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December 6, 2013 / Brandon

Automated Software for a Civil Engineer? – B+W Engineering and Design Blog

Automated Software for a Civil Engineer? #CivilEngineer

I was thinking back on the last blog post about hillside grading and thought why aren’t we using more automated software?

And then I started to think about one of the last demos we had through a webcast on a new software that is supposed to grade a site for you. The literature and phone calls made me very interested to see what this new software could do. I won’t name it since these guys and some of the users think you can just input a few parameters and like a unicorn appearing next to me out of thin air a site will be graded and ready to go. I do take these things with a grain of salt because from my past experience most of this software is targeted to something very specific. Meaning nothing in the greater Los Angeles area related to Civil Engineering.

At a past Civil Engineering job I was in charge of trying to find a software to help with some earthwork needs. After going through a few companies one looked very promising. This particular software was very good and touted as automated. As you might be able to tell there is no such thing yet. For that specific project which was worth purchasing any useful thing to help make the job finish faster at any cost they got a license. I was able to manipulate the program to do what I wanted, but nothing even close to automated. But it did help. The idea was grading a huge property and figuring out how to lower or raise the land to reduce the amount of earthwork. This was for 500 houses on .5 acre lots on a steep mountain with miles of road. I was able to do the previous work which took about 2 weeks after a major change, and blow out the new design and number within a day. Quite amazing. But very difficult to use. I even tried to write as simple of a manual as I could, so others in the office could use it. I learned writing that manual is no easy task. I took screen shots and wrote out how to use each command. The problem with this is that every job is different and you have to also know what you are doing before the software even comes into play.

I think my experience fooling around on the computer trying to make myself a more productive asset to a company is a good introduction. So we have that Mount Washington Hillside Grading job where we need to trim the slope to a 1:1 cut. And I started to think earlier today could that latest software we got a demo of work? One specific question I had during the webcast was how do I force the site to be graded with only cut or fill? As the software was setup to only grade based on the cost of cut and fill and balance out the cost. But the problem is, that there are many projects where balancing out the cost of earthwork isn’t the solution. So already this automated grading software doesn’t work. They couldn’t explain to me how to force the program to only cut or only fill. Already that expensive piece of software doesn’t work. Not to say it wouldn’t be useful for past or future projects. But the automation isn’t written smart enough to tell it what I want to do in a specific situation.

There is the main program for Civil Engineers that is put out. From a quick glance this thing looks like it can do everything. In fact it probably can do everything we need. The first problem is you need a fast computer. Okay well we have that. But then the next problem is using the software. I went for a go on a pilot project at my old workplace and you need to be many different fields to use that thing. You need to be a drafter. You need be an engineer. And you also have to be a basic programmer. Who this is written for is odd in my mind. I guess combining all of the disciplines into one is an interesting thought. So we get rid of drafters. I can sort of see that happening. But now you need an engineer who can draft and can do simple programming. When I say simple, its not really that simple.

I haven’t met many if anyone who falls into this category. Not to mention the fact that there are not that many people who can properly grade a hillside in general.

Obviously the software is headed in the right direction for Civil Engineers as automation should be possible. The most basic software can grade a 1:1 slope from wherever you choose and daylight. But everything else really comes down to the human being and their brain that can say is this good or bad, let me go fix that. There is also the knowledge needed to understand the underlying survey work to know what is going on. The computer just takes data you give it and cross your fingers, hope for the best it understands what’s going on. A human can interpret what’s going on and can judge a bust in the survey shots or if something looks a bit funky.

I also know there are some people using the software like they are hand drafting a plan. But I only encountered this outside of the country when going to the discussion groups. And what big companies want to spill the beans on how to use this stuff more efficiently or share their custom built libraries?

My background is heavy into computers since the early 90′s. I have setup a Windows Exchange Server for a past company. I know how to use linux. I have our house fully networked and sort of automated by tablets, and yet here I am thinking grading is way too difficult using more modern software. Give me a scale, pencil and calculator and I can grade a huge site in no time. Give me a simple drafting software and I can do the same thing. I bet I can do it faster and have a cleaner drawing in the end.

So why do I wonder where the future is headed for Civil Engineers? My main thing is when there is a design change. I picture that new software making changes on the fly adjusting notes and everything else. That is where a pencil gets destroyed. And also my design in a simple drafting program will be inefficient. I know that’s the idea of the major software maker. Their goal sounded like get rid of drafters and let the software do the drafting for the engineer. I will get back to this topic again as this really piques my interest. I have also asked a few programmer friends in the past to help me write something elegant for a Civil Engineer and their grading plans.

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