A More Valuable Point

February 1, 2007
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Technology has always played a pivotal role in shaping the way surveying professionals collect, plot and present survey data.





Technology has always played a pivotal role in shaping the way surveying professionals collect, plot and present survey data. Recent convergence in survey and civil design software applications is enabling surveying and engineering professionals to collaborate more efficiently and shave much of the required project time (sometimes up to 75 percent) while simultaneously enhancing quality.

As building design professionals, mechanical, electrical and plumbing consultants, and construction firms move to adopt building information modeling (BIM), smart suppliers to architects and engineers are seizing the opportunity to pass on a more valuable version of their work in the form of engineering information modeling. From the first boundary survey to the ongoing management of engineering and construction, relational database-driven software can leverage the same information to produce a shared high-value project information model that accrues in value over the project lifecycle.

While surveying professionals have understood the benefits of CAD technology for more than 20 years, few have been ready to adapt to information modeling. Florida-based surveying and civil engineering firm Allen Nobles and Associates Inc. is a firm that has. Its staff of 60-plus, including 12 full-time field crews, provides a full range of surveying services to meet the needs of its civil engineering clients.

Since it was founded in 1980, Allen Nobles and Associates has structured its business to capture field survey data in digital format for CAD-based mapping and has continuously upgraded equipment for data collection and applications for data processing. Here’s how the firm is benefiting from civil information modeling.



Scans of Maclay Gardens’ Pavilion and Visitor Center buildings. The scanner provides a 360 degree digital photo and then scans the environment to obtain a point cloud. In the office, a surveyor drapes the photo over the point cloud (shown above) to produce a far more realistic view of the scene than with a traditional survey.

Getting the Point: Field Efficiency

Michael J. Zoltek, licensed surveyor and vice president at Allen Nobles and Associates, seeks to stay on the technology forefront because he believes that over time, technology is a proven marketing advantage. “We acquire equipment [and software] for fieldwork that will make our crews more efficient and provide a better product for our clients,” Zoltek says. “We were one of the first Florida firms in the mid-1980s to implement practices such as the collection of field data with line work, and later, utilization of GPS and the use of robotic total stations.

Last year, Allen Nobles and Associates purchased a Leica Geosystems HDS (San Ramon, Calif.) ScanStation scanner. “We brought the scanner onboard without specific projects in mind, simply based on the ability to provide our clients with better information. So far it looks like it will pay off faster than we thought,” Zoltek says.

The company is seeing big savings in field crew expenses as a result of the scanning equipment, reducing the number of labor hours spent on some sites by more than 75 percent and virtually eliminating the need for rework or going back to the field for information not gathered during the first visit. Instead of running a crew of three people for 10 days, the new Leica equipment allows Allen Nobles and Associates’ crews to do the same work with just one or two people in just three days.

"We take the point cloud generated by our Leica scanner and use Leica’s Cyclone and CloudWorx for AutoCAD software to extract key coordinates,” Zoltek explains. “Because the data we get from the Leica ScanStation is so dense, we make decisions about which points to collect--as if we were in the field. “But,” he continues, “the good thing is that we don’t face the problems of moving around physically on a site, so we can avoid dangerous situations and significantly reduce the time for each data point.”

Technicians then extract relevant features and coordinate information from the point cloud via Cyclone’s Virtual Surveyor. This tool supports complex topographic models with intelligent mesh decimation that minimizes file size while retaining accurate geometry. Virtual Surveyor allows Allen Nobles and Associates’ crews to import industry standard feature code sets rather than having to manually key them in.

Allen Nobles and Associates’ CAD technicians can also apply line connecting codes and automatically create chains of line work in a highly productive manner. All of this geometric and point-coded data is easily exported into ASCII text files, DXF, COE (Cyclone Object Exchange) or XML for tight integration with downstream software applications such as Autodesk (San Rafael, Calif.) Civil 3D or Bentley (Exton, Pa.) MicroStation and GEOPAK. As with many surveying firms, Allen Nobles and Associates runs different platforms to meet the needs of different clients.

“With the Leica scanner, we gain a marketing advantage because we’re always ready to conduct a preliminary scan so we can include a point cloud within a proposal response to an RFP,” Zoltek says. “Using conventional methods we would have never been able to do this.”



A More Civil Office

Zoltek is always looking ahead to what his civil engineering clients may want in terms of software applications; for many, this will be Autodesk’s Civil 3D. Likewise, the use of Civil 3D for site drawings and DTMs will make it easier for Allen Nobles and Associates’ engineering end-customers to integrate subsequent design work into their site drawings.

“Our philosophy is to stay ahead,” Zoltek says. “We know Autodesk will only support two versions of AutoCAD, and 2004 is currently becoming obsolete. Based on a database and information modeling, Civil 3D brings major improvements that make it the next evolution, especially the 2007 version. We decided this was the time to make the leap.”



