E-engineering

June 2004 » Feature Articles
Today, e-everything seems to be the buzz. We have e-government, e-learning, e-music, e-business, e-books, e-commerce, e-mailing, and even e-gold. Why not e-engineering?

Leveraging design information into the field

BY LOU BARRETT

Today, e-everything seems to be the buzz. We have e-government, e-learning, e-music, e-business, e-books, e-commerce, e-mailing, and even e-gold. Why not e-engineering?

Organizations of all sizes, from small contractors to medium-sized cities to large departments of transportation, are attempting to increase productivity and efficiency by using technology, especially using electronic tools. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) is a prime example of an organization taking strides to achieve such improvements.

It has been using standard computer aided drafting (CAD) software for 25 years and computer aided drafting design (CADD) software applications for 15 years. Although it upgraded and improved both systems through the years, the department's productivity reached a plateau because of its software and business practices.

To reach the next level of efficient program delivery, as well as to initiate its long-term goal of maximizing shared data, Mn/DOT realized it needed to invest in new technology, revise business procedures, and mandate the changes within the Mn/DOT community.

To accomplish this purpose efficiently, the department understood that it must promote the sharing of data information, not just during the design, construction, maintenance, or planning phase, but through the entire lifecycle of roadway projects. While each phase has its own initiatives, processes, and business rules, the integration and seamless dissemination of data is crucial to serving the Mn/DOT's mission statements: To preserve the state highway system, it needs accurate design and construction records to correlate good design and construction practices with better maintenance. To improve the state highway system, it needs to assess a variety of factors, including current roadway conditions, safety issues, maintenance problems, and customer input, as well as incorporate those factors during project delivery and carry them forward into construction.

Technological advancements Known for its cutting-edge approach to technology, Mn/DOT embarked on a multi-year project known as P069.

Partnering with its CADD software developer, Bentley Systems, Mn/DOT will create the next generation of software that will take into account how engineering data is created, formatted, or structured so Mn/DOT staff, its consultants, and its contractors can use it more effectively for activities such as automated staking, GPS machine control (as guidance for earthmoving equipment), construction inspection, and as-built recording.

For example, one goal of P069 was the creation of a 3-D terrain model to be used for a variety of purposes. A common complaint among field personnel is that no matter how well designers and field crews communicate, cross sections are never created where they are needed most. The best solution is to give field crews access to models so that they can cut cross sections at any location "on the fly." Additionally, drainage designers would benefit from having a proposed model to use for drainage area delineations, as well as for doing actual hydraulic design calculations.

After the success of a Mn/DOT pilot project, which tested the use of 3-D models and machine control (see "Experience: The best teacher" on page 22), contractors realized the cost and manpower savings of this modern construction method and want to use it on projects that originally were not identified for machine control. Providing 3-D models to contractors is now a top priority for Mn/DOT. Seen by senior management as using technology to become more efficient, Mn/DOT is working with software developers, earthmoving equipment manufacturers, consultants, and contractors to implement machine control on a statewide scale. Mn/DOT is still in the learning phase, as it fine tunes new standards for field inspection, streamlines the model-creation process, and addresses standards for file formats.

Another major goal of P069 was leveraging design information into construction.

Currently, paper plans are the norm for construction, even though mounds of electronic data created during project delivery sit unused on district servers. Mn/DOT decided that it needed to provide the right information, not necessarily all the information, to construction crews in an easy-to-use format and platform because steep learning curves and large amounts of training are not practical in the field.

Therefore, handheld computers that offer "point-and-click" solutions were developed to provide 3-D project models to surveyors and inspectors. They use electronic data from design, hydraulics, rightof- way, traffic, and other project delivery functional areas. For instance, surveyors can access staking information for drainage structures, pipes, and other features. The 3-D project model, which is the same one used for machine control, provides elevations for every location and surface within the project limits. Additionally, the handheld software can be loaded onto GPS equipment so that staking notes and cut/fill numbers are displayed and automatically loaded for GPS use.

Furthermore, notes and field changes can be entered and stored on master files, which all personnel can sync up to.

