Published 11 December 2011
|Written by Greg Corke|
Gone are the days when steel fabrication software was judged purely on its ability to model steel, design connections and produce drawings and CNC data. AceCad’s new ‘evolution’ suite is all about providing a managed and collaborative workflow across the entire construction supply chain writes Greg Corke.
In late 2010 structural steel software specialist AceCad completed a comprehensive re-architecting of its software portfolio. Its new look ‘evolution’ suite was certainly slick — taking advantage of the latest in Microsoft’s .NET technology — but the most revolutionary thing about the software was its potential to bring new efficiencies to the steel fabrication industry.
The idea is simple. Give everyone involved in steel fabrication access to up to date project information. And, when armed with this information, go about reducing costs.
For example, engineers can instantly assess the impact of late stage design changes by being able to find out which steel has been erected on site and which hasn’t. At the same time, a construction manager can track steel using a StruCad fabrication model and then change construction sequencing accordingly.
AceCad calls this Fabrication Information Modelling (FIM), an implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) for the steelwork supply chain. It works by giving everyone involved in the steel fabrication process controlled access to a central SQL database, which acts a repository for all project information. This huge store of information can be accessed locally or globally.
Engineers, fabricators, detailers and site managers can all collaborate in real time, through a document management system that is deeply embedded in all ‘evolution’ software products.
This tracks every revision or design variation that is made, and every request for information (RFI) that is raised, with a full audit trail provided for each project.
The ‘evolution’ suite
Two core products form the backbone to AceCad’s FIM methodology. StruCad evolution focuses on engineering and fabrication, while StruM.I.S evolution covers everything from estimate tendering, through procurement and production and construction. Both products use the same document management system and feature live links to the central SQL FIM database.
While StruCad and StruM.I.S can be used in their own right, for AceCad’s utopian view of steel fabrication both products need to be used throughout the supply chain, from the engineer’s office, through to fabrication and construction.
The process can also be aided by StruEngineer, a cut down version of StruCad for structural engineers who only need structural engineering modelling capabilities and not the full fabrication toolset. StruWalker evolution is another important application in the FIM workflow, which has a key role to play for model viewing, collaboration and review.
The ‘workspace’ is the hub of StruCad. It acts as the administration centre and provides a gateway to all the core tools, including the modelling environment, section catalogue and document manager.
All contracts are accessed from here and a preview shows what the project looks like without having to load it up.
In addition to the usual models, drawings, cutting lists, etc., each contract includes a database of everyone involved in the project, internally and externally. This is important for RFI or TQ (Technical Queries), which are controlled and tracked inside the document management system. We will look at these in more detail later.
Integrating third party data
With a comprehensive modelling toolset, StruCad is more than capable of modelling structures from scratch. However, it can also make use of third party data, which can be brought in through what AceCad calls the integration platform.
In its simplest form, this could be a DWG of a grid that has been created by an architect or engineer. StruCad’s ‘line to grid’ command can quickly convert dumb 2D lines into a StruCad grid or they can be turned directly into structural elements, such as columns or rafters.
While this is the bread and butter of all CAD systems, the real power comes when working with object-based 3D data. When an engineer starts a project in a structural design application, modelling up sections for design or analysis, this data can be brought directly into StruCad, and when it does it still knows a column’s a column and a beam’s a beam.
In an ideal world, sections are mapped automatically, but if there is a slight mismatch between references the user can jump into the section manager and choose a reference section. These mappings can then be saved for later.
There is more to the integration platform than import capabilities. It can also be used to manage and control revisions. If late stage design changes need to be made by an engineer or architect then the model can be exported to the third party application, say STAAD or Revit, and when it comes back to StruCad, the software will automatically flag which items have changed, which have been deleted and which have been modified. Edits can be reviewed visually or filtered through an ‘Excel’ style interface, then accepted or rejected.
StruCad can work with a variety of third party data. The initial concentration has been on tackling industry standards, such as, 2D/3D DWG, SDNF, PDMS, CIS/2, and IFC, but there are long term plans to build more intelligent exchange mechanisms for specific applications, including Revit and a variety of other products, through Bentley’s Integrated Structural Modelling (ISM) methodology.
Modelling in StruCad
The modelling functionality in StruCad is very mature and it does not take long to build up a structure from scratch. Users have access to a comprehensive section manager, which includes British, European and American catalogues and others from around the globe. Users can also add unique section types, or import catalogues from other users so drawing offices can easily standardise on a library.
