Tag Archives: Civil Engineering

“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?



Is the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Really a Good Idea?

Wastewater Basin

As a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I regularly receive information and notices proclaiming their annual "grading" of our nation's infrastructure. There is even a website to promote this effort: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/. My opinion on this might not be popular with my colleagues, but frankly I have never thought this report was valid or a good idea. Finally after reading a LinkedIn thread about how engineers get no respect and a related link criticizing the annual report card, I decided to share my thoughts, as an engineer, on this public relations effort.

First of all, imagine going to the Infrastructure Report Card website as an average citizen – not an engineer. On the site there is a listing of all the different categories of infrastructure we are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining such as water, wastewater, dams, bridges, roads, parks, etc. Not one of them has a grade above a C and the average is a D. Now imagine going to the medical association's website and seeing a listing of items for which they are responsible such as cancer, common cold, fractures, etc. and a related listing of grades. How would you feel about the medical profession if they gave themselves all C and D grades for those? Because on the face of it, that is how it looks to someone who is not involved in the industry – engineers are grading themselves for the work they do and the infrastructure for which they are responsible, and can't manage to get above a D average! Then we wonder why we get no respect!

Now, I realize those responsible for setting up this effort would respond by explaining that no, it's not a grade on our efforts, but a wake up call that government is not giving us enough funds to adequately build and maintain the infrastructure. Because that's what this is really all about, trying to convince legislators they need to funnel more money into infrastructure. But I don't think it's working, and it should be no surprise why not. If I was funding work by a group and the reports kept coming back every year that the work was underperforming, I would start asking some questions such as why is your work failing, what progress is being made with the funds, and what else can be done besides throwing more money at it? 

As an engineer, I am well aware of the need for funding, but as one who has worked in a severely economically depressed city for many years, I also realize that part of my job as an engineer is to figure out how to get the most from the money we have and explain to the elected officials the trade-offs for the different funding levels. Because that is what engineers are supposed to do best – analyze a problem, figure out solutions, attach dollars to them, and let elected officials decide which level of service they want. Then we build the best system we can with the money we receive.

In the last city where I worked, I would have graded our infrastructure efforts as an A because by working together, we were often able to figure out ways to get things done at a very acceptable level with very few dollars. If you drive through that community today, just about every road is in great shape while the neighboring community, whose coffers were always filled with millions more tax dollars than ours, has a proliferation of crumbling roads. This shows that while money is an important component, a successful system also requires people in government working together and making the right choices for the public good with patience and understanding of the goals and the ability to implement creative solutions.

And my past employer is far from unique – the fact is that many cities have systems that are well managed and maintained. I can't imagine anyone traveling across the U.S. coming to any conclusion other than the infrastructure in our country is very good. The true measure of success is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of us make it to work each day without even thinking of the roads we drive on, the water we use to get ready for work, the wastewater system that disposes of all the water we use, the stormwater systems that prevent any rain from keeping us from traveling safely, etc. So the real question is, how are we really measuring this grade?

I get the impression ASCE determines this grade by assuming a life for our assets and assigning a replacement cost then comparing that to funding levels. And because these levels don't match the replacement costs, we must be failing. The flaw in this is that just because something like a water main is more than 50 years old does not mean it is at the verge of imminent failure. But according to ASCE, if politicians don't give us money to rip it out at year 51, that main drops to a D. I've worked in cities where mains were 120 years old and were still delivering water to homes and businesses with no breaks or signs of failure. That's not a D, and it is irresponsible as an engineer to lead people to believe that it should be replaced strictly based on its age. Yesterday an engineer with a national consulting firm told me that in their experience they've noticed the older a main gets, the less chance it actually has of failing. And based on my experience, I agree. We also heard from that engineer and another at a different national firm, that most water main failures are occuring in mains built in the first few years after World War II because there was a decrease in the quality of materials at that time. And I can't understand how anyone can assign a life to PVC water main pipe since we don't have enough experience with it yet to really know how long it will last. Based on all this, it appears age is definitely not the only factor in determining the need for replacement.

So while it is a good idea to have some report of the state of our infrastructure, let's not fabricate the data just to get more business for our profession. And let's not use a grading system that leads people to believe we are all failures at the job with which the public has entrusted us. Instead we should choose to use an accurate and reasonable method of identifying and assessing our assets and reporting the actual projected costs to keep up with the management and maintenance of our system. Because no engineer I know really believes the Infrastructure Report Card is an accurate reflection of our nation's public works systems, it's not achieving the purpose for which ASCE has developed it, and most of us are not too happy that an organization representing our profession is falsely leading people to believe we are failures at our jobs.


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 32 and 33

Day 32 & 33

I decided to combine yesterday's post with today's because wow – have I been busy! On Thursday I tried to finalize a few outstanding items before taking off a few days to attend conferences. I finalized a cost estimate for resurfacing a major roadway in the city. Then sent out the approval letter for the last review on a development. They are now cleared to send in their Letter of Credit for the project. Once we get that, they will receive final engineering approval and can get started on the site work.

