Working with Seldom Used Commands

Working with Seldom Used Commands

One of my superpowers, (maybe my only one) is the ability to find and know how to use obscure commands. I have an advantage in that I am constantly helping engineers on various projects. They may want to streamline a process or be stumped on how to get through an issue. Having a variety of projects to work on keeps me in front of new commands as well as old favorites.

You never really get to know all the commands in a program, few of us DO everything a software program is capable of. An issue presents itself when you’re required to step outside your daily routine. This can involve a process you barely learned about in training, requiring you to do something difficult, just to forget it until you need to perform the process again.

How do you find a command you never use and do just enough to get the process done and back to work? I will go through how I locate and proficiently use those seldom used commands.

For this offering, I will be looking through Carlson Software on AutoCAD Civil 3D. The program is mature and there are a lot of commands that are deep in menus or even only accessible by command line. Trimble Business Center, being a bit newer, isn’t as complex. The fact that it is module based will limit your access to commands outside your normal routine. The challenge comes when you take on new responsibilities, add modules and start hopping back and forth.

Identify Commands

How many times have you encountered an issue that could be solved with a command you used two years ago? You forget the name and don’t really want to go through the entire command list to find it. I suggest this approach. When you need to find a command, take a step back and put yourself in learning mode. If you try and grab and go with a command, you may not get it right and the next time you need it, the process begins again.

To make sure this never happens, do some work to make things easier the next time. There is a way in Carlson to make points at the intersections of lines. I will dig until I find it but to save time, I will make a “command sheet.” I’ve listed the items I put on the sheet below. They can all go into a Word document so you can search command words to make things easier. As I go through the process for getting familiar with a command, you can choose the elements you want to put into your version of a command sheet.

  • Command Name
    • Name the software uses for the command.
    • Add keywords to describe what it does and how to apply it.
    • Prior and possible uses for the command.
      • Tip: When you are in learning mode, watch how others are using the command.
    • Command Location
      • Both menu and command line descriptions.
      • A walk through of how the command works. Add screen shots as well as dialog to make it clear. Remember, you will not look at this for months, in addition, it will be shared with others in the office, and it needs to be self-explanatory. I sure do not want to field a call about a command I do not know well.

For this example, I will drill down into a Carlson command.

Command Name: Create Points from Entities

Keywords: Points, create points, points from lines, intersections, radius points, extra points

Location: Survey Menu> COGO> Create Points from Entities. Command Line: AUTOPNTS

With these basics I can go back and search my document to locate the command for future use. At this point, I want to work with the command to get familiar with it so I can do some documentation.

Dialog Box Notes

  • Verify symbol and layer for draw points.
  • Always separate attribute layers to keep screen cleaner.
  • Check points elevated by the surface.
  • Always locate on Z axis.
  • Do automatic point numbering, try, and use alpha-numeric for clarification in the model.
  • Point order can be left to right or start at the top or bottom.
  • Description settings if needed.

With these parameters listed and noted, you will save time the next time you use the command and get things looking the way you want. Here is the dialog box with the desired information and appropriate settings. These are 2D points so they will not be located in 3D. Once the dialog box is populated the way you want, you can move to the next.

The dialog box can get you into trouble. Any time you are using a command, be sure to save the project first before shutting down the program. The reason is it can cause issues like you may get points where you do not need them as well as way too many points. The points in Carlson go to a coordinate file and would need to be removed even if you close or undo the command. Proceed with care.

Consider accessing the help files as they can actually have useful information. Here is part of the Help instructions for this command.

This command will create Carlson points on selected entities. The points are stored in the current coordinate (.CRD) file and drawn on the screen. For arcs and polylines with arc segments, points are created at the radius points of the arcs as well as the PC and PT.

In the first options dialog, there are settings for the point attributes. To have points obtain their elevation from the selected entities, unselect the Prompt for Elevations toggle and select the Locate on Real Z Axis toggle. After you have specified the point options, a secondary dialog appears which allows you to specify the entity types to process. The Point Order setting controls the sequence of the new point numbers to be in the order of selection or in a direction like left to right. Under the Description Settings, Prompt for Description At Each Point will prompt you at the command line for a description for each individual point. Prompt Per Entity will ask you for a description per each highlighted entity. Use Entity Layer for Description will assign the layer name to the description. When Entity Layer for Description is checked, the layer name of the entity will be used as the description for the created point. Same Description For All Points will prompt you for a single description for all points. The Use Text as Description applies to points from Text entities where the description is set to the text string. The Use Block Name as Description applies to points from Insert entities and the program sets the point description to the block name.

The second options dialog has processing settings. When Avoid Duplicates with Existing Pts is checked, this routine will not create a point if a point with the same coordinates already exists in the current coordinate (.CRD) file. The Draw New Points option creates point entities in the drawing. Otherwise, the new points are only stored to the coordinate file. The Draw Existing Matched Points option applies to the Avoid Duplicates option for the case when a duplicate is found in the coordinate file and not yet drawn.

That is a lot of information that will come in handy. I will also usually copy and paste the help dialog into my command sheet if nothing else to have more searchable words. I also save the file as a pdf and use Bluebeam to search; it does a great job and notes where the text is as well as words around it for context.

Other Considerations for Seldom Used Commands

  • This is to be shared with others in your group. I suggest creating a document intended to be shared by everyone.
  • Do not use this as a substitute for training. This is more of an advanced search tool with written reminders of a command you learned how to use some time ago. I see too many mistakes when a command is executed, and problems arise when something goes wrong, and the operator does not understand.
  • Many of these commands can be used for another purpose than intended. This Create Points From Entities command can be used to create layout points for staking curbs and buildings. Most people use it to densify a model or elevate point cloud data with local feature lines now correctly elevated.
  • The keyword section can contain random entries that can bring the command back to memory. For example, I have an entry “command C Lawson showed me at dinner.” When the file gets over 100 commands, you sometimes need to stretch the box.

Stumped on a project? Need extra hands to stay on schedule? We can help! Contact us and find out about how our expert engineers can assist you on your next takeoff or modeling project today!

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.



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 quantity 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.

Trimble Business Center: Under the Hood

Trimble Business Center: Under the Hood

As a user of most modern data platforms, I can easily use Trimble Business Center(TBC) to do most anything with ease. Being a non-AutoCAD program, the commands are different from CAD but achieve the same results. More on that later. First, I would like to discuss the advantages of the program as well as some of the tricks and tips I have learned along the way.

The Interface

As TBC matured, features and options have become easily available. The noun/verb selection and right click access have proven to be powerful.

Here is a list of options from a linestring right click:

  • Selection Explorer can help to group frequently selected items. It reduces the risk of not getting everything you need or too much.
  • Line Commands include Edit, Break Lines, Join Lines and Offset Line. They give immediate access to fixing issues related to the line(s) selected.
  • Variable Offset Line allows multiple instructions to a line and results new offsets. Think of a paving edge that can be made to form bottom and top of curb in one operation.
  • Add/Remove Surface Members is a way to take things in and out of a surface. I use this a lot for testing potential breaklines in problem areas.
  • Media Files are used to refer to an image of a point shot or relevant information that goes deeper than a line or node can.
  • Profile Viewer brings up a quick 3D of what the linestring is doing. It’s great for troubleshooting curb grades in a parking lot.

More Power

Trimble has reset icons to promote a left to right progression for a job. Countless others have created special toolbars and icon groups to deal with not missing a step. For years, I have had to work with clients that do not have a custom setup. I think it is unnecessary to go through these steps. Learn the commands and know their location and you will get what you need. Not every job needs all the commands. I see no big rush for producing these parlor tricks. My other issue is that commands are added and changed.

With my dismissal of workflow organization, how should you go about accomplishing a job? I think every job is different. Yes, there are threads that connect all work. 2D, 3D lines and points make up a TIN. The issue is getting there. CAD files come in different flavors and I may need to run down the rabbit hole in order to get a good-looking file to work with. Once I get things cleaned up, I can finish the data prep with the usual laundry list.

Biggest Advantage

I’m going to show this in a video, but the biggest advantage of TBC is the ability to try a breakline or surface change and update the model to see how things look. I have used a lot of different software and this has been a big game changer for the platform. Use it and leverage the power. This is a screenshot of the two windows open at the same time. Here the plan view and the 3D view show the new breakline and its effects on the surface. You can explore different results until you get what you want.

Interactive surface changes are a double edged sword. With power comes responsibility. Don’t get too cute – you might be messing with something the grader will blow through in a second. With that being said, when you need to get things changed in a hurry, accessing the 3D and plan view at the same time is important. The Surface Regeneration is usually set to auto. With big surfaces change that to “by user” to make a bunch of changes then regenerate the surface. You will save time and be able to see changes to an entire area without waiting for things to update.

The other thing I will do is add a bunch of breaklines to a job in plan view then use the Surface Members command to add or remove surface members to see what the lines are doing. Once you know what a breakline will do, remove some of them to reduce TIN density and make things cleaner.

File Transfer

The “get the file to the machine” process has always been a pain to me. Work orders and the rest are a lot of work but often necessary. I choose to do work orders when necessary for file creation. Meaning if I can make it in TBC commands, I will skip the process. With Earthworks, the process can get easier but it is still procedural.

With connected machines the work can get processed easily. We usually email files to the client’s office and they push them to the field as needed. Be careful with sending a lot of files out to operators. If you need to send one file a day, the file probably needs more work. The workers won’t know if what was done yesterday will be wrong today. An example would be a strip of pads in a subdivision. Somebody somewhere decided to raise that strip of pads by a couple of tenths. The grade checker goes out to verify the work done by the blade and finds things off. Make sure to document changes that affect the different types of work on the job with each new iteration. I use bullets and break out each trade, so you only need to pay attention to your work. Always use dates. Here is an example:

Site Changes 050120


  • Storm connection in NW corner has been updated to reflect surveyed elevations.
  • Waterline location changes in playground area.


  • Model now reflects 2 foot back of curb blowup for curb machine.
  • NE retention has been redesigned.
  • Lot berms have been added where required.

This information will make things in the field flow easier. It takes a few minutes in the office but makes the work in the dirt that much better. I am a big proponent of making things as easy as possible for the field. I came from there and it is a pain to type information for the rest of the crews on a small keyboard in the rain.

Layer Groups

AutoCAD users have always had an easy layer solution. TBC has made things better with easy layer group selection and sorting. When you want to move a layer to a group, highlight it in the View Filter Manager and right click to bring up the menu. Go to layer manager and change the group. I’ll go over this in the video but it’s a big deal to be able to grab the layer you want and switch layers around with this level of ease.

More Layer Tips

In the Layer Manager Box you can do even more things to make your life easier.

  • Rename the Layer to something you use in your CAD standards.
  • Change the color.
  • People often ignore line style. This is a good way to see what’s on a layer. Be sure to uncheck the Show all Lines as Solid in the bottom tool bar. Things can get slow panning and zooming when this setting is off so be careful with big files.
  • Line weight is a good way to highlight a layer to see what you have.
  • Protect keeps the layer from being deleted. This is useful when you get a template file set up and may not have populated one of your named layers. When you go to delete all unused layers, it will prevent these from deletion.
  • Display Priority keeps the layer in front or back when it overlaps a crossing line. I don’t use this much but it does help with dense CAD files.
  • Turn Layer printing on or off.
  • Delete a layer that is not protected and is empty.


We all have our routine upon reviewing a model done by someone else. The flags pane is one way to get a good snapshot of surface quality in TBC. The issue may be a mess or nothing depending on settings. Let’s look at what I mean.

Within the Project Settings/Computations/Surface is the Minimum Warning Distance setting. This is the factory setting of 7-thousandths of a foot. This means a flag will be thrown if two crossing 3D lines are outside that tolerance. That means a lot of jobs will have flags. Maybe dumb down the amount. I’ll leave the exact number to you and if you get it around a couple hundredths, you will be on track.

Yes, everybody builds perfect models. I do not have time to chase non-essential data down a rabbit hole to reduce the number of flags. Build a good surface, set a reasonable tolerance and chase those flags. You can then dial up the difficulty and see what you have. Don’t despair. Some jobs will have none no matter how tight you go. Enjoy the moment. Other jobs will need a ton of work to get right at high numbers. Choose your battles.

Using XML in Civil Construction

Using XML in Civil Construction

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is used throughout various coding and language platforms. In our field it’s used to produce and transfer data types for data prep and site construction. There are two versions of XML (1.0 and 1.1), and both will import into the current software used by civil professionals.


The basic format for XML was a good starting point for different industries. Autodesk started the widespread use of XML and import/export ability was added to more software as the code matured. Most development by commercial software vendors began to drop off after version 1.0 released in 2002. Version 1.1 is capable of additional and enhanced data but never got the desired traction.

