Cliff Young remembers sweeping through his father’s structural fabrication shop in New Zealand in the early 1980s. He watched shop workers go over engineering structural drawings and then use chalk to draw the details of the manufacture of the beams directly on the concrete floor. They were literally shop drawings.
Fast forward a few decades. As CEO of Virtual image and animation, Young is now helping structural fabricators and other construction players with virtual reality (VR) simulations. Sometimes they are used for marketing and sales, such as when a structural fabricator shows customers exactly how they will produce the steel and work with the erector to make a building a reality. Customers can see animations of the steel being lifted into place right on the screen in front of them. Sometimes simulations are used for training, such as showing draftsmen exactly how the steel they are drawing will be fabricated and erected. The simulations show retailers how just one little piece of missing information can snowball into a logistical mess on the jobsite.
Young and his team may seem like a world away from those chalk drawings on the floor. But in a sense, they’re trying to bring the industry closer to those traditional ways, when those who were drawing also knew (ideally, at least) how the buildings were actually constructed.
From detail to rendering
In 1989, the Young family emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Cliff’s father again started his own fabulous boutique. In 2003, Young and his brother started Anatomic Iron Steel Detailing. “Our dad had a structural fabrication shop in Vancouver, so from the start, Kerry [Cliff’s brother] and I knew we would have at least one client. If you can’t convince your dad to hire you, well, you might as well close the business from the start.
In 2009, Anatomic Iron was working on Denver International Airport, detailing the hotel as well as the intricate steel diagrid canopy that spanned the airport train station. The structural fabricator, Canam, and the engineer, SA Miro, asked if Anatomic Iron could render and animate how all the steel elements of the canopy would fit together in the field.
“We talked with the editors, planned everything out, and took a ride,” Young recalled. “We took the Tekla model and converted it to 3DS Max. From there, we made a 3D animation of how each of the segments would fit together. We shared it with the structure fabricator, and they worked with the erection team to plan all the sequencing and crane positions. It was extremely successful, and we quickly realized that this type of simulation had a lot of value.
More simulation projects followed, and in 2017 Young spun off the service and formed a separate company, Virtual Image and Animation. Today, the company specializes in simulations and renderings for the construction industry, but it is also expanding its technology into new markets.
“We made virtual reality games [for construction industry training] and animations for construction projects,” said Kavian Irazad, who was hired in 2020 as Business Development Manager. “But we’re also trying to get into making animations for other things, like simulating restaurant operations for different types of cuisines. We’re a tech company focused on real estate and construction, but we don’t limit ourselves to that.”
At some point after presenting that initial simulation for Denver Airport, Young recalled speaking with industry retailers and finding out how far they had strayed from the physical act of making and selling. structural erection.
“They are all in front of their computer,” he says. “They make drawings, but they don’t fully understand who uses them and how they are used on a daily basis.”
Others felt the same, including those at Industry Lift. Founded in 2018 by Bill Issler, developer of FabSuite (now Tekla PowerFab), the Williamsburg, Virginia-based utility company is dedicated to developing skilled crafts and, with the help of Virtual Image and Animation, uses virtual reality to do it.
As Young explained, “We’re creating the VR software that they can actually use in a VR headset. The most advanced developed so far is a steel fabricator simulation. [The VR simulation] shows what it’s like to be a steel fabricator, by building a specific piece of steel according to a shop fabrication drawing in the game. After playing the simulator, [detailers] really understand how their design is going to be used by the manufacturer.
“The same applies on the erection side of things. Our staff can make an erection plan and how to lay out the steel, but they don’t think about what it will be like to actually use those erection plans on the ground. Again, using virtual reality, we place them on a construction site where they have to take a beam and put it in place. They install the bolts, tighten them with a wrench, while looking 80 stories up ‘to the pavement below.’ He added that the company had changed the simulation to also include the soldered connections.
“With this, they understand why it’s so important to have clear plans,” Young said. “If the guy in the steelwork needs clarification, like what type of bolt is needed or something else, he has to come back down to check the drawing again.”
From there, the company embarked on various simulations for training purposes, including forklift driver and crane operator training. In the forklift simulation, students can pick up steel, load it onto a flatbed truck, and learn how to snap the steel together and prepare it for transport. In the crane operator simulation, the student uses a tower crane and learns how to maneuver steel beams and place them in the right place.
The company has even developed a welding simulator adapted to the structural manufacturing environment. Students learn how to set up a gun, put on the proper protective gear (if you hit an arc before lowering your hood, for example, the screen goes blank and the game is over), and drop a pearl quality. As Cliff explained, the simulator isn’t as detailed as some of the more comprehensive welding simulators on the market, but it’s not an entry-level simulator either.
“As to where these training simulations might go in the future, the sky really is the limit,” Young said. “We could have ironworker training, camber machine training, beamline operation, and more.”
Potential for QC
Walk the halls of FABTECH, NASCC: The Steel Conference, or another industry event and you might see someone donning a Microsoft HoloLens. Augmented Reality (AR) has reached the construction industry, and for structural fabricators, benders, and other related operations in the metals business, the technology has mind-boggling potential.
Young is quick to point out that his company’s current offerings fall into one of two areas: training and marketing. As Young’s team did with the Denver Airport project, structural fabricators can use simulation to sell their services to customers, showing them exactly what to expect and when, and how exactly the fabrication and assembly will take place on a project.
That said, the next step will be to use simulation for quality control, overlaying the Tekla 3D model with the actual fabricated assemblies. Young described an example where a fabrication shop could use AR to fabricate and join two large curved sections of steel. The design requires the two sections to be rolled and joined to a specific radius, plus or minus a certain tolerance.
Here AR could enter the picture. Imagine a QC technician wearing a HoloLens, inspecting these two curved parts with all related elements glued together and ready for final soldering. The AR would overlay the detailed model so the inspector could compare it with the actual assembly. From there, the inspector can verify that, yes, the items are all assembled within tolerance and are ready for final welding, or they can report a problem and take corrective action. Pushing it a step further, the QC tech or operator could put on the HoloLens and check the rolled sections after they’ve been formed, checking that the dimensions and radii are correct. If they’re a little off, they could strategize and plan to accommodate the variation – all much more efficient than welding the whole assembly together and shipping it to the field, only then to discover that the massive structure is out of tolerance.
Such simulations boil down to being able to predict and plan for future complications – a feat that Virtual Image and Animation has already accomplished, at least at a senior level, in its sales and marketing tailored work. Young described a recent animation made for those constructing the new JPMorgan Chase Building in midtown Manhattan, revealing exactly how the structure’s extremely complex base would be erected, with a series of massive fan column assemblies supporting the structure of the building.
“In this case, we did an animation of how the whole building was going to be erected, and specifically how the crawler cranes were going to move around to erect the base of the structure,” Young said.
Likewise, the company’s training simulations draw on best practices, allowing the aspiring maker to predict what a day on the shop floor might look like. A detailer learns how his designs will be used. Thus, simulation brings the real world closer to the software world.
Compared with traditional drawing, modern modeling saves countless hours. But at the same time, the missing details wasted countless hours, with requests for information (RFIs) being exchanged between project stakeholders. Too often projects fail not because manufacturers or other parties lack capacity, but because someone hasn’t responded to an email. Simulation, virtual reality, and even augmented reality technology could help ensure those details aren’t overlooked in the first place.