Advance Steel Review
A two week test of GRAITEC’s Advance Steel shows its power and proves its capability for structural steel detailing.
I first saw steel detailing software in action in the mid 1980s at the AISC Steel Conference. AutoCAD had launched just a couple years earlier and it was rather quickly becoming the CAD software for the masses. A handful of visionary entrepreneurs developed software for the steel industry by piggybacking it on AutoCAD, and so were able to produce complete sets of steel detailing drawings and then upload code to NC machines. This allowed steel members to be cut to size, copped, and beveled as needed. Back then, AutoLISP was not yet added to AutoCAD, and so BASIC was pretty much the only game in town.
Since those early days, steel detailing software followed two paths, integrating itself fully with AutoCAD or running stand-alone. GRAITEC’s Advance Steel plays both angles, offering users the option to execute the software from within AutoCAD or as a standalone application.
Advance Steel (AS) is part of a BIM (building information modeling) suite called “GRAITEC Advance,” which claims to ”automate the entire structural design and construction documentation process from engineering design and structural analysis to member optimization, detailing and fabrication.” The other two members of the suite are Advance Concrete for modeling and detailing concrete structures and Advance Design for FEM analysis with automatic steel and concrete design. I tested Advance Steel 2012, the most recent release.
Download and Installation
When I visited GRAITEC’s website to download the software for this article, it presented me with two choices: download a single ISO file of about 4.3 GB, or ten compressed RAR files. After trying a few times to download the ISO file but getting interrupted time and again, I settled for the RAR files.
Programs like 7zip or WinRar unpack RAR and other compressed files. For the install to work, I had to make sure all files were in the same folder. Once I had everything together, the installation process was straightforward. (GRAITEC indicated that a new, light setup will become available during the summer.)
Documentation and Software Demos
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when I get my hands on a new piece of software (or hardware, for that matter) is to look for any available documentation and, possibly, tutorials. Visiting GRAITEC’s website I was able to download the following:
- Documentation DVD
- PDF document titled “AS-Starting-guide-2012-EN-Metric.pdf”
- Twenty-five demo videos, all but one in WMV format
To be certain I did not miss anything, I also checked out YouTube and found a few more files that I downloaded.
As far as the demo videos were concerned, I took the time to watch every one of them, and then I concluded that I had basically wasted my time. Firstly, everything goes so fast, it was impossible for me to follow along. Secondly, the majority have no sound, and so I had no clue as to what the presenter was trying to do. The most usable of them, titled “ASDemoTour,” is meant for the 2011 release, not 2012. Finally, all demos were geared towards using the software within AutoCAD.
The 40-page Starting Guide began, “This starting guide is a brief introduction to working with Advance Steel, describing the basic methodology, and not meant to replace formal training.” I took that to mean that if I was looking for a freebie tutorial to forget about it. Nevertheless I read on and by on page 6 I came across the following: “Advance has an online help system that offers step-by-step instructions for every function. To access the help: 1) Help panel, Manage tab: click Command help, 2) Instant help: press F1”
Alright, there it is, I thought. So Help-panel Manage-tab, click-Help I did. The response: nil, as in zilch, nada, nothing. Hmmm. How about F1 then? Lo and behold it opened a help file. Unfortunately, the help file pertained not to Advance Steel 2012 but to Advance CAD 7, which (loosely spoken) is an AutoCAD clone embedded within Advance Steel. To make sure I wasn’t rushing to judgment I searched for a common steel detailing phrase like “brace” and got zero hits.
Now how about the documentation DVD? The English-US folder contains an installation guide and a welcome guide along with one folder each for Concrete and Steel. The Steel folder contains six documents in PDF format. The English-UK folder contains everything from the US folder and then some. Concerning a tutorial, “I still haven’t found what I am looking for,” to quote U2.
Having used and taught AutoCAD for something like twenty-eight years, I thought I’d give the fresh face a chance and work with the standalone version. My adventuresome intention did not go unpunished, as I quickly found out. Firstly, I found the GUI for the standalone not as user friendly as the one for AutoCAD. Secondly, the AutoCAD-based version has extra functions. And thirdly, while the AutoCAD-based version started up every time, the standalone’s performance was spotty at best. On some days, it worked; on others, it refused to start and instead flashed a dialog box. I contacted GRAITEC’s tech support about this problem, and they were baffled as well. (GRAITEC since indicated that this problem will be fixed with a service pack.) Thus, my review is of the version of AS that runs inside of AutoCAD.
