A Force to be Reckoned WithLaser Scanner Takes British Columbia Engineering Firm to a Whole New Level

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When you are an engineering firm located in a relatively small-town in British Columbia–nearly 500 km from the closest major metropolitan area–the odds are somewhat stacked against you. To compete and thrive, you have to choose your work wisely, you have to plan on doing more than your share of remote projects, and you have to try very hard to make those remote visits count. Force Engineering is succeeding on all fronts, and in the process, building a reputation as one of the more progressive structural engineering firms at work today. Drawing upon the strengths of a laser scanner to supplement its own inherent expertise, the Dawson Creek, BC-based group has been consistently providing innovative engineering solutions in support of a wide range of industries–and is turning more than a few heads in doing so.

Difficult Environments
Force Engineering has been serving clients throughout all of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan since 1985 when it was founded by Geoff Cook, M.Sc, P.Eng., and called G.H. Cook Associates Inc. In 1996, the business was purchased by Brad Shipton, P.Eng; and Mike Zygun who, in addition to being co-owners, serve as the company’s consulting engineer and project manager, respectively. Despite its locale, the company has secured work with some very big players in oil, gas, lumber, and other industrial settings.

"In addition to work such as gathering as-built data for commercial and residential developments, schools, etc., we are often hired to design support structures for some of our industrial clients," said Shipton. "Modifying an existing metal stairway to accommodate changes in a plant’s design is a good recent example of that. These clients, many of whom are in a truly remote location, often need to have a component fabricated that will be delivered onsite and fit perfectly. There is no margin–or time–for error. We create the model for each component based on the data we can gather at their site."

Due to the nature of Force Engineering’s client base, those sites can frequently be dense with piping, wires, structural steel, etc. That environment can make gathering of as-built data extremely difficult. Zygun said that, in addition to the fact that some of their work is 200-300 km away, many of the owners often can’t provide drawings of a suitable nature or quality–if at all.

"And that workflow gets even more complicated when contracted surveyors are added to the mix," he said. "When we are assigning a surveyor to a project, we have to be very specific about what we need. Otherwise, we run the risk of not getting all the info needed for us to do our jobs. When that happens, they have to go back to the site, sometimes more than once. In addition, because many surveyors have still not adopted some of the latest robotic technology, they travel in teams of two, which is obviously an added cost. Because of our location and the remote worksites we serve, surveyors can easily be a $2,000/day expense."

A (Very) Workable Solution
In an effort to find an alternative means by which data could be quickly and accurately obtained, Force began experimenting with several different types of 3D laser scanners. While convinced that they were on the right track, there were a number of shortcomings to the units they tried–the breadth of the scanning area for one–that concerned them. A trade show visit in 2013, however, introduced them to a solution that would eventually prove invaluable to their operation.

"While at ConExpo in Las Vegas, we sat down for better than an hour with sales representatives from Topcon who showed us the GLS-2000," said Shipton. "We already knew the GLS-1000’s capabilities but felt that it was a bit too cumbersome for our mobile needs. The GLS-2000 on the other hand, had all the features we were looking for–the high scan rate, the long-range capability, and many other features–and had them in a package that was easily transportable. We were sold almost immediately."

Zygun added that they were better poised than most to maximize the benefits the GLS-2000 could provide, largely because of the wealth of modeling-based software expertise they brought to the table.

"It’s one thing to get the laser scanner and use the machine software to gather the points," he said. "But now you have to visually convey your results to a client in a form that they want. We knew we could do that; we already had the software as part of our regular business."

Home Field Advantage
Despite operating throughout three very large provinces, one of the highest profile projects in which Force Engineering has been involved of late is located three blocks from their Dawson Creek offices. The firm was contracted in advance of a project to rehab the town’s iconic 1930s era grain elevator that was being converted to an art gallery.

"Our task for this project was to lay the groundwork for a complete building envelope upgrade: all new siding, new windows, doors, roof, and so on. Essentially the city wanted to have it perform like a new building while retaining the historic charm for which it is known," said Shipton. "Unfortunately, no plans existed for it and what we could find archived or online consisted of three scant pages of drawings. Asking a contractor to proceed with that little info and yet keep the structure historically accurate is hardly fair."

