3D and thriving

November 2009 » Features » PROGRESSIVE ENGINEERING
How and why 3D laser scanning technology is prospering.
Lieca N. Hohner

Since 2003, the first year Spar Point Research began its market analysis of laser scanning use, the market for 3D laser scanning solutions and services has grown from less than $100 million annually to more than $400 million today. While industry growth has slowed in the last 12 months, industry appetites for shortening project schedules, reducing project execution cost, and mitigating risk — the benefits reported from using new laser scanning technologies — remain strong. According to Spar Point Research’s 2009 3D Laser Scanning User Satisfaction Survey, the category including civil/transportation/building projects is the second highest rated sector using the technology (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Laser scanning work by project type

Additional contributors to this rising interest and adoption include the fact that new 3D scanning hardware is lighter, smaller, faster, and more efficient than previous generation equipment. What’s more, civil engineering and surveying firms worldwide are capitalizing on new software capabilities to extract building information modeling (BIM), design, and GIS deliverables from scan data (see “Point clouds on the horizon” on page 38). Mastering these new workflows can make the difference in not only winning new business, but also driving profit margins.

Growth drivers: Quality, speed, cost, and safety
While CAD models, drawings, and photographs are certainly necessary communication tools for project managers, they are often insufficient for the cost, schedule, and safety needs of today’s projects. Project managers, designers, construction personnel, owner representatives, craft labor, government officials, and others need up-to-date, high-accuracy, visually compelling, and easy-to-navigate views into project conditions from start to finish. This is what 3D laser scanning delivers; users get a very real understanding of a scanned area complete with x,y,z coordinates and photorealistic images. From pre-construction risk management assessment (were those cracks in the walls really there before excavation?) to design and construction sequencing to onsite progress monitoring to as-built verification and commissioning hand-off, having trustworthy 3D information is key to getting better results faster.

Scanning can shave hours, even days, from the field collection times of traditional methods. Schedule and labor savings equate to notable cost savings for consulting engineers who are able to avoid excessive travel time as well as long stints in the field from repeat or supplemental setups and scheduling of extra individuals for a single project.

Additionally, laser scanning is proving itself to be safer than traditional methods for both project personnel and the public because of the fast remote sensing capabilities of today’s scanners, which require less exposure to hazardous conditions. Up-and-coming mobile scanning solutions (see “The Rise of Mobile Scanning” on page 36) allow survey-grade data to be captured at posted driving speeds, which means fewer lane closures and traffic interruptions for transportation projects.

This post-registration solution from Pointools allows for fast advanced processing of point clouds such as rapid cleaning, segmentation, and recoloring.

But even with all of these advantages — many of which have been realized since the introduction of the technology to the market — it is the software that has been the bottleneck for users. Back-office processing times of scan data can easily be double that of field collection times. Storage and archive facilities have been difficult to build and sustain because file sizes are so large and dense.

Software enhancements
Processing millions and billions of data points — typical file sizes produced by today’s hardware — is much more feasible with today’s software solutions than it was even a couple of years ago. One roadblock for many users has been that scanning software packages required time-consuming decimation of point cloud data — that is, sampling and then discarding the captured points in order to make them manageable. Today, however, solutions by scanning manufacturers and software-specific processing companies alike offer solutions that enable the rapid processing of points without losing accuracy. Huge files can be processed within minutes and hours rather than days and weeks.

Automation features and versatile capabilities in today’s solutions are leading to greater acceptance and utilization of 3D scanning technology by adding even more value to the data. Infrastructure modeling and BIM clients, as well as government agencies who want millimeter-precision geo-location for corridor jobs, love today’s solutions that automatically convert point clouds into 3D polygon models. Full-featured viewers now let users analyze and display data in a point cloud. This year saw the introduction of automatic point cloud registration capabilities through the use of coded targets, an innovation that speeds up the stitching of point clouds captured from multiple locations. Models can now also be automatically photo-textured. Some processing and modeling solutions support pre-registered scan data and the merging of multiple scan sets. Shading, lighting, and intensity capabilities now capture clarity in great magnitudes.

Non-technical users of scan data also benefit. Communication between and among consulting firms, clients, and even investors has improved with the import capabilities of just a few scans into visualization and simulation applications. These facilities allow an investor or agency to see the condition of a location, structure, or facility quickly, providing them with the tools they need to better decipher what resources a road, building, or revamp project will need.

