Editor's Window

31 May, 2006 By: Sara Ferris

The missing link: New technology connects the digital model with the real world.

What you design on the computer ultimately ends up in physical form out in the real world, whether it's constructed or manufactured. (Reverse the process in the case of mapping, where the physical form is recreated digitally.) The goal of Bentley Systems' Real-Time Asset Lab is to find ways to connect the two, with the hope that linking the actual physical asset with its digital representation will facilitate more efficient asset use, maintenance and emergency response.

 Sara Ferris
Sara Ferris

A fairly new endeavor, the lab presented some of its work at the BE2006 conference last month in Charlotte, North Carolina. The display that sparked the most interest among attendees was digital pen and paper, which uses technology developed by Anoto ( Drawings are printed onto paper coated with a thin layer of microdots. In the field, users mark up the drawings using a pen with tactile feedback, similar to today's tablets. The pen records the markups and feeds them back to a computer when returned to its docking station. The markups can then be referenced back into the original drawing file. Pens and standard-size microdot paper are currently available. The challenge now is to develop wide-format media to accommodate CAD drawings.

Wireless sensors and RFID tags also hold enormous potential for feeding actual operations data back into a product or building model. Crossbow Technologies ( demonstrated how a network of its wireless sensors can feed real-world information directly into MicroStation. A builder might install such a network during construction to assess how well the HVAC system is performing. If temperatures fall outside the desired range, the builder can make adjustments before the ceilings are installed.

Sensors can also feed information back to software for facilities management. For example, security sensors could detect a door opening and feed that information back to software, which then uses a floor plan to highlight the areas accessible through that door.

Wireless sensors can also help with asset maintenance. Life Fitness, for example, installs them on its exercise equipment so gym owners can track actual use and rotate machines to spread out wear. They can also replace units based on actual time in use, not just by age.

RFID tags come in two varieties: active and passive. Passive ones must be scanned to retrieve the data embedded within, but they are cheaper. Active ones contain batteries and can broadcast their data a certain distance. By positioning receivers throughout a building, you could create an indoor GPS system where the receivers take the place of satellites and help pinpoint the locations of items tagged with active RFID chips. This could certainly help companies keep tabs on mobile equipment (not to mention who swiped your favorite office chair).

I'm sure you can envision many other applications for these technologies. I expect that in the near future, they will become essential elements that turn the 3D digital model into a tool for managing building operations and product lifecycles.

Sara Ferris

About the Author: Sara Ferris

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