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Digital design – six ways to get the most out of your engineering software

Ashley Kacha, Senior Engineer for Digital Workflows and Computational Design, outlines six ways you can make the most of your resources, both digital and human.

The construction industry is on the cusp of a digital revolution. With advances in computing power and the development of new software, the pace of change is new for many in our industry. 

It’s very easy to be scared away by impressive projects and talk of fully autonomous design tools. But it’s important to remember that traditional engineering judgement and expertise still sit at the core of a digital design office. Digital design isn’t about software, it’s about people, processes and traditional engineering judgement.

Here are six of Ashley’s recommendations for making the most out of your engineering software.

Understand what you want from your tools

Avoid investing in tools that have capabilities far beyond what you currently need, or beyond what you think you’ll need in the future. Look critically at the information you’d like to extract from your software to find a tool that meets your specific requirements, don’t waste money on functionality you simply won’t use.  

Understand what you need to deliver your design

If you have BIM deliverables, it’s important to understand the content and format you need to submit to fulfil your obligations. Likewise, if the project requires more design development, some of the more cloud-based, collaborative tools will be more useful for the team. Tailor the tool to the work and don’t be afraid to try something different.

Learn to think computationally

You don’t need to be a programmer or computer scientist to think computationally. It’s a method for problem-solving rather than calculation – it’s the ability to break down complex tasks into manageable chunks. You can take these chunks and link them up in different ways to suit all sorts of different projects. Cutting up the design process into discrete processes will help you construct a workflow and help plan QA procedures.

Construct a robust workflow

Create a workflow that’s easy to interrogate, audit and check. If you’ve identified the tasks that need completing, you can move to linking up these tasks, mapping the flow of information, and mapping software to the process. Software outputs can often be difficult to check. Just as with traditional engineering design, an appropriate suite of ‘sanity checks’ is essential in ensuring appropriately conservative and robust details. Constructing a workflow will allow you to programme these checks into your design process to make sure everything is still on track.

Have a way of communicating this workflow to the office – things are easier when everyone is working in unison, and understanding your flow of information can help better integrate your work with other disciplines.

Look for 'quick-wins'

Structural design can be extremely complex, so be prepared to discover that there aren’t ready-made solutions for all your needs. Instead, you could find quick and simple ways to automate tasks. For example, an “optioneering” spreadsheet that trades off section size against steel grade on hollow sections, or a bit of code that schedules padstone sizes for a set of reactions or picking a precast lintel over a certain threshold. These small additions can speed up the design and are often easy to review. You may even be able to join them up in the future. Automation of the tedious or time-consuming tasks can free up time to work on solving larger issues.

Don't be drawn in

Software marketing is just that, marketing. It’s always important to dedicate some time to dig into a piece of software, test it, understand its capabilities and identify its weaknesses. Search their support forums when you encounter an issue and ask for demonstrations of features.

Don’t be afraid to interrogate vendors about how features work – often, they’ll be happy to answer your questions. Ask for an extended trial if you need one. If you’ve already designed your digital workflow, you’ll have a head start in fitting software to your needs. 

Further reading and activities

An image from the digital panel discussion

Interoperability in computational design

A panel of experts explore if there is a better way of exchanging information between structural software packages, and how we intelligently manipulate data to make it fit for purpose.

Date - 16 July 2019
Author - Paul Jeffries, Rob May, Carla Silva and Madalina Taylor
Price - Free

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