Category Archives: CAD

3D Printing for Civil Engineers

3D Printer
3D printer
Lately I've been thinking our field might be missing out by not exploring the opportunities offered by 3D printing. Even though 3D printers have been around for many years, I haven't seen anything significant related to its use by agencies or firms in our field. I remember a 3D printer in use in a classroom at the college where I used to teach and that was at least 13 years ago. But that printer was used by the mechanical drafting students – not those in the civil technology field. So my partner and I have embarked on the goal of learning more about 3D printing and how the technology can be used in the civil engineering field.

Fortunately we found a learning program hosted by the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana which also happens to be our alma mater. The program is offered through Coursera and is a series of 5 courses leading to a specialization certificate in 3D printing. We began the first course right at the start of 2017 and are almost finished with the second one. So far the content has provided a good introduction to 3D printing and offered ideas about how it has been and could be used in many different fields.

Near the end of the second course, we were introduced to Josh Ajima, a teacher in Northern Virginia. In his presentation, he described how he created 3D representations of the earth's topography to visualize how different areas of a watershed relate. A description of his work with fabricating the Chesapeake Bay Watershed can be found in his article, "Design Challenge: Chesapeake Bay Watershed." Civil engineers can see right away how 3D printing an area's topography can lead to better understanding of watersheds, flooding impacts, material transport, and other related concepts.

Then, in our effort to learn more about the local 3D printing community, we attended a workshop at the Maker Lab in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. There we saw a printout of the topography of the bottom of Lake Michigan. We were also introduced to the idea of using 3D printing to display data. An example of this type of use can be found on a 3D printing site called Thingiverse where the user anoved has uploaded a model of the United States to be used to visualize data sets for the states. A screenshot of anoved's Thingiverse page with the map is shown below. We can imagine an agency using this model for public education to show the amount of transportation funding spent by each state or the number of highway fatalities or miles of roadway.

Thingaverse Example of US 3D printed map with data

I'll continue to share our experiences with 3D printing as we learn more about the technology and increase our understanding of how it might fit into civil engineering. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more, I'd encourage you to check out the classes on Coursera – they are free to take if you are not interested in earning a certificate for the specialization. You can also visit Maker Labs in your own areas – they are usually found in most larger cities, particularly in libraries. Also, if you know of any uses of 3D printing in our industry, we'd love to hear about them – just drop us an email, comment below, or reach out to us on social media.

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Check us out over on the Cadalyst CAD Speed Blog!!

I was excited to be interviewed last month by Cadalyst and even more excited today to find the interview featured over on their CAD Speed blog. It was great to share what is going on in the industry particularly as it relates to CAD. We talked about the latest trends and offered information about the Public Works Group and our mission. Check out the interview here:

Expert Interview with Pam Broviak on CAD and Public Works Departments

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Free 3D Software for Civil Engineers

If you regularly read this blog, you already know we strongly believe 3D visualizations and environments will play a big role in the future of civil engineering. Over the last several years we've seen an increasing use of 3D products to help people better plan and build large-scale developments and structures. Last year, FHWA incorporated 3D into their Every Day Counts initiative, and recently President Obama announced the launch of two new digital manufacturing hubs. It's interesting to note the President's weekly address this week covered those launches along with a push for innovative infrastructure – one day, in our industry, both topics will most likely be closely aligned. But like any change or new innovation, there are naysayers and those who resist the transition, and there is little we can do to change their mind. Like the old draftsman clinging to his ink pen and Leroy set, they will be left behind. Instead of worrying about convincing them, we wanted to reach out to all of you who are looking forward to the future yet might not know where to start or to those of you who might be wondering how to pick up some 3D skills without having to spend a lot of money. Below we've listed several programs available for free or at a low cost. They are grouped by complexity of the software.

Introduction to 3D

Autodesk 123D – an Autodesk suite of free 3D software:

While Autodesk's flagship products like AutoCAD and 3ds Max might have a price tag out of reach for most of us, the company fortunately offers several free products you can use to build your 3D skills. You can even use most of these programs to create a 3D print of your creation! Here's a list of each program you can try out:

123D Catch – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to transform a photo into a 3D object

123D Design – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to create 3D designs

123D Creature – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily create a 3D creature

123D Sculpt – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily sculpt 3D models

123D Meshmixer – a computer-based program allowing you to develop 3D models

Tinkercad – a web-based program allowing you to create 3D models (this is free for personal use at this time, but may in the future transition to a low-cost subscription based program).

