The Center for Life Sciences in Boston, which will contain a group of hospitals, was designed using 3-D computer technology. Image courtesy of TK&A Boston.

As mechanical rooms, labs, hospitals and other such projects become more complex, the technology used in designing, constructing and maintaining them has grown.

Few question the value of 3-D technology.

Its only downside is a perceived learning curve and slow processing speed (the ability to spin or move objects in real time within a 3-D environment). These two reasons are why so many contractors have hesitated upgrading.

For others, especially firms building some of the most complex commercial projects in North America, 3-D has become critical in how they manage their building projects, from pre-construction to project completion.

Three-D has been used in the sheet metal industry for years. The benefits of being able to see the ductwork on screen before installing and checking for run-ins with other trades, which sheet metal workers have long known about, is finally becoming recognized - especially by general contractors.

"Collision checking," a side benefit of designing using 3-D technology, has become the standard practice in managing the coordination process for top firms in the building trades.

Peter Campot, CEO of Massachusetts-based William A. Berry & Son Inc., says this is the future.

A 3-D drawing of an HVAC system made using EC-CAD 2007 from EastCoast CAD/CAM. Image courtesy of Mechanical Detailing Inc.

The future

"Within a year or two, all major contractors will be driving 100 percent of their complex work using some form of 3-D visualization for communications and coordination. Contractors who manage their projects in 3-D are completing them with significantly fewer on-site engineering conflicts, saving everyone lots of time and money," he said.

Most experts also agree that 3-D visualization and the ability to virtually walk through subsystem construction spaces brings clarity to challenging issues and saves time and resources.

The world of commerce and construction is fast paced. Contractors have little time to retool with new technology. Success depends on how well they estimate, build, manage and maintain their work. When one major job is completed, contractors are on to the next. The seamless transition from one project to the next, often determines profitability. There is little time to change any element of the process. Consequently, contractors continue to stick with outdated tools and coordination processes that are inefficient, sometimes ineffective and always time consuming. Even with time being so precious, many contractors consciously choose to work inefficiently rather than tamper with technology and how they manage their project coordination.

However, the ability to visually see the coordination of all trades as they co-exist with the steel and the structure is starting to get everyone's attention.

Image courtesy of TK&A Boston.

Some reluctance

Campot estimated that 10 percent of all major projects today are being designed in 3-D. He added that architects and mechanical engineers remain timid to the technology while pointing out any serious, large, general contractor engaged in building commercial projects will be using 3-D for the majority of its work.

The benefits of vastly improved coordination throughout the entire pre-construction, fabrication, construction and installation processes will be enough to move everyone to 3-D design technology, Campot said.

Managing one of the leading general contractors in New England, Campot has witnessed the slow and steady increase in the use of 3-D. His company, Berry, now requires all of its subcontractors to provide their own specific shop drawings in 3-D.

Bill Elwood, computer-aided-design coordinator at Harrington Bros., a large sheet metal fabrication shop in Boston, said he believes that newer, faster processors make 3-D design a much more practical solution for coordinating projects. Every year, new trades workers are entering the work force with 3-D design experience and training. Both mean the industry is about to quickly move to all 3-D design, Elwood said.

Saving money, saving problems

Navis Works is the 3-D presentation package that Berry uses to coordinate all of their critical projects. The technology has saved the company - and clients - lots of problems and money.

"The ability to create a 3-D walk-through of an entire project that incorporates all of the project's subcontractors utilizing their 3-D software design platforms is one of the reasons we're successful at what we do," Campot said.

An example of the company's 3-D design process can be seen in the approach Berry is taking in the construction of the Center For Life Sciences in Boston. The center is a coalition of Boston hospitals and medical institutions.

For Berry, no one system meets all the company's project needs.

"It's the combination of a number of different software programs and platforms that work together that allow Berry to take on complex projects," Campot said.

J.C. Higgins, a large HVAC contractor in Boston also working on the life sciences center, recreates 3-D from two-dimensional drawings and electronic files. Bob Taft, the company's HVAC CAD manager, said it's an involved process. He added that company workers also recreate all of the subsystems' steel structure.

Image courtesy of TK&A Boston.

Popular in area

Higgins isn't the only one. According to Kevin Malenchini, CAD manager at Berry, "All of the subcontractors in the Boston market are using 3-D-rendering CAD packages."

Berry does not require any one specific 3-D software package with the exception that each tool must be AutoCAD- and Navis Works-compatible and it must render 3-D objects.

Malenchini provides his subcontractors without 3-D design capabilities with companies that can assist in producing 3-D designs from 2-D engineering documents.

But subcontractors aren't restricted to using local detailing firms. Many can be found on the Internet. Considering that all of the work is in digital format, it may not surprise that contractors can find companies over the Internet that offer mechanical detailing at incredible savings without sacrificing quality and with great turn-around speed.

One such firm is Mechanical Detailing Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Owner Derrick Venzor says the company is busy.

"As a service, outsourcing 3-D rendered drawing projects has grown 100 percent in the company each of the past two years," Venzor said. "We're a perfect fit for a contractor or a mechanical contractor who is not 3-D proficient."

With expertise in all of the latest 3-D software packages, the company continually runs internal and external audits to ensure product quality and turn-around speed matches customer's needs.

Mechanical Detailing's most used 3-D mechanical drawing software is EC-CAD 2007 from EastCoast CAD/CAM. Venzor said it's important to him and his engineers that EastCoast supports the complete set of industry standards such as AutoCAD and Windows.

Venzor says "speed is money and time is money" and customers are happy when you can save on both. He adds that EastCoast's current system is the fastest one on the market by at least 30 percent. It also performs well with Navis Works, he said.

This article was supplied by EastCoast CAD/CAM.