Thoughts From An Old 3D Modeler


I have worked in the engineering and surveying profession since 1965, began cutting line, pounding stakes, and wading through swamps. The survey equipment I worked with was not too far removed from the stuff George Washington used. I saw his survey equipment in the Smithsonian. It brings a tear to my eye. I became a license land surveyor in 1976 and just this month retired officially my license. Now I am a Retired (some think it should be retarded) Licensed Land Surveyor, but I am still working. I should be on my motorcycle riding into the sunset.

The evolution of the equipment has been incredible with robotic total station, GPS rover and network, tablet data collector, and 3D scanner, and the new gear just keeps coming.

In the office, the new design software does in seconds what it took us days to do. I used to copy 8 places sine and cosine to a coordinate sheet and multiply with a mechanical calculator that shook the whole drafting table, then had to manually draw the points on a working drawing.

The capability of the new design products is incredible. It is almost like telling the computer `see that piece of property, I want a yield of x with half acre lots’ and it does it. You tear off the prints and give them to the contractor.

The final plats are in a digital format that can be emailed to anyone. The site itself is available in CAD digital format that gives you ready access to all of the features of the site. Amazing who would have ever thought, but now it is expected.

This data can be converted into a product that will enable the survey equipment to very easily layout everything on the site. It can also be used in heavy earth moving equipment to automate the grading process and paving process.

So where am I going with this article, I am not really sure it is just that Randy Nolan wanted something to publish. Actually, I am about to make a point that could be a little controversial.

My current profession is making 3D digital models of construction sites from the plans and CAD files that will be used in the survey and automated grading equipment.

I really enjoy building the 3D models. My wife sends me up to my man cave in the morning and tells me she will let me know when I can come back down.

I have said all of this above to set the stage for the real intent of my article. I am going to comment on the quality of the CAD and construction plans that are being released as final products.

With the incredible capability of the newer CAD design products, it appears that the actual quality of the final plans is decreasing in inverse proportion (I think I know what this term means). In old guy technical terms a lot of the plans really suck. I know it is risky to write this, but it is an everyday experience. I have compared notes with several of the 3D data professionals (I use the term loosely) that I know and they all seem to agree.

I write this to my fellow data preparers, review the plans closely, ask a lot of questions, and don’t take anything for granted.

I write this to any engineer who may read my article, if you get over being pissed and offended at my comments, maybe you will take a harder review on the plans before they are released.

Details and Typical Sections
I will not do a project in most cases without the accompanying set of final construction plans. Just the CAD file is not enough. I need the details for the project. Even the details need to be closely examined, as shown on previous page.

Notice the shoulder slope in the detail of 0.05%, interesting. When asked, the answer was `oh yeah that should be 2%). The 0.05% slope was on every detail for shoulders in the plans.

Same Job, notice the mountable curb detail. When asked, `oh yeah that is a 1″ drop’.

Kiss my grits; I live in the south now. Tip of the iceberg, the Titanic is coming.

The Plans
Now just a few items from some plans.

The CAD files have a different building footprint than the PDF construction plans. Will the real building please stand up?

I was modeling a mid-sized apartment complex and it appeared the plans were rushed out the door. The road grade profile did not agree with the design contours and neither agreed with inlet elevations. They ended up using a road profile that I created, an old bald Italian ugly biker dude. Then the revisions started occurring. The parking lots did not drain to the inlets. Buildings were raised and lowered. I would get a notice that a new CAD file was in the Dropbox, and that is all there was. The entire new CAD file with everything in it, how am I supposed to know what changed. I think the revision cloud is a thing of the past and well as clear description of the revision.

Lastly, below, is the CAD information for a small fast food chain. I opened the file and the site was in three different places. Which group was in the right coordinate location, NONE, the north arrow was pointing southeast. Then I did a quick measure from the front to the back of the project. The title block said 1″=20′, well the distance measured was 2,900′, YIKE. That is one big hamburger joint. The real scale was 1″=1 CAD unit, so scale it down by 0.08333333333… I have to work with the surveyor to get the right coordinates and rotation for the site

One of my team partners sent a 6 to 8 page document listing the issues on a large roadway project to the client and the engineer. There are so many things that should be documented if not for just CYA.

And so the story goes, it seems that this is business as usual. Someone has signed and sealed the plans, they are putting a lot of things at risk when the plans are sent.

What has happened to quality control? I worked at an engineering firm just a few years back and one of my responsibilities was managing the company plan reviewing and quality control processes. It was one of the most thankless jobs. I managed a person who was excellent at reviewing plans. When he was finished it looked like he strapped two red pens to his boots and did an Irish River dance on the plans. The startling thing was when reviewed closely each one was real and well thought out.

It is interesting that 80% of the project is done with 50% of the budget and the last 20% goes 10% or more over the budget before any quality control review takes place and you are over the deadline.

I am concerned that there is an assumption that the new high tech design software will automatically produce a completely accurate product. NOT TRUE. Who is behind the wheel pushing the buttons? Who is sitting down and sheet by sheet reviewing the plans and this should be done by someone other than the designer, preferable by the one signing and sealing and putting their reputation on the line.

We used to have a standard note on all the plans, These Plans Are Not To Be Taken Seriously.

To the 3D data preparer, don’t assume the plans are correct. Look at things and use your good judgment. Stop and do a screen capture and send information up the line. Thank goodness for Snagit, it makes screen captures and notations very easily. Don’t be afraid to stop work on a project until some answers are obtained, otherwise you may throw away days’ worth of modeling. I have gotten to the place where I just shut things down if the issues are really bad and give the engineer time to review and respond.

In defense of the engineer, in most cases they appreciate the review, questions and the chance to correct things before they are built incorrectly. A few have told me to take a long walk on a short pier.

Another benefit, if we as data preparers do a complete job, most of the design issues are caught before the first pile of dirt is moved. In theory, we actually build the project before it goes on the ground. This is a secondary service we are providing our clients.

Someone who shall remain nameless reviewed and commented on this article, see below:
1. Technology makes things easier and faster but doesn’t fully eliminate the human element to ensure accuracy
2. The more controversial thing I see is this, if the civil engineer stepped up and produced the 3D model as a service, their business would be more valuable, marketable and more relevant. It would also reduce the number of those other lower performance 3D’ers (I wonder if he is referring to old bald Italian ugly biker dude) by natural selection. Hell the civil guys have a HUGE opportunity here. (Old bald Italian ugly biker dude comment: The models better be more accurate than the plans!)

So I hope my ramblings will be of some help to you. Model On!

Ron Ciccarone, LS, has been involved in survey automation since the 60s, data preparation and 3D modeling since the late 90s, and owns his own business building data files.

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