 

SketchUp – SketchUp Make is the free version of the popular 3D modeling program now owned by Trimble.  

Sketchup Interface

 

3D Tin – this free, web-based program allows you to easily create 3D models. You can save and export them and even send them to a 3D printing site. The key thing to keep in mind before using this site is that it requires a specific type of browser. I was able to use the most recent version of Firefox to access it. Below is the screenshot of a few 3D letters I easily created with the object-based tools. 

 

3D Tin Interface

 

MakeHuman – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create human 3D models. 

tree[d] – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to easily create 3D models of trees. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

tree[d] interface

 

Intermediate Level 3D

The following programs will most likely require a little more effort to learn than those in the introductory category. Fortunately you can usually find your way around the software by making use of the tutorials and community forums available for each program:

Seamless 3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

Seamless3D Screenshot

 

Sculptris – a free computer-based program allowing you to create 3D organic looking models

 

AC3D – a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost for one license is $89.95. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

AC3D Interface

 

Wings3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a model I uploaded of a creature I made using the 123D Creature software on my iPad.

Rendering in Wings3D of a creature model

RaySupreme 3D – this is a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost of the software is $39.99. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a rounded cube.

Ray Supreme 3D Interface

 

Clara.io – Thanks to Mimetic Core for bringing this site to my attention after I posted this article. The site is in beta, but is very functional and easy to use. I am listing it as intermediate since it appears to offer more advanced 3D features than those included in the Introductory section. This is a free, browser-based program that allows you to create 3D models after you register on the site. There are also several pre-made models available for you to load and edit to get used to the software. You can see the ladybug model in the screenshot below.  

Clara.io Interface

Second Life / OpenSim – I'm including these free, computer-based programs even though many in the industry would not probably think of these as 3D modeling packages. This is probably because while both programs have always allowed people to create 3D models, until last year, whatever people created could not be exported for use in other programs. Fortunately within the last several months, a third-party developed the ability to export models created in these environments. So now, people can use the building tools in Second Life or Open Sim environments to easily create a 3D model and then export it. And even though the building of the model is relatively easy, I put the program in the intermediate category because the interface is much different than any of the other programs listed here and might take some time to get used to. This is because instead of just installing a software package and using the commands like a regular program, people build in Second Life/Open Sim by entering the software through an avatar or digital representation of themselves. I included a screenshot of the interface below showing my avatar building a basic cube in Second Life.

 

Second Life 3D Modeling Interface

 

Advanced Level 3D Modeling

The programs below are more involved than those listed above. Usually they have more advanced features and the interface is more complicated to navigate. While it will take some time to learn these programs, there are many tutorials and resources available online to help teach you what you need to know to use them.

Blender – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Blender is a very advanced tool with complex features including the ability to animate objects and create scenes, video games, and movies. Because of this, it does take some time to learn this program. Fortunately there are many resources and tutorials available.

Blender Interface

 

DAZ 3D Suite of Products

In addition to their higher cost 3D program, Carrara (which is still fairly low-cost at $149.95 and $285.00 for the pro version), DAZ 3D offers several free and low-cost programs. Occasionally they have also allowed a free download of their products for limited times throughout the year. While you might have to devote more time to learning how to use these programs, there are many sites out there offering videos and tutorials to help you learn. 

Hexagon – this free, computer-based program allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a basic 3D object.

 

 

Hexagon Interface

DAZ Studio – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models, scenes, and artwork along with animations and poses. While I've posted this in the advanced section so it could be grouped with the other Daz products, DAZ Studio is actually very easy to use. Below is a screenshot of the interface. My main use of it at this time is to create poses for 3D models of people.

 

 

DAZ Studio Interface

Bryce – this is a low-cost (at the time of the post it was selling for $19.95) computer-based program that allows you to create 3D environments

 

Unity3D – this is a free, computer-based program that can be used to create 3D models. However, most people seem to be using this program to develop 3D environments into which they place 3D models made in other programs. Unity3D is a full-featured, advanced software package that takes some time to learn. Like the other programs listed in this post, there are many sites available online where you can find tutorials and other educational resources to help teach you how to use it. There is also a higher cost pro version of the program available, but most people can get by using the free version – particularly if you are just trying to become familiar with 3D modeling. Below is a screenshot of the interface of the free version showing a scene I created by following a tutorial.

