Exploring the `Value’ of 3D Laser Scanning

A 4.017Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

The evolution of technology can be subtle or stark, but as with all things, change is constant. Just as technology changes, so do our opportunities. In a technology-based industry, such as the AEC industry, it is important to make sure that we are aware of the opportunities, the technological solutions that are available to us, and to what extent they provide value to our business and our clients.

The benefits of 3D laser scanning for owners, architects, engineers and construction professionals alike are establishing themselves as self-evident. According to a report by Devices, Solutions & Services, the laser scanning industry is poised to double from $2 billion to $4 billion by 2018. The AEC realm is just a portion of the overall laser scanning market, but the collective projected growth and the recent heightened awareness throughout our industry supports the notion that AEC is embracing the technology and waking to all of the potential that lies within.

As a service provider (www.truescan3d.com) we have many discussions with clients and prospects. Generally speaking, the discussions regarding the value proposition for laser scanning are similar in nature. Some organizations `get it’ and capitalize on the capabilities presented to them through scanning, but there are still many organizations that approach scanning with trepidation and skepticism.

Here are some common concerns that arise in conversations with people in the industry:
We hand measure everything and it costs $X–can you compete with that cost?
That’s an additional cost that we just don’t have in the budget.
We don’t (understand, use, need) that technology.

All are reasonable points, but inaction due to any one of them restricts organizations from taking advantage of a tremendous opportunity to provide additional value to their clients and establish themselves as industry leaders. Let’s explore each point.

#1. We hand measure everything and it costs $X–can you compete with that cost?
Paying people to visit a site, measure and photograph the subject space and then translate everything to CADRevit is not the same as having a 3D laser scan of the space; they are two very different processes. Some argue that although the methods are different, the results are the same. The difference is akin to using an old world map to navigate the globe or using Google Maps on a GPS-enabled phone.

To have someone hand-measure what is believed to be needed at the onset of a project is antiquated and invites trouble throughout the project lifecycle. Hand measurements are singular, discreet measurements acquired from tape measures that have sag and linear distortion which affect the accuracy of the measurement. Hand measurement also requires physical access; having the ability to physically touch the subject space. Sometimes this is performed by handheld laser measurement devices which helps reduce error in each measurement, but it is still a method that only allows for one solitary measurement at a time. Accessing hard to reach spaces, or spaces with a lot of pedestrian traffic, is difficult, timeconsuming and burdensome.

After hand measurements are recorded to document what is believed at the time to be an adequate representation of a space, the measurements, notes and field sketches are translated to CAD in the form of either 2D plans or 3D models by a technician. During reproduction, measurements are usually assumed, and coincidentally drawn to be parallel and perpendicular in CAD, which is not usually how anything in the real world is built. In smaller isolated spaces this might be acceptable as a starting point, but on large buildings being renovated or having complex additions constructed, this introduces the opportunity to have clashes emerge on a project during design and throughout construction. Invariably, CAD and Revit models will not line up, there will be issues with prefabricated materials, and things will be built in the wrong place.

3D laser scanning helps mitigate these issues. True, scanning usually always costs more than manually collecting individual points, but the results are dramatically different. 3D point clouds captured though laser scanning contains everything in the space that was visible at the time of scanning, i.e., every exposed inch of walls, floors, ceilings, mechanical systems, structural components, architectural components, etc. From this rich data set, any conceivable measurement or analysis can be examined upon receipt of the data set from the service provider; no translation to CAD, no field notes interpretation, no manual entry of anything, just getting on with the business of design and analysis.

Manual measurements cost less, but they hold no comparison to laser scanning.

#2. That’s an additional cost that we cannot afford because it’s not in the budget.
A snarky answer to this concern would be: you can’t afford to not have it.

