Should Structural Engineers Reject Tech?

One bolt.

Is it needed?

An engineer decides. But is the engineer human or digital?

Let’s say a structural engineer specifies four, three-quarter-inch bolts to connect every beam and column joint in a new office high-rise. The specification provides redundancy, safety, and assurance. Plus, the engineer has always used four bolts. It’s accepted wisdom.

Until structural analysis software challenges the accepted wisdom.

The software concludes the joint will function safely with three bolts instead of four. Over the course of a 1,000-ton steel building project, the cost of fabricating, purchasing, and installing extra bolts constitutes real money for the client.

Should a consultant stick with the traditional approach or yield to a digital application that identifies the extra bolt as an unnecessary expense? These kinds of questions about the role of technology in structural engineering are increasingly emerging.

I entered the profession some 20 years ago at a time when building information modeling (BIM) software was dramatically changing the workflow of structural design and delivery. Though BIM, computer-aided design (CAD), and 3D modeling platforms have since become industry standard, some engineers still prefer a beam-by-beam, old-school approach they learned when the world was more analog than digital.

I come at these questions from a pro-technology perspective, but with a deep respect for the tried-and-true methods that have served our profession and clients for decades. In my view, it’s not a matter of using one approach exclusively, but finding a balance. Others, however, reject tech for all but the most mundane tasks.

In doing so, they also forgo the clear benefits technology provides in terms of a more seamless workflow. Many architects, contractors, and fabricators have incorporated 3D digital tools and optimization software in project delivery. When engineers do the same, we dismantle silos and move closer to an integrated workflow system that reduces miscommunication, saves time, and trims costs.

When all members of the project team use similar technology, it allows for greater recognition of potential problems and challenges, even before ground is broken. Addressing these problems and challenges in the earliest project phases helps reduce delays, mistakes, the acquisition of excess material, and even competing agendas.

What’s more, we increasingly partner with clients who require digital proficiency and an ability to work in the cloud. Think of it as a digital threshold engineers must cross for the privilege of tackling the most interesting and complex projects the industry has to offer.

Right now, technology offers potentially significant benefits to construction management, quality assurance, and quality control. Additionally, technology can be deployed to handle the more routine tasks, allowing engineers to focus on creative designs and solutions.

Again, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s about finding the right balance. And it’s about understanding how to deploy the latest digital tools to help human engineers design buildings and bridges that meet and exceed our professional standards for safety, functionality, and durability.

Adam Christensen
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