3D Data on a Fast Track Civil Site

3D Data on a Fast Track Civil Site

The urgency to start projects and complete them quickly has become common. No matter what the use, the quicker the job is completed, the faster it’s used. Being first on the site, civil contractors generally have the least complete plans to start with. Owners do not understand that we need to know what the project is going to look like before we start planning. I have set some baselines for producing data for fast tracked projects that makes things easier for everyone.

There are three models that we will end up building which represent three distinct phases. Here are descriptions of the three basic model types for clarification.

  • Mass Excavation: This represents the bulk cuts and fills on the project. Expect no better than 1-foot accuracy.
  • Mass Grading: This brings things within a tenth. Retention and landscape areas should be good, and the building pads and parking areas may not be finalized.
  • Fine Grading: This is the final detailed information. Entries, parking, and building pads are all finalized as well as specifics for landscape, walks, and installations on site such as benches and playground equipment.

It seems no matter how much information we get, we always need more. I will go over the information we need and how to build each of the three models. Communication with all parties is critical. The example used is for an apartment complex. The owner is not sure how many units to build. Pre-leasing will help in that decision. In the meantime, pads, parking, and common areas are not finalized. We will work with engineers to make sure the contractor only moves dirt once and the project keeps running.

Mass Excavation

A “complete” set of plans needs to be submitted for approval. After permitting, things always seem to change. In this case, we will get enough information together to have scrapers and dozers working.

Before the crew gets to localize the site, equipment is moved in. We provided two different PDFs for use in the field. This may seem like something to keep the owner happy, but I want the work to count. The PDFs contain a 50-foot grid for cuts and fills. It’s enough for a couple days until the GPS can be set up on site and the real work begins.

As you can see in the image, we had finished contours for the retention to the east and rough grades for future pads. The bulk of the work is the buildings that are in the central area.

The plan set shows buildings and related access. With changes coming, we will smooth out the area and make some haul lanes. This is not a big site so we either need to start detailing or the contractor will have to leave, something that the owner does not want.

Even if the buildings change, we can get close to finish because there is usually not much elevation change between the pad and the paving areas. The biggest concern is not to build pads that are too big. This job required special compacted fill for the pads and the cost of an oversize pad would be substantial.


We can generally use the contours to get started. With larger cuts and fills, the time to get to the next phase is longer but the urgency is still there. Too much dirt moved or placed is not acceptable. Here are some tips:

  • Get a good OG topo. LIDAR or a drone topo is the way to go. Do not trust the contours from the plans if possible.
  • Be sure to get major drainage in at this point. No sense in making temporary ditches to move water.
  • If roads are being built, consider using that path for haul roads. Final grades can be cut on this well compacted surface easier than loose material.

Mass Grading

When we build this model, we know general footprints and elevations. I want to get things as close as a tenth of a foot. To do that, a lot of things need to be in place.

  • Pad sizes and elevations.
  • Streets should be close to finish. If the pads are good, street elevations are usually related to their elevations.
  • Utility rims and grates are set to finished elevations.
  • Parking lots are not detailed but close enough to rough things in.

For this job, I set the building pads to elevation and size. They will be handled as their own sub-set due to select fill and compaction requirements. The curb is laid out and we have a good idea of the 2D location. Final elevations will be worked out in the last file.

As you see her,  the design looks complete. It will allow the contractor to get the pads done and rough in the streets after the utilities are placed. I like to square up the pads, as that is the way they will be built. In this case they requested the actual layout.

When you are doing a job like this with a lot of detail in a small place, it is important to manage material. There is not a lot of room for excess dirt and we need to be careful with frequent drone topos to get rid of just enough material.


In a perfect world we could reduce files to no more than two. That is often the case if the rough grade file is ready to go and in a week we have the final information needed to make the fine grading surface. With the job described, the contractor needed plans to get them closer to finish without the final plans being ready. The rough grade file can buy the office some time to get the fine grading file ready. It’s important to walk away from a job and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning to get the last breaklines and spots for better performance.

Fine Grading

With one more opportunity to get questions answered, we now create the fine grading surface. Here is what we are going to produce for this surface.

  • Retention areas to the correct volume required for the changes in the project along the way.
  • Correct slopes away from buildings for drainage.
  • Streets that drain to properly sized inlets.
  • Intersections that work with traffic and shed water. No humps in main streets that will not work with posted speeds and pullouts and deceleration lanes that drain.
  • Sidewalk ramps to ADA standard with sidewalk cross slopes at less than 2%.
  • Parking lots graded to move water and contain no abrupt slope changes to catch low front scoops.
  • As many breaklines and additional spot elevations required to make all the above work.

As you can see from the image, we added a lot of information to make the final file. These details will make the model perform better as well as give the contractor a look at what will be required to finish the project.

The green lines in this model are breaklines done by our engineer Michael Stallings, to help the surface do what we want. These are 3D lines that connect elevations on the surface to make sure the TIN links with correct elevation points. Of all the things in a model, the breaklines are the most confusing for new model builders. There is no easy answer. You need to draw a breakline in an area the does not look right to see if it improves the performance. If it does not, delete and try something else.


You want the fine grading file to be sent out last. We have had jobs where we sent out ten files as revisions and updates. The fine grading file should be a finalized surface of the information you have. If you do not have that, do not call it fine grading. The field needs to understand what the different file types do and know the tolerances placed on them.


