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From CAD User AEC Magazine Vol 20 No 05 - MAY/JUNE 2007
“Are civil engineering challenges overshadowing current opportunities?”, asks Jack Strongitharm of Autodesk
In some ways the civil engineering community has never had it so good, with
what is almost an embarrassment of riches at its door - the jewel in the crown
being the 2012 Olympics of course. Although only a small proportion of the country's
engineers will be directly involved, the knock-on effects of these and associated
London regeneration projects are already being felt.
At the same time, general infrastructure projects continue unabated in the UK. Despite current environmental concerns, the Eddington study on transport (published December 2006) gave a case for additional new strategic road infrastructure over and above existing programmes. And Brussels is still urging expansion of trans-European transport networks, leading one commentator to remark that, " 'new Europe' smells of fresh asphalt".
No wonder then that in a recent survey of the profession sponsored by Autodesk, an overwhelming 88 per cent agreed that, "the foreseeable future will bring an abundance of opportunities for the industry".
However - and inevitably this is a big however - why aren't all civil engineers lining up their Porsches or sitting by their swimming pools by now ? Contrary to received wisdom, as one door opens another seems to close. In this case, these slamming doors are labelled "skills shortages", "globalisation" and "complex client demands" - the big three challenges facing the profession today.
In the same survey, a decisive 86 per cent of respondents saw a lack of skilled resource as a major threat to the UK industry and a substantial majority - 67 per cent - thought that their organisation would be likely to outsource design work over the next two years. The problem is becoming so acute that there are reports of HR departments "talent tracking" promising students, with large players, such as Atkins Global, reporting that almost half their graduate intake now comes from overseas.
Of course, increased globalisation can produce as many opportunities as it can problems - and with an increased number of engineering graduates coming out of India and other parts of Asia, companies can now turn the situation to their advantage. But this isn't to say that working globally doesn't throw up its own challenges - such as lack of communication, duplicate work and unnecessary hold-ups when changes are made.
The increasing complexity of client demands is another matter. Mindful of high-profile missed deadlines and other construction woes clients are, quite rightly, keen to keep a tighter grip on projects. They are under their own financial pressures to get their infrastructure up and running. A project may also have to come under environmental or political scrutiny - and often the client can see potential revenue draining away before it is even completed.
In my experience, the biggest cost and risk to any infrastructure project is the management of change, whether because of using outdated versions of designs due to a disparate workforce or clients moving the goalposts. When significant revisions are needed, profit margins get eaten away and there are critical delays to the schedule. In addition, every time data is manually recreated, it offers one more opportunity for human error - particularly with organisations trying to cope with too few staff.
It's for these reasons that most respondents in the survey ranked "flexible working" as the most important factor in taking advantage of the current climate. Thankfully, dynamic model technology is revolutionising this situation by eliminating the need for time-consuming calculations. It means that when any revision to a design is made, everything else is updated accordingly.
Take, for example, a new highways project which is well underway. Suddenly, the design needs to be changed and the site has to be re-surveyed and the new data processed.
The existing surface is used as base data for the design. When this is adjusted to accommodate the updated field data from the new survey, the design surface and finished surface contours, contour labels, spot levels, volumes reports and drainage pipe network are all automatically and almost instantly adjusted to account for the change, saving many man-hours of routine checking and recalculating.
Urban sprawl means smaller projects
In the wake of all these major infrastructure developments and renewal schemes, there is also likely to be an increase in smaller projects. Cities are spreading and by 2020 approximately 80 per cent of Europeans will be living in urban areas. This will bring with it an unprecedented demand for the improvement of existing urban infrastructure.
Once again, this news has a sting in its tail. Smaller projects carry lower budgets, but these don't necessarily reflect the amount of work involved. Often, changes are multiplied because of set parameters and the need for an iterative approach. Consequently these can end up taking far more time than more high-profile, larger jobs but are often under-resourced when skills shortages bite.
Sue Thompson, senior design officer at Hartlepool Borough Council, knows this scenario well. "Small road improvement schemes can sometimes require more design work than larger greenfield developments. They usually take place in commercial or residential areas and are often very complex, with many physical constraints to be taken into account," she says. This fact is demonstrated by her current project, now nearing completion - an intricate junction in an urban setting.
With a background in AutoCAD and relatively new to highway design, Sue Thompson found the existing highways design software used within the council to be "unforgiving and not conducive to design modifications". Plus the council's new junction improvement scheme was a small project when it came to area and road lengths, but far from straightforward. When it was given the go-ahead on the basis of an outline plan, there was very little time available to implement a design within the politically-driven deadline.
Situated on the main road leaving Hartlepool from the northwest, the existing layout was a staggered crossroads in a residential area close to local schools and amenities. It was awkward for drivers to emerge from the side roads and turn right into the main road and it was very difficult for pedestrians to cross safely.
Sue's role was to take an outline drawing of a new layout, turn it into horizontal and vertical designed alignments, and produce a set of construction drawings. It was at this time that she became aware of AutoCAD Civil 3D and a demonstration was quickly arranged. Autodesk reseller partner CADline worked with the council to find the most cost-effective way to make the investment and the decision was made.
Sue was soon able to continue work on the scheme. "AutoCAD Civil 3D rapidly enables you to draw a plan, get your horizontal line and produce the long sections of the existing ground model. With that ground model you can superimpose a vertical alignment which you can change using the grip feature.
"It gives you confidence. You know you can easily retrace your steps. You can try commands without worrying that you are corrupting the database - which previously had been a constant fear.
"It means I've been able to easily overcome the many complications of the project. For example, none of the horizontal alignments are parallel to each other because of the tapering junction design and there were numerous vertical and horizontal constraints to the design. If I encountered something in the software that I wasn't yet sure about, I could use my years of experience with AutoCAD to work out how to do it."
The junction has now been re-designed as a straightforward crossroads with traffic signals and Sue was able to get the plans and sections out of the door in time for the contractors to begin work. "Despite the challenges it was completed in a fraction of the time that it would have taken had we persisted with the existing software," Sue says.
It is clear that only a radical change in work practices can really help firms to defeat the "big three" challenges and open the doors of opportunity. But if they choose Civil 3D, this change can evolve out of current practices.
Because of its AutoCAD platform, the process needn't be too painful. In fact, Autodesk is currently making moves to ensure that trying and learning to use the solution is as straightforward as possible. For example, students can download Civil 3D free and companies on subscription can let staff install the software at home for no extra charge, to help them practice.
Although the current climate looks set to continue for a good few years, it won't last for ever. Civil engineers need to optimise their chances and grab what they can, while they can.
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