LIFE IN 3D: FROM VIRTUAL REALITY TO 3D MODELING, TECHNOLOGY IS REDEFINING ENGINEERING AND THE CLIENT EXPERIENCE
By Allison Floyd
Technology is taking us places we have never been, putting us inside buildings that do not yet exist. With a few extra clicks of the mouse and a $400 headset, engineers are using virtual reality (VR) imaging to allow clients to step right into a design and have a look around.
New, inexpensive software is allowing designers to create concept designs for roads and bridges in a fraction of the time required by traditional methods. With an hour and software that’s becoming more ubiquitous, technicians can put together different configurations and scenarios that previously would have taken days, or even weeks.
Lasers mounted on a drone or tripod can map the ground for a new bridge or assess the structure of a building before renovation, speeding up the process of design and preventing costly conflicts during construction.
These technologies are saving time and money, while facilitating better communication with clients, stakeholders and team partners for engineering firms across the state. And, like any disruptive innovation, it will change the way businesses approach projects and the expectations that clients have for the work.
CHANGING BUSINESS MODEL
Engineering Technician Philip Henson used to spend a day-and-a-half to complete a conceptual design for a road and bridge project. Since Heath & Lineback Engineers, a 50-person firm based in Marietta, Ga., added Bentley Systems’ OpenRoads ConceptStation software earlier this year, he can do the same work in a fraction of the time.
The company paid $6,000 for a single-seat license – an expense that will be quickly recouped in saved time. But the software’s capabilities might have more impact on the business model of engineering beyond the cost of adoption.
New imaging technology is allowing engineers to flesh out conceptual designs faster and avoid problems that could lead to costly construction. Clients and stakeholders are able to see what a final project will look like, through to-scale models and even virtual reality headsets that put them inside a finished project.
OpenRoads ConceptStation – which Bentley Systems released a year ago – allows an engineer to navigate to a place on the map and begin to create a conceptual design for a road or bridge from landscape models based on aerial photography, digital elevation models (DEMs) or another source. A process that once took days of work, can now be accomplished in just a few minutes.
To demonstrate, Henson clicks through the concept design of a project the company is working on, the approach and bridge spanning the Tallapoosa River in North Georgia. “We can easily lay this out with ConceptStation in just five minutes and all that data can carry over into the design process,” he says, choosing the lane-configuration, speed and points of intersection. Making a few decisions and clicks about the pieces and components of the bridge, the concept is done in less time than it takes to order fast food in a drive-thru.
Tinkering with different road angles, bridge span and elevation, the engineer can attach project costs to the different approaches and quickly make three-dimensional (3D) layouts.
John Heath, President of Heath & Lineback Engineers, is pleased with the speed of OpenRoads ConceptStation, even as he sees that the new capabilities could change the way engineering firms work on projects. Some companies might see the downside of technology as clients won’t pay for work that a computer does in minutes – but that freed time and flexibility could allow both the client and the designer to entertain more innovative conceptual designs.
“In one sense, a business owner could look at this and say, ‘Wow, it used to take three days to get from nothing to something, and now we have a concept in minutes.’ I’m not going to make as much money from the overall project,” Heath says. “Or, he can look at it from a value-added perspective and use the same software to show clients quickly what various ideas might look like in the real world. You might wind up with a better mouse trap because you were able to examine a variety of different solutions.”
“The engineer as a problem-solver and a thinker is now empowered to do more problem-solving and thinking and less repetitious tasks,” Heath says.
Part of what makes the conceptual design technology work is the revolution that Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) brought to the surveying field.
“From 2004 to 2010, it was as if I was yelling into the ocean at night,” jokes Tate Jones, President of Roswell-based LandAir Surveying, a division of KCI, referring to the industry’s initial hesitation toward LIDAR. “People are starting to get it now.”
Laser scanning has now become standard before major renovation projects, since it shows the current status of a building, rather than how the building should be according to the original designs. When a surveyor uses LIDAR to scan a bridge, the laser fires 250,000 points per second and the resulting data is within one-quarter of an inch accuracy on all surfaces of the structure.
The technology also created new clients – architects and other structural engineers – for surveyors. “It was a game-changer for us when architects first started to come on board and accept that we could give them a model of the existing conditions within a building,” he says.
By the end of 2019, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) will require full 3D renderings, says Jones, noting that California, Wisconsin and Alabama are also beginning to require 3D designs.
“It’s really driven by software,” he adds. LIDAR technology has been around for decades, but crunching that much data was impractical until software companies caught up. Now, clients will come to expect easier-to-understand images and the flexibility to quickly alter information.