At left, a digital photo of the scanner setup. At right, a composite of the digital photo draped over the point cloud. This image shows the detail the scanner provides as compared to the relatively few points a survey team could achieve in the same time.

Digital Setup Coach

One particular feature of Civil 3D that Allen Nobles and Associates’ crews utilizes is the review capability of data collection methods. This feature re-creates instrument setup, backsights and a shot list. With the use of field description codes in Civil 3D, users can clearly see step-by-step and shot-by-shot how field crews collected data. This allows a surveying professional to review the fieldwork and make suggestions for improving field techniques. “It’s like when a football coach watches the tapes after the game and then tells players how they could improve efficiency and accuracy,” Zoltek says.



A Shared Server

Allen Nobles and Associates needed a flexible system that would allow people throughout the firm’s western region (Niceville, Pensacola and Chipley offices) to work in any office using centrally stored documents. Zoltek had known Dave Jamison, a design technology solution provider at systems integrator Avatech Solutions, for years and called on him to assist with designing the implementation. “We decided to first run a pilot for Civil 3D in the Niceville office,” Jamison explains. “We set up a license server there that allows people from any office to run the software so long as there are not more than seven people up and running at one time.”

“We’re sharing the licenses of Civil 3D across the company’s western region,” Zoltek says. “Server licensing means that anyone can use the software on his or her machine, and the server lets us know when we have hit our limit. That flexibility is huge for us, because Niceville, Pensacola and Chipley would usually run two or three licenses at each office and now we share across all locations instead of having to purchase standalone licenses for each CAD station in every office.”

Allen Nobles and Associates already had the hardware set up for a Virtual Private Network, and through it everyone could access scanner data, designs, plotters and design software. To reduce network overhead when working on a drawing, users pull it down to the local machine, use the CPU power of the machine to do all the number crunching and rendering, and then send it back to the central server when finished.



Final survey drawings, with the two composite images of the pavilion and visitor center on either side. Including the images is a great way to open a dialog with a client because they can see the rich information available.

Managing Productivity Expectations

Braden Johnson, civil application engineer at Avatech, visited the Niceville office and installed the software in one day. He then spent three days setting up drawing templates and styles, as well as training Allen Nobles and Associates’ surveyors and CAD technicians on the program. Once he configured the deployment DVD, it was a quick task to ensure each station was set up and ready.

Training consisted mostly of reviewing the way Allen Nobles and Associates set up its Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) using Autodesk Land Desktop, and then determining how that would need to be altered for Civil 3D.

“It was a good strategic move to have an Avatech expert work onsite to set up the system and deliver customized training,” Zoltek says. “We started the process with a teleconference with Braden to go over our individual needs and expectations, and only minor modifications to the plans that Braden brought with him were required during implementation. We may have been able to do it ourselves, but in hindsight it is absolutely clear that we saved both time and money by allowing an expert to perform the installation and creation of the deployment DVD.”

One thing Zoltek cautions is not to underestimate the time required for people to adjust to the new interface and “look” in Civil 3D. Users who are proficient in Land Desktop will not be able to make an instant change to the new program. “I tell people to give it at least two weeks to acquaint themselves with the new environment,” Zoltek says.

His method is working; Civil 3D is doing what Allen Nobles and Associates needs it to do. “We don’t get into the detail of a full-blown engineering firm,” Zoltek says. “Being primarily a surveying company, many of our clients are engineers and they want our product in the format they can use immediately.”

“Civil 3D is a good choice for civil/survey projects,” Avatech’s Jamison says. “Whether working on an urban roadway reconstruction project and passing survey data off to designers, or surveying a new industrial site, airport, landfill or golf course, it has the tools surveyors need to provide accurate, complete COGO data, survey drawings and associated information.”



More Valuable Points

The combination of Allen Nobles and Associates’ new scanning equipment coupled with the advanced civil software and flexible server system will mean an easier transition from existing conditions to the beginning of an engineering start. The survey team can generate far more accurate topographic maps, contours or DTMs in a shorter period of time than it could with other programs and pass an information model off to the engineering team. Zoltek reports that Allen Nobles and Associates’ crews and technicians are able to complete more with less: over the last two years, they have increased gross billings without increasing the number of people needed to do the work.

“We simply could use reflectors and rods and total stations to get field data and still generate an information model in Civil 3D,” Zoltek says. “It’s just that with both ends being more efficient, we get a much bigger jumpstart, and we can hand off a complete information model to our clients who find that product much more valuable than just lines and contours in a standard CAD drawing.”

Because Allen Nobles and Associates is up to speed on the newest technologies, when engineering customers ask the firm for engineering information modeling as part of a proposal, the company is far better poised to get the work than a firm that still just uses prisms, rodpeople and AutoCAD. With its efficient system, the firm is making a more valuable point.

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