Rapid Design Visualization Bridges 3D Gap

5 Nov, 2007 By: Andrew G. Roe,P.E.

Software that works inside and extends popular CAD applications helps engineers and their clients understand more about how finished projects will look.

As CAD tools have become more powerful in recent years, more engineers and other infrastructure professionals have delved into preparing 3D visualizations. By developing roadway, bridge, and site designs in 3D, users of most major CAD packages can view those designs from a 3D perspective, apply basic materials and textures, adjust lighting, and perhaps even develop simple animations that simulate drive-through or fly-through experiences. The 3D visualizations can help technical professionals refine their designs and help clients understand what projects will look like when built.

But novice 3D modelers often find a big gulf between making simplistic 3D visualizations and developing photorealistic images. Rendering and visualization tools in basic CAD products provide limited capabilities, while advanced visualization tools often require significant training and model development time.

To become visualization savvy, some firms are turning to a third-party solution. Geosyntec Consultants -- a consulting and engineering firm with practice in environment, natural resources, and civil infrastructure -- has used Rapid Design Visualization (RDV) from Lod, Israel-based RDV Systems to develop visualizations on five projects in the past year. Geosyntec project engineer Yiwen Cao says the software, which works as an add-on to AutoCAD-based products such as Land Desktop and Civil 3D, has proven worthy of its name, enabling rapid visualization of designs such as landfills and other environmental projects.

Visual Transformations
On a recent project in Alabama, Geosyntec used RDV to depict how a former landfill site could be transformed into a public park. The firm initially tried using a high-end rendering tool to depict a design developed in Autodesk Land Desktop, but found “the learning curve was too steep” for the rendering software, Cao said. After installing RDV, the designers developed their first usable image in approximately three hours. The firm then proceeded to prepare a series of simulations with interactively changeable viewing angles that “wowed” the client, according to Cao.

RDV software was used to show how a former landfill site could be transformed into a public park.

Geosyntec also used RDV on a recent proposal for an environmental project in Florida, where six firms were competing for the contract. Using a conceptual grading plan, Geosyntec showed the judging panel a one-minute photorealistic fly-by movie illustrating various design options and construction sequence. Cao believes the visualizations played a significant role in his firm’s winning the multimillion-dollar project, touting the value of visualizations in both the proposal and design stages of projects. “People view [visualization] as a marketing tool, but it can also be used as an engineering tool,” he noted.

Hickman Williams & Associates (HWA), a Bend, Oregon, engineering and surveying firm, also found Land Desktop and RDV a solid combination. On a hillside resort project, HWA combined an existing ground surface with a proposed grading plan developed in Land Desktop, then overlaid an aerial photo to illustrate design alternatives to various stakeholders. Unlike AutoCAD’s rendering tools, RDV allows users to interactively change perspectives, for example, by rotating and zooming in on views. This flexibility can greatly help nontechnical people understand complex contour plans and other 3D designs. “It’s easy for us to visualize in 3D, but not for clients,” said Jon Weishaupt, HWA survey coordinator and project manager.

A 3D World
Although RDV has proven successful with Land Desktop, the RDV developers built the product primarily with Civil 3D in mind. With its intelligent objects and model-based approach to design, “Civil 3D is the ultimate platform,” said Natan Elsberg, cofounder and COO of RDV Systems. RDV also works with AutoCAD-based products such as Architectural Desktop and Map 3D.

In addition to developing the software, RDV Systems has also acted as a consultant in preparing customized visualizations for individual projects, such as the Acre Bridge project in Israel. On that project, a key design objective was to maintain visibility of the city of Acre (Akko) for inbound travelers. The visualizations enabled stakeholders to view the effects of elevating the inbound travel lanes and modifying guardrail heights. The design team obtained a digital elevation model (DEM) from the Israel National Mapping Authority, draped an aerial photograph over the mapping, imported GIS building data, prepared a proposed surface using Civil 3D and RDV tools, and prepared a series of visualizations and animations to help stakeholders decide on the selected design.

The Acre Bridge visualizations enabled stakeholders to view the effects of elevating the inbound travel lanes and guardrails.

Developed as an ObjectARX application, RDV works inside of AutoCAD or the applicable vertical product, and a standard AutoCAD toolbar and tool palette contain most of the key functionality. Users can view scenes in a preview window inside an AutoCAD session or export them as still images, animations, or as interactive scenes that can be viewed with a free downloadable viewer. A 30-day trial version of the RDV product can also be downloaded. Licenses for the Civil 3D version RDV in North America are $1895, plus a $379 mandatory subscription fee and a $475 fee for a network version. Licenses for other AutoCAD platforms are slightly higher. Pricing outside North America is based on Euros.

Hardware requirements are similar to those for the particular host Autodesk application, although HWA’s Weishaupt noted that his company had to upgrade its minimum CAD-station requirements to include additional memory and more powerful video cards to achieve satisfactory performance. Output simulation files typically range from two to 20 MB, according to Elsberg. High-end rendering products often generate files in the 300-400 MB range, he said.

About the Author: Andrew G. Roe

Andrew G. Roe

About the Author: P.E.

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