This article will take you on a journey through the innovative design process for a large railroad project in Norway to show what we are doing to push things beyond the usual with the help of Autodesk InfraWorks and Unreal Engine. We'll address information flow, live feed, and efficient collaboration between hundreds of people per project, and meeting in a virtual gaming environment.
Bane NOR SF
The Norwegian Railway Infrastructure Managers, Bane NOR SF (BN), is the government office for all railway activities in Norway, including building and maintaining all railway infrastructure.
Background for the InterCity Project
Strong growth in population expected in Oslo area
Fastest-growing capital in Europe
Affliction in the city areas
Little space for roads
Modern railway and wise use of hubs
The InterCity strategy was developed in the early 1990s. Some sections are finished, and some under construction. 270 kilometers double track railway and 22 new or changed station areas remain.
Concept study for the InterCity corridors was completed 2012. Success criteria include: centrally located stations and development of surrounding areas, comprehensive service upgrades, not small improvements of existing services, much shorter journey times, frequent services, high punctuality levels, predictability.
Investment costs: Approximately €12.5 billion.
National Transport Plan 2014-23 approved by Parliament, June 2013.
InterCity Project organization established.
The InterCity Project follows the Norwegian planning law that defines 3 major planning levels, and that the municipalities have authority to approve the plans. Some sub-projects of the project go through 2 or 3 municipalities, which give an added complexity. The InterCity Project is divided into 7 sub-projects. The first 4 sub-projects are planned to complete in 2024, and the rest in 2034.
All 7 sub-projects are awarded to major Norwegian and Nordic consultant companies based on tenders. The contract is open in regards to hours but fixed on hourly rates.
BIM in Bane NOR
Bane NOR has recently approved a BIM strategy that states that all large projects are to be model-based projects for planning, building, and documentation. Project management shall be an integrated part of all model based project and Bane NOR shall take an active part in developing methods, routines and requirements as well as standards for the infrastructure industry.
Bane NOR is currently working on revising the requirements and handbook for model-based projects. The handbook was developed and approved in 2012. This handbook sets the requirement for all model-based projects as well as drawings. The handbook:
does not specify which programs to use, but the primary format for all models is DWG format.
states the types of models to be used and the contents of each type of model that the coordinated model and the presentation model must be in a license free software defines all object is described both as a volume object with the stake out data as points, lines, or volume.
states that all object are general, none supplier specific in early plan phases. As soon as a supplier is chosen in the construction phase all object are redesigned with the specific objects and the interdisciplinary conflict control is updated.
has resulted in a 3D object library that is open for all.
defines that all existing data is modelled as base models, data both above and below the ground level.
states that all disciplines shall model their new objects in 3D.
states that the coordinated model references both the base models and the discipline models and is updated with project defined intervals. This model is the base for all conflict control between disciplines. The primary goal is to fix all inter discipline conflicts before we start building the project.
states that a presentation model is based on the coordinated model. This model is primary used for visualization and communication within the project organization and with all external stakeholders in the project.
states that the contractor must use the discipline models to export stake out date directly to machines and updates the models to as-built status.
Motivation for Using Modelling in Bane NOR Projects
Our main motivations for using models in Bane NOR projects include the following:
Better control and quality will give us more cost effective projects.
Better focus on information for the existing situation in an early plan level makes it easy to re-use and enrich information through increased demands for level of detail all plan level.
Sharing data and knowledge with everyone within the project organization and all external stakeholders.
Easier to visualize and highlight interdisciplinary problems and challenges for everyone involved in the project.
Building competence in BN, and being a leading organization for standardizing model-based workflows in infrastructure projects.
Virtual Design and Construction (VDC)
Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) is the use of integrated multidisciplinary performance models of design-construction projects to support explicit and public business objectives.
Integrated Concurrent Engineering (ICE) is one part of VDC and the goal is to make the meetings more productive and the plan process more efficient. Key success factors are good preplanning, clear agendas and objectives, and a productive environment.
This focus here is on BIM and Integrated Concurrent Engineering (ICE). How are we able to apply to large-scale multidisciplinary infrastructure projects?
How to use InfraWorks as an ICE tool. InfraWorks has several functions and with a bit of creativity they can be used to make ICE sessions more efficient.
Use the function to inform the project group about upcoming sessions
Tell about the goals and connect this with bookmarks to show focus areas
Other information can be distributed as well
Show focus areas
Use bookmarks to quickly check if decisions from previous sessions have been fixed
The design feed can be used for collaboration and to prepare for sessions.
Standardize the use with, for example, a watermark. How should they comment and use special symbols.
Standardization lets you export the design feed to Excel and have a decision log quickly.
Gamification: Unreal Engine
For nearly 2 decades we have felt that something has been lacking in engineering 3D/VR models compared to video games. The last few years there has been a change with the rise of high-end open source game engines, HMDs, computing power, and web frameworks. At long last we have reached the point when there is nothing holding us back from creating VR content that was earlier only seen in AAA gaming titles with powerful collaboration platforms.
The open APIs and export possibilities of Autodesk software give us complete freedom over model files and we are able to work in an optimal way.
With a combination of engineers, 3D designers, and programmers you can design powerful collaboration platforms with AAA graphics that can be utilized all the way from early design phase to completion and public information phase.
