AECbytes Product Review (December 19, 2008)
Tekla Structures 14
Tekla Structures 14 is the new release of Tekla’s BIM application for structural engineering that also includes comprehensive tools for detailers, fabricators, manufacturers, and constructors. A new module for construction management has just been added.
Extensive repertoire of modeling and detailing tools for both steel and concrete construction; innovative data structure that makes file sizes concise, even for large and complex projects; large library of parametric components that automate the tasks of creating details and connections; bidirectional link to all the leading analysis tools; revamped interface that is less cluttered and easier to use; new flexible licensing system; enhanced support for multiple users working on a project; improved design coordination with change management and clash detection of reference models; construction management module integrates with leading scheduling applications; vast array of video tutorials greatly reduce the learning curve of the application.
Cons: Complex application that still relies heavily on numeric input in dialogs for many operations; does not directly integrate with other architectural and MEP BIM applications.
Price: Tekla Structures is available in various configurations priced from $1,000. The Engineering configuration, which includes rebar and connection modeling as well as clash detection and other project management features, is $9,900. All licenses are network and multi-user.
Last November, I reviewed version 13 of Tekla Structures, the long-established and powerful BIM application for structural engineering that also includes comprehensive tools for detailers, fabricators, manufacturers, and constructors. Since that was the first time I was reviewing Tekla Structures, I focused on describing the product as a whole rather than only the new features. A few months ago, Tekla released version 14 of the application, which features a more task-oriented user interface and menus, a more flexible and efficient licensing system, improved tools for coordinating multi-disciplinary models, and the ability to work on models twice as large as before without the risk of running out of memory. Last month, an additional update, version 14.1, was released that includes a solution for construction management, which can be used to carry out and manage construction projects from conceptual design to pre-construction planning and through ongoing site management. With a basic understanding of the application already available from my last review, let’s focus on exploring the new capabilities in version 14 and the construction management module of version 14.1.
Improved Interface, Deployment, and Usability
In my review of the previous version of Tekla Structures, I had found that one of its biggest limitations was its complexity, which was only exacerbated by a very overwhelming interface—most of the toolbars were open and displayed by default along the top and left of the modeling window, with the icons not accompanied by text labels, making it difficult to figure out what each tool did without referring to the Help documentation. In the new version, the interface has been significantly overhauled, with the toolbars being streamlined and better organized, and only the most frequently used ones displayed by default at the top and bottom of the window (see Figure 1). The menus have also been reorganized to make them more concise, and follow a more logical structure based on the typical user’s workflow—going from Modeling, Analysis, Detailing, and finally, Drawings and Reports—with sequential commands near each other. The changes have resulted in a much cleaner and less cluttered interface, and should reduce the learning curve for new users, making it easier for them to find related commands. Existing users will also benefit by having related commands within the same menu, reducing the need to search out infrequently used commands. Tooltips are now available for menu items as well, in addition to the toolbars.
Figure 1. The new streamlined interface of Tekla Structures 14, with more concise menus and reduced number of visible toolbars.
Deployment of the application is now easier with a new, more flexible licensing system called FLEXnet. Hardware locks and password files are no longer needed, and it is easier to update and renew licenses. Also, handling of licenses is much more efficient. The licenses can be installed on a server in a local area network. When a user starts Tekla Structures, it automatically obtains a license from the server. When the user no longer needs the license, the license is returned to the license server and it is available to another user. Licenses can also be borrowed for a limited time for offline use, making it possible to continue working with the application even outside the office, which can lead to significant productivity gains. Different access rights for the different Tekla Structures configurations can be set up for different users, depending upon their role.
Tekla Structures has always been capable of working on large projects very efficiently thanks to an innovative data structure that keeps file sizes low, in contrast to say, an application such as Revit where large file sizes are a challenge. The new version of Tekla Structures further improves upon this capability by allowing users to work with models twice as large as before without the risk of running out of memory. It does this through further innovation in how the data is managed internally within the application. Creating parts and using reference model objects is now considerably faster as well.
Other usability improvements include the introduction of model templates consisting of predefined settings that can be used as the basis for creating new models, saving the time and effort required to modify its settings to required values later; the use of the right-mouse button to select an object and open its pop-up menu at the same time, rather than first selecting the object and then right-clicking; and the ability to create a custom toolbar to access the tab pages of the Options dialog box more easily. There are also a number of improvements in the multi-user mode of the application (which, as described in my last review, allows allow multiple users to work on a model at the same time and save back or synchronize their work with the main model), including the ability to clear the locks of objects from other users, new “soft drawing locks” to notify of possible drawing editing conflicts, notifications on drawing status showing which drawings others have modified, and automatic deletion of outdated drawing files.
