The migration of powerful computing technology from the labs to the desktops brought construction a stream of analysis software –spawned from spreadsheets and calculation programs capable of swiftly performing huge numbers of operations.

Bringing ever-heavier computing power to engineers drives innovation. From the ability to create "what-if" scenarios about stress distributions within finite regions of assemblies, to dynamic 3-D simulations of progressive changes in large-scale environments, engineers can resolve increasingly complex questions, thanks to the computer’s ability to rapidly solve large sets of equations. But still, much of the analysis technology remains rooted in its past.

10 Electronic Technologies That Changed Construction
1. The Internet
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2. Computer Aided Design
CAD Pioneers Gave Desktop PCs A Full Range of Electronic Drafting
3. Lasers
Lasers Have Become Common Element in Industry’s Toolbox
4. Analysis Software
Speed and Power of Computation Opens Doors to New Possibilities
5. Personal Computers
Personal Computers Empowered Users and Launched a New Age
6. The Fax
Speeding the Pace of Business and Shrinking the Globe
7. Critical Path Method
Network Logic Was Aided By Mainframe Power
8. Calculators
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9. Mobile Communications
Contractors Were Early Adopters of Mobile Comms
10. Global Positioning Systems
Location-Based Technologies Track Construction Operations
What's Next?
Innovations Are Ready for Trial and Adoption, But Great Gains Will Take Major Change

"The number-one structural software company in the world is...Excel," says Santanu Das, chief operating officer of NetGuru, Yorba Linda, Calif., vendor of the STAAD line of engineering design and analysis line software. NetGuru started in 1982 with punch cards and mainframes before it made its load analysis software available for the PC. "Everyone has the one favorite program they developed for something they do in Excel," Das says, adding that’s one reason NetGuru recently opened its technology third-party developers, including individuals with their Excel routines.

Das says the continually growing raft of sophisticated analysis software is changing the business of engineering. Smaller firms are taking on more aggressive projects and self-performing more work; they are working with more esoteric combinations of materials whose behavior would have otherwise been impossible to predict, and they are creating more tall buildings in seismic zones because they can model more complex scenarios than ever before.

For example, the curing of prestressed concrete is one discipline where analysis software is opening new possibilities. In a new project, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has asked engineers at California State University at Fullerton to predict prestressed concrete performance on Mars. Analysis and modeling software is taking engineers where no engineers have gone before.

The main thing that worries Das these days is that as the tools get more and more powerful, and at the same time simpler to use, they invite misuse by the inadequately trained and educated. He calls for stricter licensing standards and training all around. "Garbage in, garbage out," he says, reminding users of the classic admonition of the computer age.

But the leading edge analysis capabilities are coming from the complex analysis tools used for dynamic modeling, says John Voeller, chief knowledge officer at Black & Veatch. Multiphysical simulations are kicking analysis into another orbit.

DYNAMIC MODELING It is “teaching us more every day," says Voeller (Rendering courtesy of ARUP)

The simulations verge on artificial intelligence, he says. "You put in a phenomenon, trigger an interaction and allow things to change in ways you could not have perceived....You have a situation that is not a static environment, but a dynamically changing one."

Voeller says traditional engineering analysis software has been "interesting and useful," but it gives a "trivial subset snapshot" compared to multiphysical simulation. "There is no comparison," Voeller says. "CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] is teaching us more every day."