To level the playing field, so to speak, Force Engineering used their Topcon GLS-2000 to scan the entire structure and adjacent areas. Then, using both the scanner’s proprietary ScanMaster software and complementary postprocessing tools–in this case ReCap then Revit–they generated a full set of high-quality construction drawings, which provided the contractor with every detail needed for the job.

"This was our first real test with the scanner in this type of application and it surprised us on so many levels," said Zygun. "I went out and, in a single Saturday morning session, got a full set of scans, which gave us all the data we needed. There is no way–short of using a crane and a basket–that I could have gotten half the detail off the building that I did. There was even a window in the uppermost part of the structure that had been broken out and boarded up. I was able to measure it from the scans, incorporate it into the drawings, and make it once again a part of the design."

Sign of the Times
The drawings Force Engineering created were invaluable in helping contractors who were bidding on the project determine key issues such as critical dimensions, volumes and surface areas. "We didn’t actually create a finely detailed model," said Zygun. "Rather, the main emphasis was to extract enough info so that contractors could do a quantity take-off. We did all that and I never got closer to the building than 200 feet with the scanner."

While the scanner proved its worth in that regard, the versatility and value of the data obtained was shown time and again. Case in point: as is common in those types of structures, the name of the elevator’s owner and the town are painted in large letters on the side of the building. It was discovered that the typeface used to do so is as iconic as the structure itself.

"One attempt was made to recreate the lettering for the signage and it just didn’t work," said Shipton. "The owners, in this case, the town of Dawson Creek, wanted everything historically periodcorrect and the only way that could normally happen, would be to go up there to measure the signage to recreate it. However, because we had the as-built scans of the structure, we took our data and generated the files needed for them to create stencils that matched the original lettering–problem solved."

Seeing in Believing
One of the most powerful cases Shipton and Zygun make for the value of the laser scanner in their operation is its ability to capture all the data that will be needed–the first time–and present those results in an easily understandable manner. Zygun cites one such recent example.

"We were called on to do some work at a gas plant located about 400 km from our office," he said. "Even though our job involved engineering for one of the structures, the customer happened to ask how we would drain one area that was prone to flooding. So I scanned a section of the plant and in that scan, got all the data I needed to design a drainage plan for them. It turned out that, not only did they have a drainage pipe that was sloping the wrong way, an area that they thought was sloping away was actually perfectly flat resulting in a huge amount of standing water after a heavy rain. Being able to manipulate the data to visually show the client what we discovered was immensely powerful for us."

Shipton added that a good deal of the preliminary processing work is done using Topcon ScanMaster software, which registers all the data and outputs it as an CL3 file. "We then bring that file into Autodesk’s ReCap, and finally into Revit–which really handles large-volume point clouds extremely well–to generate building drawings or site drawings. For some projects, in lieu of going to Revit, we might export to Solidworks or Tekla, or, to get the DWG files many clients prefer, simply output to AutoCAD. We’ve been 3D modeling since about 2007, so we are well-versed in most of the software in use today and have been a 3D BIM-focused firm longer than most."

Front of the Line
Zygun and Shipton both agree that, despite the solid place the GLS-2000 has already found in their operation–new applications seem to spring up with amazing regularity–they feel there is still so much more they can derive from it. But they say they are extremely pleased that they now have a tool that gathers more data than they ever thought possible, does it faster than ever and, by nature of its performance, enhances their value to their customers.

"We were recently given a statistic by the gas plant customer we mentioned earlier," said Shipton. "On one of the jobs we did for them, they had to shut the plant down for maintenance and re-route the gas to allow for repairs. They estimate that this job entailed 3,000 man hours and costs them about $500/hour–roughly $1.5 million. So they count on our ability to measure everything accurately the first time and ensure that the design we provide is a perfect fit. That we can virtually guarantee that now using the GLS-2000, is huge plus for us and, we feel, helps put us to the forefront of who they call."

Proving once and for all that it’s not the location, it’s the innovation.

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 4.653Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE