An Inside Look at Building a Company and a Career in 3D Civil Engineering

MechanicalBackground

Kevin Kianka is a civil engineer by training and education. He began his career working in bridges and structures for approximately 3 years, and then moved into a land development group when the transportation work slowed.  Kevin recalls, “While in the land development group, I worked closely with our surveyors and after 3 years, I was approached by the surveying lead to join their group (all within the same organization).”   

The surveying group had recently purchased a 3D laser scanner (Leica ScanStation). They were interested in bucking the trend and doing more than conventional surveying, specifically focusing on bridges and structures.   When Kevin was hired out of school, the firm was a medium – sized outfit, growing from 300 persons to about 600, however around the time he joined the survey group, they were acquired by a large firm, with several thousand staff. 

Kevin was asked to join the survey group and help them make strides into more AEC –  driven projects.  It was in many ways a temporary demotion as he went from a PE and project manager to a field technician.  Kevin noted, “It was our decision that I needed to involve myself in all aspects of the work to truly understand it, work with it, manage it and eventually promote it.  In a few short months, I was leading field crews and simultaneously processing office data and 3D modeling.  Soon after that I was managing all sorts of projects, not just 3D, but also conventional surveying.”   

Kevin and the other current principals, left their previous employer in late 2011 to form Haag 3D Solutions, or H3DS.  Haag did not have technical expertise in 3D or laser scanning, in fact at their previous employer, they were one of Kevin’s clients.  Kevin recalls, “Haag was looking to diversify and offered us the opportunity to start a division that we could create and build. This provided us the resources needed to grow the division where we saw the most benefit, without having too many conflicts.  At our previous employer we often found ourselves in conflict when asked to bid with other AE firms, who didn’t have 3DLS capabilities.  Haag, doing no design services, offered us the opportunity to avoid those issues.”

The Strategy

As-BuiltH3DS was started to focus on 3D and visualization platforms, as a boutique firm.  The principals of H3DS, had previously worked at small, medium and in some cases, very large firms. We had seen varying degrees of success at each, but in most cases 3D was a tool to meet the end product, but not the end product.  When H3DS was started Kevin and the team realized that they needed to focus on 3D and the Built Environment – no architecture or design, so that they could focus on what they needed to do.   Haag Engineering, the parent organization, offered that to them as their focus was on forensic engineering and damage assessments.   

Kevin notes, “As far as the strategy, by focusing only on 3D, we focus our marketing, promotional and training efforts on the 3D environment and visualization of that.  What originally started as 3D documentation and modeling has moved into BIM, VDC, GIS, photography, visualization and other similar services.”   

H3DS’ clients, past and current, seem to enjoy this approach and methodology.  They have several clients that have been with them for nearly 10 years, and have found that they value the relationships and comfort level of the staff, not necessarily the company they are employed by. From a VDC/BIM angle, it has proven extremely useful as H3DS is typically brought in as an independent third party, having no “interest” in either the design or construction aspects of a project.  

Additionally, most of the AEC clients aren’t worried about introducing H3DS to their clients as they don’t compete in those arenas and there is no fear of “stealing” the clients away, which allows for a more enriching teaming environment.  H3DS is also called in by some colleagues in the 3D industry to assist on projects where they have an immediate influx of work, or need a skill level that they don’t have in house. 

Quality Control

Point CloudWhen asked about managing the quality control Kevin explained, “With 3D data, specifically point clouds, QA/QC has improved greatly thanks to increases in computer processing power and the variety of software that can utilize point cloud data.  For point cloud processing, we utilize targets and control points, very rarely utilizing targetless registrations.  In our world, especially forensic work, repeatability is key so having multiple instruments collect the data is important.  In the modeled world H3DS typically uses Navisworks as the primary tool for QC.  It is a steady and reliable set, but having point clouds directly in the model creation platforms helps our process also.”

 

Kevin noted that the data collection process is easier than it was just five years ago, however the modeling has gotten more complex.  Previously modeling was basic, a LOD 100/200, now they are seeing more LOD300/350’s which require more checking.  They also used to see a lot of requests for modeling to be “design intent” (plumb and parallel) and now they have more requests coming in for real world conditions, due to tight coordination modeling.  They are modeling walls out of plumb and to its true dimensions on nearly every project now.   