“A five-year-old can understand these images, and we can cut them like a wedding cake,” he explains. “We can make all the trees go away. We can make all the grass so away. We can take away a bridge or even put in a bridge for clash detection. You can see not only what it would look like, but whether the new structure would conflict with anything that’s already existing.”
Not everyone takes the step to check for conflicts, but investing one to two percent of the cost of the project upfront can save three to five percent during construction. “Why would you not do it?” Jones asks. “The answer is usually, ‘Because we just didn’t do that before.’ I get that a lot. And, I want to say, ‘OK, well, we’ll miss you when you’re gone.’”
SEEING THE WHOLE PICTURE
An age-old challenge for engineers – especially those who design public infrastructure – has been showing clients and stakeholders what a finished project will look like. Adding a flashy 3D model may be more than the client was looking for, but in some cases, if that physical replica can save time and potential for conflict, it’s worth it.
When Saurabh Bhattacharya’s team at Parsons Corporation was charged with redesigning the Akers Mill Road interchange at Interstate 75 (I-75), he saw the potential for 3D modeling. The south side currently has an HOV lane exit, but the north side doesn’t have access to the interstate. “It is a complex project because there are so many constraints in that area – so many bridges,” Bhattacharya says.
Designers didn’t have much physical space to work within, since I-75 has a relatively narrow footprint at that interchange. When the team finished the design, Bhattacharya decided to print a 3D model of how the completed intersection will look.
“We’ve had the technology to do 3D for a while, but this is the first project where we thought we could contribute something significant, something meaningful,” he says. “Because it is such a complex area and there is so much going on at that interchange, the model is helpful just to visualize how the final design will look on the ground.” Still, the 3D printing took about two weeks to complete and is not something that would be productive for small projects.
The client, the Cumberland Community Improvement District (CID), funds infrastructure improvements through an additional five-mill tax that business owners agreed to pay. Leveraging additional funds means communicating effectively with a broad group of stakeholders, people who may be more likely to support a project if they can see the final result.
“From the public’s standpoint, a 3D model is also just easier to see and understand than the two-dimensional plans we display at public meetings,” Bhattacharya says. “This project really is like threading a needle. I don’t think you would want to go to this step in every project, but with something this complicated, it’s definitely worth it.”
As Parson’s Vice President and Regional Manager for Civil Structures for Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, Bhattacharya also sees how 3D imaging speeds up the design-build process. Engineering will shift toward concept visualization software, he says, much like the textile industry quickly became automated when the technology was developed. Still, both public and private sector clients are investing in projects now; engineers want to design, finish one project for a satisfied client and move on to the next client.
STEPPING INTO VIRTUAL REALITY
Creating 3D models is an investment, but by getting an early concept into the hands of clients – or, more accurately, allowing clients to step into the design – his company saves time and money in the long run, says Greg Teague, President of Marietta-based Croy Engineering.
“We have highly technical projects that we are trying to communicate to the general public and to clients that don’t have a technical background,” says Teague. “Through different projects and different methods, we have found if we give the client a 3D visualization, it cuts the number of iterations that we have to go through and increases our efficiency in achieving the product the client wants.”
Croy Engineering uses a combination of video and virtual reality to allow clients to put themselves into a finished project. “We can immerse people into that world so they can see what a project will look like once it’s done. When you put them in that virtual reality environment, it really gives them the full picture,” he says.
Young engineers at the firm, such as Eric Brisse, developed the first stage of the visualizations by taking 3D models from AutoCAD and making a video. For one particularly detailed design, the Windy Hill Boulevard project, Brisse made a 3D video from the design, then posted the video to the company’s YouTube channel and shared it with the client, the City of Smyrna. The City shared the video with the public, and the response was positive.
With the video done, Brisse adapted it for a VR. Teague explains: “He took that video that everyone had seen on the flat screen and put it into the VR headset. It stepped up the experience to a whole new level. Once you put that headset on, you are inside the project. It’s like you stepped into a video game.”
Creating the 3D model was time consuming, Teague says, but as with the Parsons’ project at Akers Mill, the Windy Hill Boulevard project was large, the finished project difficult to imagine and the client needed to communicate with many stakeholders. “It’s a trust factor, and we found good communications builds trust,” Teague says.
As technologies, such as virtual reality and 3D printing, gain momentum and adoption, engineering firms will be faced with the growing choice to either adapt how they design, present and price their projects, or risk being left behind.