All of these advancements mean that point cloud processing capabilities will become mainstream in the very near future for users of up-to-date CAD and GIS systems who want this capability.

Web capabilities expand use
Web portal solutions — Leica Geosystems’ TruView and Z&F’s NetView to name two commercial offerings — are pulling in nontraditional scan users who are key project collaborators such as utility workers, fabricators, and sub-contractors — with the use of free downloadable or very low-cost viewers. Even indirect (yet important) users of the data don’t need to fire up software packages that manage point cloud data. With today’s workshare solutions, nontechnical viewers can utilize scan data for their individual purposes without having the complex knowledge of intricate software or even the need to travel to the project site or local engineering office. The web-based capability of these portals offers decision-making teams, who are often dispersed regionally, nationally, or globally, the means to progress with project work efficiently and effectively.

Full 360-degree horizontal and vertical views from each scanner position put any user “at the scene” virtually. Measurement and markup capabilities include adding text or hyperlinks, altering font and color size, extracting coordinate information or distances, measuring pipe diameters, and determining perpendicular distances between a point and a plane, and grouping and filtering scan regions. New files can be saved and exported.

Resistance factors
Even with the substantial improvements made to laser scanning equipment and software, there is still resistance to laser scanning-based workflows. One reason, of course, is the six-figure capital investment required for hardware, software, and training to bring it in-house. Alternatively, contracting with experienced service organizations is often the starting point. However, skills and experience are needed to specify and contract the project and to control the quality of the deliverables.

Partnering locally, financing, leasing, and good marketing can assist in adoption. Still, smart surveying, civil, and construction firms will consider the effects on business behavior carefully and strategically.

Building the right team skills
Land development, transportation, and utility engineering companies grappling with the idea of either using laser scanning data captured by third-party service organizations, or offering this as a service themselves, should not discount the changes required to be successful. First and foremost, company division managers need to recognize that laser scan data processing requires measurement expertise. This means that the individuals assigned to the work should be seasoned measurement professionals with control, coordinate system, and conversion experience. Scanning technology requires building a team with the skills to integrate the complex data with CAD and GIS programs, and third-party modeling programs.

With the coupled interest to embrace a hot and growing technology tool, along with a little business savvy, civil engineering firms of any type can be successful and profitable with 3D laser scanning technology. Equipment, software, and collaboration tool offerings have matured to the point where firms can thrive on the numerous (and growing) opportunities available in the civil market.

The rise of mobile scanning
Mobile scanning is the latest and hot data-capture method. While only a handful of firms own such units, early reports indicate compelling gains in data collection speed, cost and scheduling efficiencies, and safety with acceptable accuracy. Systems integrate kinematic GPS, LiDAR scanners, and inertial measurement units (which account for bumps in the road and other motion particulars). This method is particularly gaining interest from federal and state agencies who favor it for validation of field conditions against design constraints before construction begins.

The method — which captures data from vehicles at posted speeds — has proven to shave weeks off of schedules of projects executed with traditional surveying and days off of schedules executed with static scanning; more mileage equals accelerated schedules. Operators are able to secure data on a variety of objects and structures with each pass — and do it with accuracies of between 0.05 feet to 0.30 feet, compared with traditional surveying.

While a large purchase outlay exists, firms completing projects with mobile scanning report that it is fairly inexpensive to mobilize, at least compared with competing technologies such as aerial and LiDAR mapping. There are fewer environmental restrictions, as well.

What’s gained is safety since the need for operators to be on mainline roadways is nearly eliminated. Likewise, commuters and businesses benefit from fewer traveling distractions, lane closures, and transportation disruptions. Proponents of static scanning increasingly look to mobilizing because of these advantages. And what’s more, the quality and value of GIS and engineering workflows (not to mention maintenance management and inspection systems) are improving with the addition of accurate, geo-referenced point cloud data collected from mobile units. All of these benefits are giving firms the keys they need to drive projects they wouldn’t have been able to manage before.

Lieca N. Hohner is the chief editor for Spar Point Research, LLC (www.sparllc.com), a technology research and consulting firm based in Danvers, Mass. She can be reached at lieca.hohner@sparllc.com.


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