The experts say 2D CAD systems are reaching the end of their useful life. The future of construction design lies in 3D modelling and collaborative software.
The future of the 2D cad system as a drawing tool hangs in the balance, according to experts gathered at last month’s AEC Systems UK trade fair in London. They claim the use of IT in construction is shifting to managing project data, creating virtual teams and 3D intelligent modelling.

“Drawing-centred CAD is dead,” says Yoav Etiel, senior vice-president of Bentley Systems, which produces the MicroStation CAD package. Etiel, who attended the fair, said: “I am not about drawing, I am about projects. My clients reward me for better, faster, cheaper projects.”

Etiel says software firms in the construction sector are moving towards solutions that allow collaborative working and 3D object modelling instead of 2D drawings.

Bentley Systems itself has just launched ProjectBank, a data management tool that allows engineers to change, track and store information on the design of each component in a project. It runs with MicroStation’s extranet system, ProjectWise, which also allows collaborative working. Each member of the team can amend a component at the same time, and all of the changes are held as part of the project journal.

Bentley Systems already produces a system, MicroStation Triforma, that allows structural engineers to model in 3D – a more accurate process than using 2D drawings.

Etiel’s views on the demise of CAD were echoed by trade fair speaker Ray Crotty, former head of Bovis’ IT department, who now runs his own software consultancy C3 Systems. “CAD systems are deplorable,” he says. “Modelling in 3D is the way forward.”

Crotty says current stand-alone design tools fail to contribute to project management or cost management and make collaborative work more difficult. He believes the industry is letting clients down by not providing an accurate picture of the finished product.

“We are trying to convey conceptual design to laypeople such as the client and the planning guy in the local authority,” he says. “Getting them to understand what a building will look like is almost impossible.”

Crotty says the industry should adopt standard building types to make the construction process more predictable. Developments in 3D modelling mean clients will one day be able to see prototypes before a project starts. “Buying a building will become as predictable as buying a car,” he says.

The future looks promising because most large sites have a computer, and Crotty predicts that in five years, collaborative networks, such as 3D image modelling, will be commonplace.

Along with a reduction in CAD dependence, Crotty predicts the demise of cost engineers. They will be replaced by software systems that manage project costs for contractors. Crotty describes this process as “disintermediation”, or cutting out the middle man. “Old skills will die and new ones emerge,” he claims. “General contracting will go and you will end up with project managers and franchised installers – the manufacturers.”

In other words, contractors will adopt data management processes to control a building project with more off-site prefabrication provided by the manufacturers.

The need to create a virtual team around a project is backed up by Tim Cole, community manager with Construction Industry Trading Electronically. He believes that the traditional division of work between architects, QSs and so on will no longer be feasible. “The ultimate solution is locking the whole process together,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you are restricting people who are trying to innovate in the industry.”

Like Crotty, Cole predicts an industry shift towards managing projects electronically in the next three to five years, reducing time wasted re-keying information. Cole wants firms to abandon paper and adopt technological processes such as electronic data interchange and CD-ROMs to transmit information.

He estimates that 80% of the data typed into a computer has already been typed in by someone else.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he says. “We need to see [electronic data interchange] as a business issue, so we are involving computers in the partnering process. It will also avoid wasted effort.”

Cole cites a £25m submarine training school that had a 750-page tender document. Using electronic data filing, the information was downloaded on to a computer in less than five minutes, ready for the estimators to start work. The estimating time saved was six days.

Cole reassures sceptics of EDI that the system is secure. “It doesn’t mean the kid next door can find out your salary and shirt size,” he says. He also stresses that the adoption of EDI is not expensive, claiming that most companies can get a system up and running for less than £2000.

The Inland Revenue is already setting up an electronic data solution for the new tax scheme for subcontractors to be introduced in August. Firms will be able to send monthly tax details to the Revenue by electronic link-up, reducing the need for paper and postage.

Cole delivers a stark warning not to delay investigating the potential of electronic data. “Standing still is not an option,” he says. “EDI and e-commerce are part of the future. Standing by the pool and watching people flounder might be fun, but when they are swimming, it is you who will be floundering.”

On the wire

Online plastics Amari Plastics, the plastics distribution company, has launched a web site. The site contains information on the firm’s product range as well as guidelines on processing and installation. Climate control site Biddle, the air curtain technology and climate control firm, has expanded its web site to include more product information. Design handbook on the web Menvier has posted its design handbook on the web. Menvier’s Design Handbook contains guidance on how to design emergency lighting and fire detection systems and notes on the latest legislation. Fire protection on the net McCartney Fire Protection, a specialist in passive fire protection, has set up a web site providing information on the firm’s services. Aircrete pages The Aircrete Bureau, which represents the lightweight building material, has launched a web site covering information and design notes on the applications of Aircrete. Online kitchens Baumatic’s new web site contains the firm’s entire portfolio of kitchen appliances. Electronic electrical site Electrical accessories supplier Focus Electrical has launched a web site that allows clients to order catalogues and products, and e-mail the firm. Energy management conference NEMEX, the national exhibition and conference for the energy management sector, has relaunched its web site for 1999. The site, which will be updated regularly, includes exhibitors lists and full conference information. NEMEX 99 takes place at the NEC in Birmingham on 17-18 November.