Virtual reality technology gives SMEC the edge on key South African roads project


Innovative use of technology is allowing engineers and clients to view and manipulate their projects in a 3D environment before any construction starts.

One of the exciting things about the increasing use of digital technology in the infrastructure sector is that virtual reality (VR) is moving from the areas of gaming, military and medicine into the engineering and infrastructure mainstream, with applications across the full project lifecycle, from initial concept through to construction, supervision and asset management.

SMEC South Africa has been using VR on its recent work on the Montrose Interchange project near Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit), the capital of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province and the gateway to the Kruger National Park.

The project was initiated to replace an existing at-grade T-junction on the N4 highway, improving traffic mobility, safety and the Mpumalanga province’s economy and tourism. Positioned between two rivers amid steep valleys between mountains, the project presented difficult terrain for implementing the new high-standard, free-flow interchange on a short timeline with no available survey data.

When bidding for the contract, SMEC quickly realised that their traditional, manual 2D strategies would not suffice to meet the project challenges and requirements to use much of the existing infrastructure. “We applied VR to design challenges on the project as virtual reality as a technology is embedded in our organisation and we use it to augment our specialist design capabilities,” said Warren McLachlan, an engineer in SMEC South Africa’s Roads and Highways team.

Speaking about the project to Infrastructure Global in Singapore this week, McLachlan said that when bidding for the work, SMEC was the only company that used VR to show practically to the client how the project would be designed. “Bringing the entire project into the 3D space, and especially into VR, enabled everyone involved to experience the completed project before construction even commenced,” McLachlan says.

The project was a complex one and crucial economically for the region. The Montrose Interchange sits on the only east-west route between South Africa and Mozambique, eventually linking Botswana to the west. The original road design, initially constructed in the 1970s, is inadequate for the traffic volume the area is now experiencing, so this is a critical transport system to the economies of all three countries.

With the interchange occupying the narrow space between the Crocodile and Elands rivers, with constrained topography and rough terrain presenting challenges to design standards, achieving the client’s vision of a new grade-separated interchange that would facilitate free-flow for all traffic movements meant that the design had to be cost effective yet of the highest standards achievable.

The answer was to take a digital-led approach and SMEC embraced this, selecting Bentley’s ContextCapture to develop a reality mesh of the existing terrain and infrastructure and LumenRT to present their conceptual design, enabling them to win the design contract and delivering a workable design in record time.

The use of other digital products facilitated integration with the bridge team’s modelling software while corridor modelling tools enabled accurate earthworks and material quantities calculations, reducing the carbon footprint of the project. SMEC calculates that working in a collaborative digital environment saved approximately 2,500 hours in design time and an estimated 2.5m ZAR in design costs.

McLachlan concedes that there are challenges in getting clients and other project partners to accept digital innovations and a virtual reality-driven approach to project planning. “It’s hard to get come contractors and clients to move away from established norms of working and some are still stuck with working with 2D designs, but when you show the benefits of an alternative digitally innovative approach they can be receptive and the results on this project show that we were right to take this approach,” he says.

It’s also an approach that has improved safety and saved lives, as since the Montrose Interchange project was completed in August this year there hasn’t been a single fatal accident on the stretch of road, which was definitely not the case before the project was undertaken. With SMEC’s client praising the confident digital engineering modelling the team was able to showcase on the project, the hope is that the success of the solutions employed will pave the way for VR to be applied to future projects with much less effort.

McLachlan said that he hopes to show to clients and partners that taking a project from a simple CAD model to a full VR experience shouldn’t be reserved for special or major projects only. “In South Africa, and I think I can safely say around the world, clients are facing increasing challenges in delivering infrastructure, ranging from constrained budgets to difficult natural environments to tight timeframes. The strategic use of VR, combined with the expertise of specialist teams, can provide innovative solutions that help to address these challenges.”