Leveraging the latest advances in digital engineering, SMEC South Africa continues to refine its virtual design capabilities to optimise the construction, maintenance, and asset management of transportation routes. IMIESA speaks to Edward Archer, function manager: Roads & Highways, about the key benefits for clients and contractors, citing their ongoing work for Trans African Concessions (TRAC) as a prime example.

The digital transition from the 2D to the 3D environment, along with the rapid pace of software development, is presenting a whole new range of opportunities for design engineers to add value through the modelling of captured and design data in ways that cannot be replicated by traditional printed drawings,” says Archer.


“The speed, accuracy and level of detail are revolutionary, enabling conceptual design development and design updates much more efficiently. Plus, with the use of virtual reality (VR), we can take clients, contractors and stakeholders into the 3D realm and walk, drive or fly them through actual site backdrops, incorporating all interrelated design elements so they can see what works and may not work best in practice.”


Within the transportation space, the bulk of SMEC’s projects are multidisciplinary in nature, encompassing areas that include traffic studies, geometric design, structures, pavements, geotechnic, stormwater, and street lighting.


As Archer points out, prior to digitalisation, coordinating and integrating this volume of multi-faceted information was a mammoth task. Today, however, all of that data is converted into a centralised digital model that continues to evolve as each project develops, which has been the case with SMEC’s involvement in various stages of the N4 Maputo Corridor development.


Key sections of this approximately 560 km route – stretching from Pretoria to Maputo – is managed by TRAC in conjunction with the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) and its Mozambican counterpart, Administração Nacional de Estradas (ANE).


One of SMEC’s recently completed TRAC projects is an extensive upgrade of an existing N4 two-lane carriageway to an undivided four-lane carriageway (16.4 m surface width) from east of the Crocodile River bridge (km-distance 0,180) to the Kaalrug/Magnesite mine (D1545) intersection. The length of the road is approximately 15.5 km, with the works completed in Q1 2022.


The detailed design for this project was developed in 2018 and at the time served as one of SMEC’s first major advances in the use of a 3D engineering model to identify all possible conflicts before commencing construction.


Low-impact surveys


In the early stages of a project, there is often little time or money to conduct expensive, detailed surveys – especially when some of the options or concepts might not be implemented. SMEC made many advances in using low-cost survey techniques like unmanned aerial vehicle drone surveys coupled with traditional Lidar surveys to produce stunning visuals in record time.


Using a combination of Bentley’s Context Capture and MicroStation applications, SMEC created reality meshes of several project sites. This was achieved in different ways depending on the source data – in some cases using photogrammetry and in other cases marrying together billions of Lidar points used to extract a ground terrain with high resolution aerial imagery to produce a similar result.


SMEC saw the objective of using these digital recreations of the real world being the best way to effectively communicate engineering designs in a real-world context.

This 3D reality mesh, created from drone photos alone, was used to diagnose traffic safety issues and communicate concept design options to the client and other stakeholders at a fraction of the cost of a traditional survey.


Digital model

SMEC overlays its design model on top of this scalable mesh, bringing in designs from a multitude of CAD applications into a common data environment. This provides rich levels of functionality that include simulation, clash detection, costings, quantities, collaborative design workflow integration across multi-disciplinary teams, as well as design review updates.

Starting with the baseline design, and thanks to advances in 3D modelling software, Archer says it’s extremely valuable to develop 3D conceptual design models that can be used as a basis for client and community stakeholder discussion during the feasibility phase, and then to interrogate and refine it further during the design development stages to ultimately take the project through to fully digital-driven construction.

A practical example is a future planning study carried out for TRAC at Schoemanskloof. Here the existing road has a speed limitation of 100 km/h due to the challenging terrain and the existing horizontal and vertical curvature of the road. To showcase one option to improve the level of service (LOS), travel time, and safety, SMEC submitted a conceptual design overlaid on a scalable mesh design showing a proposed new alignment in an oblique view. TRAC’s engineers were then able to visualize SMEC’s proposal and evaluate the proposed alignment on site.

“There’s no doubt that 3D models convey the message with far more clarity than a conventional cross section or layout drawing, something that clients really appreciate,” Archer explains.

App development

To enhance the digital experience, SMEC has a Management Services Function that develops purpose designed maps and apps for use by its personnel as well as its clients.

“In TRAC’s case, the engineers are using the app to carry out route inspections, future planning scenarios, or to validate design proposals using a tablet to log reports by taking a photo and/or adding a voice or written note. Since all available terrain information is preloaded, location photos taken are instantly recognised and referenced,” Archer continues.

Traffic studies

In terms of its agreement with SANRAL and ANE, there are set LOS targets that TRAC must adhere to now and in the future during the concession period, which requires submitting a status report annually. The LOS scale runs from A through F and forms the basis of current operations management and future planning.

An A rating indicates idyllic driving conditions, while an E rating indicates heavy congestion and a situation where road users travel under very poor and frustrating conditions. An F rating, in turn, indicates a complete failure of the facility.

Globally, the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) issued by America’s Transportation Research Board is one of the benchmarks for measuring traffic flows and calculating LOS.

To advance what has traditionally been a manually intensive process of reprocessing HCM calculations for different scenarios, SMEC has created a traffic-centered 560 km digital twin of the entire Maputo Development Corridor as a microsimulation model using the PTV Vissim multi-modal traffic flow simulation software. As the term microscopic implies, this is a highly detailed simulation model.

SMEC has calibrated the model in terms of metrics like driver behaviour, actual travelling speeds measured on the road, and vehicle class performance for every section of the N4 that TRAC is responsible for. This model includes all significant interchanges and intersections on the route. The results of these microsimulations can then be used to advise on infrastructure upgrade requirements to maintain the level of service experienced by road users.

When TRAC submits its LOS report each year, all the latest traffic data recorded at various counting stations, as well as the N4 toll plazas, are analysed and reported on.

Holistic assessment plans and smart designs

Another solution developed for the TRAC concession is a holistic assessment plan. “Using our data, we’ve been able to consolidate existing road infrastructure, geometric alignment, heavy vehicle travel speeds and accident statistics over the past five years and plot them along the route to pinpoint hotspots. We overlay this with the PTV Vissim model analysis to identify where additional lanes and/or passing lanes are required on specific sections to maximise LOS and improve safety,” Archer continues.

To further refine its delivery models, SMEC is exploring the world of artificial intelligence (AI). “As an AI project experiment, we captured a section of road, with a specific focus on road signs, and ran it through an AI model. Each road sign was automatically geo-referenced and positioned in CAD, identified in terms of type and material, dimensioned, and quantified. This exercise definitely shows the potential for AI to process data and use to promote accuracy and efficiency,” adds Archer.

“Going forward, our objective is to leverage digital technologies to achieve more efficient results and workflows. In this respect, we’ve come a long way in the past five years, constantly shifting the boundaries of virtual design to engineer safer and more effective transportation solutions,” Archer concludes.

There’s no doubt that 3D models convey the message with far more clarity than a conventional paper drawing, something that clients really appreciate.
———— Edward Archer, Function Manager, Roads & Highways

This article was also published in the April edition of IMIESA magazine


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