Idealism in an Economic State

What in the world could I be writing about today? First, lets begin with what i started reading recently. Via Twitter, @MattAnderson noted he was reading an article at ( I thought, I should take a look at that. In short, the author begins by talking about a need to update / replace the delaunay triangulation method for creating surfaces. His reasons include:

  • The ability for contours to distinguish between hard (road, concrete, etc.) and soft (off-road) surfaces;
  • That the shape of contours match the underlying design intent when smoothed;
  • Ability to represent subsurface and surface conditions that have negative slopes (ie – overhangs, caves) when viewed from above;
  • User-friendly methods for creating design / construction surfaces.

His point being that the current delaunay method is  limited and cannot accommodate these desired advancements. Now, I’m no genius, but let me offer a counter-point of thought.  Are the TIN methods we use broken? I have heard much grumbling in the various places I’ve worked. Let’s step out of our forest for a moment and look at another and see what they might be doing.

The automobile industry is one that has undergone many changes to maintain profit and improve the product, you know, that car we all drive around.  What’s different about cars today than say 15 years ago? Computers controlling fuel efficiency, better tires for fuel efficiency, better aerodynamics for fuel efficiency, along with standard comforts inside like electric windows and door locks.  Is the car still built on a frame with 2 axles? Does it have a gas engine (for now at least 🙂 )?  The fundamental element hasn’t changed.  What did change was primarily driven by economics, not by a wish list. Sure, those wish list items made it into the models as it became economically feasible (low production cost, increased probability of sale, etc). But “where the rubber met the road,”  the vehicle hasn’t changed drastically. 

Clearly, we’re light years away from the Model T as our technology progressed.  But the fundamental idea hasn’t changed. I’m still waiting for my George Jetson sky car (or anything in the air). That would REALLY help in my commute down the Northeast Extension into Philly where major roads can’t be widened without major expense (Mr. President, can we use that stimulus to move mountains and railroad tracks?). I’d probably pay more for it, but how much? Double? Triple? or maybe the same?

At some point, the economy will improve. I think. Better methods will emerge (SiteOps may be that emergence). What I do think is that the fundamental idea of TINs won’t change. I do think we can accomplish improvements with our current “vehicle.”  Honestly, with the experiences I’ve had, education is our biggest issue, not quality of the toolbox.  The single hardest part of land development engineering is to convey grading intent. The contour has traditionally been that translator. What I propose is that the contour should only be used for clarity, the surface should finally be used as a surface. Let’s truly make it a BIM object that is intelligent from concept to construction.  While I agree that improvements can be made in the toolbox, just because Johnny doesn’t know how to use a wrench doesn’t mean we should get him a new set of tools.

Being a car designer or a mechanic, they both require an understanding of how all the parts work so they can remodel or repair the car.  Dirt and asphalt should be no different.  When driving a car, we avoid obstacles in and near the road. So why is it that when we drive our “cars” full speed without attention to where we’re going, we’re shocked that we’ve totalled the thing.  I know that the road is straight and sometimes we need to swerve to miss this pothole or that dead dear. Autodesk is doing its best job to keep the roads paved and clear.  Here’s the thing, software does have air bags, but going 75 straight into an abutment? Even the air bags want to relent….

I digress.  My point is that while we’re taught the fundamentals of Engineering in various colleges, the true education of a Land Development Engineer doesn’t begin until he starts his first job. We really are a profession that requires (at least to get a professional license) a 4 year degree just to become an apprentice in a field loosely defined by the personality of every level of government where you live. What needs to change is how we THINK about grading. Stop thinking about what the drapes look like next to the window and design an awesome bay window. Maybe even invent a new way to hang the drapes. (Wow, I’ve gone from cars to drapes. That covers guys and gals).  What’s lacking in most places is the mentoring time to explain on the job how to understand and visualize grading. 

Our first offensive should be to budget (yes, budget) either a position or time to simply convey and review the design process within a project. Again, the economics have limited even the ability to budget what some would consider essential to employee development. Secondly, some tools have been introduced or improved and we need to take advantage of them. For instance, AutoCAD has some very powerful MESH tools to create surfaces. Although they are generally thought of in a mechanical nature, we can certainly use them for free-form berms and other “soft” off-road grading elements.

Can the tools improve? Sure, impact wrenches are awesome and a major improvement over the tire iron (especially when they look like weapons). But the initial change needs to happen to us, not our tools.


About Kevin
Hi… I am a husband, father, brother and neighbor. I am employed as a Civil Engineer and have enjoyed playing the drums for the last 30+ years.

2 Responses to Idealism in an Economic State

  1. Mark Scacco says:

    I wrote an articel (coincidentally for the same magazine, SitePrep) that touches on some of these same themes. We always need to be on the look out for new tools that will help us complete our tasks in the most efficient manner.


  2. Mark Scacco says:

    Geesh. I really do know how to spell “article” 😐


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