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Physics-Based Simulation of Detailed Erection

Activities of Construction Cranes

Cranes are some of the most heavily used and shared resources in construction sites. There are

many different tasks that directly or indirectly involve crane operations, such as the erection of
structural members, the transportation of electrical equipment and so on. As such, many preparation
works, including detailed erection planning for crane operations, try to reduce the costs and risks
involved, while increasing the efficiency during the actual operation.
It is significant to note that state-of-the-art practices utilize computer-assisted systems to help
make construction faster, safer, and more efficient. These systems for facilitating crane erection
usually display the process of planned construction through various kinds of simulations, and
provide the visualizations for users to make further judgments. However, crane operations in
practice today are more complex than traditional construction. Modern structural members come in
various shapes that require fine and delicate erecting manipulations. Furthermore, pre-cast
construction methods increase the frequency of use of such erection equipment. These situations
show that precise erection planning on computers is required, which means that detailed simulations
of general erection activities help greatly in modern construction.
This research aims at utilizing physics-based animation methods which widely used in game
physics or training simulators to generate detailed erection activities in a virtual environment. The
detailed crane activities contain not only training tasks but also regular activities such as beam
erections and unique events like dual-crane cooperative erection, which can be commonly seen in
construction practice. They are important work-items and need to be simulated as completely as
possible in order to find potential problems during operations.


Erection activities include all the operations that are required to be done by operators when

manipulating cranes to assemble structural members during the construction process. They usually
represent a costly and critical component of work-items in the construction industry.
To enhance the physical simulation of erection activities, we observed actual scenarios and
figured out the detailed movements. Take a look at column lifting in practice; the pre-cast columns
are unloaded from trucks and placed on the ground in the erection preparing zone (Figure 1(a)). The
columns are placed close to each other and may be adjacent to other construction materials. It is
difficult for crane operators to lift a specific column in this environment. Due to swinging that
happens at the moment that column departs from the ground, and vibrations from the tightened
suspension cable, the column itself could become damaged or collide with other neighboring
objects (Figure 1(b) and (c)). The operator needs to deal with these physical reactions very carefully
and keep them down to minimize the potential danger at the jobsite.

Figure 1. An actual scenario of lifting a column: (a) placement of the columns; (b) vibrations
happen when the suspension cable is tightened; (c) the column swings at the moment it is lifted
away from the ground
Another kind of scenario which concerns physics principles is erection movements when the
rigging object is close to its destination. Most of situations show that the orientation of the rigging
objects near their destination are quite different to the expected value, and operators need to employ
inertial force to get objects into target positions. As in the illustrations in Figure 2(a) and (b), the
column kept swaying during the erection, and manipulators had to control the speed to reduce the
unstable condition. This is because the rigging object was affected by gravity and inertial force.

However, inertial force can be used to act in a diametrically opposite way. Figure 2(c) shows how
the operator utilized the power of inertial force to swing construction materials into the space
between two floors.

Figure 2. An actual scenario of placing objects: (a) the column kept swaying when the rigging
object was close to its destination; (b) fine tunings by the operator and workers; (c) the operator
used inertial force to swing objects into the destination
We took a sample of eighteen beam and thirteen column erections in the field, and calculated
the percentage distribution of time duration for erection activities at each defined step. The results
shown in Figure 3 conclude that the time usage in all steps are equally significant. The bulk of the
time taken was not due to the moving and repositioning steps, but the securing and releasing steps
where operators cooperate with workers to get the rigging object lifted or released. It is important to
note also that the times used at the releasing step were often longer than the others, especially for
column erection.
Beam Erection

Column Erection

The use of time in percentage(%)

The use of time in percentage(%)







Erection Steps





Erection Steps

Figure 3. The statistical data for the use of beam erection time at every step


Considering that physics significantly influences practical erection activities, and the
manipulation of cranes are quite complex in real cases, simulation with physical behaviors is thus
an efficient approach for realistic visualizations and erection planning. Nowadays, many planning
software applications are only concerned with identifying the optimal moving paths for erection.
However, it is also important to simulate erection activities as realistically as possible and provide
complete processes. This is the reason behind this research.

In this research, the numerical crane model used to simulate construction activities is derived

by integrating two simulation techniques: closed-form forward kinematics and constraint-based

rigid body dynamics. They are individually used to model different parts of the crane. Figure 4
shows the architecture of the numerical crane model and the method used to model that part.

Figure 4. The architecture and simulation methods used in the numerical crane model
The manipulation model, which includes the track, cabin, and boom of the crane, is modeled
using closed-form forward kinematics. Closed-form forward kinematics can model the articulated
crane piece by piece according to the transformation matrices described between each rigid part of
the crane. It is able to identify the status of every point on the manipulation model during crane
operations. By using this method, it is easy to simulate the behaviors of the track, cabin, boom, and
the connections between these rigid bodies. However, dynamic properties such as operational
vibrations and loading deformations are not considered in this simulation. Compared with the cable
and suspended portion of the crane, the dynamic properties are relatively insignificant and can be

ignored on the rigid parts of crane. Therefore, this rigid part, also called the manipulation model,
uses the principle of closed-form forward kinematics to generate an effective simulation.
The suspension model, which includes the cable and hook of the crane, is modeled using
constrained-based rigid body dynamics. Constraint-based rigid body dynamics is the most
widely-used principle in the field of game physics, and provides physical reactions by modeling
every kind of constraint implied in the real world, such as the limitation of the joint, the contact
point, friction, and damping. These constraints are used to construct the connections between each
part of the suspension model, and to generate physical behaviors including cable swing and object
collision during simulation.
Combining the suspension model with the manipulation model, the numerical modeling
process of the crane can be completed. By calculating the position and orientation of the top of
boom from the manipulation model, we can change the state of the joint attached at the top of boom
and generate a chain reaction on the suspension model. The new status of the top of boom can be
treated as an external force applied on the top of the cable. Therefore, the physical swing behavior
of the suspension system can be shown when the user operates this crane model virtually.


The prototype system, named Erection Director, was developed through this research. It

simulates the entire erection cycle of securing objects, moving to destination, releasing suspension
and repositioning. To realize the simulations of these actions, the virtual environment has to
incorporate physics principles that can describe every detailed motion during crane operations. This
is required for generating movements along the erection path, and also for lifting and locating
suspended objects. Therefore, integration with physics-based simulation methods was the main
issue in developing this system.
The overall architecture of Erection Director is illustrated in Figure 5. It has a three-layer
structure, comprising the interface, kernel and external libraries. Each layer is composed of major
components or functions which are represented by blocks in the figure. The arrows flowing between
each layer represent the direction of communications. In this architecture, the interface layer is
responsible for interacting with users and presenting the simulation results. The kernel layer stores
and manages the internal data that is relevant to scene visualization and collision detection. The

external libraries layer includes two open source libraries that are used as the base engine of the
system for providing graphics rendering and physics calculations.

Figure 5. Three layer structure of Erection Director

The two scenarios, one a column erection and the other a dual-crane cooperative erection, are
demonstrated in this system. The erection of columns is considered to be a common task which is
performed at the jobsite frequently. On the other hand, dual-crane cooperative erection is a high
cost, high risk and unique event that should be undertaken with care and minimum error tolerance.
Simulation of both activities at an early stage can help engineers eliminate potential problems and
enhance erection speed and safety.
The usual pattern of lifting columns is that the columns to be erected are usually laid
horizontally on the ground or in a truck. Cranes then lift them from one end vertically. To reduce
the swing and vibration in this process, the operator needs to carefully manipulate the crane to lift
the object along a particular path. Figure 6 illustrates step by step the process for lifting a pre-cast
concrete column with minimum dynamic reactions. Field photos are attached to further illustrate
this process.