While these e-engineering systems sound like a field person's dream-cometrue, it is important to consider the type and quality of information used to create the models.

Issues to consider While the information produced by the design team is excellent for the creation of paper plans, it's not necessarily appropriate for the field. For example, hydraulics design software uses coordinates for the top of structures, while surveyors stake from the bottom. If the bottom part of a structure is offset, the coordinates are not reflected in the design. Another example involves cross sections, which are generated for traditional design every 100 feet.

However, models for machine control need more specific information.

CADD standards and, even more importantly, their enforcement, are another issue to consider with advanced technology. In the past, CADD drawings were acceptable if they produced "a pretty picture." If elements were on the wrong layer or level, or if incorrect colors or line styles were used, it didn't matter as long as the drawing plotted correctly. This is not the case when CADD drawings are used for purposes other than creating drawings.

For example, when an inspector uses electronic files to determine quantities, a sidewalk drawn on the wrong layer may be computed incorrectly as pavement, or curb and gutter on the wrong layer may not be counted.

Even if an organization has a comprehensive set of standards, enforcement is a major problem. For many DOTs, adhering to technical standards takes a back seat to "getting projects out the door." Standards prove to be an even more complex problem for the private sector, as consultants often work for numerous clients that each have their own set of specified software and standards. For both the public and private sectors, the balance between dictatorial standards (with consistent electronic data) and flexible standards (to account for project differences) is difficult to establish, and with constantly changing technology and software, is a struggle to maintain.

Another lesson Mn/DOT has learned since entering the e-engineering world is that last minute changes, which used to be done with a quick flash of a pen, no longer can be inked. Changes must be included in electronic data.

The big picture To share electronic data throughout the lifecycle of a roadway project successfully-from collection to design to the field and back to the data repository-all personnel need to understand their role in the process, as well as the "big picture" of the road lifecycle. The mindset that it is an electronic world, and no longer a paper world, needs to be nurtured and reinforced at every opportunity. For example, show teams how the benefits during the construction phase outweigh the resources expended creating 3-D models, which is more time consuming than the traditional design process. Of course, this can be difficult because buy-in by a project delivery group whose resources are stretched just to complete the plans can be an obstacle.

The support of senior management at Mn/DOT has played a key role in its e-engineering advancements. Richard Stehr, engineering services director says, "Create the data once, reuse it everywhere." He believes this is a sound business practice, as it offers greater efficiencies and minimizes errors caused by reworking data.

Similarly, Robert Winter, who is the district operations director, is focused on raising the level and quality of CADD usage in the districts so that Mn/DOT will get the greatest return from its dollars spent on CADD and so that better engineering data is provided from project delivery to the field.

Both directors encourage e-engineering by supporting it with their day-to-day business decisions and departmental direction.

They constantly challenge staff in research and development, information technology, and all levels of management to find better ways to use technology to leverage electronic data, and to find more streamlined and efficient processes, while, of course, providing the best possible transportation system to the public. Stehr and Winter instill these as goals to strive for throughout each business day.

While Mn/DOT has made great strides in the past decade advancing e-engineering and moving toward a complete highway lifecycle, it realizes the potential is even more amazing. Who says we don't live in exciting times?

Lou Barrett is a transportation program supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Transportation located in St. Paul, Minn.

She can be reached via e-mail at lou.barrett@dot.state.mn.us.

 

E-Engineering in the public vs.private sector

While many in the civil engineering industry feel that there is a world of difference between the public and private sectors, they really are not that unique. During a recent conversation with John T.

Holzwarth, e-engineering program manager for CH2M Hill in Des Moines, Iowa, I learned that many of the accomplishments related to eengineering-and also most of the woes-were common to both of our organizations.

Over the past few years at CH2M Hill, e-engineering has been an internal initiative, driven by the need for increased efficiency, and the desire to provide better products and more value to its clients.Likewise, Mn/DOT developed e-engineering systems internally with efficiency as its goal; an added incentive is being accountable to state governments and the traveling public to provide quality transportation.

