illustration by NET Engineering SpA - original images taken from freepik.com
Beyond BIMWhat does the future hold for us in terms of engineering design
The second part of the talk given by Simone Eandi, Technical Director of NET Engineering, follows. He gave it at the ‘Esperienze BIM per il futuro delle infrastrutture: la tecnologia al servizio della sicurezza’ (BIM experiences for the future of infrastructures – technology at the service of safety) seminar organised by Nord_Ing in co-operation with One Team with the aim of reflecting on Italian infrastructure development through analysis of the policies and most interesting projects in progress with BIM methodology.
After looking at the recent past and analysing what we’ve learnt about our way of designing, I’d like to focus on what the future of design holds for us. The 10 most interesting aspects and, from a certain point of view, most urgent for those concerned with engineering design are set out below..
1. What a customer really needs
I’ve often wondered about this and I’ve come to more than one conclusion. First of all, there must be a designer, i.e. someone who knows how to solve problems and not create new ones. Secondly, the customer is looking for a solution that’s understandable, simple and legible at various levels, meant to adapt to the different people who’ll work on the project. This must be able to be managed directly not only by the customer, so that they can follow its development, but also the stakeholders, who may not be technical and should have the chance to understand it so that they can give their points of view.
2. The existing asset
We’ve met customers who don’t know the infrastructure at the centre of the project and aren’t aware of its current features. This is very serious because it means that there isn’t a true asset management process, with significant consequences in various contexts, first and foremost safety. From the design point of view, measurements have to be made with a laser scanner, including long stretches of infrastructure, when the customer isn’t updated on the state of the work, thus enabling them to update their information on the infrastructure.
3. 3D geological modelling
Little is said about it in the BIM context but a good 3D geological model is extremely important. The data is often there but there’s no 3D model. Interesting results can be obtained by exploiting the opportunities offered by computational design and evolved forms of artificial intelligence and these may make a substantial improvement to the design of underground works, for example.
4. BIM & RAMS
The relationship between BIM and RAMS is not often considered because the geometric modelling of the elements of an infrastructure is increasingly made in the BIM context. However, the RAMS approach sets out abstract, non-spatial, items which must find their position in the project so that they are clear to everyone. So the challenge is this – to find the way of making spatial items which aren’t inherently so. I think that that BIM is a great opportunity in this sense as it can help to define how hazards are generated according to the changes to the project that may be requested along the way. By changing the project, the hazards are also contextually modified; by optimising it, the hazards are also optimised. So, the relationship isn’t valorised but is extremely interesting.
5. Generative design
Generative design is the step after computational design. If we look at the flow of classic design, the start was with a conventional BIM project to which, to date, computational design shapes have been added using, for example, Dynamo, Grasshopper or similar tools. A further step forward can be taken using generative design. Starting from our project, we can implement genetic models able to develop alternatives of it, autonomously eliminating all the solutions that don’t respect the basic criteria and only showing us the set of truly possible solutions, which can be more or less extensive depending on the degree of uncertainty we wanted to give our project.
6. Liability management
The time to deliver a project model has arrived. There’s no longer any sense in delivering the paper version but this brings a new management of liability. As long as we deliver paper or, at best, a PDF 3D project, we can always sign it and the liabilities are clear. On the other hand, there’s still no clear tool that defines the liabilities before a 3D model. For this, the best technology that will help us is probably the blockchain. There is already some extremely interesting experience in this field where BIM infrastructure models can be delivered with clear liabilities and data ownership, another far from unimportant item, set out through the blockchain.
7. Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is often used as a splendid game or, in the most evolved situations, a pseudo-communication tool. However, we must go beyond the entertainment aspect as virtual reality has great potential in, for example, the training of maintenance staff or the definition of procedures and maintenance cards. On this, I’d like to give an extremely important example. The project of an underground chamber for all the electrical transformers, with a fire detection system above them, was developed in the Lötschberg railway tunnel in Switzerland. The problem was that staff had to climb above the transformers to maintain the fire detection sensors, and to climb above the transformers, railway operations had to be interrupted with a devasting economic impact on a line in operation for about 20 hours a day. The problem was solved by moving the sensors very slightly so that the technician could access them directly. All this could probably have been avoided if the maintenance design system could have been simulated with virtual reality, thus positioning the sensor correctly right from the design stage.
This example shows the great potential of virtual reality in the design context.
8. Augmented Reality
This is the most promising technology for the near future due to the development of 5G. First of all, augmented reality allows a significant improvement in the precision and speed of web surfers. Secondly, we can start using wayfinding systems inside large places (stations, airports, shopping centres, etc.). Lastly, it’s something new, extremely interesting and powerful in the management and maintenance of infrastructure as I can immediately focus on the article that I have to maintain through the visor or also my tablet or telephone, and obtain all the information on its status in real time.
9. Data protection and the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things is another excellent development sector which will be implemented more and more. At the same time, it poses a huge problem due to the fact that a growing number of connected items generates a serious increase in the vulnerability risk, a risk which should not be ignored.
10. Looking beyond BIM
Looking beyond BIM means not just imagining the immediate benefits but organising and ensuring their use over time. How can we be certain that all today’s data will still be easy to use in 30 years’ time? I’ve included the picture of a 3.5” floppy disk in the presentation at the end of the article about this; it reminds me of a story I read recently in LinkedIn which said, “The other day, my son came to me with a floppy disk in his hand and he said, “Wow Dad, you managed to make a 3D print of the Word save icon.””
Points of view change and time passes but our data must necessarily continue to be accessible.