Innovative technology helps Louisville District engineers imagine tomorrow

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Published Feb. 12, 2021

“Imagining Tomorrow” is the theme of this year’s National Engineers Week, which is celebrated Feb. 21-27. Through innovative technologies such as Building Information Modeling, 3D printing and virtual reality, Louisville District engineers can “imagine tomorrow” as they design world-class facilities.
Sharing that technology and passion with students fulfills the goal of National Engineers Week as it is designed to promote careers in engineering.


During the annual Engineers Week, the Louisville District highlights employees, who represent all the disciplines within the engineering field and the innovative technology they use when delivering the district’s programs. 


“It is a busy time,” said Ray Frye, Engineering Division deputy chief. “This year, we have recruiting events set up for University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati and Purdue University.”


In the past and pre-pandemic, representatives from the district would travel to several local schools to talk to students about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the career fields available to them. Although it is a little different this year, the team is still making it a priority to share information.


“I’m giving a presentation at the University of Cincinnati’s SAME chapter meeting about USACE and our co-op and recent graduate job opportunities,” said Lauren Alexander, Louisville District hydraulic engineer. 


The outreach events planned during National Engineer’s Week are designed to promote engineering as a career. Sometimes that means sharing about the benefits of working as a USACE engineer to help recruit talent, and sometimes they are designed to inspire students about the engineering profession. This is often done by showing how engineers are using advanced technology, like Building Information Modeling, 3D printing, and even virtual reality, to help design projects and complete district missions. 


Building Information Modeling, or BIM, takes 3D modeling to the next level by allowing users to assign a 3D object with these various details, according to Sean Tucker, Navigation Design Section structural engineer.


“The floating 3D object can now be assigned a material, and a weight can be calculated through the software, and this is just scratching the surface of BIM capabilities,” Tucker said. “BIM has been a huge factor in our collaboration efforts with other districts for the New Lock at the Soo project. Concrete models can include rebar clearances and compressive strengths; mechanical components can include installation dates and serial numbers; structural components can include loads and strengths, along with a plethora of further details can be included in the overall model.”


According to Tucker, 3D printing is the process of bringing a three-dimensional object modeled in software, such as Inventor or Revit, and bringing it into the physical world.


“3D printing is a very effective way of producing scaled models and prototypes, primarily due to the speeds at which a model can be produced,” Tucker said.


Using 3D printing, the Louisville District has been able to provide customers with a tangible and scaled representation of the product USACE is designing. 


“Currently we’ve been working on the New Lock at the Soo, and we have printed various 1:1000 models of the entire lock chamber for various meetings and discussions,” Tucker said. “Similar to virtual reality, 3D printing allows a perspective on a project, or feature, that is hard to grasp when looking at a set of drawings or even a 3D model on a 2D screen.”


The Louisville District design team is currently using virtual reality on the new lock at the Soo project. Primarily, it was used for clash detection in their 3D Revit model. Clash detection is the process for finding discrepancies, or clashes, between design features like HVAC ductwork interfering with structural framing, according to Gary Grunwald, Louisville District structural engineer.


“One major advantage that virtual reality has over traditional clash detection is that it allows the user to naturally find clashes by “walking” through the site rather than trying to interpret output from a computer,” Grunwald said. “Fixing these clashes during the design phase will ultimately save the project millions of dollars in construction change orders.”


In addition, virtual reality (VR) was also used to elicit feedback from the customer and other design team members.  


“On several occasions the VR system was brought to the Soo Locks to get feedback from site leadership, maintenance workers and lock operators,” Grunwald said. “The feedback was not only extremely valuable but will also save the project money.”  


Grunwald added that an example is in the lock control shelters, where lock operators control the lock gates and valves. Standing in the “virtual” control room, lock operators commented that they could not see the miter point of the gates at lower pool – something that was possible on their existing locks, according to Grunwald. 


“The design team took this feedback and raised the floor of the control room to allow for a better vantage point. A change this personal would likely not have been possible with traditional 3D models on a 2D screen,” Grunwald said. “Virtual reality provides a natural interaction with our BIM projects that is unmatched with traditional 3D models on a 2D screen.”


The Louisville District also uses the virtual reality headset for educational purposes. According to Grunwald, when new employees are hired and are unfamiliar with locks and dams, Navigation Design Section uses the headset to showcase projects and streamline the process of acquainting new employees with the Navigation Design Section projects. 


Recently, engineers have used the new technologies like the virtual reality headset or BIM for recruitment purposes and STEM events to inspire students to think about a career in engineering.


“Educating students about these innovative technologies is so beneficial for recruitment,” Frye said. “Engineering really can be fun, and we hope to be able to bring students closer to imagining their tomorrow and a future career in engineering.”