The next time you’re on the highway, take a moment to consider all the features along the road that had to be built to get you from Point A to Point B: there’s the guard rails, the slope off of the side of the road and the abutments that help make sure that the overpass doesn’t suddenly stop being an overpass.
Someone had to sit down and design each and every one of those features and make sure that each of those are communicated in precise detail to the contractors who will actually build it. And what’s more, they do it knowing that the well-being of countless drivers relies on their work being up to standard, be it the particular layout of the asphalt they’re driving on or how much safe space they have if their car skids off the road.
So it’s no wonder that roadway designers like Brad Hollister are constantly looking for ways to develop a deeper understanding of roadway design and construction and minimizing any chance that critical details get lost somewhere in the process.
As he talked about at Autodesk University, one way that he does this is by using Civil3D, a 3D design tool that allows him and other members of his team at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for roadway planning while also giving them the tools to effectively convey key details of a design to their construction partners, who can use them to come up with more optimal production plans and more competitive bid prices.
We sat down with Brad to talk about what he has learned over his thirteen years’ experience with Civil3D and what best practices he’d like to share with like-minded designers and other state departments of transportation. Here is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): Can you tell our readers a little bit about what you do for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation?
Brad Hollister: I’m part of the Department’s Methods Development Unit, or MDU. We focus on developing methods for roadway design and construction engineering statewide, which includes developing our workflows and software standards.
We’re most well-known for our nine years of work with Civil3D though, and I was actually a part of the team that selected and implemented Civil3D, functioning as the team leader for six years, between 2011 and 2016. Since then, the focus of my work has been figuring out how to take advantage of the advances that have come along in the industry and further integrate the design and construction processes, and our first deep step into pulling these together is our 3D design program.
GDH: Why did you implement Civil 3D? What roadway design system were you using before that?
Brad Hollister: In 2003, Autodesk announced that they were no longer going to continue developing and improving the design functionality of our previous design program, CAiCE, so we went through a competitive process with two companies for selecting a replacement. In the end though, Civil3D made a lot of sense for Wisconsin DOT because they might as well have called it “CAiCE 3D.” It was very clear that their engineers had a say in how the roadway design workflows worked; Civil3D’s and CAiCE’s were nearly identical. Civil3D just had more capabilities. We knew that would be a big plus across our department.
The other thing was that Civil3D employed a model-oriented approach that we’d never seen anywhere before. It showed objects’ relationship – the dynamic reaction – to each other in the design. Prior to using Civil3D, when you changed something in the iterative process of design, there’s a whole chain of executions that you need to do manually to reflect that change in the design data. It was a frequent problem; changes made by the designers wouldn’t be reflected all the way through the process. There were just so many opportunities for design output errors between the designer and the construction team. Civil3D then, and its dynamic relationships’ ability to address these inconsistencies, was revolutionary.
GDH: What have you found have been the greatest process improvements in using 3D design models?
Brad Hollister: It’s led to more efficiency in our design process and ultimately, in our finished projects because 3D objects help us communicate a lot more effectively. Most notably, it helps us illustrate what parts of a design are important – where the design focus should be, and we’re getting better at roadway design because of it. For example, this diagram (below) clearly isn’t a highly detailed model, but the design intent is clearly understandable. Even a layman can see that this is a bridge with a roadway passing over another roadway, but even still, we’re showing important engineering design concepts for the safety section of the roadway underneath that we just couldn’t in a traditional cross-sectional model.
GDH: What have been some of the challenges in implementing these models? How did you overcome them?
Brad Hollister: Most of the challenges that we’ve had fall under the umbrella of making a cultural shift to incorporate 3D design processes. Remember that it’ll take time because it’s a whole new design methodology – a whole new culture – from the traditional Plans, Specifications and Estimates model of doing things.
