Can steel stay ahead in the digital race?

Severfield’s Kevin Campbell is trying to refocus the structural steel sector’s digital strategy, as he explains to CM
Steelwork graphic. Image: Dreamstime
Image: Dreamstime

Steel has a relaunched digital technology group. Tell us more.

The steel sector’s position was ‘we’ve been doing BIM for years, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up’, but of course the world does catch up.

The British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) doesn’t want the sector to fall behind. So we renamed the old Tekla users’ group to digital technology group. As well as Tekla updates, we look at the wider potential for digital technologies, whether in a factory, on site or in the office: cloud point scanning, HoloLens, integration into other software packages.

Steel is in a good position. But we’re not sure of what’s coming next within BIM – what digital assets of a building will look like, for example.

Is product data being commonly used by steel fabricators?

When we create a 3D model of a steel building in Tekla, we fully detail it and generate loads of information for ordering steel, exporting into manufacturing and management software packages. And, of course, the production process and the erection process generate information in terms of material test certificates, welder approvals, paint records and so on.

Kevin Campbell, Severfield

“We estimate you could only use robotics for 40% of work; the rest has to be fabricated conventionally”

Kevin Campbell, Severfield

Tekla’s view is this is not all going to fit in the model; you can’t export that to an IFC and back into Revit because it’s a potentially massive amount of data and a model is not created as a data warehouse.

So, there’s work to be done if we want to be able to create a data pool for a structure where you could open a package, interrogate a model and click on a piece of steel to see its life history.

But what does the end-user, the client want? Would anybody ever use that level of information? Depending on the contract and the project and the purpose of the structure – if it’s an oil refinery or processing plant – then working to the actual laid-down specification can be onerous. But in reality, on most projects, does the client check? No.

Is there a place for robotics in steel fabrication?

Robotic assembly is great if you’re manufacturing something small. But the steel beams we handle could be 20m long and weigh 10 tonnes, so handling the material is a challenge.

We looked at the application of robotics at Severfield and whether it was viable. We felt the technology wasn’t quite ready. While the [robotic assembly] systems are quite flexible, there are only certain types of products you can give them. We estimated you could only use robotics for 40% of work; the rest has to be fabricated or welded on conventional lines.

What other digital tech is steel looking at?

Our challenge is making tech like barcoding [of steel products] and HoloLens mixed reality link with our production systems and Tekla.

We’d like to be able to put on a HoloLens in the factory, call up a virtual 3D image of a part, look at the actual piece of steel in front of us, superimpose one over the other, and then check it. We found the resolution and different aspects of it weren’t quite good enough for that particular application.

So it has a limited application currently, but the ability to show images of a structure anywhere in the world can’t be ignored.

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