The Project Explorer for Civil 3D Primer

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Many people have questions about the new Project Explorer for Civil 3D for Autodesk Civil 3D 2021 and Civil 3D 2020. Project Explorer is the best thing Autodesk has done for Civil 3D production use and for Civil 3D users in more than a few Civil 3D releases. That says something.

If you are an AEC Collection or Global Support subscription customer, you have download and install access to Project Explorer (PE). Jump up and down, scream, and shout. But please, don’t riot. Eheh. Install the PE and enjoy working productively in Civil 3D a lot more every day.
PE is a lot more than it’s cute anachronym.

As of this posting date, I still cannot find any way to publicly buy or even try Project Explorer if you don’t own an AEC Collection subscription. Well that bites.
My take…Autodesk wants to drive AEC Collection subscription sales to existing Civil 3D customers maybe even until the end of the Autodesk fiscal year in January 2021 or even until the next Civil 3D 2022 release.
What do I know?

Project Explorer is perhaps an uncomfortable financial reason to do that seat upgrade given all the other AEC Collection production goodies and tools.

What is Project Explorer for Civil 3D?

There is really no rocket science, confusion, or raucous debate about that.
See our Project Explorer video collection page for different video takes on PE.

Project Explorer is a new and better production interface paradigm and report platform for many survey and design critical path tasks in Civil 3D.
PE delivers focused feedback and usable content about project’s Civil 3D data behind in a new and easier to employ tool space. Grin.

The 3AM Solutions home page still summarizes the Project Explorer product features better than anything I can find publicly from Autodesk.
Bruce Harfield and his team know and delivered on the goals their product.
Review, Modify, Validate, and Report and Share explains PE well.

PE Speaks to the Familiar- What Does Your PE Need to See?

There are important production reasons those words reflect our daily survey and civil engineering QAQC processes, iterative workflows, and publishing challenges in Civil 3D.

PE is built and focuses on the performance of the project deliverable dance in Civil 3D.

Fundamental PE Nuts as Bolts

Good news. Autodesk did not design the PE interface. The design, development, and execution of the PE interface has been on-going for many previous releases of Civil 3D. PE may be new too us, but there are lots of functional production Civil 3D user nuances PE handles really well without duplicating what Civil 3D already does. A neat trick.

More good news. PE is not a performance hog. PE is stable. Yes. There are a few things you can do to crash PE and Civil 3D. You will have to work hard to find them.

Bad news. Some things we might want to get at in our project drawings from inside PE are limited because the PE code relies on the public Civil 3D API.

Good News and Bad News

Everyone will want to tune how PE behaves to address the needs of the task at hand.
PE is exceptional for both it’s customization via a Layout Styles approach and the execution of all the many details to accomplish that in the PE interface.

The amount of available and potential PE report output in form and function is overwhelming. That will not be the focus of this primer post.

The PE Layout Style customization methods are reasonably intuitive.
We do have to both learn to do that and remember to save and effectively store that work.
A managed Project Explorer Layout Template resource library is in your future.

PE and Civil 3D Production Projects

Because of the repeatable power of PE Object Sets, PE report drawings are unquestionably a new type of Civil 3D project drawing.
In other words, some new type of drawings will exist because that works better to get consistent published results from the many advantages that PE reporting provides.

We must consider adding these new forms of project publishing drawings and the hoard of potential new report content into our Civil 3D Project Templates and production project structures.

Can you say P3?
Piss Pour Planning gets you Predictable Results and bad PR. Eheh.

Time for Some Fundamental PE Learn and Burn

I suggest you fire up PE in a working project drawing with the Civil 3D Features you want to explore. Yes. I may do a video demo at some point.
I chose not to for this Project Explorer Primer post.
I don’t want to prejudice your PE experience.
Do the do.

The First Hot PE User Tip

Type PRO at the command line because you are one. You gotta love that.
Civil 3D will find the new PROJECTEXPLORER command.
Hit Enter or the spacebar.
We don't need no stinkin’ icons.

Project Explorer is a new and better production interface paradigm and report platform for Civil 3D. Thankfully, PE also employs many established Civil 3D interface methods and conventions.
Nothing to learn here.
Not so fast, cowboy.
Remember the Quick and the Dead?

