Designing in the 3D World

By Robert Garrett, PE | Open Roads Expert and Trainer

An Engineer’s Imagination Becomes Reality

They say hindsight is 2020. Had someone told me 30 years ago that my ideas and fingerprints would be so intricately intertwined in what the engineering world esteems as the industry standard for 3D modeling I would not have believed them. When I was just 23 years old and working for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), everything we did back then was two dimensional. Essentially, we would design something and then turn it around and redesign it to show elevation and then we would turn it around and design it again so you could see a cross-section.

I recall a time that I was working on a drainage design on a particular pipe and we were drawing lines on paper and I distinctly remember thinking the only way this is really a pipe is in my imagination. We eventually put labels on things that read, “this is a pipe” but, what I started thinking about at that early age was that what we really need is for this thing to look like a pipe with an actual hole through it showing its wall thickness among other details. There were many young engineers at the time dreaming up these concepts, but even if we wanted to do those things, there was no software that could do that and computers were clunky and slow. That was back in 1989 and so our industry has come full circle and our dreams have come to fruition. They are no longer a part of the imagination of engineers anymore because we have the technology and many bright minds making it happen.

Aside from not having the capability back then, as things began to evolve in the industry there also was a need for a collective mind shift. I’m sure many of my fellow engineers can relate to the old adage that it’s challenging to teach an old dog new tricks especially if he or she is a seasoned engineer. Gaining the collective buy in for moving away from 2D drawings to 3D modeling was not going to be an easy task.

I spent nearly 12 years with TDOT and while computer-aided design (CAD) had made its way into the transportation industry, it really wasn't being exploited during that time. TDOT had rooms full of computers on a special floor with special air conditioning, but they just sat there collecting dust. I remember walking into the Knoxville office and there was a brand new, Hewlett Packard, pen plotter - nothing more than a vintage decorative piece now. However, it had been sitting there for two years and nobody had used it because they didn't know what to do with it. In true engineering fashion I began to tinker with it to see if we could make use of it. I started a niche for myself back then being able to take technology that the industry wanted to use but didn’t know how or was resistant to it and make use of it. I began to unravel the mysteriousness of it and add in some efficiencies to start moving the technology forward inside the DOT, which led to a big push to advance its use.

I soon left the DOT for a private engineering firm continuing to advance technology, but also designing roadways as well. All of the software at this time was being developed by Bentley Systems. I was spending quite a bit of time on support calls with them and one day they asked, “have you ever thought about working for us?” And I answered yes, of course.

By then, Bentley had started to dive head first into their 3d modeling technology development. It was 2007 and up until then, everything that we did was still two dimensional. 3D really only existed in our heads. A short time later I received a call from a gentleman who said, “Robert, I want you to come work for me. We are going to develop a 3D modeling solution.” I spent the next decade working with Bentley developing from the ground up what is now widely known in the industry today as Open Roads.

In 2018, I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and was offered a position with Vaughn & Melton to develop and oversee a team of young and aspiring engineers. I now find myself in the position of actually taking the software that I helped develop and advance and put it into production helping and mentoring other young, eager engineers practice something that engineers 30 years ago only dreamed about. It’s truly the highlight of my career to see the imaginations and creativity of these bright young minds, and I am fortunate to get to work alongside some of our industry’s best still today.


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