Collaboration and Interoperability Enhancements
Given the multi-disciplinary nature of building design, the ability to work with other models is critical, and Tekla Structures 14 has improved its ability to work with external models imported as references. It is now possible to easily see the changes between an old and a new reference model that is in the following formats: IFC, DWG, WebViewer (.xml), and Cadmatic (.3dd). If you double-click on a reference file in any of these formats, the Reference Object dialog box shown in Figure 2 opens up, allowing you to specify which is the older version of the file, and providing you with various options for the display, including new file, old file, unchanged objects, changed objects, deleted objects, and inserted objects. Some of these options are demonstrated in Figure 2. This capability allows the engineer to better track the changes in the design made by the architect or MEP engineer using other BIM applications. The models can either be sent to the structural team or placed on a common server site from where they could be linked into Tekla Structures. Not only is this useful for better coordination during the design phase, it could also facilitate model-based shop drawing reviews as opposed to the current paper-based review processes.
Figure 2. The Reference Object dialog box, and the various ways in which the changes in the reference file can be displayed.
Another related improvement in Tekla Structures 14 is the ability to check clashes between the Tekla model and reference models in IFC, DWG, and DGN formats, eliminating the need for a separate application such as NavisWorks. By facilitating clash detection at the time of design to resolve conflicts and constructability issues, it becomes a much more proactive tool in the process and is a lot more efficient in contrast to the contractor doing clash detection reactively during the design coordination stages. Tekla Structures is able to handle large models just as well as NavisWorks. Other clash checking improvements include the ability to continue working in Tekla Structures while the checking is taking place, and options to run multiple clash checks.
The IFC is still the main file format that Tekla Structures relies upon for interoperability with other disciplinary BIM applications, and it seems to be working out very well for Tekla. The export of 3D PDF is also now supported, as is the import of IGES and STEP files as reference models. Files can be exported to the VRML and STL formats for 3D printing. For analysis tools, integration is directly enabled through the use of APIs.
Improvements in Modeling, Analysis, and Document Production
Tekla Structures 14 includes several modeling enhancements. Plates and slabs can now be split into several parts by using a polygon. This is useful, for example, to divide an existing slab into two separate slabs whose thickness is different, without requiring the slabs to be re-created. There are new Move and Copy commands that can be used to copy or move selected objects from an object to another similar object. The associativity of surface treatments applied to components has been improved, so that it is maintained despite changes to the component, without required to be redefined. Other modeling improvements include an automatic check for overlapping objects, the ability to snap to center lines of parts, and faster display of studs and bolts, allowing modeling to be speeded up. The component library has been expanded with more customized components. Rebar modeling is now included in all modeling configurations, including Engineering (see Figure 3), and associativity of the rebar modeling tools has been improved to handle penetrations and openings. You can also clone reinforcements from object to another, even if they are of different shapes and sizes—the reinforcement will be automatically adjusted in the destination object.
Figure 3. Rebar modeling in Tekla Structures.
Recall from my last review that while Tekla Structures allowed you to create several analysis models from the same physical model for running different kinds of analysis, manual tweaking of the analysis model was not easy as it required adjusting values in a dialog rather than through interactive editing. This limitation has been addressed in Tekla Structures 14, and the analysis model can now be graphically manipulated (see Figure 4). The topology of the analysis model that is automatically generated has also been improved with the use of rules, so that fewer adjustments would be required. An additional improvement is the ability to combine the analysis elements of multiple objects into a single one, useful in those cases where the objects work together and need to be treated as one structural element. The range of analysis tools that Tekla Structures works with has been expanded to include GTSTRUDL, SAP2000, S-Frame, and Robot Millenium, in addition to existing links with RAMSteel, ETABS, Risa3D and Staad.Pro. Also new is the ability to import an analysis model directly from SAP2000—Tekla Structures will automatically create the corresponding physical model.
Figure 4. Graphical manipulation of an analysis model.
On the drawing front, a major improvement is the ability to clone GA (general arrangement) drawings, so that all the annotations, dimensions, styles, symbols, and so on that are applied to one drawing can be quickly used to create another drawing of a different view, but with the same notations automatically applied to it, saving a lot of time and effort. Other drawing enhancements include automatic reinforcement marks and better placement of their base points, the ability to define custom linetypes, the use of exaggerated dimensions to show narrow dimensions more clearly, a new angle dimension type to create angle dimensions whose arc distance can be modified and whose vertex is always at the angle vertex, the retaining of dimension alignment even when the drawing view scale is changed, the ability to adjust the line thickness of the grid label frame, and improved representation of hidden objects in drawings and drawing views.
Documentation and Training
In my review of the previous version of Tekla Structures, one of the big limitations I found was the quality of its documentation, which was entirely text-based and did not support self-learning well, mandating the use of professional training to learn the application. Since then, there has been a sea change on the documentation front, with an amazing amount of work put into creating a vast array of video tutorials that are available online as well as on CDs shipped by Tekla. This includes a First Steps interactive tutorial designed to help a new user get started with Tekla Structures. It consists of three basic lessons that take about 15 minutes to complete, followed by detailed modeling and drawing tutorials that give more insight on how Tekla Structures works (see Figure 5). The tutorial is extremely well designed, with prompts that actually make you work with the interface and get familiar with it. It is a convenient and effective way to learn the basics of the application.