When AS starts, it loads the ASTemplate.dwt drawing template to set up the drawing environment with settings like the units, the current coordinate system, object snap settings, layer assignments, color definitions, and so on. As a starter project, I decided to model a simple two-bay, one-story frame like the one displayed in figure 2.
The standard procedure when using steel detailing software is to first define a grid of construction lines on which I accurately position members of my frame. (I was a bit puzzled by the use of the term “axes” instead of “construction lines” in the context of the grid, but I can live with that). The tool is called “Building Grid,” and it is accessible from the Create Objects palette. The ensuing “dialog” between the software (printed in italics) and me (bold characters) is reproduced below.
|Please define two diagonal points for grid, origin:_0,0|
|Second point:_<59′ 11/16″,59′ 11/16″>:_@40′,20′|
The obtained grid is based on some default values which I needed to adjust to my needs. Thus, I double-clicked on one of the vertical gridlines and set the number to “3”. AS then adjusted the spacing accordingly. I changed the labels from “numbers” to “capital letters” starting with “A”. I repeated the steps on the horizontal lines and changed the number of lines to “2”. This produced the grid displayed in figure 3.
I activated the Portal/Gable Frame tool (also accessible from the Create Objects palette), and then selected point “1-A” as the base point for the first column. With OSNAP tracking turned on, I entered 8’ from point “2-A” as the top point for the second column. That bought up the properties window, where I specified whether or not the frame was symmetric, the slope(s) of the roof, and the section sizes for the columns and the rafters. (I chose W12x40 and W10x22 respectively.) If I wanted to change any of the frame properties later, I just needed to select a member of the frame, press the right mouse button, and then select Advance Joint Properties from the context sensitive menu. This brings up the properties window.
A look at figure 4 shows my work in progress, and that it is missing “the nuts and bolts” quite literally, a.k.a. the connections.
In this example, I wanted all three connections (beam-to-beam and beam-to-column) to be moment connections. Through what it calls “Connection Vault,” AS offers a (dare I say mind-boggling) collection of joints. I chose the one named “Knee of frame bolted with haunch” available in the Joints palette. It asked me to select first the column and then the beam involved in the connection. This brought up the related properties window. I made a few modifications, but otherwise went with the defaults. The obtained connection is depicted in figure 5.
To avoid trouble down the road, I performed what AS calls a “clash check,” an interference check in other English. Caution: When AS does the check, it takes into consideration everything – including the ability of worker to fit a wrench to tie the nuts. No problem was reported, and so I moved to the next knee connection; because I had already designed it, AS allowed me to copy it to the other side. The tool to do this is called “Create by Template” (found in the Joints palette). It prompted me to select the joint to be copied, and then to select the (new) column and beam to which to applied it. Done!
Lastly, I worked on the beam-to-beam connection at the apex of the gable. For this I used the “Apex bolted with haunch” connection. Once I selected the two beams, the respective properties window came up in which I entered only a couple values and otherwise went with the defaults. I again checked for clashes, and everything was cool. (See figure 6.) Well, if you look closely you’ll notice the apex connection is a bit too heavy. For some reason, for this case AS does not offer AISC as a design option, just EC3
Moving right along, the next item on my agenda was base plates, and for this I utilized the Baseplate tool (from Joints palette). I stayed (mostly) out of the way and let AS do its thing. The result is displayed in figure 7.
As I did before, I copied the connection to the other column, and then placed copies of the entire contraption at the points “1-B” and “1-C” to create two bays.
With that, my frame was basically complete; all I had left was to take care of the roof. To this end, I used the Purlins tool (from the Create Objects palette) to install purlins, first on one side of the gable and then copied to the other side. Once I selected the supporting beams for the purlins, the properties window poped up so that I could specify the purlin profile (I chose a Z section), the spacing, the desired alignment, and so forth. The result is displayed in figure 8.
After working non-stop with AS over the past two weeks, I came to the following conclusions.
- When I started out, I had no previous knowledge of the software and yet I was able to pick things up very quickly – with some help from GRAITEC’s Tech support, I should note.
- My 3DConnexion Space PilotPro 3D mouse had no problems working with the software.
- In my opinion, the most severe drawback the software suffers is its documentation; some help files are outdated, others are not linked properly.
- There were some bugs I encountered, which GRAITEC hopefully will have soon fixed.