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How Do You Design and Build a Manufacturing Facility?

Bentley Systems has sponsored this post.

Overall view of all building services integrated into one 3D model. (Picture courtesy of VenturisIT.)

Think designing a car would be hard? Try designing the factory that makes the car. An automobile production plant beats a vehicle hands-down in terms of scale and complexity. With assembly lines, robot cells, workers’ facilities including parking, testing labs and perhaps even roads and a test track, vehicle manufacturing facilities can stretch for hundreds of acres and cover as much ground as a small town.

The factory of old may have been laid out by hand and constructed with blueprints in the form of 2D CAD drawings. Then came 3D with crude, gray primitive shapes that represented buildings (later referred to as LOD 100 [i] ). Though simple by today’s standards, those 3D shapes strained the computers of the day. Remember the beige boxes with floppy disk drives under a CRT monitor that, with a special and very expensive graphics card, were able to show shapes in color but struggled to pan and zoom around the facility you were trying to lay out?

Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest vehicle manufacturer, operates its main factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Picture courtesy of Bentley Systems.)

Back then, no one could have imagined that the entire facility—from the doorknobs to the welding robots to the buildings themselves as well as the grounds around them (LOD 500)—could be one big model, all of it accessible from a single computer. But with the help of today’s robust CAD and infrastructure modeling platforms , here we are.

Move Pixels, Not Steel

Laying out a manufacturing facility in 3D with a high level of detail is a Herculean and multidisciplinary effort. To undertake a complete digital build of a factory is a high-level decision that stems from faith and will in equal parts. The will is necessary to overcome legacy methods and push to get the design done so building can commence. One must also have faith that the extra effort and time spent on a digital model is an investment sure to pay dividends during construction—which will no doubt be easier and faster, the principle behind the MacLeamy Curve [ii] .

Indeed, with every fixture, pipe, duct, wall and more modeled, assembly of the whole is a snap. Clashes, expected and dreaded in every construction project of consequence, have been eliminated aside from those that can be easily overcome during construction (such as moving wiring). Moving beams and ducts that interfere with each is considerably easier when they exist in silicon and pixels rather than welded and riveted steel. It may be annoying for a designer to reroute a duct, but they should know their effort will reduce delay and ease construction.

The Tools of the Trade

Complete and detailed design of an entire manufacturing facility is possible through advances in hardware (Moore’s Law, the cloud) and software (CAD, solid modeling), as well as emerging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). CAD companies have also played a role, evolving from making floor plans and side views of parts to full scale 3D CAD and large assemblies. Entire vehicles and aircraft are now routinely modeled with CAD programs. Modeling itself has taken on a broader meaning, modeling not only architecture but also multiple manufacturing disciplines and various building trades. A robust CAD application can generate 3D models from floor plans and is also able to model the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems—all with utmost precision.

Feeding the Bear: Kodiak Group

Kodiak Group, in the town of Grayling tucked away in upstate Michigan, makes industrial processing equipment and contracts for various mechanical, structural and ventilation projects. The company’s stand-out may be the Crusher Model 6060, an 86,000 lbs, 10 ft tall beast with teeth that swallows a stream of metal parts of any shape and noisily spits them out flat. That’s what over a million pounds of force will do.

The Kodiak Crusher 8600 being set up in a manufacturing operation. (Picture from video by Kodiak Group.)

The crusher, as well as Kodiak’s conveyors systems, turntables and other industrial hardware, are modeled in 3D as solid models.

“We’ll create an exact model that represents what is going to be fabricated,” says Grant Wood, CAD Administrator and Project Engineer for Kodiak. “We detail every hole for every bolt, the bends, cuts and other details for fabrication. This helps provide shops with the right information to fabricate our products and meet the customers’ expectations.”

Parametric modeling of an I-beam in MicroStation. (Picture courtesy of Bentley Systems.)

Kodiak includes 3D models for all components it sources for its machines and systems, rather than representing components with “text from a catalog that is stuck in a file.” The company models structural steel members parametrically.

It was a lot of work upfront, according to Wood, but one that paid off with the ease that members can be resized for subsequent jobs.

Kodiak embraced 3D modeling early and was modeling when other companies were still drawing. The company models all its products and projects with MicroStation. Projects range from simple models created in a day to complex machines and systems that can take years to model.

One project can have hundreds of models and reference gigabytes of information. Kodiak stores all projects in the cell/tab structure of MicroStation.  The company has over 1,800 .CEL files, many with hundreds of models each, ready to be manufactured—or be redesigned to become a new product.

Very little of what we do is design from scratch, says Wood. Most of the time we start with an existing design or an existing building.

MicroStation’s versatility—its ability to model everything from the components to the whole machine, to the buildings and the building site, in 3D, and often producing 2D drawings—is mission critical for Kodiak.

A project starts as a concept model. Additional detail comes with the addition of parts and machines. All of it must be situated inside a manufacturing space—and with equipment as large as the Crusher, maneuvering it into the building and into place cannot be taken for granted.

“We integrate our equipment and others into an already existing building or a new building depending on the job,” says Wood. “In the process, we make sure specialty equipment from others will fit and function as needed along with our own.”

Under One Roof

Building on a solid foundation [pun intended] will show firms like Kodiak a future bright with possibility. From a solid model, augmented reality (AR) can let you see a robot spot welding on an assembly line when all that really exists is a bare concrete floor and a roof overhead.

A design and build firm with CAD, BIM, infrastructure, PLM and project management applications under one roof, i.e., by the same vendor, has a distinct advantage over firms that source their applications from various vendors, an approach justified as using “best-in-class” applications, but is, in reality, a dog’s breakfast.

A software vendor that supplies all factory planning, design and construction tools is a vendor that sees the whole picture and is better able to paint it. Multiple unrelated applications forced to work together will have to convert and translate data back and forth. The dissimilar look and feel of user interfaces will also present a learning curve and hinder users. An architect who needs a simulation to visualize airflow or the movement of people, for example, will find the UI of a simulation application foreign and formidable. Rather than attempting it, they would rather wait in line for the firm’s simulation expert, likely adding a delay to the project schedule.

Test and Research Facilities by SBI

German automobiles are renowned worldwide for their engineering and one 65-person design firm intends to keep it that way. Schreiber, Brand und Partner Ingenieurgesellschaft mbHB (SBI), situated in Lampertheim, Germany (between Frankfurt and Stuttgart), specializes in designing and building labs, R&D and testing facilities, including aerodynamic testing and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC). The company employs Lean Construction techniques to reduce construction waste and uses CAD and simulation to optimize the facilities it builds.

SBI has used Bentley’s MicroStation for over 20 years. Using MicroStation, the firm can take a holistic approach to a facility, incorporating all building trades and every type of stakeholder over the entire building lifecycle. This is made possible with the digitalization of a project, starting with the 3D CAD model. With a 3D model, stakeholders can collaborate and minimize the confusion that can engulf a large project as the data grows and is distributed and duplicated. With everyone working off one centrally located intelligent 3D model, a project can have a single source of truth.

The HVAC system highlighted in a 3D CAD model in a SBI design. (Image courtesy of Schreiber, Brand und Partner Ingenieurgesellschaft mbHB.)

"A major advantage in using MicroStation is that all things come from one software—from planning and construction to building services to testing technology,” says Mario Rödel, SBI’s BIM Manager and team leader for CAD. “And for specialized trades, such as HVAC or automation technology, having an interface where we can accept any files, with absolutely no problems, is one of the most important advantages."

For SBI, having all aspects of facility design stem from one source is key. From the concept to construction and the testing that follows, it is all based on one 3D model. One interface is all that is needed to handle HVAC, automation technology, documents and more.

With BIM, the entire facility is modeled with all systems in place (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.) and all in 3D, allowing acquisition of building supplies and material without so much as a single paper drawing. The BIM model produced will contain enough metadata to be useful after the handover by the owner’s facility management.

SBI sees the 3D model as the basis of the digital construction of tomorrow, a future with virtual reality where they can walk around a job site and compare what is being built to the 3D model of what was designed—simply by holding a tablet up to it.

SBI has become so adept with 3D design, having used it for several multimillion-dollar projects over the years, that it offers 3D design as a service to other manufacturers.

The Power in 3D and Infrastructure Models

A large manufacturing facility can cover so much ground that it can be considered a city onto itself. Like a small city, it must consider infrastructure, such as electricity, transportation, water, telecommunications and data transmission.

That’s a ton of information. For this to be useful for all those that have to plan it, design it, make it, operate it and own it, facility design and construction must have a solid foundation: a precise CAD model. Today’s BIM software adds to the CAD model the rest of the facility, the site, the multiple systems (electrical, HVAC, plumbing, etc.) and all the associated data.

And yet, the foundation must be flexible, accommodating changes—perhaps repeated changes—as designers, constructors and owners try to reach agreement. Changes are accommodated with parametric modeling, which should be at the heart of a robust 3D modeling program.

BIM stores metadata in addition to geometry—and that data can be considerable. Metadata can consist of deadlines, supplier info, cost, materials and more. Data pours into a project over time at every stage and can be quite useful through the building lifecycle. For example, consider a pump specified by an engineer that can show Purchasing where it could be obtained or inform the facilities manager when it needs maintenance.

Drawings, still a demand of most construction projects and delivered in the handover to the owner, can be a breeze rather than a chore. Much effort is saved when 2D views are automatically created from the 3D model and schedules are automatically generated. A robust 3D CAD application will do that.

A robust 3D model and database can hold everything that is vital to a manufacturing facility—but will only show what is needed. To show everything would be to see nothing but a clutter of too much information. If the architect only needs a floor plan, a 3D model should be able to generate it. A lighting specialist should be able to access what they need from the 3D model, nothing more or less. Likewise, the engineer should be able to draw off the model and its database the information needed to do energy calculations and size HVAC equipment.

And for all the services that the facility requires from its surroundings (power, water, sewer, communications, etc.) wouldn’t it be convenient if the software vendor that helped plan and model the manufacturing facility, the walls and all within the walls, also had an infrastructure solution?


To learn more about how MicroStation can help with the design of your manufacturing facility, join Bentley for their MicroStation for Manufacturing webinar series.



[i] Levels of Detail, as defined by the GSA:

  • LOD 1: Conceptual geometry
  • LOD 2: Approximate geometry
  • LOD 3:  Precise geometry of major building elements
  • LOD 4: Precise geometry
  • LOD 5: As built


[ii] The MacLeamy Curve is named after HOK leader, Patrick MacLeamy, who although was not the first to equate an upfront design effort with an eventual savings in time and money, is given credit for the graphing it.

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