Enter Carlson

Carlson Software of Maysville, Kentucky picked up the LandXML development process and produced version 2.0. The addition of textures and advanced data types was a good idea, but support from other platforms is lagging. I don’t think much more will happen as 2.0 was in draft as of 2014.

This image is an import of a LandXML file imported into Carlson’s Precision 3D. It includes textures, polylines and field-to-finish data such as the light poles seen along the road.

If this file were imported into another CAD program not supporting 2.0, the data would be limited to surface elements. In other words, a TIN surface with faces and breaklines would be generated without any additional data.

Understanding XML

XML documents, in a basic discussion, are made up of markup and content. We also need to look at the header section of an XML document, as it contains information we may need.

The XML Header

Importing a file into your software is usually not a big issue. Bringing in CAD and point files is routine. An XML import should be no different. Where there could be an issue is with the XML units and how they are interpreted by the software. Let’s look at an XML header.

  • We know the time and date the file was last saved
  • This is a version 2.0 file. Software that only reads 1.2 will still import information, just not all.
  • Know which units were used in the file. Know your software, some will not alert you of a unit mismatch. An example is provided in the corresponding video.
  • We have our first look at a tag with the unit(s) callout.

Markup and Content

Markup begins with < and ends with >. Between those constraints lies the content. It also encloses tags which can have content following. Anything that is not markup is content. That rule is not absolute but for civil XML files this will be what we see for the most part.

If we drill down in this section we see a surface named All Roads and Drives.  A Boundary will be created using the PntList3D points. Note the points are not comma delimited. They are Northing, Easting, and Elevation in a continous string seperated by a space.

In the next example, the screen shot calls out several boundaries and the connected points to make them. The boundaries are individual markup callouts because each 3D line encloses a different street. This will start and stop line generation for each street.

Here is a 3D view of drawn smaller boundaries. This also allows the closed line to be used in texture rendering and vertical adjustments.

In this file the surfaces that make up the roads are shown after the boundaries are written. The markup and content give you the type and ID of the TIN edge verticies as points. When the points are brought into the file, the TIN edges need to be called out so they form correctly. Shown are the end of the TIN points and the beginning of the point numbers that form the faces of the TIN.

The production of the TIN faces, (edges) continues to the end of the file.

Here are some things you will want to find out before importing an XML file. Be sure to make a copy of your file so edits can be undone if need be.

  • Most critical to review are the units. U.S. and International feet can cause problems. Note that International feet will be called “foot.”
  • Determine the software that produced the XML. This can come in handy. It doesn’t happen often, but files produced by different platforms don’t always import properly.
  • The XML file may contain coordinate system information letting you know how the job was set up.

  • Sometimes you may not want all the information provided in the file. You can clip out the tags and related elements you don’t want to import. I agree that all you need to do is delete the unwanted element. However, that unwanted element could be a huge surface or something that stops the file import and shuts down before the elements you want get put on the screen.
  • The original project name is often times included as a tag. This can help you verify dates and times to confirm you are working with the latest and greatest.

Why Use XML

The ease of producing, sharing, and importing XML files has made them the format of choice for data transfer. Large scan and photogrammetry surfaces can be easily digested by smaller office computers as opposed to point cloud formats.

With this ease, many people are transferring data in this format. I have outlined some steps for users to make file sharing easier. The knowledge gained by reviewing the raw XML in a viewer cannot be over emphasized. Take some time to look at files that have worked for you in addition to those that gave you issues.

When you get to know what’s in a file by reviewing it, your confidence will increase as well as the ability to verify sources and validity of files. Work with some files and contact me with any questions or issues you have.

Update – September 2020

Recent questions have come up regarding problems with transferring data files. Here are some tips to those issues.


  • Be careful what you choose to export. I have seen exports become clogged and fail because there are too many different types of data in a file.
  • Old software may be limited to version 1.0 and not read 1.1
  • If you have issues with a file working for you and not the recipient, try zipping the file. For some reason, mail handlers and virus programs have tainted files. This is rare but if you get frustrated, try it.


  • Never drag and drop an XML file on a program screen. Use the import function. There may be settings you are missing in bypassing the command.
  • No need to learn programming. But if you have a file that will not import, open it in a text viewer to see if the header looks corrupted. Compare to the examples given in this article.
  • Know what type of surface you are receiving. Most surfaces are comprised of TIN lines and breaklines. If your software does not separate them on import, you can make two copies of the file and strip alternate types to import to different layers.