Web Exclusive: Thinking in 3D

March 1, 2009
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In the future, 2D plans will be created automatically from models. Images courtesy of Metco Services, Detroit, Mich.


With the adoption of GPS, GIS, high-resolution aerial imagery and other advances, survey technology has changed more in the last 15 to 20 years than in the previous 2000 years. But a bigger transformation is taking place: Laser scanning and the rapid creation of rich 3D models are changing surveying from a 2D profession to a 3D profession. Surveyors will no longer have to relegate data collection to lines, points and notes--they’ll simply capture reality as it is.

Of course, surveyors have been thinking in 3D for a long time--we collect x, y and z, after all, not just x and y. But laser scanning gathers 3D information so much faster and in such greater detail that it really amounts to something new. Furthermore, nonspatial data is now routinely collected and attached to models, making them “intelligent” in ways that weren’t possible just a few years ago. Clients now have every reason to expect rich 3D models that are precise, accurate and useful throughout project lifecycles, and surveyors who want to stay at the forefront of their profession will have to adapt this new 3D field-to-finish workflow. Until recently, surveyors have provided data that others turned into models. Now, however, surveyors are taking on a more active role throughout the modeling process.

New Opportunities

Even though laser scanning is still new, expensive and complicated, it’s already having a major impact on traditional surveying and is opening entirely new fields to surveying and measuring expertise. For instance, laser scanners are now being used for factories, forensic analysis, media and entertainment, historical preservation, and transportation. And the list of applications will only grow as the technology becomes more common and less expensive--similar to how GPS has been widely adopted as the price has dropped.

Consider Plowman Craven in the UK, which has deliberately evolved from a firm offering traditional surveying services to a company of 3D data capture experts. While still using traditional surveying knowledge, the firm is now applying a 3D lens to the process to service all kinds of vertical markets. “When I saw my first laser scanner about eight years ago, I said, ‘I have to get one of these,’” says Simon Barnes, RICS, a surveyor for 40 years and chief executive officer of Plowman Craven. “I could see it was a new way to communicate very quickly and accurately with clients, and that it would revolutionize the way they could see things. This would give us the opportunity to cash in on the revolution and get into different markets.”

According to Barnes, the perception is that land surveyors spend their time mapping and making 2D plans. However, by staying engaged with design teams throughout a project rather than just supplying 2D data for a particular problem, surveyors can show designers and engineers that there is an ongoing role for them to update data and provide continual input. “We should be involved from the start of a project,” Barnes says, “including how it will be set up and managed, all the way to daily operation and management of the completed building or piece of infrastructure. We need to make that distinction and explain to project stakeholders that there is now a lot more we can do for a project. We shouldn’t just be delivering data and walking away. Clients may not realize that surveyors have the skills and desire to help them far more than we have previously.”

As it is now, surveying services are almost a commodity. Surveyors locate boundaries, identify and help resolve ownership conflicts, provide topographic surveys and do construction staking. Of course, we know that’s not all we do, but that’s the perception of the general public. But show someone a walk-through of a model derived from a laser scan, and they’ll soon understand that there’s more to surveying than 2D maps.

We’re in a new era. As the starting point of 3D information modeling, surveyors should be alongside architects, engineers, contractors, game designers, attorneys, archaeologists and anyone else who will soon be using laser scanning data as the basis for their projects.

Photo courtesy of Plowman Craven.

Building Information Modeling

Building information modeling (BIM) is an integrated process built on coordinated, reliable information about a project from design through construction and on into operations. While it has its roots in architecture, the principles of BIM apply to everything in the built environment--vertical and horizontal--and all architecture, engineering and construction disciplines, including surveying. At the center of BIM is a rich 3D information model that is leveraged throughout a project to facilitate earlier decision making and more cost-effective project delivery. Surveyors can play a critical role in the BIM process because they are responsible for building the foundation of the model.

Barnes points out that while clients might prepare 3D models to test the robustness of their designs, very few actually design in 3D. “I think this is a real opportunity for surveyors to be in the vanguard--for us to be the leaders in this way--because we’ve been thinking in 3D for a long time,” he says.

Surveyors who continue in the traditional drafting-centric design process will be limited professionally to the delivery of commoditized survey products. A drafting-centric process leads to professional “silos” that separate us from other disciplines and reduce our involvement in projects. However, surveyors who focus on being the professionals that start and contribute to the BIM process will find ongoing opportunities to provide value to stakeholders, even in times when traditional boundary or subdivision work is difficult to find.

Photo courtesy of Plowman Craven.

A Proactive Approach

Proactively adopting and implementing a 3D approach should expand the role of surveyors and increase work productivity and the quality of deliverables to clients in many vertical areas. But that expanded role also increases our responsibility to archive and transmit 3D digital information so that it will continue to be useful and accessible over time--just as we have been obligated to keep neat, thorough field books for our 2D fieldwork. To do this right, surveyors will have to think in terms of intelligent data, not just graphics displayed on a screen.