Later in the morning, a few of us attended a pre-construction meeting with the Park District and their engineer and contractor. We are all working together to build a community garden. It will be located in the northwest corner of our city on land owned by the Forest Preserve who is also a partner. Our water department will be working with the contractor installing water lines and will later install yard hydrants.

We also had a staff meeting in the afternoon. Because we have so much going on and so many projects, it seems like our staff meetings take longer. It was almost the end of the day when we finished. We also finished out the day by placing a culvert lining project out to bid.

Illinois Association of  Highway Engineers

Then today, I attended the Ilinois Association of Highway Engineers conference in Normal, Illinois. It was a very well run event which is impressive because it's all put together by volunteers who work for IDOT. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to give one of the presentations and had a great time. (Technically I wasn't working because I had to take a vacation day to attend – we are only allowed time off to attend two conferences a year.)

Warm Mix Asphalt

One of the other presentations was on warm mix asphalt. It was given by someone who is involved in researching testing of asphalt. I could have predicted what he was going to tell us based on the performance of asphalt we have been seeing in the field. Ever since they cut back on the percentage of asphalt content and increased the amount of RAP (recycled asphalt pavement), we've noticed roads don't last as long as they used to. Sometimes we are seeing failures in the first five years. His testing seemed to indicate that using a warm mix improves the performance. The warm mix asphalt is actually a mix design produced at temperatures below that of a traditional mix. The use of this "colder" mix is possible because of the use of additives. I don't think the speaker mentioned this, but warm mix asphalt is one of the innovation components of Every Day Counts. So you can learn more about it here: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/everydaycounts/technology/asphalt/

Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge

We also listened to an interesting talk by someone involved with the construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge. He was either one of the engineers or worked for the contractor. The speaker started at the beginning of the project and walked through how it was constructed using a lot of photos taken at each stage. It was incredible to see how they had to construct a whole cable system in order to just get people and materials out to the areas where they were working. 

My presentation: Social Media and Its Use in Transportation Projects

So here is the presentation I gave – I wish I had the audio because I usually put so little on the slide and then talk to convey the story behind the slide. But I don't think they were taping the presentations.



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 13

Day 13

This morning we started out the day with our regular engineering staff meeting. There wasn't too much unusual to report – everyone just gave an update of their recent work. And some even left the meeting early after giving their report because we are so busy and they needed to get back to what they were doing. 

I spent part of the day with one of our project engineers checking on the sealcoating and striping of our parking lots. We also have our major road project going on, and the contractor should finish it this week. So we checked on a few items on that job. 

After lunch a few of us met with a business in town where we are planning to build a new parking lot. We needed to show them the proposed location of the lot and ask them what they thought should go in between the parking lot curb and their building. All of us ended up prefering a mix of landscaping and service walks to doors and a dumpster.

The Bizarre Moment of the Day otherwise known as an "I can't Make This Stuff Up!" Moment

One very bizarre thing that happened was that I got a call from my supervisor from a previous job. He told me a civil engineer who identified himself as a retired engineer who was a resident of our city had called him asking questions about me and my performance on my previous job. This engineer complained to this person that he was helping a friend and that I was requiring them to do something they did not have to do. The engineer described to my former supervisor a previous story I had written about on this blog where I shared how I had told a contractor he would need to provide a bond to drive heavy construction traffic on one of our local roads not designed for that loading. He told my former supervisor he was looking for details about that thinking he could use the information to help his client. Later I found out this engineer had contacted a few others with whom I used to work. One person told me she got the feeling he was trying to "find dirt on me."

From what I could tell this is an engineer from another city in the Chicago area who has represented to us he is working for a resident in our city. The matter has involved the construction of a walkout for a home. We were asked inintially by the builder for the resident if they could build this walkout. The home is located along an overland flood route, and the subdivision plans clearly show the required elevation of the lowest opening for the home. From what we have received to date, which is not much, it appears as if they are proposing a walk out with a lower elevation. So we have not as yet been able to, based on the information we have so far, been able to approve their request. And it appears instead of meeting and working with us, this engineer is instead contacting our elected officials and my previous employees and co-workers.

I would like to share more about it on here, because it is highly unusual for another professional to handle a permit submittal in this manner. But based on this person's behavior I am at this time going to have to refrain from sharing much more until the matter is resolved. But the other reason I did want to mention it is that based on his behavior, it's difficult to know who else he may try to contact or what else he might try to do. So I wanted to share with my colleagues and friends the story in case they too are contacted. 

Wow – I really need to add a "Bizarre" category on this blog! Of course, it is day 13 so perhaps a story like this is appropriate.



