It was almost 40 years ago when structural analysis methods and technologies were subject to a major innovation: enabled by the personal computer. It became widely available, as promoted on engineering diplomas of those graduating in leading universities, that engineers began adopting commercial software to a large degree, benefiting from graphical interfaces of the MS DOS operating systems.
Since then, we can argue that even with the MS Windows user experience leap, then later with cloud technologies coming with their infinite computing power, the structural analysis and design tools have served engineers mostly in a similar way: validating their design intent and optimizing structural forms and sizes for its resistance.
Outcomes Driven Design, with its early assessment of building behavior, constructability, and overall impact on construction and lifecycle cost and environment impact, provides significant time and cost savings across all design to construction phases that eliminates waste. Engineers are shifting their roles to anticipate outcome-based design in two main ways.
First, while serving as civic stewards of the built environment, engineers are taking the lead in defining higher standards for resiliency and sustainable design to mitigate the impact of climate change. For example, the engineering community in the UK are advocating for structural engineers to design for low carbon footprint while the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) published a new manual in 2018 offering emerging models for risk assessment based on climate scenarios with widely divergent pathways (read Redshift article here). In addition, the educational institutes see a future where engineers must be prepared to design for resiliency and sustainability.
Second, more effective Project Delivery methods including (Design for Manufacturing & Assembly) DfMA, etc., the role of the structural engineer is evolving, making them one of the leaders and major contributors to the industry transformation. They are also collaborating more closely with fabricators and contractors, like providing accurate quantities that ensure consistency from bidding to material procurement and execution. An example of this is the Museum of the Future where the engineer Buro Happold Engineering reduced construction errors and cost by factoring in cross disciplinary constructability considerations early in the design phase.
These new expectations are coupled with a higher expectation to collaborate with architects in new ways. Engineers are being asked to contribute to the architectural model and design around more complex geometries and new types of constraints that must withstand increasing environmental forces.
These changes are creating a demand for more collaborative, model-based, and data-driven workflows while generating new expectations for engineers and new roles and responsibilities for structural analysis software makers:
- Become more integrated with the BIM process, enabling engineers to be more collaborative and part of broader teams supporting efficient project delivery methods
- Democratize modern and innovative analysis and computing methods that were expensive and time consuming in the past and making them accessible and easier to use (see Fig. 1)
- Be assistive agents to engineers and architects in taking design decisions through real time response to their explorations.
- Support automation of design which release engineers from tedious and repetitive activities, enabling more focus on creativity and problem-solving, while automating the design intent to fabrication requirements (See Fig. 2)
- Enable generative design and optioneering methods that include structural behavior and resistance assessments, along with building lifecycle performance, amplifying the power of engineering creative problem-solving.
Fig. 1: AEC applied CFD computation in function of Wind Simulation for Buildings in Robot Structural Analysis
Fig.2: Steel Connections Design Automation based on Analysis and Constructability rules
We see this demand shaping BIM authoring technology like Autodesk Revit to become an environment that accommodates analytical BIM data that drives and absorbs outcomes from structural analysis. This includes outcomes for structural resistance, serviceability and stability but emerging outcomes around resiliency and sustainability like embodied carbon. BIM integrations with the broader spectrum of structural analysis and design tools like Robot Structural Analysis, GSA Oasys, HILTI Profis, IDEA Statica and CSI ETABS are helping engineers collectively optimize around several constraints at once.
Fig. 3: IDEA Statica Connection design integrates with Robot Structural Analysis, Revit and Advance Steel to analyze and design in context both typical and non-typical steel connections and joints
Centralizing various analytical model sources like this will ensure collaboration across various geometrical and analytical model information sources, ensuring structural analysis and design work that is connected but unconstrained by the BIM process. Structural BIM models must be understood not only as a parametric geometry supporting documentation and coordination, but also contain all information that supports analytical processes and federated analysis results and outcomes. A good example of how this looks in practice is a recent structural analysis technology on Revit provided by SOFiSTiK (see Fig. 4). Their solution allows engineers to model for purposes of analysis, design documentation and rebar detailing all within the same BIM environment, while still respecting the different levels of detail and results.
Fig. 4: SOFiSTiK Structural Analysis for Revit extension combines structural analysis, design and detailing visualization and results within a common BIM environment
As the future is bright for structural engineers so it is for structural analysis and its evolution. The role and responsibilities for structural engineers are shifting and they are becoming more important than ever as stewards of the built environment. Software makers must also follow suit and align their technologies to match the shifting needs of structural engineers practicing in the near future.