Senior Geospatial Analyst
Embracing 3D modelling isn’t simply about making ‘pretty pictures’ to show a client or an opportunity to have fun playing with new ‘toys’. While 3D modelling is certainly revolutionising client presentation and community engagement, there’s also more to be gained from developments in 3D modelling across the entire project lifecycle.
The rich potential of 3D modelling can be harnessed to increase accuracy and efficiency, reduce time and labour, and enhance communication and decision-making — all leading to major reductions in a project’s level of risk.
Journeying into the third dimension
For those who want to understand the world around us and the projects that affect us, advances in 3D modelling and associated 3D technologies are a game changer. We can more quickly, easily, and fully understand something when it’s represented in a mode that suits human sensory perception – and we humans were born for 3D.
Data has traditionally been viewed in 2D forms, as tables, cross-sections, spreadsheets, or reports. However, interpreting and presenting data in 2D requires a huge investment of time and effort, particularly when presenting data in various scales and cross-sections. Managing a complex project with many 2D drawings can rapidly become inefficient and unworkable. Also, information is ‘projected’ onto the section from varying distances. Information from further away can distort interpretation, create inaccuracies, and increase project risk.
The technical specialist who embraces 3D will not only save time and effort but can also gain a greatly enhanced insight into the project, which will reduce risk from professional, construction and operational perspectives. A 3D view increases the chance of exposing inconsistencies or contradictions, inaccurate interpretations and missed opportunities. It can reveal — far more effectively than in 2D methods — where data may not yet be adequately robust, detailed, or comprehensive, and where more fieldwork may be needed.
With increased awareness of the areas of uncertainty, more work can be done to gather new information and increase understanding. As new data and information come to light, the 3D model can be updated and re-interpreted without having to go back to the drawing board and create new documentation from scratch.
Using 3D models to bring geology’s ‘dark art’ to light
Given that geology is the study of the real, tangible, physical world — of surfaces, shapes, and materials — 3D is the ideal mode for engaging with geological information.
Geology is sometimes described as a ‘dark art’. Each project’s landscape is different, complex, often large, and mostly unseen. Geologists must make interpretations and draw inferences based on a limited amount of different types of information. Despite an extensive testing regime, they may only have seen as little as one-thousandth of one per cent of the geological volume present at a site — and they must make important decisions based on that.
A 3D model brings this ‘dark art’ to light. Capturing and exhibiting a 3D ground model enables a better understanding of the ground and subsurface conditions — much of which is not otherwise ‘seen’ or intuitively understood. The model reveals what the data is portraying and generates a holistic picture of the ground conditions, indicating the geology, areas of risks and unknowns, and areas requiring further attention. In this way, a 3D geological model can play a crucial role in exploring risks and communicating with project stakeholders.
Building the 3D model
Building a geological model takes a lot of data, which needs to be digitised and incorporated into the 3D space. This data may include geological information, borehole sampling results, cone penetration tests, analytical results, field observations, geophysical data, construction records, survey information, and Lidar and aerial imagery. The next step is construction of a series of geological surfaces in 3D space to define the different geological units in the model. Any additional data gathered from the site exploration can be mapped quickly, on site or in the office, and incorporated into the dynamic model.
When infrastructure is incorporated into the 3D model, the position and relationship of these features to the ground can be studied, which leads to safer and more efficient design. Sometimes infrastructure maps are localised and may not provide the correct location or the full extent of water mains, sewer lines, gas lines, and so on. Incorporating these types of data into the model helps to point out high-risk areas, so that designs can be modified to avoid conflicts in locations with abundant or complex infrastructure.
Using the 3D model to better manage risk
Ultimately, the purpose of a model is to enable clients and project teams to make more-informed decisions to manage risk — and this is increasingly important as infrastructure projects become bigger and more complex.
The flexibility and responsiveness of 3D models allow alternative scenarios to be tested. It’s possible to quickly see how the model responds to different inputs and parameters, not only in terms of the immediate location or timeframe, but also from the broader perspective of flow-on effects and consequences. Multiple iterations with different inputs will offer further insights, assisting the specialist’s decision-making process and helping to reduce risk.
The 3D model can also help reinforce or verify a specialist’s interpretation, much like getting a second or third opinion. By providing this reinforcement, the model helps reduces risk and increases confidence in the specialist’s interpretation and solution.
For example, digitally ‘excavating’ a basement located in complex geology allows all members of a project team to develop a greater understanding of construction risks. It also provides information to designers about potential opportunities to optimise the design, such as avoiding problematic foundation conditions or identifying critical load cases for designing the excavation support system.
A 3D model could be a great tool for decision makers when assessing different options for the route of new subsurface infrastructure. The 3D model offers a rapid and easily communicated picture of the risks and opportunities associated with each route — putting the options into a much clearer perspective.
Another example of a sector that can benefit from 3D geological models is landfill. Common challenges in landfill projects include protecting groundwater through proper drainage, restricting uncontrolled run-off and, most importantly, ensuring that significant groundwater resources are not jeopardised by the landfill. So, for a landfill expansion project, 3D modelling can provide better geological and hydrogeological insights into the project site and surrounding areas to identify potential groundwater risk pathways if a release from a landfill were to occur.
A new world of communication and engagement
Whether represented onscreen or translated into physical outputs or even into virtual reality experiences, 3D models open a new world of communication and engagement with clients and stakeholders. When a 3D model is communicated effectively, it ‘puts everything in perspective’. Finally, everyone involved in or affected by the project can clearly ‘see’ what the detailed technical drawings, charts and graphs are showing. Furthermore, the project team and client can interact with the model and collaborate more effectively to test options, explore the impacts of changes, and understand the areas of uncertainty and corresponding risk.
Many projects across engineering and design disciplines involve community concerns about visual impacts. Visual impact assessments (VIA) are a game-changer in this arena, providing an unparalleled view of how a design will look in the real world. The VIA includes 3D vantage points showing lines of sight and potential obstructions or impacts on views from residential or commercial areas. This makes it possible to clearly demonstrate options to the public at the design stage and shows the community how much care is being taken to achieve the optimum design. Taking the community along on the journey and building social acceptance early will reduce risks to the project’s progress and add to its potential for success.
Getting 3D in perspective
As with any technology or technique, getting good results from 3D depends on using it well and wisely. This requires specialised skill sets and software, as well as good data and a clear, shared understanding of the level of confidence or ambiguity in the model. The inputs need to be accurate for the model to be reliable and robust. As more data becomes available, or as conditions change, the model will need to be updated. An inaccurate or outdated model could cause more problems than it solves.
That said, under the right conditions, 3D modelling offers an unprecedented level of processing power translated into a form that human minds can easily interpret. With the increased perspective and clarity gained through 3D, project teams are likely to communicate key information more effectively and make better decisions. Those decisions influence risk, revenue, cost, efficiency and productivity, and they determine the success of projects and businesses.
Ultimately, for geologists, engineers and related professions, 3D modelling offers an opportunity to get better results across infrastructure and geotechnical projects, particularly if project teams can see beyond the most obvious value of 3D modelling as a presentation tool, and look to embrace its power and scope for design, decision-making, and risk reduction. There is much to be gained by becoming more digitally enabled to see the biggest and clearest picture in this complex and rapidly transforming world.