From the Editor: The Benefits of 3D

A 322Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

One of the primary themes of the recently completed HxGN Live 2014 in Las Vegas was, you guessed it, 3D. A second was the idea of selling solutions instead of products. That was an Autodesk theme some ten years ago and although Autodesk’s product suites are designed to support this approach I think the majority of their resellers are still selling boxes. It makes sense for Hexagon when you look at the broad range of hardware and software that they now offer, but changing that corporate culture will take time.

I think it was actually more accurate to describe 3D as an underlying theme for the conference since it was basically taken for granted by both Hexagon and the attendees, especially in the Geosystems HDS (High Definition Survey) program. But I had breakfast on the last day with a small company Director of Survey from Massachusetts who indicated that maybe 10 to 20% of the small survey and engineering firms that he is familiar with (and which make up more than 80% of the civil/survey firms in the U.S.) have embraced 3D.

It’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that, in general the majority of firms do not see the benefits or the return on investment–ROI of 3D, or maybe they have not really even looked, despite all the articles you read in LiDAR News. It’s good for those of us who have made the shift, but frustrating at the same time. One could say that we are "preaching to the choir" but I guess the hope is there are some new , converts seeing the light every day.

From the point of view of new product announcements at HxGN Live the major one from the scanning side was the release of the Pegasus: Two, the impressively upgraded mobile mapping system first announced last year as a result of the acquisition of Geosoft. Accompanying the release was the announcement of an innovative contest the winner of which gets the use of the Two for six months, plus $10,000 USD. I wish I could see the proposals that are submitted for this. Maybe I can get a look.

Back to the issue of the benefits of 3D. In the early days of CAD the key question was ROI. It would seem that this would also apply to 3D. To the early adopters it was obvious, they were believers, but the vast majority of the market wanted proof that buying PCs and investing in software and training was going to pay off. This was a major transformation that disrupted the existing business models and long established workflows. Change is hard. Sound familiar?

Turns out it wasn’t that easy to do. In fact, in most cases the ROI was not there the first time a drawing was created, but when you included the process of editing a drawing the savings were significant and the more changes the better. It was difficult for senior management to argue with that and eventually 2D CAD became the norm.

We now find ourselves in a very similar position when it comes to the transition from 2D to 3D and more broadly to BIM–building information modeling. Is it the secondary or derived benefits that are needed to make the transition worth the investment in 3D and BIM? By the way, the BIM I am referring to is what I tend to think of as "generic BIM" meaning the addition , of intelligence to the CAD objects in a drawing or design. A door has a database of information attached to it. The same applies for a bridge element or sewer manhole. It’s like GIS for the AEC world–graphics plus a database.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a more generic term for BIM that applies across the entire AEC ecosystem. There’s CIM–construction information management, but that is too narrow as well. It’s not just about construction, or buildings for that matter–far from it, but we can tackle that issue at another time. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Returning to the issue of the ROI for 3D and BIM. In some cases, such as the fabrication of specialty curved building elements as described by Les Holland in his article in this issue there isn’t much debate. The geometry of these shapes is so complex that it’s hard to imagine how this work was done before 3D models were readily available. The waste on these projects used to exceed 20%, on the best projects. In some cases they have reduced that to nearly zero through the use of 3D.

Other examples of primary benefits of 3D include safety, such as the use of mobile LiDAR to keep surveyors off interstate highways; or offshore oil platforms where the cost of shut down exceeds $1 milion per day in these complex, 3D piping environments; or historic preservation projects where the value of these real world objects is priceless.

But what about the everyday projects where some might say 2D CAD is performing adequately, such as in the design of a big box store or sewer project? Is the use of 3D and BIM cost effective in the traditional planning, design and construction of these run of the mill projects? Is it worth the investment?

In the case of 3D it would seem that it would have to be the sheer power of visualization that would have to be the primary benefit. We tend to underestimate the value of this obvious benefit, but until the last 5 or so years it has not been practical to work in 3D.

It is certainly easier to communicate design intent when you can see what the object is supposed to look like when built or manufactured. Add in the idea of automated clash detection and it does not take the identification of too many problems before you have avoided potentially serious cost overruns.

Remember that the fees for design and engineering represent less than 10% of the project cost. The cost of a major design mistake can dwarf the increased cost of using 3D and/or BIM. I guess it is similar to the CAD example. In that case it was design changes. In this case it is conflicts which often occur as a result of unforeseen site conditions or changes that would seem to make the use of 3D cost effective.

Another primary benefit of 3D is VDC–virtual design and construction. This is the assembly and simulation of the construction sequence to optimize the integration of the trades and use of equipment. This requires a 3D model of the project plus additional 3D elements, but once again the cost of construction delays and conflicts is much greater than the cost of running a VDC simulation.

Unfortunately we are long way from taking full advantage of 3D and BIM. The challenge in today’s real estate development market is that the owner is often a developer who once the project is completed intends to sell it. This results in little incentive to invest in a complete 3D BIM that has documented all of the hidden construction details and material specifications. They are not going to be operating and maintaining the facility for the next 20 to 30 years so the ROI is not there for this group to make the additional investment. This excuse does not apply to governments and owner/operators who are also reluctant to invest.

That is why the solution may require a mandate. That is what is happening in the UK, Norway and some cities in the U.S. as a BIM is being required to meet the lower energy consumption standards that are being put in place for buildings. The latter consume 40% of the energy in the U.S. so the cost of 3D BIM is not an issue in comparison.

We have a long way to go to have 3D be the normat least the rest of this decade. This is a sea change, a major transformation. Not until the graduates of programs like that described by Mike Olsen at OSU come into positions of authority will the transition be completed. How long did it take for GPS to become standard operating procedure?

Gene Roe, PS, PE, PhD Managing Editor & Co-Founder LiDAR News Magazine

A 322Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE