In addition to facilitating the design and coordination of complex building projects, BIM is also being used by engineers to better monitor the heath of vital pieces of infrastructure such as bridges.

Zhigang Shen, a professor at the University of Nebraska’s School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, has combined expertise acquired from a master’s degree in computer science and a Ph.D. in construction management to develop a BIM-style software program for the express purpose of monitoring the condition of bridges.

The program creates a 3D model of real-life bridge structures in exacting detail based on data amassed via on-site inspections. According to Shen, the use of BIM enables the huge welter of data concerning the myriad components and aspects of a bridge to be incorporated into single, easy-to-access simulation, vastly expediting the monitoring process for transportation officials and inspectors.

Zhigang Shen“An enormous amount of data was being generated by bridge inspectors over the years, especially for complex steel bridges,” Shen said. “But you can imagine how difficult [it] is to track conditions in small, individual, structural critical pieces of each bridge. Even if reports are in the form of electronic PDF’s, it’s a daunting task.”

Shen believes BIM’s ability to incorporate multiple-aspect data into a 3D model makes it ideal for bridge inventory management. The 3D bridge model created using his software enables users to access information relating to bridge conditions in a variety of formats simply by clicking on a specific component within the visual simulation, as opposed to fossicking through a trove of files consisting of dense numerical data which can be hard to comprehend.

This enhanced data access makes it far easier for transportation officials to make critical decisions concerning the repair, replacement, permitting and load-rating of bridges.

The 3D model can also be adapted to incorporate and display real-time data on bridge conditions, collected via sensor networks that have been installed upon the structure itself. Shen believes this combination of 3D modelling with remote sensing could make a highly innovative contribution to today’s management of infrastructure inventories.

Shen was first motivated to develop the software in August 2007, when a section of an eight-lane bridge on Interstate 35W in the Minneapolis downtown area collapsed into the Mississippi River, causing the deaths of more than a dozen people. The tragedy of the disaster hit home for Shen, as he had just driven across the bridge a week previously.

The program has already been tested in the state of Nebraska, with Shen hoping to cooperate with federal authorities in the near future to expand the scope of its usage to the rest of the United States.