The combination of the following PE product features is more productive and time-saving than the parts themselves imply.
The PE really is a new way to drive Civil 3D.
Trust me, Folks. We have been driving a 10 to 15 year-old sedan.
PE is not the Chevy Volt.

Right Click is Your Friend

Right Clicks and their menus in PE are context sensitive and full of powerful useful tools.
Typically, PE allows you to have different levels of the Civil 3D data behind in three different panels.

It takes a bit of regular PE experience to fully recognize and experience that the rich PE Right Click menus are both PE Panel and Civil 3D data behind aware.
To tell the truth after months in PE, I still keep finding new ways and means to get things done faster.

PE even includes the long time Civil 3D wish list capability to Zoom to a Profile in a Profile View.
This is far from the only significant Civil 3D wish list item addressed by PE.

Picks and Double Clicks

Picks select and double clicks edit in PE when possible. The editable is even easy to identify.

The PE interface happily colorizes editable properties based on PE Preferences.
By default, the exposed editable data behind properties are magneta.
Why isn’t it green? Dooh. People can be color blind.
So, why is red a warning color?

Keyboard Shortcuts

When combined with picks and other standard Windows selection methods the PE Keyboard Shortcuts are more powerful than the actual PE short list portends.
What do you know?
A Civil 3D improvement that employs typing?
Z, P, S, C, A(orE), Ctrl, Ctrl A, and Ctrl C are almost all self-explanatory. Do not Ho hum.

Z for Zoom; P for Pan; S for Select, C for clear the selection, A(or E) for edit in the Civil 3D interface; Ctrl to display the selected right now; a held Ctrl continues the display in the AutoCAD Viewport.

The Ctrl hotkey display of where you are at in the details of a Civil 3D Feature at the moment gets demoed a lot of good reasons. Tip: Selections in the PE Panels work with Ctrl too.

Be aware that Invisible and/or NoDisplay Styles assigned to Civil 3D Features can and do affect the visibility of PE interface Ctrl key display results.
PE cannot show you what Civil 3D cannot.

Quick and Dirty Reports

Ctrl A selects everything in a PE Panel.
The other classic Windows selection methods work too.

Ctrl C copies everything currently selected in a PE Panel to the Windows clipboard.

PE Panel clipboard copies natively drop into raw text files as Tab delimited content and Excel sheets without issues.
Tip: In Excel, usually you will want the PE Panel clipboard contents pasted as plain text to separate the row contents into columns. Grin.

PE allows for the quick and dirty reporting, formal reporting via Layout Styles, and collected published reports via Layout templates. Hoorah.

PE Panel Warnings and Violations

Based on PE Preferences settings the PE interface colorizes important Civil 3D properties.
PE delivers relevant context sensitive and immediate visual feedback in all the PE Panels.

This means we have new and different attention focus cycle patterns to learn and adapt to.
What and When we expect to focus on changes with PE.

By Default:

  • The exposed Civil 3D editable properties are magneta
  • Critical Civil 3D violation errors are bold red and display an icon in the panel
  • Civil 3D violation warnings are yellow and display an icon in the panel

These all helps us more easily identify where there are inconsistencies and/or serious problems in the Civil 3D model focus of the moment.

The Project Explorer Help file contains a list of currently supported PE violations.
The current list in Help seems incomplete to me, but PE has meaningful tooltips for these anyway.

PE Identification

Technically, this is not a tool or feature in PE but the results of what the PE interface does for us.

People ask – PE recognizes and identifies with classic Civil 3D icons all DREF data sources in a drawing. Did that data come from the project or the current drawing? Oops. Forgot to DREF that critical profile.

Just in case you miss the obvious. Civil 3D Features in XREFed Civil 3D drawings are invisible to PE.

PE also identifies and displays the mission critical types of Civil 3D Features.
For example: types of Alignments and Profiles – you know...Centerline, Offset, etc.
PE even recognizes data imported from files as a displayed type. Civil 3D knows about that but does not display it easily. Hoorah.