Unity3D Interface

 

(Post updated March 2, 2014 to add Clara.io site)

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Resources for Developing your 3D Engineering Skills

 

Roadway Design Visualization - Natchez Trace Parkway, MS

 

If you've been paying any attention to the Every Day Counts website, you might have noticed that 3D Engineered Models are now being promoted by the Every Day Counts program. This is because of the potential for this type of technology to cost effectively accelerate construction. However, in addition to this, 3D engineered models offer many other benefits including the ability to better plan and visualize designs and enhance public outreach. If you or your agency or firm have not yet integrated 3D models into your process and are interested in learning more about this technology, you can check out the growing number of resources posted on the FHWA 3D Engineered Models Website at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/3d/.

Their site offers links to examples of how 3D models have been used in projects along with links to manuals and other guidance of how to integrate and develop 3D models in your own projects. At the end of last year, FHWA also started a year-long webinar training series. Below is a listing of the topics they are offering. You can view past webinars or sign up for future ones at the link given above.

Future Webinars

Applications of 3D Models in the Construction Office February 19, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Applications of 3D Models on the Construction Site April 2, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Managing and Sharing 3D Models for Construction May 7, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Overcoming Impediments to Using 3D Engineered Models for Construction September 10, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Steps to Requiring 3D Engineered Models for Construction October 15, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
The Future: Adding Time, Cost and Other Information to 3D Models November 19, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern

 Past Webinars

Overview of 3D Engineered Models for Construction November 20, 2013 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Creating 3D Engineered Models January 8, 2014 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern

 

Source of Photo used in post: Roadway Design Visualization – Natchez Trace Parkway, MS, http://www.efl.fhwa.dot.gov/technology/Road-VS/Natchez-Trace-Parkway/natchez-trace-parkway.aspx

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“We are engineers; we are not gamers”

Photo from the Cheesecake Sim in Second Life

Over the past several years, most people I knew in the industry chose to ignore what was going on with 3D immersive technology. At one point they might have taken a quick look, realized gaming engines like Second Life were not easily compatible with the CAD products we used, and moved on. Until more recently this compatibility issue might have been true. But thanks to some innovative developments over the last year, it's probably a good idea for the industry to start paying more attention.

There are a few examples out there that were created over the past few years by some of us in the AEC industry demonstrating what can be done with software like Second Life and related tools like OpenSimulator (OpenSim). While most of us set up small concept builds, some people like Jon Brouchoud developed larger models to assist cities in urban planning using products like Unity3D. And companies like Daden have taken a project from concepts created in Second Life through to the final construction and ribbon cutting of the actual building (Birmingham Library). But the challenge was always integrating our work in CAD with these 3D software packages – there just was no capability to move our work between the two environments. Initially it seemed it could not be done because software like Second Life or OpenSimulator would not allow imports of 3D objects created in CAD or other 3D software. But eventually Second Life and OpenSim developed the ability to allow mesh objects to be brought into the environment. Then the problem became trying to apply the textures or images to those imported 3D objects. We were used to easily and quickly applying textures to 3D objects created in Second Life/OpenSim. However, we did not have this same functionality with imported 3D models. Below is a building I created entirely in OpenSim. The textures you see on the building were also applied directly to the building in that software. If I wanted to change one of them all I would have to do is choose the element I want to change then select a new color or texture.

Building created in OpenSim

But if this object had been imported, I could not as easily change the images or colors applied to it since the textures would have been created and mapped to specific elements of the object in another program. You can only change the individual colors or textures by going back into a 3D editing program or another graphic program and changing the texture or the mapping there. You could not swap them out in Second Life/OpenSim or Unity3D.

Another problem was that you could not easily export a 3D build created in a place like Second Life or OpenSim for use in CAD or other 3D programs. This functionality would be highly useful for engineers and architects who could develop a concept build in Second Life/OpenSim and then export to a CAD program for development of final plans. It would also be useful to export objects for use in Unity3D because builds created in that software can be set up to be viewed by anyone through a web browser – no special software viewer is needed. This lack of ability to export work turned away a lot of engineers because they would not want to spend a lot of time building something in Second Life or OpenSim then have to recreate it in CAD.

