Reston Station Proposals October 2020 | Image courtesy of Arup

Design and engineering firm Arup embraces an interactive 3D technology shift

By Ken Pimentel |
January 20, 2021
Interactive 3D technology is now being adopted throughout the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, from tech-savvy startup architectural practices to long-established engineering firms. 

A case in point is Arup, an independent firm with over 70 years’ experience, which works across every aspect of today's built environment. Whether it’s for concert halls, national stadiums, renewable energy, or driverless cars, Arup figures out some of today's most ambitious design and engineering challenges. 
Reston Station Proposals October 2020 | Image courtesy of Arup
The company has recently undergone something of a technological shift, with an explosion of real-time innovations helping to improve communication with clients, facilitate more accurate design reviews, and ensure faster project turnaround times. 

Real-time tools transforming traditional workflows

Colin Hanford is one half of an Arup visualization team based in Cardiff, UK. The other half consists of Senior Visualization Designer James Jackson. Between the two of them, they’ve been working in visualization for more than 50 years. The team serves Arup's business sectors, particularly on infrastructure, urban design, and transport planning projects for southwest England and Wales.

Hanford and Jackson first began looking into real-time technology during an exercise to explore how they could improve their core skills. They’ve now been using Unreal Engine for around 18 months. “We used another real-time engine in the past, however we found the learning curve for non-programmers very steep, so we looked at Unreal Engine as an alternative,” explains Jackson. 

The pair quickly realized that Unreal Engine could provide a door for non-programmers to start creating high-fidelity real-time experiences. “The visual quality and ease of adoption for non-programmers out of the box was really impressive, so we decided to stick with Unreal,” says Hanford. 
Morrison's Island Public Realm and Flood Defence Project | Image courtesy of Cork City Council
Since adopting real-time technology, they’ve noted a number of benefits over traditional workflows. The team can deliver on tighter deadlines, review projects and option designs faster, and communicate ideas more easily. “Being able to overcome these challenges has given us more opportunities to work with businesses we haven’t traditionally worked with,” says Hanford. 

Visualizing infrastructure projects in real time

Real-time workflows were pivotal on a recent infrastructure project the team worked on for Highways England, the government company charged with operating, maintaining, and improving England’s motorways and major A roads.

A new stretch of road to connect two sections of the A417 highway is being planned between the towns of Brockworth and Cowley in southwest England. Hanford and Jackson were tasked with creating a visualization of the proposed works that could be used to communicate the design intent to stakeholders on the project.

“We were working to an extremely tight delivery program and without the flexibility and speed of rendering the animation in Unreal, it would have been extremely difficult to hit our deadline.”
 
Animation courtesy of Highways England. Published October 2020.
One of the biggest challenges they faced was the sheer scale of the visualization—how to run a large-scale environment at an acceptable resolution, fidelity, and frame rate, and still be able to see to the horizon.

The team had to split the model up into different levels of detail outside of the engine and break up the aerial photography into smaller squares. After some initial complications and liaising with Epic, Hanford and Jackson now have a process they can take forward for future projects. “We’ve cracked it with virtual textures in Unreal Engine, which will be very important to maintain the realism of our environment,” says Jackson. 

Virtual Texturing is a feature in Unreal Engine that reduces the texture memory required for light maps and textures, and boosts rendering performance for procedural and layered materials. Instead of being limited to 4K or 8K textures, you can use textures of any size and the engine will manage what the hardware can handle.
Hundreds of thousands of existing and proposed trees also needed to be represented in the real-time model at a workable frame rate and resolution. The team used Forest Pack Pro in 3ds Max to export simple proxy trees and imported these into Unreal Engine through Datasmith, where they were swapped for SpeedTree Unreal Engine assets. 

A collection of tools and plugins, Datasmith significantly reduces the amount of time it takes to import different data types into Unreal Engine. It’s the primary method Hanford and Jackson use to import data from 3ds Max where their projects are initially developed. “Datasmith is extremely useful in our pipeline,” says Jackson. 

Datasmith has specialized support for Forest Pack Pro assets, along with RailClone, that enables each entity to be directly translated as Hierarchical Instance Static Meshes, a special type of object that delivers a high frame rate when objects are scattered across large areas.  

As well as trees, the team required a multitude of cars to populate the road. Previously, vehicles were imported from transport modelling software VISSIM into 3ds Max, adjusted as required, then exported from 3ds Max as an .fbx file to retain their animation qualities in Unreal Engine. Now, the team can quickly import VISSIM animations directly from 3ds Max via Datasmith. 

