Anticipation Through Simulation

A new professor's virtual reality software is helping solve construction problems upfront.

Julio Martinez has a vision. When the associate professor of civil engineering began setting up his lab late last semester, he knew that he had the tools to help revolutionize the construction industry. Through the use of computer animations and simulation software, Martinez hopes the technology will help anticipate and solve problems even before companies break ground on sites.

This groundbreaking research is associated with the College of Engineering’s Intelligent Infrastructure Systems signature area, which enticed Martinez to Purdue. A former National Science Foundation CAREER and ITR award winner, Martinez has spent his career looking to improve the representation capabilities of simulation systems. Along the way he often crossed paths with Dan Halpin, Purdue’s former head of construction engineering and management. “Dan is essentially the founder of research simulation in construction,” Martinez says. “I also knew most of the faculty in the construction program, so I thought it would be pleasant to work with them.”

Now Martinez hopes to propel the legacy of Purdue’s tradition in construction technology. The challenge may be getting the buy-in from everyday professionals. “There are companies that use this technology,” he says, “but they are rather forward-looking, taking advantage of it very well.”

He believes widespread use of the simulation software—beyond the industry elite—would translate to lower costs for construction site owners, as well as better and safer practices for all. “We can show the impact of their decisions through simulations so they can better understand the consequences of those decisions.”

In what looks like a highly sophisticated video game, contractors can move throughout a virtual construction site, running through the routines of standard operations. As Martinez improves upon the interactivity of the system, he increases the realities of cause-and-effect scenarios. In a model for the delivery of concrete for piers in the construction of the Chiapas bridge in Mexico, for example, it is easy to see how builders can figure out the most efficient delivery methods. “When you have to do prefabrication of parts and then ship them out to sea for assembly, you want to know ahead of time what resources you are going to use.”

Through the technology, smarter plans lead to smoother practices. And it’s this intelligent approach to infrastructure systems that keeps Martinez motivated as he settles into his new surroundings. An avid baseball fan, this native of the Dominican Republic admits that the close proximity of the Cubs and the White Sox also influenced his Purdue arrival. “The nearest Major League team to Blacksburg, Virginia, was five hours away in Baltimore,” he says. Now in about two hours time to Chicago, Martinez—with visions of construction dancing in his head—can take in the occasional ball game closer to home.

-William Meiners