Figure 6. The illustrations and pictures of column lifting process

Pre-cast columns usually have reinforcing connections protruding from the two ends for
installation purposes and ease of transport. The sling is secured at one end of the column (Figure
6(a)). The operator then manipulates the crane to lift one side of the column through an arc-like path
that keeps the other end of the column on the ground in order to reduce the vibrations and swing
(Figure 6(b)). This is an effective way to pick up the column as it maximizes safety to the
surrounding environment and minimizes damage at the edge of the pre-cast concrete column.
Finally, the column is lifted vertically away from the ground (Figure 6(c)).
When these steps are simulated in Erection Director, the visualization will result in a smooth
animation sequence. The snapshots shown in Figure 7 are sequential. Since the physical properties
have been modeled in the system, we can make the lifting movement as realistic as possible.

Figure 7. Snapshots of the visualization of lifting a pre-cast concrete column

In the common scenario of dual-crane cooperative erection, the process is usually led by one of
the cranes, and cooperation only occurs at the securing step. We shall use the task of lifting a
large-scale petroleum tank as an example. Figure 8 illustrates the common process when two cranes
lift a petroleum tank cooperatively. Firstly, the hanging brackets of both cranes are tied to each side
of the tank separately (Figure 8(a)). The main crane, responsible for lifting the tank from horizontal
to vertical, starts to raise the top of the tank by rolling up its cable. And tail crane, responsible for
keeping the tank stable and minimizing swing, follows the movement of main crane and raises the
bottom of tank until it is at an appropriate height away from the ground (Figure 8(b)). The main
crane then continues the lifting action while the tail crane moves closer to the main crane steadily
(Figure 8(c)). The tank then gradually becomes vertical during this step. Finally, the connections of
the tail crane are disconnected when the tank is completely vertical (Figure 8(d)). The main crane
then completes the remaining steps of the erection cycle.

Figure 8. Illustrations of the lifting process of a dual-crane cooperative erection: (a) Tying; (b)
Lifting cooperatively; (c) Gradually erecting the tank; (d) Unsecure the connections from tail crane
Here we present the detailed simulation of the lifting process of dual-crane cooperative erection
through Erection Director. The sequential snapshots of the movement are illustrated in Figure 9 as

Figure 9. Snapshots of the visualization of lifting a large-scale petroleum tank by two cranes


This research integrated physics-based animation methods to generate detailed erection

activities. The efforts included observation of the construction of a pre-cast building in order to
collect detailed motions of erection activities, development of an approach to model the crane
numerically in computers, and implementation of a prototype system as a visualization platform
with two practical scenarios of erection activities as examples.
The approach and prototype system developed in this research allow for generating and
visualizing physics-based simulation of erection activities. These methods and computer tools can
potentially benefit many aspects of current construction practice. A partial list of possible benefits
of this research is summarized in the following paragraphs:

Realistic simulation for erection activities: The simulations in this research provide
detailed information on the motions of erection activities by following the laws of physics.
It is a clear and easy way for engineers, or even non-engineers, to identify potentially
dangerous situations due to irregular movements or collisions.

Possibility of generating what-if scenarios: The numerical crane model can be easily used
to derive various construction scenarios to simulate the actual situation. Planners may then
generate several alternative plans, or modify existing plans to produce different results.
The best solution can then be implemented.

Visibility, communication and safety: The simulations in this research give users the
advantage of interacting with the virtual crane by manipulating it through the interface and
observing physical feedbacks in real-time. Also, the visualization prevents harmful
situations from occurring and facilitates the safety of the actual process.

Planning and visualization of erection prior to actual erection activities: The prototype
system, Erection Director, can be used to plan the scenario of erection and provides
physical actions in an instructive way and rigging information to assist engineers in
evaluating feasibility and rationality before actual construction. It can thus reduce the gap
between planned and actual situations.