Many times, we can get one file out the door with all the information needed built at once. We only hear from the contractor for the next job. I hope you have the same result and do not need to send multiple files. The following process will save you time and trouble.

  • Keep file names consistent. If you use “Mass Grading” use it every time. The field will know it is close but not final, they can work with that in mind.
  • Put dates on every file. It saves confusion.
  • No need to bring a lot of equipment to the site initially. Start with some non-GPS machines for initial work and bring in guided equipment as things get moving.
Carlson and Civil 3D: The Details

Carlson and Civil 3D: The Details

Let’s get to the meat of the program and see how data is produced. Before sending things out to the field, we need to make 2D and 3D lines as well as points. As I go through the steps, you will see some different approaches to the process that may help users with various situations.

Getting Around

You will need to get some things out of the way to create data. Starting with Drawing Cleanup is where we’ll begin. There are a lot of options for cleaning including bringing in CAD elements that may otherwise get lost in other platforms.

The following settings will work fine for this drawing. When completed I can get the layers stripped and create a layer state for building data.







Listed below are notes on Drawing Cleanup results:
• I got a lot of help here with lines and verticies. I will add line points back later, but at this stage I want a straight line to have no interruptions until I add them.
• The duplicate lines were extreme in this file. Looks like it came from a couple xref plan lines that were stacked on each other when they exported everything to one file.
• The conversion of different linetypes into polylines will make things easier. Sometimes when you are elevating along curb, the line will break because it is next to a different type. Now I can join and elevate easier. This process is critical not only for data, but the field controllers will either not display or even crash with other than polyline exports.

With the unnecessary layers turned off, we are now ready to produce a file to send to the field.

The Commands

Let’s review some ways to produce data components. The first will be 2D lines (contours) that will need some work later, but I want to see what we have to start with. Contours are usually not a big deal. The advantage of working in AutoCAD is the ease of changing and editing polylines to make the contours work well.
• It is easy to convert any line type to a polyline.
• Direction can be reversed to help joining lines.
• Individual lines or layers can reduce or densify vertices.
• Points at intersections can be added.
• Move the start of a line.
• Add or remove arcs from polylines. An arc cannot be elevated so segments must be added for elevations to be added.
• Highlight non-tangent, non-perpendicular, crossing, and unclosed polylines. These tools are great for getting to the bottom of problems with detail areas in a model.

Elevating polylines can be done with the command shown. The properties can be changed as well so you know what has been elevated.
• Set the interval to match.
• Lines can be re-layered if desired.
• Color can be changed.
• Line type and the width of the lines can be changed.
A tip I like to use is to re-layer the location of the elevated polylines and make that layer un-selectable in case you pick the line again so it does not get changed. While in the process of making contours, it is a good time to check and see if there are any additional line fragments under or maybe copied to the new layer. Housekeeping at this point is critical.

3D Lines

Elevating curb lines is the most tedious and potentially problematic part of civil site data. We can go through the plans and pay attention to called out elevations to correctly enter them into the right vertex. Only after the model is built and the line is offset for back of curb do we sometimes notice an issue.
Carlson has helped with a visual representation of a polyline as you add elevations to spot issues before going too far.

In this image we see the polyline edit functions. I will outline this in the video but it is worth drilling down here.
• The profile box shows the elevation of the selected node.
• If I add a checkbox, it will hold that elevation.
• Incoming and outgoing slopes are shown.
• I can add vertices by double clicking anywhere on the line.
• I can move a vertex to adjust line location.
• Vertices can be added by crossing polylines, useful for elevation callouts that have a leader intercepting the subject line.
• If I have a surface, any location on the line can be elevated by the surface.
The process of going through a line and elevating can go quickly. Using the profile will expose fat-fingerings as well as incorrect callouts.

Curb Offsets

I use the Offset 3D Polyline command for curbs. I will discuss that in a moment but wanted to go over the dialog box because it contains a lot of information.
• The Interval method is for one horizontal and one vertical offset. This is good for simple curb offsets usually a half a foot in each direction.
• The Variable method allows you to change the settings per line.
• We will cover the Multiple method in more detail later.
• Constant method will perform a horizontal offset and make the line into a single elevation. Think building pad offset or basement excavation.
• Surface method lets you make a defined slope into an existing surface for a daylight line.
• Intersection method is for making a 3D line at the potential intersection of various slopes and two reference polylines.
• The layer of the newly generated line can be placed on a new layer.

The Multiple command is a strong tool. Here are some details.
• Progressive offsets makes the next change to the last line entered. Unchecked and all changes are made to the reference line.
• There are three slope options available. They are Vertical offset (in feet), Percent (can be positive or negative), and Ratio as the entered number x:1
• While in the command I can make a layer name without going back to the layer manager. The layer color will be white with a solid line but that is easy to change.
• A click on the three dots that are to the far right, will bring up a layer list where I can pick the correct previously entered layer. Any difference to an existing layer entry from spelling or spacing will create a new layer.

With CAD standards it is easy to pick the layer name from the dropdown menu when things are set up well. Always bring a drawing into your established template.

Improving a surface

When the basics are out of the way, you will need to clean up areas that are not performing well. Adding breaklines in Carlson is not as easy as other programs mainly because the surface needs to be remade to see the changes. Not a big deal but real time work is not possible. In this case, I would use tight tolerance contour lines (.1 feet) to see results in plan view before going to 3D view for confirmation.

The process is not difficult, and it is made easier when using SiteNet because layers do not need to be turned off for the surface to be made. I’ll go over this in the video.

When adding additional 3D information to a job there is a slippery slope. Less is more but how do you know? Here are some guidelines.
• First make certain that you need to add not take away. In other words, can you trim a line a bit or delete something for the surface to perform better?
• Always put breaklines on their own layer. Sometimes I won’t include the breaklines in a surface to see if I did too much.
• This is the most time intensive part of a project. To become proficient practice on small sites. Large jobs can have hundreds of “improvements” and many of which are not needed.

Making Surfaces

It is easy to make a surface for a software’s field computers. Carlson has field software but what happens when we build for another brand? We have the best luck with xml surfaces and either dwg or dxf for linework.
Surfaces are easy to make, and there are plenty of options.
• The tabs let you control contours and labeling. You are also able to choose the data types to be used for that surface.
• TIN lines and/or faces can be drawn.
• Slope labels can be added to the screen.
• Boundaries can be drawn in CAD and selected. Carlson can also shrink wrap the surface elements.
• You can model a cliff by changing the reference plane.
• There are some great tools for existing surface production. These tools are useful when you have a big group of contours.

Exporting Data

The following outline is our practice for exporting surfaces.
• We make Carlson TIN files. It is native to the program and is needed for many of the tools.
• We verify the linework is polylines and joined where needed. This is for 2D lines only and that work was done for converting things to 3D, so they do not need to be reviewed.
• We will use a dwg export if the field software is able to convert it, dxf is the second choice and is usually a larger file.
• Xml export is easy to work with, just be sure you have the correct units.

Carlson Software: Under the Hood

Carlson Software: Under the Hood

There are a lot of things to like about a software program. In the case of Carlson, I think it is the blend of old and new. Carlson software is mature and there are commands I am still finding that I either forgot about or never used. I am sure that some commands have been dropped over the years, but users have access to all manner of niche ways to manipulate data.

The Basics

Carlson runs on top of a CAD program, either Autodesk or on free IntelliCad. For many users, the free CAD program is fine. We need power to do things with data and for the money Carlson Civil on Autodesk Civil 3D is the way to go. This gives you the power of Carlson commands and the native software of over 95% of our civil site deliverables.

Anyone who has dealt with Civil 3D files knows the frustration. It is difficult to transform the data into an exportable that will show up, and not blow up non-CAD platforms. I know enough Civil 3D to get things where I need them to be. The ability to work on files with Civil 3D routines and then augment the process with Carlson has been a game changer.


There are modules and suites which are a collection of modules. Carlson offers a standalone 3D Program I like called Precision 3D. This Civil Suite has most of what we use and is a good place to start. It has the Survey, Civil, Hydrology, and GIS Modules.  Their Takeoff Program has an AutoCAD engine built in to get more power. The Takeoff Suite has more modules and runs on IntelliCad or your copy of AutoCAD.

File Structure

Carlson has been around since the DOS days. I’ll wait until some of you look that up. Knowing your file types is critical to doing any work in Carlson. Many of the components of a project become files on their own and you need to be sure they are all in the same folder, it will make access easier later. It takes no work to do this, just do not be alarmed when you see alphabet soup in the folder.

This example has a centerline, point files and a surface. The, somewhat old reason for this is so data does not get lost on a crash. These files were sent off the main program so not to become corrupted. When you work, they are seamlessy integrated into the program so there is no user input necessary beyond choosing what you want to work on.


Carlson and CAD commands look the same. The GUI is similar so you may not be sure who wrote it. There is nothing wrong with it except some users aren’t sure what software they are using. This seamless integration is the reason it works so well. In the video for this offering, I will show you the integration at work.

The command ribbons are separate and Carlson command ribbons may contain CAD commands that enhance the performance of the routine listed in the icon string. The icons in the top are CAD draw commands and below are the commands for Draw in Carlson.

A quick overview shows CAD is focused on different line styles and text. Carlson starts with lines but continues with symbols, sequential numbers various leaders and standards. A right-click on either companies’ menu will bring up selection options. Access is also easily typed in the command line.

Working with CAD

When we get a Civil 3D file, there is always a lot of information that needs to go away to be able to work with as small a file as possible. Bandwidth is not an issue, but we want to strip out what we do not need.

Even the smallest files can pose huge problems. A quick way to go about finding things that need attention is to do a Quick Select and see what native items are present.

Here is a small site that was loaded with objects that will not work well or at all in other software and definitely not the field hardware. We will need to convert, delete, or redraw these objects to make them work the way we want.

As an example, the existing ground for the project was a Civil 3D TIN surface. We needed that in order to do a dirt takeoff after the model was built for the contractor to confirm their numbers. A TIN Surface needs to be changed so the triangles are visable. From that point, you will need to explode the surface triangles which then become a block. Another explode turns them into 3D faces. Easy in execution but the process is not easy if you don’t know Civil 3D well enough.

Carlson has commands for converting Civil 3D entities, I have found it works with mixed results but it is always a good idea to start there. When we get as much as possible converted, we will use Drawing Cleanup to help. Several rounds of this and we are usually good to go.

Job Setup for Data

When making a set of plans, orientation is not critical. Carlson lets us set a project up in a manner that helps with data production. Getting the site georeferenced is not difficult and you can also bring in any number of online maps to facilitate data prep.

We often get footing information in structural drawings. Carlson has a Scale Wizard that will convert US to International, or back, with a click as well as being able to select a distance on the screen to tell the program the length and scale accordingly. This is good for architectural units to decimal feet.


