I’ve always been interested in the idea of free products and services, both from an end-user point of view and as a business model. Google has perfected the free services model, giving pretty much everything it develops away to end users in return for selling those eyeballs to advertisers. Users get very good to great products, advertisers get a targeted audience, and Google shareholders get return on investment. There’s another benefit to the free scenario that is relevant to almost every industry, including civil engineering: ubiquity.
There are exciting advancements happening in our industry that involve the development and deployment of technology to improve efficiency and profits. These days we hear a lot about BIM, virtual design and construction, laser scanning, and so on. While I am certainly an advocate of implementing these advanced tools, I also understand that they are not required for many civil engineering design and drafting tasks. Add to this the fact that the economy continues to inch along, and I began wondering if free software exists that was sufficiently featured to complete a design and produce construction documents. Not surprisingly, it does. Below is a (far from comprehensive) list of the generic software tools required for a typical engineering job and specific applications you can download and use for free.
Every engineering project requires the basics: word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, et cetera. Luckily, there are two excellent free suite choices that include these applications. Google Docs is an online suite that I discussed in a previous article. While this is a great set of tools that run in the cloud and are accessible from any Internet-connected computer, it does have some interoperability issues with the defacto standards: MS Word and Excel. For that reason alone, I suggest the free suite, OpenOffice. This is a robust set of office applications that is nearly 100 percent compatible with MS Office tools. So even if your colleagues are using Microsoft applications, you can save your documents and spreadsheets to those formats without missing a beat.
During the last 25 years, the DWG file format from Autodesk has become somewhat of a CAD file format standard; most CAD applications can open and save .DWG files. This is good news for those looking for a free CAD application, but who don’t want to be stuck on a desert island when it comes to sharing information with others. DraftSight from Dessault Systemes is primarily a 2D tool and has a full set of features. It can read and write directly to the DWG file format, lets users export to a variety of other formats, and is easy to learn and use. The download is very small by comparison with other applications and downloads in less than a minute. This software comes with free online help and an active community forum for additional support. For a small fee (approximately $250/year) you can get tech support and access to the API extension, which allows you to customize the software.
Another free option, FreeCAD is a fully functioning 2D and 3D CAD application that can read and write to the common DXF file format. Since it is an OpenSource application, anyone can create modules or add-ons to extend its functionality. There are not many extensions available yet, however, this is not unusual since the application is still in beta.
BIM, virtual design, and GIS
I mentioned Google twice already in this column and now here’s another reference. I’ve been amazed with Google Earth (GE) since the time it was called Keyhole before Google purchased it. It is truly an incredible application and the fact that it’s available for free is even more unbelievable. In addition to providing great aerial imagery of most of the planet, GE also acts as a platform for a host of other data sources. Municipal boundaries, utilities, school districts, and FEMA floodplain boundaries are just a few of the layers you can view in GE. You can export this information as an image file that can be referenced into your free CAD application. With free add-on applications, you can even extract contours and DTM information from GE. Google SketchUp is another wonder from Google. This free 3D modeling application gives you a full set of tools for creating and sharing building models. For those that want added functionality, you can purchase the Pro version for about $450, which allows you to import/export building designs to the DWG file format and generate a host of reports.
As engineers, it may seem like we spend most of our time lost in documents or CAD applications. There are multiple specialty programs required to complete our jobs. This includes software for hydrology and hydraulics (H&H), coordinate geometry (COGO), road design, earthwork, and more. While not every application that you need can be found for free, you might be surprised at what you can get for no or low cost. Many of the H&H applications upon which more sophisticated software packages are built are available for free. From the NRCS website, you can download the familiar TR-20 and TR-55 as well as many lesser known tools for H&H modeling. The Army Corp of Engineers Hydrologic Engineering Center provides links for HEC-RAS and HEC-HMS and a variety of other tools.
Another free and surprisingly full-featured specialty application is a COGO program called Copan from Underhill Geomatics. It performs a wide range of land survey coordinate calculations, works with a wide variety of popular data collectors, and imports/exports to ASCII format.
In my research for this round-up, I did not find any truly free stand-alone applications for road design or terrain modeling. However, I did come across some very low-cost alternatives. For road design, take a look at these two options: InterStudio HighRoad and Softree RoadEng Civil. Both provide the tools needed to design alignments, profiles, and cross-sections. For terrain modeling and earthwork calculations, these same two companies offer sub-$500 tools: InterStudio’s DomusC and Softree TerrainTools3D.
It’s clear that none of these products can match the features or functionality of a $10,000 software application, and no one should expect they could. However, the amount of features packed into these free products is amazing, and in many cases, will suffice. Please drop me a line and let me know if you or your organization is using free or low-cost applications as your primary production tools.
Mark J. Scacco, P.E., is the president and founder of Engineered Efficiency, Inc., a nationwide BIM and CAD training and consulting firm. He appreciates your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.