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 5

Day 5

The main items grabbing my attention today involved the following:


Today the stripers were in town placing the thermoplastic paint on a few of our newly paved roads. Normally I don't get too involved in the operation because we have a project engineer and technician inspecting and managing the project. But today, we had a resident call because she was concerned that we had planned to stripe a crosswalk at a T-intersection. There had been one leg of a sidewalk connection with a depressed ramp on her side, but no connecting sidewalk on the other side of the road. We've been trying to clean these up and either remove the lone leg or add the other side. In this case we added the receiving ramp. Because the roadway is busy, the engineer had planned on placing a crosswalk at this point. However the resident was worried children would be harmed because the crosswalk might encourage them to cross there rather than further down at the 4-way stop.

Thermoplastic Pavement Markings

I met the resident and her husband at the site along with one of our policemen. Over the years I've found it to be a very valuable experience to work together with the police on traffic-related issues. They bring great insight and ideas. And in the end, they are the ones that have to regulate the traffic. The policeman who met me there is an awesome public safety professional who was able to offer his thoughts from a public safety perspective. He shared that we have crosswalks striped all over town at T-intersections, and the police have had no incidents reported. And I indicated there would be no engineering reason that requires us to stripe or not stripe. After reviewing the situation, we decided that based on the four-way stop being close by, we could skip striping the crosswalk. 

Storm Sewer Project

We regularly receive calls related to stormwater issues throughout the community. Most of the time, they do not meet the criteria required for the city to install additional infrastructure. But occasionally the water nuisance is extensive enough that we decide to construct an improvement. This year, we have plans to install a short segment of storm sewer to alleviate flooding that occurs over multiple properties after even a small amount of rainfall. Our crews will do the work so normally we would not prepare a normal set of plans required for bidding. But because we have some interns who are interested in learning CAD, I decided to set up a drawing for them so they could work on developing the plan for this project. Unfortunately we have a CAD product that based on my experience requires us to spend an enormous amount of time that could be cut significantly if we just changed software. But even though over time the new software would pay for itself in savings from subscription fees, it's that initial purchase price that in this economy is preventing me from changing over. So instead every time we draw something, we spend a lot of time generating the plans. To say it's been frustrating is a total understatement. Anyway, I finally today managed to get the plan set up for them to start. Although I never could get the linestyles to display right. And because I just cannot afford to spend more time with it, I am hoping the interns can figure out what is messed up with that.

Reviewing a Driveway Permit

Normally this would be handled by our building department since they issue driveway replacement permits. But last year we had a company come in–well it was more like a guy with a skidsteer who didn't have a clue what he was doing–and in the process of trying to cut curb completely messed up a newly paved road. Why he waited until we completed the road to cut curb and replace drives is still not evident, but the result was damaged pavement because he didn't properly perform this work. So now we are more cautious about letting anyone cut curb. In this case, the contractor seems to be using a reputable company so I expect they will pick up their permit on Monday after dropping off the necessary certificates of insurance and bond we require to work in the right of way.

School Zones

One of our engineers had noticed that some school zone signs remained in areas where schools had moved out of their buildings. He wondered if we should remove the signs so I had our interns looking into this. Today we checked the city code to determine where the city council had established school zones and discovered there seemed to be some school zones still in existance even though schools are no longer located in those areas. And because we have had so much development in the past several years, there are areas with signed school zones that have not been established through ordinance. So the interns are preparing a report of these areas that can be submitted to administration and perhaps onto the council for consideration.

Some of the miscellaneous tasks that filled the rest of the day included:

  • Meeting with an intern who will start working part time with us later this month. This is an unpaid internship arranged through the high school.
  • Reviewed in the field the site of a proposed development
  • Gave our sign shop the sign design our interns prepared for the school zone area 



Does Civil Engineering Have a “Next Paradigm?”

"We were no longer able to truly see beyond the horizon of what we had built and to make the necessary leaps in innovation." – Stephan Paternot

Today I read a blog post by Stephan Paternot, the co-founder of theglobe.com, and in it, I saw a glimpse of the point I was trying to make in my last post: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of Engineering Consulting Firms. In addition to some insightful observations about the future, Paternot's article also discusses the rise and fall of the dotcoms and explains why they had to fail. The reason (and link to the post) are embodied in the opening quote above. In talking about the end of theglobe.com and MySpace, he said, "it was time to pass the baton and make room for the next paradigm, and the new generation of innovators who could envision it."

His post makes me wonder, are the technological changes in our society so far-reaching and significant that they could actually change civil engineering as we know it? And if so, how? I see some signs of the change that could be, but have difficulty finding colleagues interested in imagining it or discussing the possibilities. Perhaps it's because our profession still makes use of technology going back to at least the Roman times. Can a profession that uses technology and ideas that are centuries old really be on the brink of transformation? It appears most don't believe so. However, the key seems to be that the change will not necessarily be driven by the advancement in technology we use in our job. Instead our profession will have to transform to meet the changing demands of society caused by advances in technology.  If we don't understand this distinction, it could be us saying "we were no longer able to truly see beyond the horizon of what we had built to the people for whom we built to make the necesssary leaps in innovation."