The good thing to remember is CAD is a line driven program. Drawing and manipulation lines is their strong suit. Carlson came along and added survey-centric 3D commands to make CAD a model building and production tool. I find that by using these two is a real advantage. In short, I like CAD for 2D line generation, plotting, and other graphic functions. Carlson has robust 3D commands and I learned to use them before Civil 3D, so I stay there. Others that have learned on Civil 3D like the functionality so that is their platform.

There are several ways to go about making a surface in any software. The developers have created a path to follow so we do not forget anything, but they also allow us to grab some lines and layers and make it. 3D Carlson calls their path SiteNet, it has some features that help newbies as well as us experienced builders make things look good quicker.

The drop down menu is shown here and it has what you need to make surfaces. Check their accuracy and run reports.

The ability to define target layers lets you add and remove layers for a surface. You can also use Set Layer Target that will let you click on a layer and move it to the right spot.

Many of our clients want a report formatted a specific way, the reporting options let you set things so they match the need. This is also true for the screen graphics and colors. The Display Options Command has tabs to set all those parameters in one place to make things easier. There is also an option to save and load settings, we use this for different clients to save time getting layouts correct. It is also easy to share the settings with another engineer.



I have always liked AutoCAD for layers. I can turn them off and on with ease and Carlson has made things even better. I will show this in the video, but I can click on a layer and isolate it. I can return to the previous state easily. Layer groups are an AutoCAD command and the Layer Manager is easy to use and edit.

In this instance, I am editing the Proposed Layer State with the actual Layer Manager Dialog box I am to use. I can make a layer visible or off, frozen or thawed, and lock if I wish. When I have done what I need, just update and the new configuration is saved.

There are also layer lists that get generated in Site Net, but not shown in the CAD command, the two can be used independently. I find I use the CAD layer states for initial work on getting rid of things that I know I will never use, then start placing layers on their targets to start the build.

There are a lot of things that are important when building data regarding layers. I want to see what I need to work with and a look at a layer to keep it or dump it. Color and line type changes are no big deal in CAD. Their DNA is around lines and it is powerful.

3D Aspects

The jump from plan preparation to a model is a big one. Other programs are model based and struggle to plot a set of plans. The gap Carlson filled was to get a great program into three dimensions. The surface tools do a good job of letting one review a surface and prepare it for the field. The elements that make up a surface are easy to prepare or convert. Working on a surface is possible in plan view by Using Viewpoint Settings to tilt and twist the plan view screen to a perspective that helps editing.

Here is a surface that has been tilted so I can make sure the contours are correct in these ponds. Normal editing takes place and gives the user a better look at what the small changes to a curb or swale can make to a model.

Some Thoughts

Data Builders come in two types, those who know Autodesk products and those who do not. Carlson is a no brainer for CAD users, things are easy to learn and you just need to add to your skill set. Non-CAD users will need to learn a lot of commands, but resources are available, especially for AutoCAD education. There is no need to separate your learning. CAD and Carlson are seamless so just jump in and do some work.

Trimble Business Center: Tips and Tricks

Trimble Business Center: Tips and Tricks

When you are learning software, there are two approaches; menu driven and process driven. Software developers write commands so that understanding software revolves around the command(s) that fit the need. My approach is to find the shortest and straightest line to the finish. Processing data, for instance, can take 15 to 30 commands. I want the most direct path to the result. This often varies widely depending on factory or dealer training.

I will highlight some of the commands that I use for data prep that can make things go smoother. This is a good way to verify if you can streamline your process.

CAD Elements

The first thing I like to do is get what I want on the correct layer group. This also brings up the discussion of how to build a surface. Do you take some layers and create a surface, or do you go through categorizing layers to let TBC create the surface? I have had many discussions, regarding this subject. Taking layers to create a surface doesn’t take a lot of additional time, and when the client asks for a takeoff, it becomes a no brainer. My world is mostly solving problems and not production. I will create a quick surface to try an idea or solve an issue. My thought is to play it by the numbers and check off the layers you want to be included in the surface.

To make this easier, I will name the layers what they are and dispense with the engineer’s goofy wording. Just go to the layer manager and type in a new name.

These layer names all now have been changed to CAD Standards. Having the same name used in every file is something everyone should do.

Where are we

At this point I have renamed the layers that have what I want for my model and linework. From there I have categorized them according to the places they need to be. Be assured when I get to this point, the list is dynamic. I will move things in and out of the groups to make things work better. This is where some of you may be thinking this process is not as good as including a few selected layers into a surface. I have done time and motion studies and it becomes a coin toss, but as I stated earlier, it sets you up well for a takeoff and changes to the site as the job progresses.

3D Elements

A surface is composed of three basic things: 2D lines, 3D lines and points. They are linked together to form a TIN, Triangulated Irregular Network. Choosing what goes into the mix is the rub. I want detail but not so much to clog the screen and drive me crazy when the time comes to fix things. In the old days, we used to worry about large surface files. They would slow down machines and make things jumpy. Now the control boxes create page files that are no longer an issue. Data collectors can still be a victim here, so it is wise to be aware of the surface file size.


Love or hate the name, we live and die by linestrings in TBC. When creating lines for a surface, I want to make sure all the lines I am dealing with are linestrings. Luckily, there is a TML (Transport Mapping Layer) for that, and you need to use it for the layers that are going to be a part of a surface.

