensuring that engineering documents coordinate seamlessly from the initial design all the way to the final as-built drawing.

Another related feature is that sections are kept consistent with the layout model, because they are linked using the same data. Schedules are easily created and modified, and because changes to the building information model are dynamically linked to all views and construction documents, it is possible to keep all labels, annotations and schedules accurate throughout the design process.

ABS 2004 also features intelligent engineering objects that interact with their neighbors through connectors to form intelligent systems. The user can easily modify whole runs of duct, pipe, cable tray, conduit and wires using the relationships established by these connectors.

For example, if a duct run needs to be resized below a transition, and the section includes multiple 90-degree elbows, the user simply selects the last piece of duct on that run, chooses the duct modify option and selects the new size. The software then asks if the user wants to insert a transition and modify only that section, or modify all the ductwork and elbows back to the closest junction, as well as modify the transition.

What’s new by trade

ABS 2004 offers a wealth of upgrades for each discipline. For 2D schematic plumbing piping, there are sizing tables for hot and cold domestic water supply and sanitary waste piping. Sizing is based on plumbing code tables, including fixture unit tables, which are fully customizable so that users can create their own to match the applicable code for the job. The software uses these tables to automatically size piping systems, decreasing project cycle times and reducing expenses.

For the electrical module, the circuit manager function automatically calculates load, circuit length and other properties as the user adds panels, devices and associated circuits. Additionally, overloads are automatically flagged, avoiding potentially costly mistakes. ABS automatically uses the information from those circuits to create panel schedules with bi-directional links to Microsoft Excel. The objects and framework in ABS are designed to support engineering calculation and analysis through the use of connection graphs and property sets. Third-party application developers can extend their products to interact with the intelligent electrical objects in ABS.

ABS also includes content libraries with thousands of mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire-protection parts to enable engineers to quickly draw systems on multiple standards, both in imperial and metric measurement. In addition to content available out of the box, ABS 2004 utilizes tools that enable users to download parts directly from manufacturers’ websites into drawings and catalogs. If users still can’t find what they want, an enhanced parametric content builder uses one model definition and lists of sizes to create the millions of sizes of common fittings and parts, further enhancing productivity. Other improvements include automatic creation of view blocks, automatic assignment of these view blocks to the display system, and the ability to handle multiple part sizes.

For those firms interested in moving beyond 2D drafting, ABS features a set of tools for complete M/E/P information modeling. Unfortunately, it is not a program that can be loaded out of the box and run effectively with the first use. It requires a steep learning curve, as well as a whole new way of producing construction documents. Several firms have spent many man-hours developing CAD standards and methods with their current software products. However, Peter Terwilliger, product manager, Autodesk Building Solutions Division, states, “We’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort to ensure that ABS 2004 offers both short- and long-term value. ABS contains a number of features, all based on accepted CAD standards and good engineering practices, which allow engineers to experience productivity benefits right out of the box.”

Additionally, ABS moves engineering design beyond simple 2D drafting by making drawing in 3D as easy as possible, Terwilliger says. “Engineers can create a virtual construction model that finds problems, conflicting systems, interferences and design issues before anything is actually built. So while ABS represents a change in how construction documents are produced, the drawings are better designed, contain fewer errors and offer significant cost savings over the duration of the project.”

I agree with Terwilliger that this product offers tremendous possibilities to move the industry forward in the right direction. Only time will tell if the industry supports this new way of developing projects.

Autodesk Building Systems 2004 is available now in International English, a domestic imperial version in North America, and in many countries in Europe and Asia. A U.K. version is also available.

For more information, visit .

Design Firms Increasingly Depend on IT

According to the 2003 Information Technology & E-Business Survey, a study of A/E/P and environmental consulting firms by Natick, Mass.-based ZweigWhite, 71% of firms have used a project web site at one time or another. These firms used project web sites on a median of four projects in 2002 and plan to use them on a median of five projects in 2003. Clearly, firms that have used these sites are convinced of the benefits as a project management aid or are prepared for clients to demand them in the future.

This same survey found that 97% of these design and consulting firms have a dedicated Internet connection. In 1997 this was the case for only half of the industry firms surveyed.

Other technologies that have improved internal management and office communication are wide area networks and applications for online data collection. The percentage of multi-office firms with one or more offices linked by a WAN has increased over the past seven years, from 50% in 1997 to 88% in this year’s survey.