Computing Q&A

October 2011 » Features » ENGINEERED SOLUTIONS
Technology developers address the impacts of hardware and connectivity innovations.
Bob Drake

There is no doubt that the capabilities of design, analysis, and GIS software programs for civil engineering applications have expanded significantly during the last decade. Laying the foundation for this development are innovations in computer hardware and connectivity. To get a better understanding of this impact, CE News posed two questions to a number of software and technology providers.

How have innovations in computer hardware and connectivity during the last few years impacted development and use of design, analysis, and GIS software for civil engineering applications?

Taking advantage of improvements in CPU speed, memory, and cloud computing, BLUERIDGE Analytics' SITEOPS uses sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms to run through millions of combinations of layout, grading, and piping options for a site to find the most cost-effective or environmentally friendly design solution.
Image: BLUERIDGE Analytics.

Adam Strafaci, senior industry marketing manager, Infrastructure, Autodesk: The last several years has seen significant innovations in computer hardware and connectivity in three major areas: desktop computing power, cloud computing, and broadband access/mobile computing. These innovations are not only having dramatic impacts on how we develop design, analysis, and GIS software, but also on how our users experience using this software.

The increases in computing power at lower cost of hardware continue to enable software to do more, especially in the domains of visualization, simulation, and analysis. As building information modeling (BIM) starts to gain traction in infrastructure, civil engineers are expecting to do more with their information, including using it to develop photorealistic renderings of projects and to support analysis for optimizing designs. The increases in computing power support this workflow.

The rapid expansion of cloud computing has provided civil engineering professionals with what is essentially infinite computing and storage capacity. Engineers can now conduct analysis and visualization leveraging farms of CPUs to iterate in ways that are not feasible on the desktop. Huge datasets can now reside securely in the cloud and be accessed and collaborated on by project team members. And projects can be shared with stakeholders using the Web in ways that even a few years ago were expensive, cumbersome, and labor-intensive.

Finally, the continuing advance of broadband access along with the reduced cost and improved portability and capability of devices has brought mobile computing into the mainstream of civil engineering. It is now practical not only to take plans or designs into the field on smart phones and tablets, but to create and update them and capture the conditions on the ground while sharing the changes in near real time with an extended project team.

Perrine Parrod, product marketing manager,Geospatial,Bentley Systems Inc.: Regarding hardware, 64-bit gave access to more memory. The main benefit is that users don't run out of memory when opening very large models. Also, processors are faster (improvements during the last 10 years). The main benefit is that it allows users to model all-pipe models for more realistic representations of real-world systems. This means that when smart skeletonization (model simplification) is used, it is not to allow faster calculations anymore; modelers now have the flexibility to either:

  • keep skeletonizing their model, mostly as a way to simplify hydraulic models when increasing complexity of the work does not add value to the modeling activities anymore; or
  • create a sophisticated all-pipe model, for geospatial system planning.

Faster processors have also allowed software companies to develop Genetic Algorithm-based capabilities for engineering applications that generally require a huge number of trial-and-revision cycles, such as model calibration and pipe design and rehabilitation.

Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler conceptual design software helps GIS, planning, and civil engineering professionals quickly build large infrastructure models from available data including GIS information, imagery, CAD data, and BIM models. With Project Galileo Online, stakeholders can collaborate on these models in the cloud.
Image: City of Fribourg, Switzerland

Hard drives are faster. This means faster performance with modeling processes such as saving results and generating reports.

Connectivity improvements have allowed users to collaborate more effectively on projects from different parts of the world. For example, with Bentley's ProjectWise, project teams can improve work sharing, better manage all engineering content, and better leverage existing hydraulic and hydrologic models, ultimately reducing project costs.

Another example of benefits is the capability to publish data on the Internet. For example, using Bentley Geo Web Publisher is a cost effective way to share corporate information and data both to the public and staff members.

Ron Breukelaar, Ph.D., chief scientist, BLUERIDGE Analytics Inc.: There are two main improvements. First, software for civil engineers (and for engineering in general) has become much more portable with the advent and adoption of high-speed Internet. Running software "in the cloud" has made it substantially easier to share files and collaborate on projects, reducing time and effort. It has also made updates and patches, CDs, large downloads, et cetera, a thing of the past.

Second, significant improvements in CPU speed and memory size have made it possible to develop "smart" software that truly optimizes real-world civil engineering problems. This makes it possible to use the computer to not only calculate the feasibility and cost of a certain project, but also, "ask" the computer to find a more cost-effective or environmentally friendly solution.

Brad Heil, vice president – Products & Services, Eagle Point Software: Cloud computing (in different forms) has begun taking hold in our market within the last few years. While it started with firms sharing project files, it is evolving into a way in which other content and services are delivered. The day in which high-speed Internet is consistently available for companies of all sizes is nearing. It's certainly not as widely available and persistent as electricity, but it's close. That, coupled with customers' caution to store proprietary information offsite has meant a slow adoption for the cloud, but one that is certainly gaining speed.

As this type of always-on connectivity continues to take hold, companies are benefiting immensely by utilizing alternative, lower-cost ways to solve the problems of implementing new workflows, training, and supporting their people on engineering design software.

Alan Sharp, business manager, Software Solutions, Trimble Navigation, Ltd.: The key innovations that have impacted the development and use of design, analysis, and GIS software have been:

  • the availability of high-speed wireless Internet using cellular and WiFi technologies;
  • improvements in processing power available through the combination of multi-core processors and the affordability of larger memory in personal computers;
  • improved graphics speed for better visualization;
  • lower-power computing devices enabling increased use of in-field computing using touch screen tablet computers; and
  • development of common file formats that allow different software solutions to share information easily

 

What specific features of your company's design, analysis, or GIS solutions for civil engineering applications significantly leverage these hardware and connectivity innovations?

