Civil Engineering

From the Trenches: Civil 3D Adoption

2 Oct, 2006 By: Andrew G. Roe,P.E.

Autodesk's 3D civil engineering solution is still maturing, but some users in the real world are finding the 2007 edition to be a viable production tool

One of the burning issues facing users of Autodesk civil products is whether to adopt Civil 3D as a production tool. First introduced in 2004, Civil 3D provides a more model-based design environment than Land Desktop. Civil 3D relies heavily on intelligent objects instead of generic AutoCAD entities and in doing so provides a more flexible approach to designing roads, residential subdivisions, building sites and other land development projects. The product, however, also presents a steep learning curve due to its departure from Land Desktop’s approach.

Autodesk emphasizes that Civil 3D is not a Land Desktop upgrade and that users should phase into using the product gradually because of its learning curve and because the product is still maturing. Some users believe that Civil 3D 2007, released earlier this year, may finally provide enough capabilities to warrant its use as their primary civil design tool.

Taking the Plunge
One company that has taken the Civil 3D plunge is George Butler Associates, a 250-employee engineering firm based in Lenexa, Kansas. GBA is using Civil 3D on an 18-building, 350-unit apartment complex near Kansas City, Kansas, and is experiencing success sprinkled with some frustration.

“Civil 3D has a lot of promise,” says Harland Russell, a GBA senior civil design technician. “It provides the functionality we’ve been looking for,” he says, citing the software’s flexible tools for designing site grading projects.

GBA first looked at Civil 3D a couple of years ago, but shelved it because it felt the software lacked key features and the learning process was too daunting. Sensing that Civil 3D had matured and was becoming the wave of the future, this year the firm looked at the latest version and formed a core group to implement Civil 3D 2007 on a live project. In addition to Russell, the team includes Gus Lind, a licensed professional engineer and land surveyor, Megan Schalansky, an engineer-in-training, and technicians Jim McKean, Brian Boyd, Jeff Cummins and Jamie Bell.

George Butler Associates used Civil 3D to model the surface of a 350-unit apartment complex near Kansas City. (Images courtesy of George Butler Associates.)

The team has found Civil 3D 2007 productive, but still not without problems. In addition to requiring an arduous training process, the product has shown some stability issues, according to Russell. The software occasionally locks up and “seems to have a memory leak” that affects system performance over time, he says.

The team also sees shortcomings in certain features, such as pipe networks for storm drainage and sanitary sewer systems. Pipes are intelligent objects between manholes, as shown below, but Civil 3D doesn’t provide an easy way to insert service lines between manholes in a sanitary sewer system, according to the GBA team. For storm sewer design, the team has had difficulty integrating spreadsheet-driven design processes with plan production. Hydrology and hydraulic design tools for designing drainage systems are not yet implemented in Civil 3D.

Sewer pipes are intelligent objects in Civil 3D.

But Civil 3D’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses for GBA’s purposes. The team has found the use of the corridor object powerful for designing roadways. Assemblies, analogous to cross-section templates for roadways, are also easier to build than templates of previous products, says Russell. Other key Civil 3D objects include points, alignments, profiles, sections, surfaces, parcels, gradings, pipes, survey networks and survey figures. “We think the functionality is there,” says Russell, “and we’re doing everything we can to implement it (on future projects).”

Getting Over the Vault
Civil 3D 2007 implements Autodesk Vault, a project management component that allows multiple users to access project data and work in sync through project drawings. Previously integrated with Autodesk’s mechanical and electrical design software, Vault is now available in a civil engineering application for the first time. For GBA, the verdict is still out on whether Vault is a welcome addition. “We’re not sure that it’s best utilized on civil projects,” says Russell.

James Wedding, Dallas-based vice-president of Engineered Efficiency, who has helped GBA implement Civil 3D, agrees. “Vault is a solution in search of a problem,” he says. But Wedding concurs that Civil 3D’s overall strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

“In spite of the issues, with the right expectations and training, I think you still come out ahead with Civil 3D,” he says. New functionality such as the integration of survey functions make the 2007 release more practical for real projects, although he cautions that the survey component is overcomplicated for many firms.

For this company in the U.S. heartland, Civil 3D is a key to the future, albeit with some anticipated growing pains.

Looking Ahead
In future issues of this newsletter, I'll explore other perspectives of Autodesk Civil 3D and various other civil, surveying and mapping products. If you have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered, e-mail me at

About the Author: Andrew G. Roe

Andrew G. Roe

About the Author: P.E.

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