BIM and the 21st century Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the world's most important water ways, handling 5% of all global trade. The Panama Canal expansion project aims to double that capacity by 2016. Discover how the use of building information modelling (BIM) has been vital from the outset of this project.

Computer generated image of the new locks
Computer generated image of the new locks

The project

The Panama Canal consists of two lock lanes at both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances to the canal. The Panama Canal Expansion Third Set of Locks project involves the construction of two new sets of locks - one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side of the canal.

Each lock will have three chambers and each chamber will have three water reutilisation basins. The new locks will connect to the existing canal system.

The completed project will allow larger vessels to travel through the canal. Also, by doubling the canal's capacity, the project aims to provide significant benefits to local and regional economies.

MWH Global (link to their website) has worked on this project for more than 10 years, as it evolved from a concept to a project under construction. MWH is currently the lead technical designer in the design joint venture with CICP Consultores Internacionales, LLC, on the Third Set of Locks. This is the largest part of the estimated $5.25 billion project.

MWH lock design specialists are delivering a system that will allow more traffic to pass through, and increase the efficiency of the operation and its maintenance, with minimal water consumption. This is all within stringent technical requirements and specifications established by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP - Autoridad del Canal de Panamá).

Design challenge

The Third Set of Locks project is a large-scale infrastructure scheme. The project includes the largest water-saving basins ever designed or built. These will have the most stringent design standards MWH has come across as designers for lock projects.

MWH's design has to withstand major earthquakes, so the seismic requirements are high. MWH has been advancing the design state-of-practice for the lock walls and lock gates. The gates - massive steel structures - will need almost 50,000 tons of steel. The design team has used advanced finite element modeling tools to meet the design standards.

The design includes:

  • Lock walls: the cost-effective lock wall designs incorporate foundation drains that reduce the hydrostatic and hydrodynamic loads, to produce more efficient structures that achieve the performance goals for strength and durability
  • Seismic design: using state-of-the-art seismic analysis techniques, MWH is developing lock wall configurations that meet stringent seismic criteria at the lowest cost
  • Water consumption: water saving basins – the largest in the world – aim to reuse 60% of the fresh water consumed for lockages. This includes an optimised filling and emptying system that meets aggressive performance criteria for system efficiency and throughput
  • Integrated operations and controls: by improving the design of operational features and control systems, lock operations will be seamless and efficient. Designing the lock operating gates to open and close quickly - coupled with an efficient filling and emptying system based on innovative hydraulic design and best available control technologies - ensures that system safety, efficiency and throughput are maximised

Integration of BIM into the design delivery

Building information modeling (BIM) is a 3D digital representation of a building, and brings together information about every component of that building.

This is one of the first large-scale civil works projects to use BIM. ACP requested the use of BIM as part of the project. BIM has enabled the design team to use the best available practices on many parts of the project.

Using BIM for this project means:

  • Improved quality of design
  • Increased productivity by efficiently managing design changes
  • Better communication with clients and builders through visualisations

The designers used BIM modeling in several ways on this project, including:

  • Building intelligent databases of key project components and systems
  • Overlay of electrical, mechanical, architectural and civil/structural elements to identify and prevent conflicts (clash detection)
  • Production of civil/structural backgrounds for use by electrical and mechanical designers to lay out their systems

Virtual clash detection eliminates field construction changes that can be expensive and challenging to project schedules. Two-dimensional construction drawings are extracted from the BIM model, which is developed with all these factors in mind, and used by the contractor.

As the lead technical designer, MWH collaborates with design teams in five offices around the world. The use of intelligent 3D models has allowed this diverse team of engineers to collaborate better, helping them to resolve design conflicts before construction. This helps coordinate the project, which has saved time and money.

MWH is designing many elements at the same time, and BIM allowed the team to integrate changes quicker and more confidently. A good example is the way BIM is used to manage the layout of complex electrical and mechanical systems. The layouts are visually demonstrated to the contractor and designers, which was an efficient and powerful communication tool.

Using Autodesk BIM

MWH is utilizing Autodesk BIM solutions to address the following tasks:

  • Autodesk 3ds Max Design - used for conceptual and detailed design and used to produce design visualisations to help the client check multiple design options
  • Autodesk Revit Architecture, Autodesk Revit Structure and Autodesk Revit MEP - used for detailed design of the canal's new lock structures and a multitude of supporting facilities
  • AutoCAD Civil 3D - used to help create more efficient and accurate site designs
  • Autodesk Navisworks Manage - used for improved multi-discipline coordination and collaboration. This helped resolve design conflicts before construction, increasing the quality of the project. It also helped reduce expensive field changes
  • AutoCAD Electrical - used by the electrical designers for the electrical schematics and panel layouts
  • Maintenance Data - for project handover to the Panama Canal Authorit. The team is capitalising on its use of a BIM workflow to capture asset information. This includes equipment identification tags for addition in a master maintenance manual incorporating project models and data

During the tender design, MWH modelled several design options using Autodesk 3ds Max Design and produced design visualisations which helped the client understand these designs and make more informed decisions.

In final design, MWH used Autodesk Revit products to produce detailed designs of the canal's new lock and dam structures, site features, and supporting utilities. MWH also used AutoCAD Civil 3D for the site design.

Intelligent 3D models gave the design team an insight into large and complex designs. They were instrumental in coordinating design and documentation, saving both time and money. The team combined the design models to improve the cross-discipline coordination and resolve design conflicts before construction.

As the design-build project of the Third Set of Locks of the Panama Canal Expansion project progresses, the design team is advancing many design elements in parallel. BIM is providing the mechanism to integrate necessary design changes to keep the project on track.

Looking forward

As one of the first applications of BIM to a project of this size, there have been some 'lessons learned' along the way. The design-build team guides the pace of the project and, at times, a more conventional approach is required to adhere to schedule. As the application of BIM progresses in project delivery, it is important for project teams to be flexible. MHW has found that large-scale, unique structures such as dams or navigation locks need customised BIM structural models.

While the software tool is a key component of BIM, embracing the integrated design process that it creates will allow project teams to achieve the full benefits available.

BIM has brought significant value in all phases of the project. But, it is after project handover where further advantages occur. The owners will receive a robust operations and maintenance tool to address the facility's long-term needs. BIM will become the vital link between asset creation and asset management.

It will help the facility be more efficient, and also show how resources used to address critical infrastructure needs around the world can be used better. MWH believes it made a significant step forward in its design process by adopting BIM. But, it's still early days and MWH has only just begun to unleash its potential on major wet infrastructure projects.

The project has allowed MHW to invest in using BIM workflow and application of the software. This has given MHW a template for complex projects it works on in the future.

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