The Limitless Applications of 3D Scanning

An Interview with Sean Weir, P. Eng.

Sean Weir is a structural engineer working out of CWA’s Saskatoon office. Sean applies his specialized knowledge of laser scanning technology to perform 3D scanning at numerous industrial sites throughout the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. In our interview below, Sean explains how this new technology is changing the way information is gathered and shared, how it can streamline the on-site as-building process, and how it offers CWA’s clients potential cost savings and other advantages.

What is a 3D scanner and how does it work?

SEAN: A 3D scanner is a surveying tool that has really come to the forefront in the last few years as technology has advanced. The 3D scanner is used to scan and gather images of up-to-date, on-site information on projects, pieces of equipment, or site-specific environments. It does this by collecting millions of scan points or data sets, known as point clouds, creating a highly accurate, true-to-life, three dimensional image of what is actually present in the field, and which can then be navigated through, drafted, and modeled in CAD or other software applications. As site facilities become older things change—equipment gets moved and drawings are not always kept up to date. Consequently, people who are performing work on a site often don’t know exactly what’s in the field. So, 3D scanning is a tool that we use to get real-life, up-to-date information about our clients’ existing facilities.

How is 3D scanning used in engineering?

SEAN: Many of the projects we work on are operating facilities where we’re having to work around the existing equipment, utilities, and structures. Some of these are thirty, forty, or fifty years old. As I mentioned, conditions can change a lot over the years at some of these older facilities, so many of the existing structures and equipment are not always as they’re shown on the drawings. Ownership may have changed as well, so you sometimes find that drawings have not been kept up to date or may no longer even exist. Additionally, in past years, sites weren’t necessarily tracking all the things that we track today, and so a lot of the information on clients’ existing records may not be an accurate representation of the site’s current state. Or, in the case of new construction that has just taken place, if it was not built as per the exact drawing, or if changes were not captured in the red-line drawings, things may be a little different in the field. So, performing a 3D scan is useful when we don’t have all the information required to do detailed drawings for a project, and we find that it’s a very valuable tool.

Does 3D scanning differ significantly from traditional methods of field work?

SEAN: Yes, absolutely. Traditional methods of field work are generally performed by using a tape measure, pen, and existing drawing, and taking measurements, which are then turned into as-built sketches or drawings, along with photos for reference. You’re basically going out there and creating an as-built of the site, structure, or equipment to the best of your abilities with a tape measure, trying to recreate it on a piece of paper which you then take back to the office to generate either a drawing or a model. The new method is to use a 3D scanner to help perform these tasks. Rather than using only the traditional field instruments—a tape measure and pen—we can perform a detailed scan which, along with the traditional measurements and sketches, can be used to create a real-life model that we can then manipulate on the computer. It’s a lot faster and a lot more informative. The 3D scanner captures everything all at once, providing accurate measurements as well as photos showing the position, appearance, and condition of the equipment. It can be easy to miss things when you’re working in the field using traditional methods. You may be there to take measurements for steel beams and miss a pipe or some other small piece of equipment that’s in the way. In some cases, you may be looking for a small piece in a large system, and it can be overwhelming to try and get the exact information you require using traditional methods. That’s the advantage of using a 3D scanner, it captures everything all at once, measuring elements that we might not even think about or be aware of while working in the field, so that when we get back to the office and dissect the information in the model, we’re able to see things we may have missed. It saves us from having to go back to the site to take additional measurements, which is a big advantage if the site is in a remote location. Overall, 3D laser scanning is just a lot more intuitive than using a traditional tape measure and pen. It’s also highly accurate, efficient, and cost effective when properly performed and managed. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that 3D scanners can only measure surfaces in the line of sight, so it isn’t an X-ray and it can’t see through walls or equipment. A 3D scanner will only pick up on and measure surface points that the eye can see. If you’re cognizant of this, you’ll know to take additional scans from various lines of site to capture the back sides of equipment and whatever additional information that’s required. It’s not so much a limitation as something to be aware of when you’re out in the field using the 3D scanner to ensure that you’re capturing a complete and accurate picture.

