In aid of grand designs

24 Apr 2003

Computer aided design (CAD) is as basic to the world of engineering, architecture and product design today as the spreadsheet is to business universally.

In fact, it is the direct equivalent, with the ability to do ‘what if?’ alternative design approaches quickly and inexpensively as well as doing the calculations automatically for the many revisions a design process entails.

CAD slashes lead times and enables the engineer or designer to bring a project or product to fruition faster than was ever possible. Most companies invest in CAD technology because they believe it will gain productivity. Case studies from some of the world’s leading manufacturers such as Philips/Whirlpool, ABB, ITT and Intel have reported gains of up to 800pc in productivity when using CAD systems, while lead times from design to manufacture have accelerated hugely.

Similar gains have been made and have been quickly taken for granted in architecture and engineering, from buildings and their interior services (plumbing, heating, ventilation and so on) to bridges, roads and traffic management to urban and regional planning.

Initially CAD was a straightforward computerised draughting tool, producing two-dimensional (2D) drawings and plans quickly and easily, effectively saving millions of man-hours. But advanced technology and more powerful PCs have facilitated an almost total transition to three-dimensional (3D) design and on-screen modelling, with 2D now effectively a subset for producing working drawings for the various production functions.

That 3D modelling is the glamorous end of CAD, with visualisations of walkthrough or aerial perspectives giving a realistic impression of what the finished plant, building, bridge or product would look like. “But it’s also thoroughly practical, because after all anything in the built environment is going to be 3D so the architects and engineers have to visualise that way in the first place,” points out Seamus Hurley, director of Cork-based Cadcoevolution, distributor of the world market-leading AutoDesk CAD software. “3D simulation has become enormously important because it brings people who are not design professionals fully into the process, either for consultation or for decision making, from private clients to citizens and their elected politicians.”

There are approximately 22,000 individual direct users of CAD systems of some kind on the island of Ireland, Hurley estimates. The dominance of AutoDesk can be gauged from the fact that 16,500 of those use one of its products. By far the widest area of use is in the built environment, which means architects, engineers and other professionals in local authorities and the National Roads Authority as well as private practice and construction firms. In fact, John Flanagan, senior executive engineer with the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB), suggests that CAD and related systems represent the biggest IT investment in local government after standard office and communications applications. “Of course the design function is basic, from housing to sanitation to urban planning, but increasingly CAD is being used as the front end or link to complex databases such as geographical information systems or project management,” he says.

Flanagan gives the example of an application developed by the LGCSB for handling the mapping element of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) in major projects such as road building. It takes in all of the relevant information, from Land Registry details to ordnance survey maps to the project designs. Most importantly, when design revisions occur the implications for all of the relevant CPOs are automatically calculated. This extended application of CAD is already saving millions of euro because this kind of mapping and documentation to meet legal requirements has traditionally accounted for as much as 2pc or more of capital project costs.

Although this example is specific, it illustrates very well the way in which CAD is no longer an electronic drawing board, as Martin Reddington, managing director of Dedicated CAD Systems, puts it. “Visualisation is really one of the great features, enabling people who cannot be expected to read drawings to see what something will look like. Even kitchen design showrooms can produce tailored walkthroughs on CD for buyers to make decisions. Yet arguably there are more important areas of functionality today, such as tools for collaborative working between different professionals in a project team,” he explains.

Reddington gives the examples of clash detection, where the CAD system can quickly warn of potential conflicts between design elements. CAD has moved on, he says, from just passing on a set of information to the next professional to become a dynamic and intelligent system in which the relationships between all of the elements are automatically recorded and revised with the knock-on effects carried through or highlighted for decision. Equally valuable is the ability to generate a bill of materials or list of components and elements directly from the complete CAD file.

At the other end of a construction project the complete CAD file and project history is now a database that gives a comprehensive foundation for asset management in the future. What is now being called a building information model, it gives a total electronic picture of every aspect from initial brief to last week’s replacement of a central heating component.

Naturally, since this is still the IT sector, there is some software industry conflict over what standard format the data should be in to give universal consistency and usability. The rivals are AutoDesk and Bentley Systems, each with its own proprietary format. What users increasingly want is a standard file type that can be accessed by property agents, accountants, plumbers or construction professionals. Since there is no international refereeing body in this scrap, most bets are on the AutoDesk version because of the sheer volume of users and native Windows pedigree.

By Leslie Faughnan