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Dancing to the same tune

The construction industry is moving towards a single model software environment to bring projects to a successful completion, says Micro Concepts’ Mark Mills.

Managing a major construction project is rather like a making an epic movie; it involves a vast number of people, each simultaneously applying their diverse specialist skills to the component parts of the big picture. Some contributors are better known, more widely-acknowledged or better-paid than others. But they are equal in that each provides a skill or service which, if not carried out correctly, can impact adversely on the whole production.

This is a situation familiar to many construction-related manufacturers, including Dorman Long Technology, consultants and contractors to the construction industry and specialist sub-contractors for heavy lifting and skidding operations. Their recent high-profile infrastructure projects include Wembley Stadium and Heathrow’s Terminal 5, both of which may be considered epic projects with plenty of drama.

Communication and collaboration between the many industry specialists involved in the design of their large construction projects is critical to their successful outcome. Indeed, improving their design communication was a key objective for Dorman Long in moving their design capacity over to 3D or solid modelling.
“This is a highly competitive industry,” says Dorman Long’s senior CAD technician, Steve Garrett, who, nearly five years ago, upgraded their design capabilities to incorporate 3D modelling in order to cement their pre-eminent position in the market.

Dorman Long worked with Micro Concepts to assess what the market could offer to best suit their needs and they selected Autodesk Inventor.
“We already had a positive view of what Inventor could do, as it was being used by a continental fabricator partner,” says Garratt. “We were impressed with its intuitive, easy-to-learn functionality.” The decision was made easier because Dorman Long had successfully worked with 2D AutoCAD for the preceding decade, so the selection of Inventor ensured a smooth transition from 2D to 3D modelling.

The design of Dorman Long’s lifting schemes is complex and involves multiple very heavy sections. Being able to check accurately for fit at the design stage helps the company avoid costly mistakes later in the manufacturing process. And the ability to present detailed, easy-to-understand 3D exploded views is equally critical throughout the process because it provides clear and accurate information for engineering partners, such as those manufacturing jacks, for Dorman Long’s designs.

Unlike mass-manufactured ‘widgets’, products designed and produced for the construction industry are generally bespoke to each project. Every Dorman Long project is tailored to the specific needs of each client. As these bespoke and often highly-complex designs have to be presented – before manufacture – to clients with widely differing technical expertise, it was difficult, in the past, to portray the end product using 2D drawings to non-engineering clients. “By contrast, because Inventor allows a designer to present solid rendered objects with 3D views, we are able to accurately illustrate what the end result will look like and so actively involve clients in the design very early in the process,” says Garratt.

The knock-on effect of using Inventor at the design stage can also be big cost savings in product development. It has been estimated that 70% of the cost of a new product is design, and in the days before 3D CAD, much of this would have been incurred through the construction of multiple physical prototypes, most of which would have been abandoned in favour of a successor. With digital prototyping, designers can refine prototypes on screen, which often cuts out the need for a physical prototype altogether.

This was the experience of building services specialist, TROX, when designing multi-service ceiling units to accommodate ventilation systems in industrial and commercial new builds.
“At first, we made mock-ups of sections in polystyrene, or even aluminium extrusions,” says TROX’s Martin Mills. “Now we use Autodesk Inventor to create 3D models. The visuals are so powerful that we can clearly demonstrate how we incorporate the services within the architect’s vision and it has allowed us to cut out most of the prototype stage altogether.”

The ability to conduct offsite fabrication is an important factor for Trox and one which would not be possible without Autodesk Inventor. “Cars used to be bolted together, piece by piece, on the assembly line,” says Mills. “Now they are made from a number of sub-modules and building something from scratch on the factory floor now looks very old-fashioned. We are now doing just that for our air conditioning and building services, building the sub-modules in a factory and simply assembling them into working systems on site. And we can only do that thanks to 3D design using Inventor,” he says.
TROX found that Inventor also provides a quick way of creating optimum design. With most major building products fast-tracked today, architects are forced to push back decisions on detail – like the ceiling service units. But TROX needs to start the design early to ensure all the right specifications are met and to allow other services to be added. “Inventor allows us to start a project and make the changes as we go along,” says Mills “We may revise a design 10 or 15 times before a project is completed. But with Inventor, we can make changes at the top level, confident that those changes will ripple down through all of the elements in the design,” he adds.
“On some refurbishment projects, because of existing structural elements, we may end up needing as many as 100 different modules to achieve a uniform look. We can check that they will all fit together perfectly on screen,” he says.

Perhaps one of the key advantages of the Autodesk offering is that, in the right combination of products, it is able to deliver enhanced interoperability between the many diverse and discrete businesses which comprise the construction industry.

Between the architects and engineers who create the buildings and the designers and manufacturers who develop products – both of whom are likely to be using 3D design software such as Inventor – there are myriad construction industry operators responsible for the products which will fit out the project. These include craftsmen producing furniture and fittings, joinery firms, architectural fabricators supplying staircases and entry systems, roofing specialists, window manufacturers, designers of drainage and lighting systems, even specialist manufacturers of door knobs, latches and closing mechanisms.

Until recently, all or most, of these designers would have used either standard AutoCAD LT – and missed out on the way 3D modelling can enhance creativity – or one of many industry-specific software systems, most of which were expensive, difficult to learn or incompatible with design systems used by their affiliates.

Now, with the incorporation of DWG TrueConnect into Inventor, there is greatly enhanced operability between Inventor and other products such as AutoCAD Architecture and Revit Architecture. With DWG TrueConnect, users have the ability to share and review models, drawings and documents with users of AutoCAD Architecture, Revit Architecure and AutoCAD without translators and without breaking links with the digital model.

An early customer or ours in this area was JELD-WEN UK, an international joinery manufacturer which supplies doors, windows and stairs to the construction industry. Inventor’s compatibility with their existing AutoCAD software enabled their design team to communicate with other design groups both internally and with the wider industry. “Integrating with our AutoCAD-based designs means that we can retain and use our established 2D capability and, in effect, give us the best of both 2D and 3D worlds,” says their general manager and European R&D and technical director, Ian Purkis. “Similarly, the ability to interface with AutoCAD Architecture is also helpful as 3D models can be imported directly into architects’ designs,” he says.

Increasingly, construction industry operators are moving towards a single model environment. In so doing, they are finding they not only have the best tools for the job but the ease and speed of interoperability with other construction industry stakeholders is delivering better design solutions, faster and more cost-effectively.

In an environment where more and more team members from different disciplines can share, I can easily foresee a time when Inventor models of furniture and working fittings take their place inside a building information model.


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