A couple of years ago, my firm stumbled onto this great open-source tool for processing and editing 3D triangular meshes from laser scan data. Called MeshLab, the software was developed at the Institute of Information Science and Technologies (ISTI), part of the Italian National Research Council (CNR).

For our firm, MeshLab provided an inexpensive way to create a valuable visual communication tool for surface analysis when dealing with laser scan point clouds in forensic and construction applications. We thought we were the only ones using this tool, and for awhile, maybe we were. But the secret appears to be out. At the most recent SPAR International Conference this past April, MeshLab was everywhere.

The implications are enormous. For one thing, the use of open-source software to create deliverables blows apart the traditional business model. No longer are small firms restricted in the type of deliverables they can provide based on their software budget. With a little imagination and the right technical skills, virtually anyone can create sophisticated 3D models of a project or jobsite and easily compete with much larger players for a slice of the market.

Additionally, these capabilities make it much easier for clients to see the value of laser scan data. People understand a mesh. It’s like laying a very intricate spider web of data across the surface; the surface remains visible beneath it. Another way to think about it is like a cheeseburger—you’re essentially melting imagery on top of the surface undulations. The ability to do this with both horizontal and vertical point cloud datasets is expanding the market for laser scanning services.

Of course, the open-source nature of these tools does present challenges. Large commercial software packages tend to be expensive for a reason—they’ve been thoroughly tested and evaluated to ensure that they’ll perform as intended, and they’re backed by extensive technical service. If something goes wrong (which it always does with software), all you have to do is spend some time on the phone with tech support. With open source software, you’re on your own. This means you have to proceed with caution and be careful about what you promise to deliver using open-source products.

You also need to make sure your staff is technically capable when it comes to using open-source software. Since formal training isn’t available, they’ll need to learn on their own by participating in online forums, attending conferences and doing extensive online research. It’s a continual process because open-source software is always changing.

And this brings up an interesting point. With the transient nature of technology in general, how can any firm be certain that the investment they make today—whether it’s in tech-savvy staff, scanning equipment, software or some other tool—will pay off down the road? Business networks are imperative. Through organizations like the U.S. Institute of Building Documentation (USIBD), people from across the country who are operating in different markets and have a variety of different skill levels are coming together as a group and helping each other navigate the technology path and develop a strategy for success.

The 3D market is still young. There’s a tremendous amount of “unknown” ahead, and integration into all the potential markets is still miniscule compared to what it can be. With the right tools, the technical capabilities to use them correctly, and solid backing from a network of peers, there’s no limit to how far a business can go. Open source changes the game for a lot of players. How will it affect you?