Both organizations recognize the need to leverage design/engineering data into construction, as well as the efficiencies gained by removing redundancy and errors caused by changing formats.The area of focus remains between functional groups, such as smoothly flowing existing features data from surveyors to designers.Reviews of business workflows and processes have led to the development of best practices, which in turn determine the best tools to use. One key difference is that Mn/DOT can mandate the use of specific software, while CH2M Hill, like all consultants, often has contractual obligations that dictate which products are used.

Another common issue is that both sectors are challenged by the establishment and enforcement of standards.A DOT's size makes enforcement difficult,while a consultant must maintain several clients'standards.

Every organization-public or private, large or small, civil or another discipline-must determine how best to apply its vision of e-engineering to leverage its engineering data for maximum efficiency and quality.

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Experience: The best teacher

An on-going, 11-mile project to expand two-lane State Highway 23 to a four-lane facility along the interregional corridor between Willmar and the St. Cloud area in Minnesota will relieve congestion and improve safety conditions.The highway is the main thoroughfare for the city of Spicer and the neighboring Green Lake/Nest Lake, an environmentally sensitive recreational area. Designated as a pilot project for GPS machine control, design data was leveraged for various construction activities. Originally, only pond work was planned for machine control; however, value engineering expanded its use for grading and aggregate work.

The original contract required that at least five of the proposed 42 ponds be built with machine control, and that the method used for the other ponds would be agreed upon by the project engineer and the contractor.With this arrangement, the pilot could be executed, but an exit mechanism was available if machine control was not successful.As it turns out,this precaution wasn't necessary:After the first two ponds were built, the contractor requested 3-D models for all of the ponds. In the end, more than 40 ponds were built using machine control.

Lessons learned Many of the benefits of machine control were evident on this project. For example, Mn/DOT experienced minimization,or elimination, of staking, which saves surveyor man hours. Another advantage is that 3-D models provided precise elevation information for the entire pond area; such exact data is virtually impossible to deliver with traditional cross sections. Therefore, 3-D models more closely reflected actual designs and facilities were built precisely.Other benefits included quicker construction and shorter intervals between building, inspecting, and acceptance.

Subsequently, permanent erosion control was applied sooner and contractors were paid sooner,as their payments cannot be processed until acceptance.

Along with realizing many advantages of machine control, other lessons were learned, many of which involve how to operate a "stakeless" site. For example, even though a 3-D model is all that is required for machinecontrolled earthmoving equipment, it was obvious that the operator needed more information.

Therefore, background files were loaded into the machinery to provide helpful points of reference such as pond limits, centerlines and edges of pavement, and other physical references. Likewise, all types of field staff traditionally use stakes as reference points so,if they don't have GPS equipment on a stakeless project, what do they use? For a pond in Willmar, an inspector was provided with GPS equipment to determine its feasibility; he had positive results.In other cases,stakes were used as reference points for non-GPS field personnel, not to guide construction equipment operators.

Another more general use of stakes is to show adjoining property owners the limits of construction.Mn/DOT found that a few stakes along the project boundaries comfort property owners about where construction is occurring.Mn/DOT realized that although the primary purpose of staking is actual construction, secondary uses cannot be discounted and must be addressed to ensure success with stakeless construction.

From the design perspective, the additional work needed to produce 3-D models of the ponds sufficient for machine control was insignificant, as these models can be outputted with Mn/DOT's standard design software. However, producing 3-D models of roadways to accomplish grading or aggregates with machine control is not as easy.

Mn/DOT is aware from first-hand experience that software is lagging behind geospatial technology and is one of the major impediments to machine control.

Another aspect of the pilot was leveraging design data to handheld computers for surveying and field inspections. One important lesson learned was not to restrict the testing to a particular type of hardware (such as PDAs, tablets, or laptops), but to learn through testing which units can stand up to the rigors of the field and are preferred by personnel.

Mn/DOT also learned that compatibility issues with how handheld hardware and software interfaced with traditional survey equipment should be expected. However, now that these issues have been resolved,Mn/DOT is excited to expand the use of its new software for handheld computers this spring on additional pilot projects.

For more information on this project, go to www.dot.state.mn.us/d8/projects/23/index.html.


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