How does 3D scanning benefit you as an engineer?

SEAN: As engineers we are asked to create a design, and our design is only as accurate as the information that has been provided to us. If the information is inaccurate or incomplete, we need to fill in those gaps to the best of our ability or perform additional field measurements to gain the full picture. Using a 3D scanner, we’re able to obtain additional information that’s required for our design up front and close as many of those gaps as we require to produce a proper detailed design. If we were using more traditional methods to gather the required information, we might have to perform more than one field visit, and depending on where the site is, for example if it’s in a remote location as many are, it can be very costly and time consuming to perform even a small task. If a remote client doesn’t have someone on site to do the small field measurements it is either ‘A’, very costly or ‘B’, you’re stuck with having to use whatever information you have and then try to fill in the gaps. However, with a 3D scanner it’s possible to have someone in the office viewing live as the scan is taking place on site, and they can tell the person in the field exactly what’s needed. The 3D scanner provides you with a real-time, highly accurate, digitized image of what you’re working with on the ground which can then be easily shared, navigated, analyzed, and manipulated in design software applications. Not only is the information you collect more informative and accurate with a 3D scan, the entire process is extremely streamlined and efficient. All the information is digital and instantly downloaded onto the scanner’s SD card, so once you’re back at the office you can immediately take all of the information you’ve gathered and manipulate it as required on your desktop computer, or send that information wherever it’s needed.

What advantages does 3D scanning technology offer your clients?

SEAN: 3D laser scanning gives our clients the ability to gain an accurate account of their current assets, whether that’s just a simple piece of equipment or a mapping of the client’s entire facility or site, providing them with an up-to-date, live model that accurately reflects their current operations. Clients can then take that information and easily pass it on to different people within the company. Also, as a three-dimensional digital image, the scan can be used to conduct walkthroughs and allows us to view and detect potential interferences or clashes. Having the accurate data up front results in significant cost and time savings because, as you know, it’s much more time consuming and costly to make changes in the field versus in the shop. Whether it’s structural, mechanical or electrical changes, or running pipes and electrical lines, having access to all the information up front, prior to commencing work in the field is very useful and important to the client, the engineer, the designer, or the construction company performing the work.

Does the 3D scan produce an asset that the client retains?

SEAN: Yes, it is a service that we provide, and the result is a digital asset that our clients retain.  Clients can view the information using various software applications, and conduct walk-throughs at any time, with whomever they wish to share this information. And, with the current advances in technology, there are an ever-increasing number of tools at their disposal to enhance this ability. Virtual reality is one such example, where clients can now put on a headset, virtually walk through a 3D scan, and feel like they’re present at site. So, it’s great for people in the office who may have never been on site, or for collaborating with specialized experts who may be based elsewhere in the world and don’t have physical access to the site. Overall, 3D scanning makes it easier to collaborate with our clients, allowing us to bring them up to date on the progress of their project without them needing to have their boots physically on the ground in the field. By collecting all the data up front, there may be multiple, additional uses which the client may not even have been aware of at the time the scan was taken, which can then benefit them down the road.

Do you anticipate any advancements in 3D scanning technology or new applications in the future?

SEAN: Well, we’ve talked about virtual reality, which has advanced rapidly in the last few years and is now coming more to the forefront. Although it’s still relatively new to our industry, it’s becoming increasingly more common. We’re seeing advances in the quality of the scanning equipment, similar to computers, where each year the technology gets better and better. The data is becoming increasingly more accurate, as well as faster and easier to manipulate with the continued development of design software applications. Virtual reality offers people, who may be in an office thousands of miles away, the ability to walk through an operating facility as if they were on site. So, while the technology is becoming more adept at handling modeling problems, it’s also vastly improving workflows and our ability to collaborate. While it’s hard to predict exactly where this technology is going to take us and what applications may be developed in the future, we’re already seeing significant shifts that are impacting the industrial engineering sector, and we realize that it’s important to stay on top of these transformations. The applications of this technology are limitless so long as people continue to benefit from methods that allow them to be more efficient and productive in their work and provide better and more cost-efficient ways to collaborate in an increasingly global work environment.