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BIM & Design

The Evolution of Civil Technologies: A Journey from Drafting to Digital Twins

May 28, 2024

In our last blog, we touched briefly on the inception of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and the monumental shift from traditional drafting to modern modeling. However, the intertwining progression of design and construction technologies deserves a more in-depth exploration. Each advancement in one area has pushed the other forward, creating a dynamic interplay that has significantly shaped the industry. As someone who installed my employer's first CAD system around 1983 and experienced early innovations in surveying and construction, I've witnessed firsthand this remarkable evolution.

From Drafting Boards to CAD Systems

The transition from manual drafting to CAD marked the beginning of a new era in design. Those of us who started our careers on drafting boards remember the initial skepticism management had toward investing in tools like AutoCAD, our first CAD software. Skilled board drafters could produce near-perfect drawings with impeccable lettering, making the transition seem unnecessary to some. However, as a site engineer responsible for handling field changes, the advantages of CAD became quickly apparent. The ability to electronically delete, edit, and correct plans streamlined our processes, allowing for rapid and consistent updates that were a boon for construction teams.

The initial challenge with CAD was the inefficiency of early plotters, which would monopolize our PCs, incapable of multitasking during plot time. The introduction of UNIX workstations by Intergraph revolutionized this aspect by enabling batch plotting, thus breaking this bottleneck. This technological leap allowed the design field to push forward, ultimately benefiting construction by producing more accurate and efficient plan and bid sets.

The Advent of Modeling and Machine Control

Often the industry thinks of 3D modeling as being new. But the mechanical and architectural world had been using models for decades, and in reality civil models have existed since the late 1980’s. Early hardware and operating systems did not support the large models required in transportation (unless you used UNIX). Hardware and software progressed and this limitation disappeared over time. And, construction discovered that Automated Machine Guidance (AMG) resulted in production gains in the field through speed and accuracy which also made construction “greener” as less fuel was needed so fewer carbon emissions.

From Design to Construction

Parallel to this, the need to move data between the design software and construction software emerged. One of the early efforts was synergy developed between GEOPAK and AASHTO’s Trns•port. This was the late 1990’s and while a noble effort, they were a little ahead of their time; the solution did work but was disruptive and costly to do. Plus with AMG, models were required and GEOPAK was not model based.

Another enabling technology was evolving as well to make AMG even more attractive. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology enhanced these capabilities, enabling real-time, on-site accuracy that was previously unattainable.

Building Information Modeling

By the 21st century in spite of the Y2K fear, many technologies were converging at just the right time. Europe (countries like the UK, Denmark, and Germany) realized that all of this technology worked better if all participants collaborated. This collaboration eventually became known as Building Information Modeling (BIM). Early on, the industry thought of this as a design model, but the design model was only part of the “information”. And in reality, you could have a BIM project like resurfacing, that had no model. Additionally, models began to become much more robust in data contained. By the early 2010’s we were seeing evidence of the “perfect storm” for engineering and construction. Interestingly, to make BIM work effectively, all information needed to be digital. While the phrase “digital project delivery (DPD)” didn’t become an everyday word until the FHWA EDC program, DPD is an essential component of BIM.

The Role of Hardware and Networking Technologies

The continuous improvement of hardware technologies, networking capabilities, and streaming services has been crucial in supporting these advancements. High-performance computing and robust networks enable seamless collaboration and data sharing, essential for the connected environment in which modern projects thrive.

The Connected Environment and Digital Twins

Today's connected environment dispels the myth of a single giant database. Instead, it embraces interoperability through technologies like iTwins and Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), allowing different systems to communicate and collaborate effectively. Digital twins—virtual replicas of physical entities—exemplify this connectedness, providing real-time insights and predictive analytics that drive smarter decision-making.

Governance, Cybersecurity, and Future Prospects

As we advance, we must also address the inherent risks of our interconnected systems, including governance issues, viruses, and cyber terrorism. Robust cybersecurity measures and governance frameworks are essential to safeguard our digital infrastructure.

Looking ahead, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics promises to revolutionize our industry further. The data we collect and analyze today lays the groundwork for future innovations, enabling more efficient, sustainable, and resilient construction practices.

In conclusion, the journey from drafting boards to digital twins reflects a continuous cycle of innovation and adaptation. Each technological leap not only enhances our capabilities but also prepares us for future advancements, ensuring that we remain at the forefront of an ever-evolving industry.


Ron Gant
Senior Account Manager
A graduate of Mississippi State University, Ron Gant, P.E., is a BIM expert with four decades of experience in infrastructure construction and civil engineering.
Andrew Martin
Chief Technology Officer
My job is to listen and learn. From there, I can create an environment that helps identify, develop, and sustain teams that create some of the world's most amazing software products. It isn't my job to make software that accomplishes the task, it is my job to make software that blows our customers and partners away. I've spent my career contemplating everything from operating system design to fully modeled virtual worlds to essential questions about data but it always comes back to one fundamental thing: are we building software experiences that make our users' lives easier? To me, that is the ultimate reward.