One of the problems we are encountering is the lack of prominence of 3D design deliverables. When roadway designers put their professional engineer stamp on the front page of a traditional Plan, they understand the importance of that Plan. They’re putting their professional reputation on that as finished work. Our 3D design deliverables have not yet received the same level of importance as Plans in our roadway project culture. Part of it is that they’re not contractual construction project documents, which reduces the Design Model’s stature in comparison to Plans.
With these best practices in place, hopefully folks will see process improvements because really, 3D design creates a deeper understanding of roadway design and construction. And once you see and understand the process better, it’s easier to recognize where you can make process improvements, save yourself time and come up with a better end product.
Undesirable outcomes in our 3D design deliveries will sometimes arise from that lack of prominence. We’ll see content of design deliveries that are inconsistent with our delivery standards. I’ve heard multiple times that a team put effort into a 3D design deliverable but they didn’t prepare the digital data in a way that’s useable downstream, and the contractor comes back to them saying that they didn’t use any of it. The design team understandably becomes frustrated with that type of experience, and the value of 3D design is questioned.
It’s all part of the growing pains of shifting to 3D design. Our transition is still very much a work in progress, and we are addressing the cultural changes in our implementation by improving roadway design workflows in ways that support traditional and 3D design outputs, and openly sharing our training materials that teach those workflows. Change is happening, but our industry still needs time to completely shift to using 3D design tools.
GDH: How has using this application benefited the project lifecycle? Project cost?
Brad Hollister: The greatest benefits that we’re realizing are pre-bid—getting design data to contractors early helps them plan, start looking at different approaches to constructing a project, whether it’s different crew configurations, different staging configurations or looking at the variations of the volume of work. They can start planning their operations more quickly and more optimally than they would with traditional plan sheet deliverables because this data really removes a lot of unknowns that they would have to be prepared for. This helps them turn in more competitive bid prices, and that helps the state save construction dollars.
On the design side, outside factors have condensed design lifecycle timelines. We’re being asked to deliver design projects more quickly, both in the amount of personnel hours and effort and the amount of calendar time between project conception and when it’s sent out. Being able to use Civil3D is a very instrumental factor in helping us succeed despite those changes.
GDH: Can you share any project anecdotes that showcase some of those benefits?
Brad Hollister: About six or seven months after we had started training the early adopters of Civil3D, one of them was given two high profile projects converting a rural two-lane highway into a four-lane freeway. Each of these was 6 miles in length, and we didn’t want people with condensed timeframes starting out on this brand-new design program. But that’s exactly what we had in this project. He wasn’t very far along when he started using Civil3D, and sure enough, he started in January and got it finalized by August. It was a bumpy road and we helped him get there, but at the end of the process, he was adamant we could not have delivered both projects in that timeline if we were still in our previous design program.
GDH: If another state department of transportation was considering implementing 3D design models, what best practices would you share with them?
Brad Hollister: Any agency or organization that’s considering moving forward with this kind of implementation needs a very flexible mindset amongst its designers and its construction stakeholders, and I mean that in a couple different ways:
One, our whole idea of what 3D design is has changed over the past ten years as we keep learning how to do things better. That’s really meant listening to our designers to see how much effort this is costing them and listening to our contractors and seeing how much value it’s providing. So what we’re working on now is trimming the fat off of 3D design and communicating that our designers can be flexible in what level of detail they’re putting into their design models, depending on what’s important in a delivery. Our thoughts on that have evolved over the years, and I’m sure they’ll continue to be a work in progress.
I should also note that you need to be flexible enough to react to advancements in technology. Design and construction technology are going to evolve over time, and our design outputs are going to have to react to that. Our design standards now are based off what we’re doing and what we have available in 2019. I’m sure things are going to be different in five years, too.
Lastly, you need to adapt your requirements of 3D design to your project environment. Each state is different. For example, some states deliver detailed 3D design models of asphalt pavement. However, asphalt paving contractors on WisDOT projects aren’t using models in their construction operations, so delivering 3D design models wouldn’t benefit the construction project. You really have to get in touch with what’s happening on your projects to develop deliverables that make sense for your situation.
To hear more from Brad, check out his Autodesk University presentation here.