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Design Automation is the Necessary Future for Civil Infrastructure

Design Automation is the Necessary Future for Civil Infrastructure

By Theo Agelopoulos

A series of motivating factors is incentivizing the rapid digitization of civil infrastructure design, engineering, and construction, as well as operations and maintenance. The cumulative events of  global population expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, climate change, and the recognition of the need to foster greater industry resiliency because of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand a more rapid digital transformation of the industry we all serve.

To put a finer point on this, the G20 nations-backed Global Infrastructure Hub estimates that by 2040, the world must invest some $94 trillion in roads and rails, homes, commercial sites, and other built structures to keep society functioning.

As countries emerge from the pandemic, now is the time to fundamentally rewrite the script for how civil infrastructure projects are delivered.  To realize the ambitious targets for high-quality, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure, will require the acceleration of digital transformation in the industry.

Emerging technology drives better outcomes

Emerging technologies in design automation and generative design offer the civil infrastructure industry, including both the public and private sectors, new potential to deliver infrastructure projects more effectively. Outcome based design automation enables designers and engineers to set specific goals from the start – for example, saving time, optimizing costs, reducing materials usage, or improving sustainability – and increases the likelihood of meeting them upon completion.

Combined with setting parameters, design automation tools reduce repetitive, manual work, and are already demonstrating operational efficiency for designers and engineers, allowing them more time to innovate and to focus on design reviews for accuracy and quality, improving business growth and profitability.

Generative Design, another example of design automation, helps users explore solutions to complex design problems. Using cloud computing and artificial intelligence, it augments a designer’s ability to optimize and validate design options, helping them make a more informed final design decision.

At global infrastructure firm Gannett Fleming, for example, the use of Dynamo for Autodesk® Civil 3D® on rail yard projects has slashed design time by generating the best site layouts for buildings and rail alignments.

“Conceptual design is a manual, tedious and time-consuming process.  We automate the design process to get as close to the final design as possible at the beginning of the project, “ says Stacey Morykin, Engineering Technology Manager at Gannett Fleming. “Generative design enables us to optimize a project and provide more value to our clients.”

Optimizing the site design process

Infrastructure projects, regardless of type, often require leveling or contouring of the existing ground necessary to meet project specifications. This grading design is typically a manual, time-consuming process.

Automated grading design tools, which Autodesk unveiled in spring 2021, work with user-defined constraints, such as allowable elevations and slopes, to process a series of iterations to generate the optimal design proposal.

“Being able to define assets like parking areas, buildings and ponds, and assign grading criteria and let the computer provide options is a game changer,” says Charles D’Errico PLS, IT Systems Analyst at Thomas & Hutton. “Traditionally, once the first grading solution was achieved, no other options would be considered due to time and budget limitations. Now, designers can evaluate multiple grading schemes, instead of the first valid solution.”

In a subdivision plan, automated grading design can help engineers more easily establish a balanced preliminary surface based on allowable slopes to zones within the roadway, roadway to building setbacks, and across building areas. They can efficiently generate a design proposal for the grading of a water detention or retention pond based on minimum and maximum storage depths and other constraints to accommodate storm water runoff. The technology also facilitates the identification of constraint violations between building pads, curb islands, parking lots, and other use requirements.

According to Gannett Fleming, they estimate that time saved by automating the grading design process could clock in at up to 50 percent.

“Grading is a labor-intensive and complex process. We have seen significant advantages when collaborating with vertical teams”, says Morykin. “We can share the terrain data quickly, enabling vertical teams to continue their design and allowing all stakeholders to make better and more timely decisions about the project.”

Enabling engineers to arrive at best-fit solutions earlier, automation and generatively designed terrain grading improves project outcomes while reducing costs and material waste.

What is next and how do we get there?

We understand the digital transformation of the civil infrastructure industry along the entire project lifecycle is now a must-do rather than a nice-to-do. Further, it is time to recognize we cannot tackle the challenges ahead by working in silos and relying on the status-quo approach to design, engineering, and construction of capital projects.

The first step is for the entire industry to embrace the inevitability of the transformation already underway and to also embrace automation as a partner for the work of industry professionals. We know it saves time and money and for the challenges ahead, we do not have much of either. Importantly, the evolution of our industry requires collaboration between the private sector and the public sector at all levels of government. 

While the private sector continues to innovate and provide the opportunity to stretch limited natural and financial, the federal government can support the digitization effort by providing incentives for the advancement of technology in civil infrastructure. Earlier this year, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost offered support to the new administration and Congress for this purpose in a series of policy suggestions to spur economic and job growth, and to speed up the pace of transformation.

Grading optimization is important not only for the efficiency it provides but also because it demonstrates the value of automated design in one specific component of a civil infrastructure project. Imagine the potential design automation offers across the entire lifecycle of a project.

This is the change we need and the change we require for the industry and for the public. Change is inevitable and it is time to look ahead to the future so as not to become overwhelmed by the challenges it will certainly bring.

Theo Agelopoulos serves as Senior Director for Autodesk’s infrastructure business, including industry, partnership, and M&A strategies. Theo played a key role in Autodesk’s business model transformation – specifically in Autodesk’s Architecture, Engineering and Construction business – and he has extensive experience enabling digital transformation. He is recognized for his leadership of technology-based disruptions impacting the AEC industry, including CAD, BIM, GIS, Cloud, Reality Capture, and AI/ML. Today, Theo’s team leads the design automation evolution, including the release of Autodesk Grading Optimization for Civil 3D, a tool supporting engineers in a more efficient, rapid, and accurate approach to terrain grading

This article was originally published in April 2021.