Use the details that can be added to a linestring to make it stand out. Go beyond the layer name. You can see here I have named the lines that will be my islands. They reside on the edge of pavement layer, but I can select them by name if I want to do something with them later. Line style is a bit of a problem. TBC is not good with handling a lot of different line styles, so we default to “show all lines as solid” in the icons at the bottom of the screen.

I will sometimes delete the layers that I do not need or change their line type to solid to make graphics happy. One of the major threads you see in this is the adaptation of the files and work you do to create the outcome you need. Therein lies the difference in training styles – I need to get this out the door, not explore the merits of the new useless command.

Linestring Tips

Here are some tips that make things easier with linestrings.

  • Right click is your friend. Go into the coordinate box of edit a linestring and right click. A lot of options for COGO (Coordinate Geometry) come up.
  • You can do math inside an instruction. In this example I did a bearing/distance segment. The bearing is entered but I need to add two distances. I am lazy so I just do the addition in the command line:
  • Arcs are easy to do with a lot of options including smooth curves and best fit arcs. There are also detailed COGO routines for curve functions that require exact information. The quick arc to clean up an area is a big help.
  • The Browse feature lets you look at the history of a line and drill down to fix issues.
  • Linestrings have two separate and editable attributes, horizontal and vertical. You can change the way a line looks on the screen and keep the vertical elevation points you held when entering them from the plans.
  • Elevations do not need to be numbers. You can use deltas or percent slope.
  • The toggle segments button in edit linestring will make everything smooth curves.

Point Density for Surfaces

When I build a surface, I like to enter the least amount of information possible. Here is a typical scenario:

  • Enter elevations of contours to get things started.
  • Elevate curb points to match the plans.
  • Add points that look like they are necessary.

At this stage of the game, we have the minimal information to build a surface. Note that the arcs have become segmented because an arc cannot be elevated. This creates a mess, but I want you to see the process of building a surface.


Here we see the straight line that crosses the arc for the curb line. I have adjusted the settings to not create breaklines in the arc, but I see the elevations and can verify I am not out of tolerance anywhere.

When I am satisfied with the basics, I will let the program do two things.

  1. Add breaklines to the arcs and clean up the curves.
  2. Insert points along straight segments at the interval I want. For small sites I will go out to 10 feet. As the area gets bigger, I will set it to 20 feet as to not choke the controller.

These changes can be made on the fly and adjusted for results. You will find them in Settings/Surface/Computations.

These are the settings I will use for this project. A half a tenth on horizontal and vertical node placement and no more than 10 feet between points along a straight line.

Here is that previous train wreck fixed with updated settings.

I do not always swing point placement settings this far out when building a model. There are times when you want to see the information you inserted and see where the problems are. The fact is that any interpolation of the elevations is a direct result of what you did in the first place so the errors can be fixed because you did them. Go back to the part that does not look good and get it correct.

The big thing to remember here is the linestring that needs fixing only has the elevation points you entered so the repair is easier.

If you look at the elevations called out on this image there are just two typed elevations with interpolated points between. You can also approach a surface this way. When there is a lot going on, this can get quite busy with elevations and make it hard to see and fix.

Surface Tools

I love when I first get a surface made. Often, things are looking good but there is always room for improvement. Here are a couple things I do to check quality.


I can use contours to get a rough idea of how things look. To really get detailed, I will make the interval a tenth of a foot. No need for multiple colors, labels, or layers. You can get a good idea where to focus your energy for repairs. The image above shows a clean movement of water in this intersection. It took some work to get there and it paid off. The paving will look nice and it will move to drain correctly. Always go back to one-foot intervals after you are done for a basic sanity check. Don’t be alarmed if your contours do not match the plans exactly. Any tweaking you have done will alter the location of the one-foot lines.


A breakline is nothing special. It is just another name for a 3D line. We call them that because during the days of point surveys we forced a break along a line in the surface, usually at the top and toe of slopes. The name stuck and now they are used to improve a surface’s performance.

I like to use the plan and 3D views to get instant feedback. Make sure the surface rebuild method is set to auto. You will get a chance to try different ideas. As you do more of this there will be clear winning ideas for breakline placement. Pay attention to your process to reduce lines that do not help.



3D Data: Looking Beyond Machine Control

3D Data: Looking Beyond Machine Control

From our previous post, “3D Data: More Than Machine Control

For many years, our business has been centered on the production of 3D data for machine control. This is the low hanging fruit of a civil site. High dollar paving, building pads, and retentions are easier to do and higher quality with machine control. Fast forward to current times.

Many civil sites are being completed with machine control. The use of machine control on the job site has become a reality, to the point that contractors have started to look beyond their current use and possibilities. As many of you know, I have long been a proponent of leveraging data for a job site. I have worked with many of our clients on how to better use the data they have in their hands and drastically improve production and profits.

I will go over several ideas that are good next steps for users of 3D site data. They are in no particular order of profitability. Any site may or may not be able to use these processes. Not to worry, I will back up the explanations with a video to better explain these ideas.

2D and 3D Points

Considered the domain of survey, a point has specific and relative information. I’ll use points for laying out a curb arc as an example. 3D points for the PC and PT of a curb arc give us the location and elevations of that curb run. We know the slope between the points and paving elevation is an easy calculation. Next, we add the arc center as a 2D point. Now there is a pivot to swing an arc for form or string line layout. Increasing the power of points, we offset the curb line to allow the field to set string line for a curb machine.