Engineering workflows start with design creation in tools like AutoCAD and Revit. When the time comes to visualize those designs we have traditionally used tools like Solibri, InfraWorks, and Lumion.
What if we use a game engine to extend the use of the models beyond just visualization and create new products?
A game engine offers endless opportunities:
Understand and feel the design in a new way through an interactive first-person experience
Enhance the first-person experience through the use of immersive VR
Illustrations and animations at real-time speeds
Involve the young generations
Communication needs with government and administrations
Make your own collaboration platform in the game and invite the community to try your design.
How to Get Started
Working with Autodesk CAD products like AutoCAD Civil 3D, Navisworks, and InfraWorks in collaboration with a DCC (digital content creation) application such as 3ds Max gives us a vast number of options for modelling, optimizing, texturing, and animating our models. We then utilize Epic Games Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) to create a visually stunning interactive experience.
The first order of business is to get the CAD geometry into the engine. UE4 only excepts polygons/mesh and therefore 3ds Max with its comprehensive polygon modelling tools allows you to check the geometry from CAD for suitability for real time use and adjust/fix the mesh accordingly.
Even before we start importing from CAD the first challenge arises which is the huge coordinate values that CAD software often has in its models due to storing all values with double floating point precision. As both 3ds Max and UE4 only use single floating point precision values, the easiest solution to this problem is to simply move all models close to the origin. There exist varying degrees of automation for this task but the important thing is to keep track of this translation so all models are moved correctly in relation to each other.
The trick to making a CAD model work inside a game engine is clever optimizations. This means we usually only export the geometry we will actually see and omitting the rest, unless one desires to see infrastructure that is hidden behind walls and underground.
Also, controlling the amount of detail in the geometry is important to make the models as light as possible. Thankfully UE4 has the ability to generate LOD’s which is a huge time saver and can make a huge difference in the real time performance. For those unfamiliar with the concept, LOD (level of detail) it is basically reducing the amount of geometric detail in a model in concrete steps. UE4 accepts 5 LOD steps where each one is more simplified then the next one.
The engine then automatically determines when to switch between the LODs based on the amount of screen space each object occupies as we move away or towards it. The default values work quite well, and the transitions are smooth so there are no sudden pops as the models are switched.
Next step is to determine what objects the player/user in the game world will bump into. As in CAD viewports, one can simply walk/fly thru geometry unless one explicitly specifies what objects block the players movement. It is therefore useful to think of the geometry from CAD as a visual representation of what will be built. It has no other properties such as mass or even volume. This is where the concept of collision geometry comes in. Think of it as invisible meshes surrounding all the objects that block our movement.
This typically includes all the floors, walls and ceilings in addition to any other solid objects in our scene. UE4 has the ability use the visual/rendering mesh as the collision mesh as well, but this will be more computationally expensive than creating optimized custom meshes in 3ds Max. Due to budget constrains it is probably best to strike a balance between using the visual mesh for collision and creating simplified collision meshes around the more geometry heavy objects. Remember, the more polygons UE4 has to test collision checks against, the poorer the performance will be.
When it comes to materials those are best created within UE4 as it has a robust and advanced editor able to generate physically plausible materials. The process of creating materials is closely linked to texturing and the creation of UV coordinates, which one can think of as the coordinate system that determines the textures placement on the geometry. 3ds Max has robust tools for creating UVs and packing them efficiently.
Creating the textures themselves which define the materials is a process of acquiring the appropriate photos and processing/editing them for real time use. There are many different workflows and specialized applications available for this type of work. It is also viable to buy texture libraries that give you the most commonly used surfaces.
Recently we have seen the emergence of entire online libraries that have photo captured materials ready for use within UE4. These are high quality assets conform to what is called PBR (physically-based rendering), which ultimately result in very realistic materials.
A second set of UVs need to be made for baking lighting information that is later calculated by UE4’s global illumination engine called Light Mass. Once again this is a task that the engine can handle automatically but if one desires control over the process it is certainly possible to do this within 3ds Max for maximum precision and quality. Budget and deadlines once again determine the approach.
If one decides to use only dynamic lighting inside UE4, there is no need for lightmaps. This of course also means that the lighting will cost more in terms of performance and not be as high quality as preprocessed and baked lighting. Again, what one uses can vary with project requirements and the physical size of the game level.
Once all the geometry is inside UE4 and looking good we can start to create the interactive part of the presentation. UE4 gives us the ability to utilize C++ programming for complex functions. At the same time our 3D designers can use the GUI based Blue Prints scripting language to make simpler functions on the fly. This give us an unprecedented flexibility and the possibility to work with large scale complex models and functionality. Combined with our web and server- support systems for cloud sharing and collaboration that is directly integrated in to the game package.
Proof of Concept
To be able to create and explore opportunities in a game engine, you normally need to convince the customer of the benefits and get funding. Our experience is that it’s hard to convince them with just words. Our clients don’t usually know much about gaming technology and therefore have problems understanding how gamification can be useful. To inspire them we make a small proof of concept scene which we present to our customers to make them see the endless possibilities. Once the customer is sold on the concept, the real-time nature of the gaming technology usually leads to us developing a great product together with our customers.
Thomas Angeltveit is a civil engineer specialized in railroad technology. He is a technology enthusiast with technical expertise and experience as a BIM coordinator in multiple large-scale infrastructure projects.