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Highways design - Seeing is believing

Software giant Autodesk is planning a revolution in highways design. But can it deliver? Mark Hansford investigates.

In July Autodesk proudly announced a new agreement with its long-time partner ViaNova IT, that would see ViaNova's high level Novapoint highway design software adapted for UK standards for the first time and made available through Autodesk's 3D precision mapping tool.

This was followed last month by the launch of Autodesk Civil 3D software, a model-based design tool of fiendish sophistication yet made immediately user-friendly by sitting on the near universally recognised AutoCAD software.

The cunning in Civil 3D lies in the intelligent relationships that the software creates between objects. With it, design changes are dynamically updated; so when an engineer changes one element of a design, all related elements respond accordingly.

Autodesk now claims to offer a design tool for any road or highway design project, which can be seamlessly integrated with its well recognised and widely used 3D mapping and CAD software.

'We've introduced Civil 3D for the lower to middle strata of designs, and Novapoint for the top quarter, ' says Autodesk's transport sector strategic accounts director Alan Wild.

The latter puts Autodesk in direct competition with Bentley's MX range of design packages.

Novapoint has been around for 10 years and is the de facto standard highway design package in Scandinavia, explains Wild.

The software is built on Autodesk Map 3D 2005, a 2D and 3D mapping and GIS analysis tool. It allows users to collect and incorporate highly precise design data such as terrain model information, and import and export the resulting design without losing accuracy.

Its big selling point is its outstanding visualisation capability, with 3D fly-throughs easy to create, and the way it looks and feels just like AutoCAD.

It is this that has already won over consultant WSP, a long time user of Bentley MX.

'We were and still are using Bentley MX, and were looking for something more AutoCAD-ish, ' explains WSP principal engineer Gordon Easson. 'People are very familiar with AutoCAD now and if their design tool sits nicely inside it, they think it's not an all-singing, all-dancing new thing to learn.'

To prove Novapoint's worth, Easson put it to the test by redesigning a 2.5km relief road already designed using MX.

The results were favourable.

'I started from scratch again using Novapoint and to be honest did all the stupid things like putting in tight curves and a steep gradient, mainly to use the viewer facility, ' explains Easson.

'This is an excellent design tool that lets you check your design visually. Usually you only get to see one view at a time.

This gives you the opportunity to look in 3D, in pretty colours, ' he says. 'We see it as a low cost entry into VR [virtual reality].'

And this is invaluable in getting the best design, says Easson.

'You can have some very tight curves that are within the design codes but when you see them in 3D you realise that they look bad.

'Plus, with the fly-throughs, you can't hide any little funnies.

You've got to do the design right as the VR is coming straight from your model.

'Overall Novapoint performed very favourably. I hesitate to use times - I've used MX for 25 years plus - but if I had to teach someone from scratch I would expect them to be faster using Novapoint than MX, ' he says.

'But, ' he says, 'and there is a but, Novapoint is not quite so good in complex situations.

It's good horizontally but not so good vertically. I've got the feeling it's not for very complex multi-level jobs.'

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