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The notion of “Digital engineering” is something that many people might struggle to understand. But behind this scholarly term lies the outline of a new form of engineering which, with the help of a lot of digital resources, will revolutionise designing and building tomorrow.
BIM Meeting - Crédits : Arthur Chays
The building industry is in the process of adopting BIM (Building Information Modelling), which is a transformation as significant as that experienced by the manufacturing industry 15 years ago with the deployment of the digital model and its applications along the full length of its supply chain. This transformation which in itself is momentous, has a parallel with another, even more important phenomenon of society: the explosion of connected devices (Internet of Things or IoT) and the market availability of prolific amounts of data (big data). This explosive cocktail, which could be christened the “BIM bang”, the result of the crossover of BIM, IoT and big data, brings about the notion of digital engineering.
"Digital engineering places the notion of use at the very heart of the design process."
But what’s so special about digital engineering? Have the needs of our customers changed to such an extent that we now need to invent new concepts to meet them? Not necessarily. However, what is changing are their expectations with regard to what we as engineers can bring them. They are challenging us to satisfy their own clients, i.e. operators and end-users. And this is where digital engineering comes into play, by placing the notion of use at the very heart of the design process.
Since the earlier days, engineers have created and perfected models to get a better grip of reality and make it both easier to understand and easier to handle. Today a new quality leap has been achieved, thanks to generative design tools which enable real conditions to be simulated in iterative, incremental and adaptive modes.
Furthermore, with tens of billions of connected devices in the very near future, we will have quite detailed knowledge of how the objects that we design and operate are used. We will even be capable of predicting how this use will change over time, as data is becoming quite central to design.
Immersive tools and virtual reality are elements which will allow us to take on board the know-how of our customers and test the operation of our facilities on a real-life scale, and validate maintenance and upkeep operations, including in degraded mode. The development of additive manufacturing tools (more commonly known as 3D printing), associated with digital measuring tools, will also radically change our design methods. For example, it will become totally unnecessary to store spare parts in view of a possible repair. These parts will be manufactured on site close to the object to be repaired whilst also optimising their shape and mass and factoring in reassembly constraints.
Beyond the technological disruption referred to above, the digital revolution that we are experiencing also compels us to revisit our working relations within the firm and, more importantly, to invent new business models. The return on investment of digital engineering will be more a question of new services than payment for traditional service provision. We are in a world of engineers; innovation has for many years focused on technical prowess and technology. But today, here we are, faced with vast quantities of data for which we will invariably have to find a use and the customer. This is why our future innovation efforts should revolve less around data than around how to work with it and on the environment necessary for its capitalisation.
Let there be no doubt: all actors in the construction sector will need to buy into these changes and define a new paradigm together. Engineering will make its full contribution and will make its voice heard. In the very near future, the contribution of system engineering will enable us to specify projects digitally and check compliance with design and construction standards. These quite radical changes in our design and works supervision methods are within arm’s reach; it is now up to us to adopt them. After all, adapting to circumstances is what engineers do best!