Advances in Engineering: New Tech Applications a Game Changer for Industry

Discussion of ChatGPT and adjacent AI tools’ potential effects on almost every industry are as seemingly ubiquitous as discourse on the “cloud” was a few years back. 

The AI family also represents just one of many types of products and technologies that Midlands professionals have isolated as actively transforming the engineering industry, or that may be poised to do so in the future.

In recent years, Thiele Geotech has made significant investments in a new data management platform.

“[The platform] allows us to manage all of our test data,” said Robert K. Lapke, president and COO. “It came with an application that allows digital entry of test results in the field, which are automatically uploaded to the system where the data is then available for review and billing input by our project managers.

“Once reviewed and signed the data is published to a server that is accessible to our clients. So, they have all reports for a given project at their fingertips.”

When asked for insights into how the tech compares to its earlier-generation counterpart, Lapke said the former tech didn’t have any field application or the ability for e-uploads. 

“Forms were filled out by our staff and had to be typed into our previous system,” he said. “The new system is much more efficient. This new software saves us significant time and money.”

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Natural Resources Group Manager Andy Miller noted that Benesch recently invested in the purchase of Trimble GPS units and several drones for use in natural resources surveys and aerial photography, respectively.

“The new GPS units are smaller, more accurate, allow for pay-as-you-go variable horizontal accuracy ranging from 1 [centimeter] to 1 [meter], and allow for real-time data download to the cloud,” he said. 

To the former investment, Miller said the GPS units allow for more efficient fieldwork and the collection of more accurate data, while the drones allow a “unique capability” – documenting infrastructure and site changes before, during and after project implementation.

“Aerial photography has become key for monitoring public structures such as utilities and inspecting, public works and infrastructures like bridges and dams,” he said. 


Support Systems

Snyder & Associates’ migration to digital delivery has required large investments in design software and equipment for its construction observation staff to use to complete projects, according to Mike Geier, business unit leader and regional office manager for Omaha, Council Bluffs, and Sioux Falls.

“The migration to digital delivery completely changes the well-established design processes engineers have used for centuries to deliver projects,” Geier said. “Traditionally, when an infrastructure project was constructed, we sent out surveyor teams to take measurements to represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions — first on paper, but for the last several decades in two-dimensional CAD files.”

Information on plan sheets would then be interpreted by contractors to construct 3D projects in the real world, with observation staff using tape measures and levels to make sure the project matches what the engineers drew. 

“With digital delivery, everything stays in three dimensions,” Geier explained. “Snyder & Associates had to upgrade our entire design software platform to technology where the design process revolves around our data-rich, three-dimensional models. We can still create traditional plan sets when we need to, but the plan sheets are a representation of what is in the model. These models provide a more realistic representation of the project and enable engineers to visualize and analyze various design options.”

In turn, potential issues may be identified and resolved early on. GPS-enable rovers, too, compare the designed project to the constructed one – instead of levels and tape measures. Multiple design options may be reviewed in far greater detail.

In addition to measuring traditional illuminance and luminance, Michelle Eble-Hankins, senior lighting designer, said Alvine Engineering’s new spectrometer also measures spectral power distribution (SPD) to determine parameters not limited to color temp, color rendering index and “melanopic lux.”

“There are other meters that measure … SPD, but this meter is incredibly small, allowing it to easily be carried onto an airplane, making measurements around the country much more feasible,” Eble-Hankins said. “The meter is also Bluetooth connected to a mobile device, which allows for the data files from a visit to be saved and then downloaded and analyzed after data collection.”

To the aforementioned term, melanopic lux, Eble-Hankins indicated this metric supports optimization of circadian lighting design as part of the WELL Building Standard. 

“This metric is used to evaluate the impact of electric lighting on the body’s circadian system and is influenced by both the intensity and spectral power distribution of the light source,” she said. “We can use computer software to calculate melanopic lux during design but being able to now also measure it in the field is a huge advantage.”

This capability has supported two WELL projects thus far, including Alvine’s corporate headquarters.

Sam Underwood uses an acoustic camera to visually assess the noise transmitting into a tenant space. (Courtesy of Alvine Engineering)
Sam Underwood uses an acoustic camera to visually assess the noise transmitting into a tenant space. (Courtesy of Alvine Engineering)

Its low voltage tech group, IP Design Group, partnered with the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which Associate Principal and Acoustical Designer Jessica L. Hiatt said has “allowed us to amplify our acoustical design practices and collaborate on industry-oriented building acoustics research.”