Interactive 3D driving and cycling simulators

Beyond creating visualizations for stakeholders across Arup, Hanford and Jackson have collaborated with other visualization experts across the business to develop in-house tools built on Unreal Engine. One such tool is DriveSim, a simulator that helps improve engineering design by immersing people in a geometrically accurate virtual simulation of Arup’s infrastructure projects. 
 
DriveSim footage courtesy of Highways England. Published September 2019.
DriveSim enables road and bridge designers to observe test operators as they take a virtual car journey along proposed works, and assess critical early stage user experience. Lighting, time of day, and other environmental variables react in real time, providing a degree of realism that enables designers to more accurately evaluate the experience.

From this early feedback, they can identify key design considerations and risk areas to ensure the most efficient design is produced. In turn, this reduces the subsequent design variations that are required.

DriveSim was originally designed in Arup’s Brisbane office using an alternative real-time engine. The Cardiff team didn’t have the programming knowledge to use this engine, so decided to recreate the simulator in Unreal Engine, utilising the Blueprint visual scripting system. Since Hanford ported the project across from the previous software, the Brisbane team have become avid users of Unreal Engine. 
DriveSim footage courtesy of Highways England. Published September 2019.
The team adapted assets purchased from the Unreal Engine Marketplace to produce a number of test simulators on live projects, showcasing them across the firm. “DriveSim has really helped us to connect better with our internal clients, who now have become more involved with the design process,” says Hanford. “It’s been used on every highway project we’ve been involved with from a visualization point of view—it’s become a standard output for projects.”

DriveSim has had a transformative effect in Arup, enabling engineers to see their design work with far greater clarity than ever before. “Having already been through a design review using other visualization tools built into the engineering software, we presented the same data with Unreal and the teams found it easier to navigate and interrogate the design,” says Hanford. “Something about the combination of visual fidelity and instant feedback—there’s no lag in maneuvering around—opened their eyes to much more.”

Since the success of DriveSim, the team has developed more tools including VRCycle—a cycling simulator that combines a VR HMD with a physical bike using a plugin from Arduino, the open-source prototyping platform that enables users to create interactive electronic objects. “The wide adoption of Unreal meant we could instantly get hold of the Arduino plugin to connect the physical to the virtual—so we had a working prototype within a matter of hours,” says Jackson. 

Like DriveSim, VRCycle has been enthusiastically received at Arup and earmarked as a platform for future project development.

The team has also been using fast real-time archviz tool Twinmotion in their pipeline over the past year, on two rail projects in Scotland in particular.

Arup was commissioned by Network Rail to undertake a transport assessment to support a planning application for the development of Reston and East Linton train stations in the Scottish Borders. The Cardiff visualization team were tasked with the production of animations for the two proposed railway stations to support both its design reviews and public consultations.
Reston Station Proposals October 2020 | Image courtesy of Arup
“Due to the tight deadlines for the projects, we used Twinmotion, enabling us to get high-quality images and animations quickly as data was being prepped,” says Jackson. “Using the built-in library of assets like people and cars, the human scale could be clearly conveyed, helping to identify design opportunities.”

The team used these projects as an opportunity to share knowledge and upskill within the local team, and at a number of Arup’s northern UK offices, particularly on 3D visualization work. “By adapting to new technology, we were able to meet the client deadline, learn new skills, and produce the best quality solution possible,” says Jackson. 

Real-time workflows embraced company-wide 

Hanford and Jackson’s success with Unreal Engine has led to visualization teams across Arup adopting the tool into their pipelines “for the same reasons as us,” says Hanford. “Ease of use and graphical quality.”

Real-time technology has been embraced enthusiastically by other stakeholders across the business also: “They love it,” says Jackson. “They regularly bring clients to our space to try out the various real-time environments we’ve designed.”
Morrison's Island Public Realm and Flood Defence Project | Image courtesy of Cork City Council
External client reaction has similarly been very positive, with feedback that Arup’s real-time  experiences offer another way for them to communicate with their stakeholders, particularly at consultation and engagement events.

“Unreal Engine has been transformative to our workflow and helped us offer new services to our clients,” says Hanford. “It’s helped us better engage with our design teams, clients, and external stakeholders, and made decision-making and design optioneering quicker and easier.”

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