We invest so much time in gathering and verifying 3D data that we should be willing to think about conversion issues and ensure that our data is useful to as many project stakeholders as possible with as few conversions as possible. That’s how we will achieve the best return on investment for all concerned. For example, consider all the infrastructure buried beneath a typical city street. If the position of, say, a fiber optic line can be preserved in a model accurately, then it will be a useful resource for decades and save hundreds (and potentially thousands) of work hours over the life of the data.

One key to achieving this goal is to think in 3D from the start of a project rather than starting in 2D and converting to 3D later on. Thinking in 3D from the beginning will change the way we approach and plan projects, make us more efficient and ensure better data from the outset. The adoption of laser scanning and BIM will drive surveyors to work this way and will also give us influence over the way data is stored, worked on and used throughout the industry.

For Plowman Craven and other firms that have embraced 3D technology, this transformation has had a positive impact on their business. “In the past, we did not even have a seat at the table--we just delivered a 2D product,” Barnes says. “But now we’re very visible and we’re being asked for our opinion on matters that previously would have been considered out of our purview. We see this as a really good conduit for us as an organization--to be much more involved in the strategy of setting up these models for BIM.”

Clearly, this is a time of change, and in such times traditional roles can shift. By taking advantage of this situation, surveyors can attain for themselves a “seat at the table.”

Sidebar: Making the Move to Laser Scanning and BIM

In his book “Innovators Dilemma,” Clayton Christensen makes an important point that has bearing on the technology and process of laser scanning and BIM: “When the best firms succeeded, they did so because they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and capabilities that satisfied their customers’ next-generation needs [emphasis added].” This idea is critical for those who are considering the move from traditional surveying services to laser scanning and BIM.

As with any new initiative, there are suggested steps that you should follow. First, you need to understand the technology both from a technical and a business perspective so that you can answer questions such as: What does it do? What existing processes will it allow us to do differently? What will it allow us to do that we haven’t been able to do before? Second, you need to have a plan that covers how the technology will impact your business (people and revenue) and processes.

Technology (Laser Scanning)

The successful use of laser scanning/high-definition surveying begins by first understanding what it is. Investigate the technology and identify the opportunities for scanning services. Educate yourself about the technology by talking with existing clients, engineers, architects and owners as well as hardware vendors. Remember that no new system is cheap, so consider renting scanners from a local instrument/CAD dealer to learn the technology. For smaller organizations, consider a consortium approach in which a group of local peer companies come together to rent or own a system and share it until there are enough recurring projects to pay for one yourself. This approach is similar to the way in which many firms got into GPS technology.

Next, look for some unique projects--not regular topography but projects that are too difficult, dangerous or costly to pursue with traditional methods. Some examples include gravel pits, open-pit or other mines, steep embankments, bridges, interchanges, water/sewer plants or even ALTA/ACSM land title surveys for buildings in dense areas with both horizontal and vertical encroachments. Some firms have achieved field labor savings of 50 to 75 percent for these types of projects.

Once field work is completed, scans are then registered and placed onto a horizontal and vertical control system like any other survey workflow. From there, the scans (model databases) can be transferred to the design or drafting department (or another firm) as the start of the BIM process.

Process (BIM)

When looking at a process change such as going from standard survey deliverables to a BIM workflow, there are a number of factors to consider. BIM solutions create and operate on digital databases for collaboration and manage change throughout those databases so that a change to any part of the database is coordinated in all other parts. They also capture and preserve information for reuse by additional industry-specific applications.

A formal implementation strategy is an essential component of any successful BIM deployment and must go well beyond a simple training and rollout schedule. It should address the workflow and organizational changes inherent to BIM. The implementation strategy also needs to address how the new solution will initially coexist with existing 2D drafting or 3D modeling applications. Wholesale abandonment of these legacy design applications is impractical and often ill advised, but as the implementation expands, the strategy may also include plans for the phased retirement of legacy systems. Firms should look at how the BIM model can be accessed by related applications. Specifically, look at the work you need to accomplish today, and match that to the tools you put in place today. For firms that handle very large projects, the implementation strategy should include guidelines for creating and working with large models (such as additional hardware requirements, techniques for reducing model complexity, etc).

Because BIM represents a new approach to design and not just the implementation of new supporting technology, firms should pay close attention to the makeup of the transition team to ensure that it comprises both forward-thinking individuals and senior leaders. Because change is potentially disruptive to ongoing operations, it needs to be addressed head-on prior to implementation. Education and awareness about BIM are key tools when tackling the natural resistance to change, particularly in firms where organizational structure and disparate locations make communication more complicated. Select the right project to start with--something your firm already knows how to do so that there’s only a single dimension of learning. Gathering statistics can substantiate the promised ROI of the system and help garner support amongst the “show-me” members of the firm.

At the top of the checklist for a smooth deployment of laser scanning and a BIM solution are these critical success factors:

• Develop a sound, comprehensive implementation strategy for each;

• Assemble the right team composed of both senior leadership and technology-progressive people;

• Select a suitable starting project; and

• Be prepared for the inevitable resistance to change.

For more information, visit www.autodesk.com/PowerofBIM.

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