Site Layout

Using earth moving equipment to get the dirt right is a huge time saver. We also advocate the use of positioning technology for more than grading.


It started with light pole bases and quickly escalated from there. We now regularly provide data as 2D or 3D points for the following.

  • SES pads. The job has been checked so we are good with drainage and elevations on the site. The electrical service slab is easy to calculate from available regulations.
  • Common area in-ground power. Many plaza shopping centers have electrical connections for decorations and kiosks. Knowing the 3D location of the connections allows electricians to easily set them right the first time.
  • Common area hardscape. Everything from playground equipment to benches, these additions need some type of base and connection. It is best to know what can be accomplished while access is easy and save re-digging to set later.


We have been providing utility layout for years. We show points 10 feet apart on the flowline for pipe with horizontal offsets if needed. Structures are marked as well. The advent of successful machine control for excavators has allowed us to provide a trench network so the operator can dig trenches correctly the first time.

Other utility details that can benefit from information provided in the data are:

  • FES’s, wing walls and valley gutters. These concrete structures are better done in rough grade, but many contractors wait until near the end of construction and field fit. With a correctly prepared model there is enough confidence to build these when it’s convenient to the crew.
  • Water lines are usually specified as a minimum depth below finish grade. We build the line in the data so crews can place it at any time and not make a mess of the just completed grading with required wheel trenching.
  • Subdivisions have utility connections for each lot which we handle one of two ways.
    • We can layout all the laterals and they are placed according to plan. When it’s time to make the connection, the rover is used to find the location of the pipe.
    • When the utilities are not well defined or connections have to move, as-built shots are taken and we update the model for easy use in the future.


Taking shots along the way provide an ongoing record of what is being done. This helps to establish production rates as well as the basis for future submittal drawings. Here is one way to bring this into your workflow.

  • I call this the “daily topo walk around.” While reviewing the work being done on a site, the superintendent has a rover and takes ground topo shots as well as items being put in the ground. In a perfect world, points would be coded but that is not critical.
  • We often are asked to convert the walk around topos into as-builts or progress takeoffs. With the model on the screen overlaid to the topo points, we can usually figure out what the shots represent.
  • Utilities are the biggest winner with as-built points. Before covering, if the top of pipe is measured, those are later converted to as-built drawings we put together for closing submittals. Many contractors have an issue with this, and we get it. It’s one thing to get the points but now the office needs to do full blown CAD drafting and plotting.

I will help to tie these ideas together in a video linked HERE. Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have regarding these or other issues.

Update May 2020

All the things I discussed above pale in comparison to the big picture of data we strive for. All these elements are time savers and money makers, but they lead to the overarching point that data must be moved efficiently and used by everyone to be successful.

Let me follow some enhanced data through the process so you can see what needs to happen. In this example, I will work with the installation of a deceleration lane and entry to a commercial site.


  • Plans are reviewed and data built to existing grades shown on the plans.
  • Model works well with the information we have.
  • I note the entry and ask the field to get measurements of the paving at the sawcut line.


  • Site is set up and work starts.
  • When appropriate, the field shoots paving elevations for the entry.
  • The field notices the elevations are not matching with what they have on their model. The road is higher than what the model says it is supposed to be.
  • Shots are sent to the office.


  • I take the shots from the field and compare to the plan version of the existing conditions.
  • I make the adjustments to the surface and entry elevations to line up with what is there. I do not want to design the entry, but I want to present a solution to the engineer if possible. Never ask a question you do not know the answer to.
  • Information is sent to the engineer for collaboration.
  • Engineer approves the changes. Always make sure you get this in writing such as email. Phone approvals will come back to bite you, don’t ask how I know.
  • Model is updated and sent to the field.

As I have outlined here, the depth of 3D data is realized only when it is shared and leveraged by all parties. Share the information with engineers and surveyors to improve the quality and speed of the project. Everybody wins when you give out good data.

UPDATE: Chasing Perfection on Civil Sites

UPDATE: Chasing Perfection on Civil Sites

Our previous article on chasing perfection on civil sites covered the balance between a perfect model on screen and a well-priced practical job that performs well. In this article, we further explain the details that we touched on as well as additional tips to use to make a job run smoother.

If you take the approach of creating a ton of data for a jobsite, it takes too much time and will confuse a field user that may not be aware of the enhancements made to their job. Some of our clients have used the following ideas at one time or another but not all of them at once. Another consideration is phasing and machine type.

There are two important things to consider before deciding to use information above a basic model; the benefit of the data in the field and the cost to produce it. Also confirm the desire and ability of field crews to wisely spend that additional work and money. Regarding enhanced data, I can work with two different crews from the same company and get buy in from only one. Culture sometimes is not companywide. You need a champion to grab a new idea and leverage it for real success.


We need to establish a point of departure for my ideas. At the bare minimum, you should present to the field a correct finished surface model showing areas that are going to be worked with a blade. Nothing fancy, but a faithful representation of the intent of the job. I use the word intent with an explanation. It is the intention of all involved to have a good looking well performing site. If the plans don’t reflect it, you are the last line of sanity before something incorrect gets put in the ground.

This basic model is what most companies who do in-house data provide. Office staff are just too fractured to spend too much time on any one job. I know, I’ve been there. When field crews get comfortable with a basic model, they usually want more information to boost productivity.

We will increase data information with a new user as their comfort level increases. The real trick is providing what makes the most impact for boosting productivity.


I like to produce the most bang for our client’s buck, and the following concepts can get you there. I will go through these concepts in a video as well. A few minutes of screen time can say a lot.


Lines can be either 2D or 3D. Adding the third dimension may work okay for some data collectors but not machines. A 2D line with a surface reference beneath it seems to work in most cases. This will save on data prep time. The exception to this would be for a curb alignment in a parking lot. The top of a curb is only six (6) inches wide; to the inside of the line the elevation drops quickly to the gutter. We will often provide a top back of curb elevation surface that’s three (3) feet wide so the elevation is easy to find.


This broad term represents anything you might usually stake but want to reference at any time.

  • Start with the building pad blowup lines and a surface to the extents. We often provide foundation footing trench information. This is usually bottom of footing with vertical steps and varying widths. Pad footing locations and grid layout lines help with larger projects.
  • I’ll cover utilities in a separate blog post. There’s too much to list here. As a useful improvement to have on a machine or data collector, utilities are high on the list. 2D water, gas, and electric go a long way in helping the field team plan their trenching. Sloped pipe utilities are best laid out in 3D for improved production. Structures are often a mix of 2D and 3D information. More on that in the video.


I often get into lively conversations regarding subgrades. There are only two choices when it comes to cutting a subgrade; provide a surface file or dial down. We usually try to provide just a finished surface file for several reasons:

  • Building additional surfaces cost money.
  • When you dial down in a machine and offset a subgrade behind the back of curb the machine does a better job than data prep software. Let me explain here and in the video. Parking lots have variable cross slopes, often changing quickly and greatly. A horizontal offset in a machine correctly projects the slope. It is not easy to do this properly in the office.

Many data collectors and machines show the vertical offset on the screen, so you know when you are off finished grade. We also like finished surface files because they match the plans. This makes it easier to check grades against the plans without the potential for bad math.


With hardscape there are a lot more things you are either responsible for or can just help to move along. When it comes to hardscape items, GPS can help with grading and the initial ground setup. We will usually include layout items that are 2D but beneficial.

  • Streetlights: Parking lot lights can be laid out early so underground electrical can go in.
  • Parking Lots: We provide layout for parking lot striping and special marking. This helps the striping to move along quickly.
  • Playground Equipment: Layout is critical. Setting bases and foundations with technology is a time saver.


Turn lanes are often built during a civil site improvement. When plans were prepared, the topo shows existing pavement elevations. Usually these are not correct as the topo is old or the lane was not shut down and the spots were estimated. Here is how we correct this:

  • The contractor will get quality spot elevations at 10 feet along the proposed saw cut line.
  • We bring the information into the model.
  • Proposed changes are made in the model and sent to the contractor for submittal.
  • Approved updates are sent to the field for work.


As we become more reliant on electronic data and placing dirt with technology, the idea of enhanced data might be considered standard by many. I will now go over some new and exciting offerings for data. Many of these suggestions are responses to questions that I’ve received. I appreciate the feedback and enjoy the interaction.

One of the biggest advancements we have enjoyed is the use and accessibility of drones and LIDAR. With an easier way to acquire current ground information, we now need to know the best way to work with it. Here are some tips and processes that will help.

The biggest issue we see with using alternate collection methods is platform compatibility. The LIDAR or drone shots do not match when compared in the office. Here is a process to try.


  • Use the same control for scanner setup as you did for localization. You will need to bring in control quality points to the site and set up the machine over them. Might be best for your surveyor to add the points.
  • When scanning, take some long occupation topo shots of the area being worked to compare at the office later
  • TBC has a command called Points to Surface. Use it to see how things look.
  • Usually there are greater vertical errors at the edges of scans, perform closer occupations to stop this.
  • Never do an adjustment of a scan or tweak the data vertically. Go out and do it again the right way.
  • Realize that sometimes LIDAR is not the tool and either use a drone or manually topo.


  • Control is critical here. Make sure ground targets are survey grade and reuse the same locations on each flight. You need to pick target areas that will not be greatly disturbed during construction.
  • Regarding light, flight time is important. Fly in the same sun angle every time, and as high as possible.
  • Process the data the same every time. If you send it out, this may be harder but set the same options for each flight.
  • Run the Points to Surface command in TBC. Carlson has the same type of command as well.
  • Look for areas that are not in tolerance. Do not adjust anything; just go fly again tomorrow.

These tools are now affordable and easier to use than ever. Your use of the surfaces created and enhanced data will improve efficiency and profitability.



Trimble Business Center: The Details

Trimble Business Center: The Details

Being a non-CAD program, the developers of Trimble Business Center were able to create something entirely new and change things they did not like about CAD, (things none of us like about CAD) with a fresh approach to data creation and manipulation. The roots of CAD have always been the creation of a 2D set of plans. The 3D first approach has become an advantage for TBC. Below are the things that make it function.

The Interface

Many of us CAD users are familiar with pull down and flyout menus. Trimble Business Center uses icons. Sometimes I forget where the command I want is, but you can bring up the command pane using F12 or find the icon in the ribbon bar where the command name and icon are listed. Here is a quick view of some of the commands you will find. As more are added, it is good to scroll through to see what you may be missing. When you want to be a real geek like me, run through all the commands and run them for practice. Updates happen without notice and become more user-friendly all the time.