The good news is that all these issues with importing, exporting, and texturing seem to have been solved. The solution came about through a third party provider of the viewer software used to access the 3D environment of places like Second Life and OpenSim. In the photo below I am using the most recent Singularity viewer to export the 3D object I created in OpenSim. As part of the the export process, the textures are automatically mapped to the right locations. It took no time at all to export the building to my computer as a Collada file.

Building export from OpenSim

After exporting the building and textures, I opened up Unity3D to see how easy it would be to bring the building into that environment. I imported the 3D object I had exported from OpenSim. Then I imported each texture I had used in OpenSim. They mapped into the correct place for each component as I brought them into the folder. All I had to do was change the color for the floor since the original texture is white rather than dark gray. As you can see from the image below, the only texture issue I still need to address is the transparency of the windows. (If you want to try visiting this very simple build, just click this link and wait for it to load. You can move around using your mouse and arrow keys once it is loaded. Public Works Group Building Test Site)

Test import of OpenSim object into Unity3D

So the bottom line on this is that because of the developments in the Second Life and OpenSim software and in the Singularity viewer, 3D objects and their textures can now be easily and quickly exported from these environments and brought into any other software that accepts a Collada file. And any Collada file can easily be imported into the Second Life/OpenSim environment. Because of this we can now make a 3D object that is textured and to scale using software like Second Life or OpenSim (which by the way is free to download and use although Second Life does charge a very small fee for texture uploads) then export this object for use in any other program that accepts a Collada file. Now, the surprising point in all this for me was that at no point in this work flow did I use CAD at all to create these objects. I guess I had always thought I would want to create the object in CAD and only bring it into these environments for visualization and simulation. But because of these developments now I can do all that entirely without using CAD. 

However, I was still thinking I would eventually want to bring this into CAD when I am ready to create the actual plans. But based on a few conversations I had over the last week I'm starting to wonder if that is the direction I should be thinking. The first feedback I received was from a representative of one of the two major civil CAD companies. We talked a little about integrating CAD with gaming engines before he gave a presentation at a conference I attended. Then during his presentation, he announced, "we are engineers; we are not gamers." After hearing this definitive rejection by a major CAD company of all that looks, smells, or feels like a gaming engine, I was happy to find a totally opposite viewpoint from a representative of the other large civil CAD company. That person had called me to share his excitement at seeing how his company is integrating the code used for their own 3D and animation products into their Civil CAD product. He also said they were adding the ability to read and use data in the CAD environment and were about to release a cloud subscription package. While I was excited to hear about these advances, I was particularly interested in the cloud package. His company's software can already import/export 3D models while the other cannot. And If the cloud package is affordable enough, I was thinking I might be able to take advantage of that option.

My final conversation regarding 3D models occurred with another engineer during a meeting. He shared with us a picture of a culvert he created in Google Sketchup. He was impressed because he could use free software to easily create something that allowed all of us to better visualize his design. His opinion was basically why use something as complicated and expensive as CAD when you get such great results from a low cost program that is so easy to use.

So after mulling all that over in my mind, I started wondering if someday we won't need CAD anymore. Perhaps one day engineers will build entirely in a "gaming engine" then export the file to suppliers and contractors who have their own software driven equipment that can calculate quantities, order materials, and develop and ship what is needed to assemble it all on site. I realize this might seem a little farfetched today, but is it really impossible? After all, without ever touching CAD, I already have the ability to take the file I exported of my 3D building built entirely in OpenSim that you see in the photos above and send it to any one of the many 3D printing companies and have it "constructed." So, is it really so wrong to think this could some day be done on a larger scale?

 

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Infographic of the Month – June 2013

This month's infographic, Improving Healthcare Buildings with BIM, is brought to you by one of my very favorite companies, Autodesk. Just like infographics, BIM makes use of visualization techniques to convey a message in a more interesing way that makes ideas easier to understand.

Improving Healthcare Buildings with BIM from Autodesk

If you have an interesting infographic related to public works or any other topic typically covered by the Public Works Group and want to have it featured as Infographic of the Month, just send it to pwg@publicworksgroup.com.

 

 

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