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Taken to another dimension

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Tim Lucas, the brains behind Price & Myers 3D Engineering, is an enthusiastic promoter of the benefits of 3D working

It is surprising to walk in to the office of the most technologically advanced section of an engineer's office to find the staff fiddling with slightly precarious paper models of arches. But Tim Lucas, who runs Price & Myers 3D Engineering, is a great enthusiast for physical models. Talking about a complex sculpture that the practice has worked on in north London, he says: 'I think the link with physical models is very important. After one and a half years of virtual models, the full physical model was much more intuitive.'

Lucas' speciality is anything designed in three dimensions. What started as a personal interest and transferred ad hoc onto a number of the practice's projects, is now a selfsufficient division, set up 18 months ago. 'All our jobs require 3D to make them work, ' Lucas says. 'They are complex jobs, a lot of our work is with artists or sculptors who need visual clarity in the stuff that we show them.'

The north London project is relatively typical in a world of one-offs. It is for the N1 shopping centre in Islington. A team consisting of architect Letts Wheeler with sculptor Wolfgang and Heron won a developer's competition to design a sculpture incorporating a free-standing florist's shop on the theme of angels' wings. As the project developed (the final design bears almost no resemblance to the competition entry), the engineer used three or four different software packages.

The final design has the wings springing from two arches that are linked above the kiosk. Partway through the design process, the client requested that the kiosk be enlarged, and this resulted in the arches being curved in two dimensions so that they did not have to be ridiculously high in order to clear the kiosk. The secret, however, is to ensure that each individual piece of metal in the arches curves in only one dimension so that it can be cut out of a flat piece of steel.

Price & Myers used SolidWorks product design software to model the sculpture, did some analysis and then used a package called Rhinoceros to unfold the surfaces. Then the model was put into AutoCAD for drawing.

'The trick is realising what different things can do well and using the piece of software to its best, ' Lucas says. He likes SolidWorks because it will perform a finite-element analysis, so it is not necessary to export the design for this part of the process.

'The usual analysis programs go out of the window on this kind of thing, ' he says. But SolidWorks also has its drawbacks. When Lucas tried to use it for unfolding the surfaces 'it didn't really work. Rhinoceros took about 10 minutes.'

The way that the modelling is done is also important. For example, the angel sculpture was set up around a skeleton so that it was possible to change the geometry without starting from scratch. This allowed the dimensions to be squashed a little to allow the elements to fit onto a standard truck for delivery.

Another part of the design process involves laying out the pieces of the sculpture on 4 x 2m steel sheets in the most economical way possible.

Steel fabricators have software that will do this for standard building components but not for such complex projects. A Price & Myers engineer managed to reduce the number of steel sheets needed here from 30 to 20 - at a saving of £800 per sheet.

This is essential since most of the 3D projects are fairly small in size and value. For example, one of Lucas' projects was the bandstand at the De La Warr Pavilion by Niall McLaughlin (AJ 11.7.02). And he worked with the same architect on its competition entry for a bridge at Temple Quay in Bristol, where architect and engineer were in close collaboration to produce a stress-skin structure that incorporates the balustrades. Although it skews along its length, Lucas is confident it is constructable and used rapid prototyping to produce a physical model for about £500 that confirms the computer model will work.

McLaughlin fits the category into which Lucas puts most of the architects with whom he works - 'very 2D. We are working with them to realise the projects they want to do because they couldn't describe them.'

His ideal is a practice like Piercy Conner - 'very 3D. We sit down together and do a 3D model.' But he does feel restricted by software.

'I wish that SolidWorks had more freeform sculptural stuff to make nice shapes - we use 3D Studio Viz.' The software that Lucas would like is available, but beyond his reach.

Recently, he looked at Catia, the software Frank Gehry used on the Guggenheim. 'It looks great, ' Lucas says. But the cut-down version cost £7,000 and the full version £28,000, 'way beyond the scope of engineers'.

Not only are most of Lucas' jobs small. They are also the kind of jobs that many engineers will do for next to nothing, for the fun and challenge of it. But the fact that Price & Myers has set up 3D Engineering as a separate division means it has to earn its keep.

While Lucas' endless enthusiasm for problem solving and learning new packages is essential to his role (he reckons it takes a couple of months to learn a new piece of software), the artists and architects he works with chiefly need faith and confidence.

'Architects are putting themselves in our hands, ' Lucas says. 'They are nervous if they haven't worked with us before. They can be very controlling.'

At the early stages, the engineer will find itself having to translate the architect or artist's vision into a workable 3D model. There can be a sense of shock when this is seen as being substantially different from the initial concept. But once the designer realises that this is just the first stage in an iterative process of collaboration, they usually relax and realise that they actually have more freedom - and more control over costs.

'We can get a good idea of costs, ' Lucas says. 'The more clearly you can describe your design intent the better.'

Lucas is an excellent proselytiser for 3D design.He loves the fact that it takes out the tortuous process by which the design of three-dimensional objects has to be translated into 2D by draughtsmen, checked, changed and re-exported.

Within Price & Myers he gives tutorials to other engineers and encourages them to use the same approach on more conventional buildings. This may, of course, involve using some different software, but if they are looking for an enthusiast for discovering the applicability of software to a particular purpose, they need not look further than Lucas.

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