When I want to streamline the data process, a well-written command will make life easier. However, automation of a process comes with a price and sometimes you get results you do not want. When trying something new or potentially harmful, do a save and give it a try. Trimble likes to build a left to right icon structure to streamline processes. My last article discussed this and the option of custom command ribbons. I will not repeat it here so check it out.

Enter Rockpile Solutions

The development team fixes bugs and creates new commands according to requests from users and for general improvement. Trimble released the language for creating macros and now anyone with a good understanding of programming languages can create their own. TML (Trimble Macro Language) will lead to new commands by savvy users but more importantly it has spawned a host of independent programmers that are doing it for us. Rockpile Solutions is one of those and certainly the strongest. Alan Sharpe formerly of Trimble is now at this company. They have a good relationship with Trimble so communication will eliminate duplication in effort. Some have stated they feel development will stall due to someone else doing the work. This is not the case with TBC’s development. The team at Trimble has a long list of advancements for an already mature platform. Do not be apprehensive but rather expect great things.

I like the fact that I can use one platform for everything from data to point clouds. The list of modules is extensive and now with the combination of geospatial and construction the depth is incredible. You may never need the full power of the program, but I cannot count how many times I needed to solve an issue and had the horsepower to do it quickly. This very thought is what should motivate you to scroll through the available commands to see what you are able to do.

Data Prep Components

All surfaces are made from 2D lines, 3D lines, and points. We need to get a CAD file useable from what was sent to us and get those three elements out the door and into the field. This starts with cleaning the project to make it perform well in the program. Project Cleanup can assist in getting things ready for data builds.

The forums have been buzzing with activity regarding Civil 3D files and TBC. The best way to get files from Civil 3D to TBC is to have C3D. The format is updated every three years and objects are best dealt with in native programs. Yes, it gets expensive but so does not having all the information you need. Autodesk makes a lot of proprietary formats, as does Trimble. That is the best way to get the functionality you need within the confines of your program and development.

There are a lot of tools in Project Cleanup that will help with CAD files that have the AECC objects converted to CAD objects. If you do not have the file in that configuration, there will be less information on the screen to work with.

The selections are self-explanatory. I will sometimes try a few different settings and undo the last file cleanup. In other words, I will uncheck some items that made a bigger mess than they fixed. Try various settings on your imports to get a feel for what you are looking at and why it may have gone sideways.

Now that we have a decent bunch of lines to work with, let us elevate things.

The Linestring

Any line that will be elevated or left 2D should become a linestring. CAD polylines can be used for 2D objects but make 3D items linestrings. There is a TML that does this, so it is easy. The reason for the linestring is the ability to manipulate it in a predictable manner. There are two separate sets of instructions that can be applied, horizontal and vertical. This takes a bit of getting used to but there are advantages.

A right-click on a linestring brings up a lot of options. I will open the Edit command and discuss the details of the object. The most important thing to note are the Horizontal and Vertical tabs. Here is how to view these tabs.

  • Horizontal change to a line will affect the Coordinate Geometry, (COGO) changing what you see on the plan view of the object. Straight segments and curves are made and changed here.
  • The Vertical tab affects the elevation of the line anywhere along the horizontal instructions.
  • Elevations can be changed in the middle of a long straight line in a place where there is no horizontal instruction. This gives you great flexibility.
  • There are other editing features for adding and removing segments and instructions.
  • You can also bring up a profile view to watch your vertical work in real time.

It takes a bit of time to work out a process here because there are many tools to choose from and learn their capabilities. Here is my method.

  1. Get the line connected and any loops removed. Sometimes I must follow the line with the cursor to verify this.
  2. Once I have a 2D line to work with, I make sure the color is good and it is on the right layer. I will often do the first round of work on the native CAD layer then move it to a 3D data layer. When I turn off the data layer, I find a lot of lines in the same location that could make a mess. It is not good to always rename an entire layer to a 3D layer; you may want to migrate individual lines.
  3. I now add the vertical component. I mentioned the profile view to aid in real time review. I will give the line a single elevation that is close to the middle height of what I am doing, this avoids the balance of a line at zero with your current work a lot higher. Set elevations with CAD text and/or the pdf under the linework.
  4. I will perform a review of this process in a video to help you better understand.

2D Lines

In the following point I am referencing contours that need to be included in a surface. They are at a single elevation making them 3D but we call them 2D. I have learned to live with it. TBC has some great tools for converting zero elevation lines to contours and they are easy to use. I try to get everything elevated then start breaking lines and deleting segments I do not need for a surface. This process seems to work best.


Many do not use points as much as they should. Points are easy to create and a big help when you want an exact place at a particular elevation. Here are the obvious and lesser known uses for points.

  • Center of rims for storm inlets
  • Top of covers for water and sanitary
  • Corners of wing walls, SES pads, and handicap ramps
  • Corners and direction change for pads and blowups
  • Points along flowline of storm and sanitary to aid in digging trenches
  • Striping layout
  • Light poles and common area equipment like benches and play structures
  • PC, PT and radius points for curb layout

Do not forget point collection in the field to return to the office for processing and storage.

  • Daily as-built shots for all phases of work
  • Utility lines and structure shots
  • Long occupation shots of the saw cut and connections for drive entries and deceleration lanes
  • Quick topo of retention areas to verify volume calculations

When combined, the three key items (2D lines, 3D lines, and points) become a surface for a takeoff or field data. Make sure each item is a separate task and are correct individually before combining to make a surface. It will relieve the process of errors.