Strafaci (Autodesk): Innovations in desktop computing power, cloud computing, and broadband access/mobile are impacting the Autodesk BIM for Infrastructure software portfolio on a number of fronts. From a pure computing power standpoint, the increased desktop capacity really set the stage for the workflows supported by the new Autodesk Infrastructure Design Suite. While civil engineering professionals have long used analysis, simulation, and visualization tools in their workflows to help optimize designs, it was generally a disconnected time-consuming process. The software in the Infrastructure Design Suite Premium, supported by increased computing power, allows civil engineers to integrate this type of optimization into their design workflow and get more immediate feedback.

In terms of cloud computing and broadband access, one of the more interesting developments is a new offering on Autodesk Labs called Project Galileo Online. Essentially what this technology does is help users of our new Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler conceptual design software collaborate on models in the cloud. Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler, released in August 2011, helps GIS, planning, and civil engineering professionals evaluate future infrastructure in the context of what already exists. Central to the products capabilities is its ability to help quickly build very large models of existing infrastructure from available data including GIS information, imagery, CAD data, and BIM models. This model then becomes the foundation for conceptual sketching and serves as platform for engaging with project stakeholders. With the new Labs technology and the combined power of the cloud and increased bandwidth, it is now possible to collaborate on these huge models virtually.

Parrod (Bentley Systems): WaterGEMS' Darwin modules use the most recent technological advances in the high-performance Fast Messy Genetic Algorithm (GA), enabling the evaluation of hundreds of thousands of alternatives that meet user constraints. Faster processors have enabled this huge number of calculations to be made in a few seconds, and engineering industry applications are numerous:

  • Darwin Calibrator automates the model calibration process by making hundreds of thousands of adjustments matching the model to real-world conditions. The main benefit for engineers is to be able to use a reliable decision-support tool. Darwin Calibrator's capabilities have also been extended to water leakage modeling, allowing engineers to leverage flow and pressure data to find locations where detailed sonic leak detection should be initiated.
  • Darwin Designer optimizes design and rehabilitation for water distribution systems. The Darwin Designer solutions maximize the hydraulic performance of the water distribution system and minimize capital investment, based on hydraulic constraints, allowable pipe sizes, and associated unit costs entered by users.
  • Darwin Scheduler optimizes pump scheduling for water distribution systems. By using GA optimization to control nominated pumps during an extended period simulation, it avoids a manual trial and error approach to finding the most efficient operating schedule, ultimately helping to reduce energy usage and costs.

Breukelaar (BLUERIDGE Analytics): SITEOPS is one of the first completely cloud-based civil engineering software products in that it runs within a Web page and can be accessed from anywhere. Upon purchasing our software, users receive a login name and password and can immediately start working in their browser.

SITEOPS utilizes sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms to run through millions of combinations of layout, grading, and piping options for a site. Without recent developments in computer science, this would have been unthinkable. BLUERIDGE Analytics maintains a large collection of high-end servers in a secured facility. Although some functions of SITEOPS are actually performed on a local computer, the difficult "heavy lifting" computing required for cost optimization would be far beyond the reach of even today's fastest desktops, laptops, or typical office servers.

Heil (Eagle Point Software): Our Pinnacle Series solution for Autodesk customers leverages the Internet as a way to deliver multiple implementation, training, and support resources in a single, concise interface. Through a hybrid approach, content is delivered via the Internet and through a customer's local and wide area networks. Things of a more proprietary nature, such as custom workflow process content, reside protected on-premises. While other, more universal information such as video content, on-line training classes, chat, and technical support is delivered over the Internet.

There are many advantages to this approach. First, having a wide range of information available in this fashion helps democratize standard practices, education, and support resources, making content more readily accessible to everyone in the organization. Secondly, companies can ease themselves into the concept and benefits of cloud applications and services. And ultimately, this dual content delivery approach means companies experience less downtime, protect their intellectual property, and spend far less money than they would with conventional training and support service engagements.

Sharp (Trimble Navigation): Trimble has been highly focused on developing hardware and software solutions that enable the Trimble Connected Site for a number of years. Solutions such as the Trimble Internet Base Station Service, the Trimble SNM940 Connected Site Gateway, and Trimble on-machine radios connect the field to the office quickly and easily.

The availability of high-speed wireless Internet on the construction site allows the use of a single 3D model throughout the construction life cycle. Using Business Center – HCE by Trimble, estimating and data preparation departments can use the 3D model to compute material quantities for a project, and to extend its use into the construction phase of the project. This 3D design model is then freely shared and managed using Connected Community by Trimble. This connectivity enables the design engineer, site supervisor, and machine operator to all work from a common, current model.

Used for site positioning and grade checking, the Trimble Tablet and Trimble TSC3 controllers feature integrated connectivity to rapidly send and retrieve data or e-mail without the need for additional components or plug-in cards. The Trimble on-machine radios or the Trimble SNM940 Connected Site Gateway provide the ability to receive design files wirelessly on the machine, and send data from the machine to the office.

Due to recent advances in processing power, Trimble now offers an advanced alignment optimization system, Trimble Quantm, on personal computers. Formerly, Trimble Quantm was only available as a server-based service. Trimble Quantm Desktop enables sophisticated optimization and can be used not only for planning, but also for value engineering, with options explored in hours not weeks.


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