Laser scanning data delivers a complete picture of the existing conditions at the onset of a project, but unlike manual measurements, the data sets will continue to deliver value throughout the life cycle of the project. Questions that arise throughout the project can be easily answered. How is the floor sloped? Check the scan. How many light fixtures are in that space? Check the scan. How is the HVAC routed? Check the scan. Will this modeled design iteration clash with anything else already on site? Check the scan. Challenges and questions that were never considered at the onset of a project can be addressed on demand as they arise by using the scan data. The data can also be shared with team members and subconsultants that may otherwise conduct their own separate survey of the site, saving the ownership loads of money and maximizing efficiencies to maintain design and construction schedules.

The time and money that goes into resolving these conflicts are significant. Change orders are the bane of all construction projects. The best way to avoid change orders is to know exactly what is on site. The only way to know what is on site with absolute certainty and precision is to have a scan performed. The cost of a scan pales in comparison to the average cost of change orders throughout the project lifecycle which typically hovers somewhere between 5-8%. A $5 million dollar project would see change order costs in the range of $250,000 to $400,000. A fraction of that cost, say $25,000, can help avoid the bulk of the remaining change orders. Laser scanning can be considered an insulator from change orders. Scanning will not completely rid a project of them, but when utilized strategically it has the potential to dramatically reduce a team’s exposure to that liability. With scanning, you’re turning the ship long before the iceberg is even visible. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep more of those contingency dollars in the budget?

#3. We don’t (understand, use, need) that technology.
3D laser scanning is a differentiator. Firms that embrace and employ it are elevating their capabilities, enhancing their services, and ultimately the value that they bring to their customers.

Five years ago, laser scanning in the AEC industry was still struggling to establish itself as a viable tool for addressing many of the challenges discussed above. The large data sets were difficult to work with, there were limited tools to analyze the data, and quite frankly, not many people were familiar with the technology in general.

Quite a lot has changed in 5 years. BIM (building information modeling) has become the standard in design and construction. Autodesk and Bentley have streamlined and lightened their workflows to utilize scan data. There is free viewing software from Leica, Faro and others. It’s easy to utilize this data now, and it just keeps getting easier.

Some tech-savvy organizations are using scanning to win contracts. Exteriors of buildings or interior spaces are scanned ahead of time so that 3D models of proposed designs can be presented to ownership before contracts are awarded, demonstrating a level of service and technical expertise that their competition cannot provide. Organizations are also using scanning to improve and expand their traditional services. Civil engineering and survey companies are scanning sites and roadways to include with their typical designs and datasets to help address problems project teams face in areas that they typically would not be as intimately involved in. This approach raises awareness of their services, brings more value to the entire team, makes the service provider the go-to solution for complex issues and increases the likelihood for future teaming opportunities.

Beyond scanning, the `3D world’ in general is exploding with new products and innovations such as hand held scanners, photogrammetric applications like 123D Catch from Autodesk, low elevation UAVs are being used to build topography, 3D printing is accessible to just about anyone with a library card, a generation of `3D gamers’ have entered the job market and are bringing their 3D-centric perspectives and experience with them.

In a few short years, a company not using scan data for existing documentation may be similar to not using computers for drafting or plan production, and probably not something that should be shared openly if there is a desire to remain competitive and relevant.

In Summary
Change marches on. It is up to us to acknowledge that steady rhythm and continue to refine our practices. As we progress towards smarter design and construction methods, it is important to be self-critical when examining our workflows to ensure we are not being dogmatic with regard to `what we have always done’ while also trying to be reasonably pragmatic as business professionals. It is a delicate balance.

Laser scanning isn’t magic and it isn’t without fault or challenges. However, with an industry retooling to utilize it, the seemingly endless opportunities the technology presents, supporting and complementary software, and a workforce that is becoming more equipped to employ this technology, why not explore the prospects obtainable through 3D laser scanning?

Jason Ellis serves as the Technology Director for the Kleingers Group (www.kleingers.com) and Truescan3D (www.truescan3d.com), based in West Chester, Ohio. He can be reached at Jason.ellis@kleingers.com.

A 4.017Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE