Edmonton Examiner: Construction planning taken to new dimension

A local initiative between the University of Alberta and Ledcor Group strives to bring construction visualization into a new dimension.  

Students in the U of A’s civil and environmental engineering department are in the final stages of developing a new virtual platform aimed at simplifying the planning, monitoring and management of construction projects .  

“It’s a visual filing system that lets us take our photos and three dimensional models of the construction site and overlay them onto Google Earth,” said Rod Wales, vice-president of operations at Ledcor. 

“It’s an important tool for us to see detail. We need to understand what interferences there are on site and what the project is going to look like.”

It’s a leap from flipping through bindsers of documents and photos to understand conditions of the construction site. By combining the real-world, accurate imagery with 3D designs, the platform allows files and pictures from the site to be accessible from any computer.

“It’s much clearer, the accuracy is much better,” Wales said. “We drop our three-dimensional models on top of (Google Earth), and now, we don’t have to visualize it, it’s already there.” 

Student led initiative 

The project was developed by three U of A doctoral students who are completing internships with Ledcor through Mitacs, a non-profit that fosters partnerships between university programs and companies.

“Academic and business needs commonly overlap, so we sit down with the professor and company, define the needs on both sides and let students solve real world problems as part of their graduate studies,” said Christine Gillies from Mitacs.

“The company puts in half and Mitacs pays for half through government funding, and this is a difference maker. It helps students transition from academics to companies.” 

The doctoral students, Duanshun Li, Chaojue Yi and Chaoyu Zheng, helped an industry that is not known as a leader in technological advances.

“It’s one of the lagging industries, we are behind others in technology,” said Wales.

“We’re always under the gun after we win a project and you have to mobilize and build it quickly. You do not want tech to fail you and so people are reluctant to try something new.” 

Ming Lu, an associate professor at the U of A who supervised the project, said the students had that in mind while designing the platform. 

“There are so many fancy new visualization tools, but it’s difficult for engineers to buy in. A lot of tools don’t fit their work flows,” Lu said.

“Our students got to know their exact needs and issues, and it enabled them to do their job much better.”

Ledcor made it clear that they needed a more efficient way to manage the information and resources in site plans..  

“We are inundated with data, we create thousands of megabytes of data every day,” Wales said. “A picture says 1,000 words, so for us to visually manage our work, it’s much easier.”  

The students have enabled Ledcor to see pictures, maps and models on the software, while the final step is setting up an interface to access documents and information by clicking on parts of the visualizer.

The model of a doorway, for example, would have a link to information on the materials and background information on that specific part of the project.

“Managers still feel overwhelmed with how to organize their projects and make critical decisions,” Lu said. “There was a real need for them to have an interactive model to have a clear view immediately and to develop an organization structure.” 

Lu said he believes the platform could become an industry-wide tool one day.

Parts of the platform are already in use, and in the coming months, the final touches should be complete.

“It should cut time in the planning phases because the model and estimate can be understood very quickly,” Wales said.

“You can also keep an eye on changes through the platform. This can get sites up and running much quicker.”

By: Mitch Goldenberg