Figure 5. Two snapshots of the new interactive First Steps tutorial for Tekla Structures.
In addition to the First Steps tutorial, there are many other videos that cover pretty much every aspect of the application, including all the fundamentals as well as more advanced topics, including the use of the APIs. It is rare to find a vendor that has invested this much effort into creating learning resources for its users. While the application still remains a complex one, having access to the video tutorials greatly helps to reduce the learning curve. In addition to the video tutorials, Tekla also provides virtual training as well as classroom training, which focuses on workflows and best practices in addition to learning how to use the tools. The virtual training is brand-new and takes about 20 to 30 hours to complete. It includes submitting models to Tekla for checking. A new certification program is also in place to recognize those who gain expertise in the application and best practices in building constructible design models for the downstream project team members.
The new Construction Management Module in version 14.1
Recall that Tekla Structures is designed to be modular, so that users can choose the configuration that best suits their needs. The new Construction Management (CM) module is available as one such configuration option, and can be used to carry out and manage construction projects from conceptual design to pre-construction planning and through ongoing site management. It works by bringing in all the disciplinary models as references, providing one consolidated model which is then used for the management of the project. None of the source models can be edited in order to preserve their integrity; however, you can explore the properties of the objects in the models as well as attach additional CM-related attributes to them such as cost, phase, RFI number, change order number, and so on. The objective is to have all the project management data in one place, in the CM model. It is interesting to note that the CM module does not even require the structural model to be a native Tekla file; it is designed to be completely open, and can work with models created in other BIM applications that are then imported into the application as reference models. The preferred file format for the import is IFC.
Some of the standard capabilities that are available in Tekla Structures take on added importance in the CM module. A good example of this is the selection and visualization tools. There are a large number of selection switches at the lower end of the window (shown in Figure 1) that allow different objects to be selected and displayed in different color schemes. You can also set various rules for visibility, which allows quick auditing of the model based on object properties. For example, you can set up a rule that only beams with less than a certain thickness should be displayed. Other more sophisticated rules can also be set up. This provides the construction manager the ability to review different aspects of the model more efficiently, based on the building information that is captured in the model. The light-weight web model publishing capability described in my last review allows communication of model views to all the project stakeholders (see Figure 6). And, of course, the clash checking capability is indispensable at the construction management stage, not just for the design models but also for the fabrication and construction models.
Figure 6. A Web model published for sharing with other project stakeholders, showing the project status in different color codes.
Scheduling is an important part of the CM process, and Tekla’s CM module allows scheduling data to be imported from leading applications such as MS Project and Primavera P6. Alternately, the tasks can be created within Tekla Structures, using a Task Manager interface, which is also used to manage scheduled tasks and link tasks to their corresponding elements. The tasks can be used to create color-coded model views and 4D simulations of how the project is proceeding (see Figure 7). Other capabilities of the CM module include automated Quantity Take Off in various formats such text, Excel, HTML, and relational database (.NET), which can be used to integrate with estimating applications; the ability to develop production schedules and import and simulate equipment models and plans; and tools for managing supply chain logistics, performance tracking, and commissioning.
Figure 7. A 4D simulation being performed in the new CM module.
Analysis and Conclusions
The new version of Tekla Structures has addressed most of the limitations I had pointed out in my review of the last release. Its interface has been overhauled to make it easier to use and less overwhelming, it now allows interactive adjustment of the analysis model, and its documentation has been dramatically improved with a vast array of video tutorials that greatly reduce the learning curve of the application. Granted, the first and the second are improvements that simply bring it on par with other competing applications such as Revit Structure; however, when combined with the fundamental power, sophistication, and comprehensiveness of the application, they add up to extremely significant developments. The application is still very complex and takes a significant amount of learning to master, but the video tutorials do help a great deal in this regard. All the additional improvements described earlier, including the flexible licensing system, change management and clash detection of reference models, and the numerous modeling, analysis, and drawing enhancements, all add up to make Tekla Structures a very compelling BIM option for structural engineers and detailers. The new construction management product further expands the repertoire of the application and seems to have most of the capabilities that project managers would need to efficiently plan and execute construction projects.
Being a company focused on a single product line, it is evident that Tekla has been able to devote a lot of dedicated resources to improving its application. This can help to give it an edge over competing products from larger vendors whose resources have to be divided among many diverse applications. While it is terrific to see the IFC playing such a significant role in facilitating interoperability and design coordination in Tekla Structures, it would be good to see Tekla pursue more direct integration options with complementary applications so that it does not lose out because of a perceived lack of integration. As I pointed out in my recent article on Bentley’s V8i launch, competition is critical to innovation and progress in any field, and it is good to have such a strong and solid application in the structural BIM space, which can hopefully hold its own against the growing momentum of the Revit platform. Tekla Structures has nicely solved the file size problem that Revit users are still struggling with, and if it continues to innovate at the pace shown in its latest release, it should remain a formidable competitor to Revit Structure and Bentley Structural for a long time to come.
About the Author
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes.
She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley,
specializing in intelligent building modeling,
and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached
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