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Future Forward: No More Excuses! Move to 3D Models Now

Todd Danielson on June 3, 2021 - in Articles, Profile

These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.

Alexa Mitchell is the highways and roads BIM director for HDR.

Although the construction industry has been notoriously slow to adopt new technology, enough advances have been made in usability and compatibility that AEC companies should be seriously planning their transition away from 2D plan sheets.

Mitchell often is asked how new 3D models such as BIM and digital twins will affect how 20-year routines have been done. She explains that the jobs are not changing, just the tools, and these new tools can provide additional information and benefits not previously available. 

“New skills will be needed to use these tools to access information that is being presented in a different medium,” explains Mitchell. “Specifically, instead of printed sheets, you can expect to access the designs via a tablet or computer. Usually in the field it will be a mobile device of some sort, with an app used to extract needed information from 2D and 3D models.”

Specific information could include locations and elevations, notes, dimensions, and pay-item quantities. And because these models are tied to GPS locations, GIS mobile apps can be used to create customized perspectives, allowing workers to see plans from their own location on the project site when desired.

“With many people of differing technological familiarity using 3D model viewers, intuitiveness and ease of use are key considerations,” she adds. “As contractors and agencies explore the programs available, they should consider the functions they will need and the requirements of each role that will use it.”

Benefits of 3D Models

Everyone wants to know the benefits of any new technology before adopting it, and Mitchell knows there are many improvements in 3D models for a wide range of users and stakeholders. Most importantly, 3D images communicate design intent much better than 2D representations that requires multiple pages to show an entire project.

“A 3D perspective offers information you may miss in 2D,” she says. “Even those with lots of experience still miss things when piecing together different sheets like a puzzle.”

She notes that owners of assets get a database of information faster and at less expense—and sometimes information they wouldn’t have otherwise. Contractors benefit from being able to see a more-complete picture and virtually seeing the project before it’s built, which can save considerable time. Contractors also can use 3D models, depending on the level of detail, for safety reviews. For construction inspectors, a 3D model can mean easier documentation of what they see in the field.

“They can use the virtual environment to pinpoint the as-built asset they are verifying and compare it to the model,” she explains. “Then they can export that information as validated to a separate database, freeing them from manually re-entering information about their observations. Rather than filling in forms and creating sketches, they can use the model’s virtual environment to streamline their documentation.”

Making the Transition

Mitchell admits that part of the transition challenge is that there’s little standardization of what needs to be put into a model, which puts the onus on designers to develop models that fit what those in the field need.

“We’ve been working with the Utah Department of Transportation on some of their 3D modeling pilot programs,” says Mitchell. “One of the major areas of feedback from contractors on those pilots was a lack of consistency in the models. Contractors knew all the information would be in the model, but where that information was, how it was presented and how it needed to be accessed was different depending on the designer.” 

According to Mitchell, developing standards during model development will be key to improving accessibility and ease of use for those in the field. If they can count on it looking the same every time, with a consistent method for finding the information they need, it will be much easier to adapt to a new process.

Start Slow

“When you know you want to deploy BIM, you need to know the entire scope of what will be required,” explains Mitchell. “That begins by developing a plan that addresses your specific needs, looking at not only the technological tools but also the human component. How are you going to bring people along who have been doing things the same way for 20 years?”

HDR is helping the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation with this transition using a “crawl, walk, run” approach to fully adopt digital delivery by 2025. The approach is to take on activities that have lower barrier to entry to achieve small but rapid success, setting the stage for more-complex tasks. 

On a wider scale, she notes, change involves shifting thinking away from plan-centric work to data-centric work, where information can be accessed and used in multiple ways.

“Instead of drawing 2D lines on a piece of paper, we need to design 3D objects that virtually represent the physical asset and all the information needed to construct and inspect the asset,” adds Mitchell.  


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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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