Is that an Offset Profile with slope control or not?
The PE SA(orE) keyboard macro can get you to the Offset Profile Slope Control details in the Civil 3D dialog box quickly.

The number of typical Civil 3D interface clicks we can avoid is staggering.

Pick the Offset Profile in PE. Type SE…to select and edit the Profile.
In the Civil 3D Offset Profile dialog box go to the Offset Parameters tab and review or update the station-based slope control.
All the while PE displays the Profile as defined, all the related details, and even the comparison data that you want PE to extract. Awesome.

PE Panel Arrangements

You will notice that PE delivers (by default) the Civil 3D data behind in different arrangements of Panels depending on the type of Civil 3D Feature, AutoCAD block, or PE Object Set you chose.

These PE Panel Preferences and Panel arrangements are different from the considerable PE powers of Layout Styles.

The not-so-obvious but useful trick for many daily production tasks is you can easily change the current PE Panel arrangement with a nifty Panel configuration icon in the interface.
PE will remember your working Panel arrangement by PE category.
Yes. You can also turn off the display of PE categories in Preferences.

Watch out.
You can resize PE and make important tools on the edges of the PE dialog box appear to vanish and become hard to get to.

The Panel arrangements and the Layout Style report tweaks persist between Civil 3D sessions.
This is handy.
This kind behavior can also cause you to fail to maintain the discipline to remember to export and save your Layout Styles choices. Arrrgh.

There’s the reason all that Separation of Powers customization functionality built into those managed Layout Styles in PE. People learned the hard way.

We can continuously improve and tune the PE interface to perform our daily tasks in Civil 3D better.

PE Calculated Data or Not

For the important Civil 3D Features PE will also calculate Line, Curve, and Spiral Station data at user defined values. This makes reports, table output, and our immediate design consideration decisions much easier.
This can also be overwhelming and/or confusing.

Tip: Set all of these PE calculated Station values to zero in the interface to get only the defined geometry in the Civil 3D data behind to display. Nice for design work.

Project Explorer and Names

If you read this blog, you already know that I rant all the time about the Power of Names in Civil 3D and our need for naming convention rules, planning, and maintenance in Civil 3D.
Every Managed Civil 3D Model depends on this vital Civil 3D User discipline.

On of the best things about PE is how easy and painless the Name and/or rename discipline becomes.
You will simply spend a lot less time picking and clicking to keep the many Names sane, consistent, and manageable in Civil 3D.

If you employ Civil 3D Descriptions to help explain and/or audit what is going on with Civil 3D Features, that just got easier to execute too. In any event we now have less of an excuse to avoid the matter.

PE Search by Name

PE has this sneaky and speedy Search by Name tool. This is a hidden gem.
The Autodesk Project Explorer Help Files seems to ignore this tool or maybe I just couldn’t find the mention?
No surprise to me. Autodesk never saw a naming convention tool they did not choose to ignore.

The PE Search tool is conveniently right next to the PE Panel arrangement icon.

PE Search seems independent from PE and seems to load on demand.
Maybe PE is building a cheat list of all the members of the PE categories?
The PE Search dialog box takes a second to arrive. This is worth the wait.
Search works across all the supported PE categories in tabs.

The Search By Name tool employs the fast search by character(s) method and resolves the Search to Names to contain the typed characters. No wildcards required.
For example: type “S” in there and click over to the Alignments and Profiles tab to get to all those Surface Profiles you did not bother to formally Name in the first place.

PE Search can be a genuine life saver when you have complex Mulitple Baseline Corridors. These can contain a lot of design control in multiple Civil 3D Features named in a similar fashion.
For example: type “LT” in the Alignments and Profiles tab to get to all the Left design control that you Named correctly (maybe at least partially) in the first place.

OK. Project Explorer may cause you to rethink, retool, and/or optimize your Civil 3D naming conventions. That may not be a bad thing in the long run.

Wonder of wonder the Framework for Civil 3D Templates and Style libraries sing and dance with Project Explorer.

Do your Civil 3D Templates, Civil 3D Styles, and production resources do that?
I hope so.

Want to hassle less with that silliness and have more Adaptive Standards for Civil 3D at your finger tops?

Get the Framework for Civil 3D