Kevin noted, “I do see the QC and data management sides struggling in the next few years as we have exponentially increased the number of instruments and capabilities of providing data.  In some cases anyone with an iPhone can create a 3D model or point cloud and I see long term issues about managing data sets from outside sources.” 

“We are working for a large client right now, helping them manage their enterprise system of data from a variety of providers and individuals.  We are rating the data with various confidence levels based upon the information provided during documentation.  Much like ASCE did with Subsurface Utility Engineering, I see a need for 3D data to be qualified in the same manner.  Quality level 0 – taken from plan information, Quality Level 1 – documented via phone/camera limited operator experience, Quality Level 2 – LIDAR instrument, no independent control system, Quality level 3 – Lidar instrument, redundant control system, least squares adjustment,” Kevin noted.

Staff

Haag has the benefit of being employee owned and offering above average benefit’s packages.  They typically don’t have a problem attracting staff, as their job ads will get 40-100 resumes for each posting. Their issues are normally with sorting through the resumes to find someone that fits our culture and goals. Kevin recalls, “During the recent downturn in the oil & gas industry we received dozens of resumes from 3D modelers, but because they were in the O&G industry, their salaries were in some cases double what we had anticipated or could sustain.” 

Regarding qualified staff, H3DS has tried hiring experienced staff and entry level staff and training them.  Their success rate and retention rate of entry level staff is double to triple that of hiring experienced staff.  

Emerging Technology

Haag applied for and was granted a FAA Section 333 waiver, however given the restriction and limitations of UAS usage, they opted not to invest in a full UAS group with several aircraft and licensed personnel, as the business model did not seem like it was going to work. The plan is that the UAS services will be an adjunct to their existing projects (Haag Engineering and H3DS) and that they won’t seek out a UAS – only project.  That being said, with anticipated relaxing of restrictions and limitations, H3DS has plans, procedures and processes in place to more heavily invest into the UAS market for their inside services, and as an adjunct to other services being performed for clients.  

Other technologies they are also looking at are mobile mapping (vehicular, backpack and scanning carts).  H3DS is currently working with a client to establish procedures for mobile mapping of their facilities.  This process will inevitably include a combination of several technologies to meet the stakeholders needs.  The stakeholders include technical and non-technical staff, so they are layering data sets ranging from photography and videos to lidar, 3d models, GIS and photographic meshes. 

Kevin explained, “I don’t see us jumping into the realm of having a vehicular mobile mapping system, but an indoor cart is something I think we will have in the next year and maybe a backpack in several years.  Before we implement any new technologies, we like to test it against our tried and true methods, where we know the reliability and the accuracy levels and determine if it is comparable, or if there are discrepancies.  Not every tool is right for every project and we try and have different tools available, whether in house or being outsourced through a colleague.”

Looking Ahead

Kevin sees the equipment moving from the hands of trained persons to lay persons.  Data acquisition is moving to more cost effective options, including decreases in time.  There are now a number of 3D data collection systems that are under $40,000.  “What I am seeing is that nearly everyone can create a pretty picture, but when I dig down into the model or mesh, I tend to find errors.” Kevin noted. 

That can be both good and bad.  Good, in the fact that soon nearly everyone will be able to collect data (whether from an instrument, camera or their phone).  Bad, in the sense that they’ll need to categorize that data, its accuracy and scope.  Will a layperson have a $5M insurance policy if their data is incorrect?  Will they know how to post process it?  And how do firms evolve to compete with the crowd sources?  These are all issues H3DS deals with every day. 

Also, people are trying to cram more and more into the same area.  Plenum spaces in hospitals are becoming increasingly cluttered with HVAC and gas services.  The need for 3D is increasing, but its uses must be defined and cautioned.  Not every tool is right for each project and a novice user may not realize that.   

Craftsman and skilled persons are disappearing.  Field technicians and modeling used to require extensive training and now the equipment or software does a majority of the work.  This is good from a cost savings and time savings standpoint, but bad from a point that we are losing the knowledge of how items are constructed or why/when accuracy is important.   

Kevin concluded, “At Haag we strive to train our staff not only in the technology, but in how processes are completed.  We work with our clients to determine what they will do and how they will utilize the data we provide, including their construction techniques.  Giving our staff this knowledge is something that you can’t get from a warehouse that 3D models or a shop with hundreds of interns.  Our senior staff has varying experiences in the AEC realms and are constantly training and mentoring our junior staff not only in modeling, but in why we are doing things and why it is important.” 

Well said Kevin.  

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