Once the model is built a wide range of parametric connection macros can be applied, including base plates, eaves, apex connections, and clip angles. Custom macros can also be created.
A connection wizard allows users to define a series of rules where a specific connection can be applied to a group of items, such as those that fall within a specific location or range of sizes. This can help when a structure is made up of standard connections.
StruCad provides full support for BS5950, but EC3 codes and the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) codes are coming soon.
The software also includes a number of pre-engineered parametric building macros including portal frames, purlins, handrails, and staircases. Even if these macros do not get you 100 percent there, being able to model these complex forms quickly can certainly get you a good part of the way.
While StruCad can design certain connections, it is not a full-blown design and analysis application. So when more complex connections are required it provides some managed workflows for working with engineers.
Keeping things entirely within the ‘evolution’ environment, an engineer can use StruEngineer, a cut down version of StruCad, to model up connections
These designs can then be brought directly into StruCad via the model manager, automatically taking their correct place in the model.
In addition to modelling connections, StruEngineer can also be used to produce general arrangements and import /export models from third party analysis software. The major difference to StruCad is that it can not produce fabrication drawings or CNC data.
Managing change data
One of the most powerful features of the ‘evolution’ suite is its ability to manage and track RFIs and TQs. This is all handled by the document manager, which is deeply embedded within StruCad, StruEngineer and StruM.I.S.
In steel fabrication, TQs and RFIs are typically sent out by email, so AceCad has built its tracking tools around this process. There are different ways to do this.
The first brings automation and traceability to an established process — take a screen shot of the model, mark up problem areas, and then create an RFI. However, instead of doing this manually, this is all carried out through the evolution workspace.
Recipients are added from the project database and the user dials in when a response is needed by. This system will auto generate an email from Outlook and creates a PDF based on a template. The RFI is then tracked in the document manager.
Participants reply by email, adding notes or marking up the PDF. When this appears in the RFI author’s inbox, the information is dropped into the document management system and it’s recorded as a ‘response’ to the RFI.
The system keeps track of which RFIs are outstanding and reports can be created instantly to get an update on project status. Each time users log into StruCad it sends a reminder of any outstanding RFIs.
Every step of the workflow is logged so there is a full audit trail.
While this process adds some level of automation and traceability, it merely mimics an existing RFI workflow. Data is dumbed down into 2D and any amendments need to be interpreted by the StruCad user who then makes the appropriate changes to the 3D model.
The real power comes when things are kept entirely within a 3D environment. Instead of taking a screen grab, the user creates a snapshot of the whole 3D model, or part of the 3D model.
The recipient can open the 3D model using a free software tool called StruWalker. He or she can navigate the model in 3D, interrogate parts, right click to mark it up or attach documents — a calculation sheet for example — in any format (PDF, JPG or Word Doc).
The clever bit comes when the StruWalker model is sent back. This is fed back into the document management system, and all markups, annotations and file attachments can be automatically attached to master model.
The major benefit to working this way is that a RFI can be viewed in the context of the model, rather than a collection of disparate documents, which speeds up the review process and offers exceptional traceability.
If it weren’t for the complex steel structures that dominate its modelling environment StruCad would be almost unrecognisable to long term users.
But the transformation of a product that has served the steel fabrication industry for two decades goes beyond cosmetics. Underneath the slick Ribbon interface is a powerful document management system, which handles revision, variations and RFIs, all from a central database.
Engineers and fabricators can work together closely and, those using StruCad or StruEngineer, can get their hands on live project information at the click of a button. Then, when data needs to move out of the ‘evolution’ environment — whether doing a round trip to third party design or analysis software or when handling RFIs through PDFs or StruWalker models — the whole process can be managed and tracked with a full audit trail.
But StruCad is only one part of the picture. The far-reaching benefits for steel fabrication come when StruM.I.S is brought into the mix. It is this management information system that delivers a real-time construction database that can release fabrication knowledge into the supply chain — on demand.
Having instant access to this information can offer huge benefits, particularly when it comes to late stage design changes. Here, an engineer could log into the fabricator’s StruM.I.S system and instantly see if the sections in question are already on site, in the shop or if alternative sections are in stock. With this information to hand the engineer will be much better placed to make the best call, both in terms of reducing cost and minimising delay.
Of course, implementing such powerful technology is not going to happen overnight. For it to work effectively significant cultural change and investment will be required throughout the entire supply chain. The ‘evolution’ suite lays the foundations for these powerful new workflows, but like any document management based process, it will require discipline to implement properly in order to reap the maximum benefits.
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