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The Importance of Interoperability in Structural Engineering

28 Apr, 2020 By: Bentley Systems

If data types and software products are not interoperable, software tools and engineering data become part of the problem instead of the solution.

In everyday life, we don’t give much thought to interoperability. But what if your make of car could only drive on a limited set of roads? What if you could only call people who use the same model of phone that you do? In addition to causing frustration, these situations would introduce delays, force you to implement kludgy workarounds, and prevent you from getting things done.

For the same reasons, interoperability is crucial for structural engineering. If data types and software products are not interoperable, software tools and engineering data become part of the problem instead of the solution.

Structural engineers work against tight deadlines and rigid standards. Disjointed workflows waste valuable time, and open projects up to risk by introducing errors into design, analysis, fabrication, and construction.

A contemporary structural engineering workflow, as part of the larger design process, requires an on-demand, integrated workflow. In this article, we will explain what interoperability means for structural engineering, and how Bentley Systems answers the call, enabling the free flow of project information among teams, disciplines, and applications. With Bentley, you never have to think about how to exchange data, so you can focus on the task at hand: engineering.

Eliminating the Five Pain Points of Project Data Collaboration

Engineers spanning various disciplines have evolved their use of technical software over the years. Unfortunately, the result of this evolution often looks more like a platypus than a cheetah. Historically, teams have cobbled together a hodgepodge of software tools from a variety of vendors. These products were each designed to do a single task efficiently, but there was little concern given to how they would interact with other tools and the various data formats they create. As expectations for collaboration rise, the continued use of single-task tools becomes a significant roadblock standing in the way of improved performance and increased productivity.

Today, there are five key issues stemming from the use and management of project data; think of them as the pain points of project data collaboration.

  1. Finding data. Project data needs to be easily accessible at all times, from the moment it’s created to years down the line. A network drive filled with directories and subdirectories quickly becomes complicated, as newer versions of project data bury older ones. CAD models and drawings, dynamic analyses, supporting documentation, and other data in a variety of electronic formats need to be correctly versioned and easy to locate on demand.
  2. Reusing data. Many projects have elements that are similar — if not identical — from one job to the next. For example, if your client is installing the same structure at 40 job sites, a large percentage of the structural data will be identical across the sites. The ability to easily reuse data saves time and money; the inability to do so is a pain point.
  3. Sharing data. Depending on how it’s handled, the sharing of data across a team can become either a major benefit or a crippling bottleneck. For example, the all-too-common “send me a copy of the model” approach is a recipe for chaos. It violates the first rule of collaboration: Always maintain a single source of truth.
  4. Controlling data. Project data is sensitive; it is intellectual property (IP) and generally considered to be an engineering firm’s most valuable asset. If not protected during collaboration, this pain point might become the most expensive of all, in terms of lost trust and lost competitive advantage.
  5. Extending data. The value of structural engineering data grows when it becomes useful to the larger team. There are many people who need the data, but are not data creators themselves.

An integrated structural modeling approach can produce the following benefits in those five key issue areas:

  1. Finding data: Visual access to models from any device makes it easy to locate the right information at the right time.
  2. Reusing data: Data reuse is a function of data access. Once you clear out the choke points of finding the data, it will be reused.
  3. Sharing data: Sharing is human nature, and access to ideas is the lifeblood of both innovation and productivity. When applied to engineering data, modern social technologies support collaboration by encouraging communication as well as data sharing.
  4. Controlling data: Maintaining control over project data is not antithetical to open access for collaboration. In a data-on-demand engineering environment, control of data means ensuring that all the right people have wide-open access (or as much as they need without being overwhelmed), and none of the wrong people have any access at all.
  5. Extending data: Cloud technology — whether deployed internally or externally — has proven to be a key aspect of improving collaboration and speed. It makes possible new ways of processing data and sharing that data with clients and other stakeholders. And any cloud services provider has more full-time security experts than even the largest engineering firms could afford to hire.

Moving from Drawings to Models to Digital Twins

Keeping all the data in its original format is an important part of opening up data flow. When team members access engineering data from a single integrated model, data integrity is protected. The more that team members trust and use the integrated model, and resist the urge to personally hoard data (in a spreadsheet, for example), the more the project benefits from a dynamic workflow.

Bentley Systems’ interoperability model is a holistic approach to project data. It moves beyond drawings and models to create a digital twin approach to infrastructure design.

So what is a digital twin? Bentley defines it as the digital representation of a physical asset, process, or system, as well as the related engineering performance information. In use, the digital twin continuously synchronizes data from multiple sources, to represent near-real-time status, working conditions, or position. A digital twin enables users to visualize the asset, check its status, perform analysis, and generate insights in order to predict and optimize asset performance. Once the asset is built, ongoing data collection (from sensors or visual inspection devices, including drones) can be added to the digital twin.

Bentley offers an integrated approach to software and places high value on the free flow of information. For example, every tool in Bentley’s Structural Enterprise WorkSuite — including all RAM and STAAD applications — is fully interoperable not only with the applications within the worksuite, but even applications that span other disciplines like piping design, offshore analysis and design, architecture applications, rebar, and more.

Because interoperability is at the heart of Bentley, their applications are not only interoperable with each other, but that interoperability is extended to even third-party applications like Revit, Tekla, and more.

Making Serendipity an Engineering Attribute

Modern collaborative engineering is a new way of working that allows every person to participate when their input can benefit the most, and when interaction can be a synergistic force. The key to this collaboration is shared access: Every bit of information about the project must be sharable at every stage in the process. Anything less is an annoyance at best, and a barrier to productivity at worst.

Thirty years ago, engineers were excited by what personal computers could accomplish, but few could have guessed how widespread the revolution would become. Today, Bentley has embraced a similar revolution.

The fairy tale that inspired the word serendipity relates the adventures of three clever, observant princes who always manage to be in the right place at the right time. The moral of the story is not, in fact, about luck or happy accidents of success, but rather about being in a state of readiness that makes discovery possible.

Bentley’s Structural Enterprise WorkSuite is today’s platform for structural engineering serendipity. By replacing archaic, disconnected workflows with connected data environment, teams can ready themselves to discover the best solutions to engineering and construction challenges — and their projects (and budgets) will reap the benefits.


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