Acoustical Designer Sam Underwood said a major benefit is an ability to use state-of-the-art university equipment; for instance, an acoustic camera and sound-intensity camera tracking system to detect leaks in “sound-isolating” partitions, to troubleshoot the source of excessive noise and to visually communicate such info to clients. 

“Traditional methods of measuring sound isolation produce numbers that tell us how well a partition is performing — but they can’t show us why a partition is performing the way that it is,” he explained. “ …. historically, we would often have to make educated guesses about the controlling factors. Is it the lack of seals on a door? Is something hidden above the ceiling or buried within the wall? Multiple factors, both obvious and obscure, can be present, and it isn’t always easy to rank factors by importance.”

In turn, he continued, acoustic imaging techniques capture “heat maps” of sound that clearly illustrate sources of sound transmission.

Optical images captured by drone. (Courtesy of Benesch)
Optical images captured by drone. (Courtesy of Benesch)

Tomorrow’s Tech, Today’s Best Practices

Going forward, Thiele Geotech’s Lapke referenced the promise of AI.

“Although artificial intelligence has been under recent scrutiny, I do think it will continue to change the way engineers evaluate and solve complex problems,” he said. 

And, when asked to share his wisdom or “best practices” associated with new tech-driven investments, Lapke added: “After going through this platform change and embracing new technologies, we have learned that it is important to stay on top of and embrace systems that increase efficiency and provide better service for our customers.”

Miller of Benesch also had a take on AI, specifically in a format like chatbots, as a game-changing technology.

“Professionals can work more efficiently and effectively by using this technology to find precedents for a particular engineering project type, for example, what are the names of bridges that used a particular structural design of interest? Or cost estimating, rendering and visualization, researching, writing emails, and taking notes,” he said.

Asked about tech that is being considered or monitored closely, Miller referenced wetland identification (or wetland predictive) modeling, which uses light detection and ranging (LiDAR) returns to create high-resolution digital elevation models. Such “DEMs” are then used to derive topographic metrics that indicate wetlands by describing the likes of near-surface soil moisture. Field software, he added, includes automated wetland delineation to complete forms using tablets or handheld devices.

He urged those considering their own investments to not rush the process.

“Research the technology on your own, have the company selling equipment provide a demonstration and allow you to test products,” Miller noted.

Geier of Snyder & Associates referenced the industry’s quick movement toward a world where an infrastructure project’s “digital twin” exists in a virtual world. 

He described this concept as such: “The digital twin will be used, not only by the contractor to construct the project but will be used by maintenance staff to maintain the project. Engineers need to be willing to grow and learn how to utilize the new technologies to have proper oversight over the design process.”

Engineering is not unlike other industries, following the “exponential increase” in AI.

“It seems it was only a short time ago we talked about it as a future technology that was in movies and now it has real-world implications in our daily lives: Can AI optimize traffic signal timings in real-time based on changes in traffic? Can AI use maintenance data to prioritize when a bridge will need to be rehabilitated or replaced?” Geier remarked.

The Dream Playground in Council Bluffs. Snyder & Associates uses 3D modeling when designing projects like this one. (Courtesy of Snyder & Associates)
The Dream Playground in Council Bluffs. Snyder & Associates uses 3D modeling when designing projects like this one. (Courtesy of Snyder & Associates)

He noted the upfront investment – in terms of both employee time and upgrades. After all, to deliver on the digital, Snyder & Associates not only paid for the software but also completely revamped the standards and workspace set-up to effectively use the software. Also, Geier noted the initial hit to efficiencies as the technology is used to develop projects.

Jennifer Epstein, acoustical designer at IP Design Group, took a step back when asked to delve into future technologies; she said the organization asked two groupings of clients to its office to participate in an “ears-on experience.”

“ … we quite literally had them listen to our office walls,” she explained. “So, they could experience different levels of sound isolation in order to make informed decisions on their respective projects.”

Epstein noted how they found “great value” in the experience; however, she acknowledged it isn’t always feasible to experience different levels of sound isolation or different reverberation times in real-world situations. 

“Auralizations – or audio simulations that are produced in order to demonstrate the effects of different acoustical treatments – are a newer technology that allows us to help clients make informed decisions, without having to travel to multiple spaces to have these different experiences,” she stated.

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