Learn how modern software automation reduces structural engineering task-time, aids design accuracy, and boosts analytical capabilities.
When driving through any modern developing city – or even just viewing it from the air – one is struck by the incredible variety in the buildings’ shapes, sizes, and the materials used to construct them. It’s often much the same with bridges, which range in design from the traditional to the futuristic.
Despite this outward appearance of diversity, most structures are built around certain core elements required for functionality and safety. A deep enough foundation is a given, concrete supports are reinforced with steel, and pillars are designed to withstand loads calculated in a standardized manner. These elements may often be similar from one project to another, with the same number of beams, columns, and plates needed for a specific floor area or bridge span.
This repetitive nature of the construction industry lends itself well to automating certain parts of the design process, including many of the tasks of the structural engineer. From a designing perspective, adding identical components one by one is hugely repetitive, tedious, and time-consuming. Automating these tasks – as well as many others – makes much more efficient use of engineers’ expertise.
The power of parametric design
Many Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools already have some element of automation, but parametric design really takes CAD functionality to the next level. For decades architects have been using parametric design to create complex geometries. What is less well known are the automation benefits that the technology can bring to the work of structural engineers.
Let’s consider a standard set of steel supports, for example. Each support is identical and the distance between them is repeated hundreds or thousands of times across a structure. Using a design tool with parametric functionality, a structural engineer can simply punch in these identical values – i.e. parameters – so that the supports are instantly replicated across the model. In this way, the computer-generated script can shave hundreds of hours off a project. These are hours that would have been spent manually placing each support in its given location in the model.
This is why the structural-engineering community has embraced the use of parametric design. In addition to the aforementioned automation benefits – which are just as helpful on everyday projects as they are on complex ones – parametric design allows structural engineers far more flexibility in terms of shaping structures. The result is the introduction of more flowing lines and curves into modern buildings, rather than just the box-like structures of the past.
Automating structural analysis
Structural analysis is another area where automation can significantly aid engineering work.
Engineers typically spend a lot of time studying structural data to ensure a given design meets relevant building codes, can be executed cost-effectively, and satisfies a client’s demands. Material choices are subject to analysis too. This is not only about cost, but also about assessing and comparing the lifecycle carbon footprint of structural elements from different suppliers. With sustainability concerns increasingly driving building design, making embodied carbon calculations is now often part of the structural engineer’s job.
It's easy to understand how automation can help. Doing calculations manually is time-consuming and subject to human error. One often has to cycle through multiple alternatives for every change requested by an architect or the end client. For each new set of variables, one has to run an analysis, record the result, study any knock-on effects with other elements, and compare against the previous calculations.
Automating this workflow simply makes more sense, especially when last-minute design requests are part of the business. Thanks to automation, all the parameters are interconnected and their relationships are maintained when a change to a single value impacts any others.
A boost for structural engineering creativity and morale
As architects have long used parametric modeling to create complex designs, so too are engineers now using the technology to create structurally challenging steel-framed bridges, tunnels and more. Some of these structures would be impossible to design without automated parametric software. With all this time saved – and the ability to experiment with ease, and show different options to architects and customers – structural engineers are using the automation features of modern software to really have a say in how a project should be executed.
Automation is leading to structural engineers stretching the bounds of productivity further than ever before. It generates accurate and consistent data for them to do their job efficiently, and to help facilitate the tasks of others – including detailers and contractors. Automation can bring value to simple construction projects, or to monumental and complex ones.