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Digital strategy for structural engineers
Erik Middelkoop

za 1 juni 2019

The digital revolution brought us parametric design and data-driven engineering. With this entirely different approach for design and engineering old mantras are no longer valid but still hold engineers and companies back. It's hard to let go of guidelines that served you well over the years. Please let me tell you why you should do it anyway and why there is no time to lose.

For decades structural engineers are increasingly working with digital tools. In most companies, 3D-modelling and structural engineering with a software package are the standard way of working, often in combination with self-developed spreadsheets. We got to where we are today with incremental development, but now there are some significant steps to make.

One of the problems with the traditional engineering process is that it’s a lot of work to use two or three different software packages on one project. Next to software with excellent modules for code-based detailed engineering, you might need other software to analyse non-linear materials, dynamics, volume elements, membrane structures or soil structure interaction. And new developers are releasing excellent tools at an unprecedented pace. It is inevitable that we work with the software of many suppliers.

The heart of the digital revolution is data. For a structural engineer, the relevant information is, next to the geometry of the structure, material properties, supports, loads and load combinations. This data must be unlocked from formats of software suppliers to make interoperability with all software possible. With data-driven engineering, you have full control over the process. It's easy to make combinations with (parametric) modelling software and geotechnical software. When you develop tools based on the uniform data structure, for instance, for reporting, they connect with all software.

The digital revolution is not limited to engineering. Structural design requires an entirely different approach as well. In the old days, you waited as long as possible to make a 3D-model to prevent high costs for design changes. Now you start making a parametric model right away and connect it to software to help the designer. You might even use algorithms to help you to get closer to the optimum design.

Most structural designers are still proud to tell you that they didn’t use any computer to make the design. Even stronger than that, they will tell you its dangerous to do it differently. The design should be simple enough so that everyone can understand the structural load paths. With these kinds of arguments, we would never have cars or planes. Obviously, safety is a worry, but there are solutions for that. 

"Clients should no longer accept designs without a parametric study"

For engineering companies that didn’t invest in digital development, it is costly to analyse even one design option with a 3D-model in the preliminary design phase. It’s very convenient for them to brush it off as dangerous. The fact is that, when you analyse more options, the design will be better. Clients should no longer accept designs without a parametric study as they will pay the price for the designer not doing his work properly. You wouldn’t accept a taxi driver with a Road Atlas either.

Maybe I judge a bit harsh over my fellow engineers that are sceptical about the digital revolution. It's not that long ago that I worked myself in the same way as they do now. But what is good engineering? Well, the answer changes in time. Now that advanced technology is accessible, in many cases, a simple linear model is not good enough anymore.  And what is good design? A design process solely by human intelligence just doesn’t cut it anymore. You will need to make a model later anyway. Set it up right from the start with parametric modelling and your design will be much better.

Computers will not replace humans. But it is evident that engineers that know how to use computers will replace engineers that don’t. Companies need to adapt rapidly to this new reality, or they will perish. Unfortunately, many companies don’t grasp the gravity of the situation. That’s bad for them and their employees. I especially feel sorry for young engineers that have already seen the light during their study and are forced to work with out-of-date methods. 

"Unfortunately, many companies don't grasp the gravity of the situation"

Engineers have an essential role in society. We design the places where people work and live and the infrastructure to get there. There is new technology available that makes it possible to do this much better. For the life of me, I can't understand why people would not want to use this.  Let's get on with it and enhance society together.

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