Taking the faster road with 3D

Taking the faster road with 3D


A 3D model of existing geographical conditions was used to plan and visualise a four-lane, 32-kilometer stretch highway running between Norway and Sweden.

Image courtesy of COWI and NPRA


COWI, a global engineering consulting group headquartered in Denmark, recently began executing planning and design work on a major new portion of the E16 highway – a four-lane, 32-kilometer stretch highway running between Norway and Sweden. The project, owned by Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA), requires careful route planning due to many areas of unstable clay soil in the region. COWI’s services on the project encompass preliminary design, including roads, bridges, drainage, electrical, landscape, geotechnical, land survey, environmental studies, and impact assessment.

Autodesk civil infrastructure design software was used to create a 3D project model for visualising and planning the project. Frode Geir Bjoervik, the E16 project director at COWI, explains, “The 3D model serves as a hub for the project. We use it in communicating with the client, as well as to better understand existing conditions. The software has helped to save us a tremendous amount of time while helping us delivers a high-quality preliminary design.”

The challenge

Prior to adopting the software, COWI team planned transportation projects like the E16 using a combination of 2D and 3D tools. For instance, they tapped into geographic information system (GIS) data to create a series of 2D maps to help track and understand existing conditions across route sections. To communicate with clients, COWI created 2D maps for the majority of the route, augmented by 3D visualisations of key segments. Each visualisation required several hours to complete.

“You may plan using an array of data sources and 2D tools,” says Gjermund Dahl, Building Information Modeling (BIM) coordinator with COWI. “We have been doing it for years, and it takes significant time to keep track of information from multiple sources. Using disconnected 2D tools, it’s also difficult to convey project details to people who lack engineering experience. Only a few people are able to visualise what a road will look like from a 2D map and a rendering of a small section. This makes communication with all stakeholders on large projects difficult. Too much is left to the imagination.”

The solution

Once selected by NPRA to plan the new portion of the E16, COWI began crafting a 3D model of terrain conditions along the proposed route. “There are huge amounts of survey data available for free in government GIS databases,” says Marius Sekse, BIM manager for infrastructure at COWI. “We included data for land, geology, flooding, natural resources, agriculture, and forestry into our 3D model. Next, we began fine-tuning the route and determining the engineering needs for each segment. “

Image courtesy of COWI and NPRA

Dahl explains how the 3D model helps to speed the planning process: “One of the data sets we used contains data of a 200-year flood. We inspect swamped areas to make sure the road is sufficiently elevated. We also investigate opportunities for avoiding areas where clay requires extra work to ensure stability. The 3D model helps us locate an expedient route more quickly.”

Better, faster decision making

COWI uses the 3D project model in communication with the client. At regular sessions, the COWI team presents its work by conducting a fly-through of the model. Based on the customer feedback, they modify the design, with changes applied in real time during meetings. Everyone on the project team—including the client—has both instant and continuous access to the latest, updated model.

“Having a 3D model that can be quickly modified helps the client make better decisions, faster,” says Sekse. “For instance, a client was trying to decide between a tunnel and an overpass on a key portion of the road. We were able to show both versions immediately, revealing the overpass to be a clearly superior option. A decision as such takes weeks employing older methods, but with support from Autodesk civil infrastructure design software, the client decided in hours.”

“Maintaining the model in the cloud has proven helpful,” says Dahl. “The client can inspect a view‑only version of the model at any time. Another benefit is continuously syncing my work with contributions made by other team members. The cloud makes it easier to work together.”

Image courtesy of COWI and NPRA