Author: J. Leach, R. Nicolin and M. Burton (all AECOM)
1 March 2016
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J. Leach, R. Nicolin and M. Burton (all AECOM)
Nevertheless, by dissecting and interrogating the whole process of creating building structures, we can still draw efficiency and marginal gains at each step of the way.
As design engineers, our focus is often on day-to-day problem-solving in relation to a particular project or engineering challenge. Perhaps less frequently do we consider the same application of engineering to the design process itself.
This article will explore how we in AECOM are currently using technology to improve the efficiency of the design process, while at the same time empowering the structural engineer to be more creative, and take a more central role on multidisciplinary projects. Case studies range from large-scale stadium projects down to small, but complex, pavilions, and how the methods can be applied to other projects through a cultural shift that capitalises on the accessibility of digital technology.
Some engineering problems are simple, like linear analysis; others are difficult, like non-linear analysis; but there is a third group: those that are complex. Complex problems are those where there are many possible answers that have to be explored and assessed before a decision is made as to which is the best one. This article will discuss the principal concepts of design optimisation, then look at the various suitable techniques and make suggestions as to where they might be used by structural engineers. These methods include quasi-Newton, gradient, simulated annealing, Monte Carlo, genetic algorithms, particle swarms, neural networks, form-finding, and evolutionary topology optimisation. While the article will not be exhaustive (which would take several books), it will provide sufficient examples and typical formulas so that those interested can start to explore this fascinating subject.
The use of computers has resulted in immensely beneficial changes for structural engineers, both at the operational level of designing and at the conceptual level of making us think more carefully about the processes that we use and how they should be used. However, there is much disquiet about the risks involved in computer use. A main strategy for guarding against such risk is to use what is called the “reflective approach”. This implies that one adopts a degree of scepticism about all received and generated information; one is open to ideas; one poses and seeks answers to questions; one makes personal assessments and reassessments and seeks advice from others, especially from experts; second or more opinions are sought if appropriate; when faults are found or improvements can be made, action is taken; an appropriate amount of resource is allocated to seek to ensure reliable outcomes. Use of reflective thinking is fundamental to good engineering practice. Computer use does not diminish the need for it.
Not so long ago, a journalist asked me an interesting question: “Do you believe the work of the structural engineer can ever be replaced by artificial intelligence”. I think she was somewhat taken aback when I answered “Yes”. But before the esteemed readership of this magazine floods Verulam with missives of indignation, let me explain that I qualified my answer; I postulated that while almost all the technical work undertaken by structural engineers at every level could, in theory, be overtaken by artificial intelligence (and that it would be highly complacent of us as a profession to assume our more “left brained” tendencies were irreplaceable) the art of the structural engineer would always remain. Which begs the question, as structural engineers, what do we really mean by design? When I was at university over 30 years ago, much of our course work was taken up learning the hard, number-crunching ways of analysing structures, while “design” lessons generally involved practising the use of codes and standards to select and detail structural elements. For the 21st-century structural engineer, these are processes which can now be almost entirely automated. Our real value comes in understanding when and how to apply the increasingly complex tools at our disposal to deliver value and creativity to our clients and stakeholders. So in this special issue of The Structural Engineer, we set out to describe how far our profession has come, and where it might be going, in the development of digital design tools, and what this might mean for structural engineers of the future.