As 2012 winds down, now is a good time to look back at the strides that have been made in the 3D world and all of the associated hardware and software in our industry. 

Not only is new technology being used and accepted, but the demand for more BIM products, users and technologists has grown faster than ever. There is still much ground to be broken, but wow—what a year!

New Software

Take software, for example. As I travel around America and talk to user groups and clients, the one thing I am always asked is, When will it be easier to model point clouds into usable entities?

There is much research going on to solve this challenge. One of the companies to watch in this space is ClearEdge3D, whose EdgeWise Plant software is breaking down barriers in modeling point clouds. 

I believe that within the next three years, this major barrier will be a minor issue, and point cloud use will continue to grow and expand. 

The other great leap in technology is that most of the major software packages have updated their products to accept point clouds as a layer. This means that most of our clients in the architectural and MEP worlds can now import our point clouds into their design software and greatly enhance their designs.

Just three or four years ago, using point cloud data required modeling, and this limited the market to mechanical and structural engineers and various contractors with specialty software. Today, because all Revit users can import point cloud data, the need to model everything in a scan project has been greatly decreased. This is a big deal! Now, instead of having to pay for an expensive model, end users get all of the benefits of point cloud precision without the associated costs of modeling.

Not to be overlooked, there are still issues that will need to be ironed out in inserting point clouds into design software, but they will be overcome with time. For example, if you are working in Inventor to model plant process data, it is best if the project is modeled from start to finish in Inventor. Similarly, if the data is to be modeled in Revit, it should be modeled from start to finish in Revit. There are no readily available universal translators to move from a model that was created in Cyclone to a model in Revit while keeping the full integrity of the original model. 

Though the data itself is globally transferrable, the structure of the models, entities, families and libraries requires more work to be done in this area.

New Hardware

Last year, I predicted that the hardware in our industry was set and that most of the changes would come in the form of software. On this point, I was wrong. 

Several changes have occurred that continue to advance hardware. Probably the most notable example was the FARO Focus3D scanner, which broke the price barrier. Prior to its release, most scanners started around $80,000 and went up to $200,000. The Focus3D, which was released at about $50,000, has caused price adjustments throughout the industry. 

I believe prices will continue to go down. This is both a good and bad thing for the industry. As prices go down, more people with marginal training and experience will begin to use scanners, and bad point clouds will become more of a problem.

There is a saying in our industry that “one bad point cloud kills a lot of clients.” Indeed, this is true. I have talked to clients who tried laser scanning nine years ago, had a bad experience, and will not use it again to this day. The problem is not that scanners are getting more affordable, but that there are still no national standards in the industry.

The upside is that with a lower cost competitor, manufacturers must consider what value their laser scanners bring that others do not. This will lead to new technology breakthroughs.

Cool New Technologies

Two technologies that will change the playing field moving forward are aerial drones and augmented reality. These technologies are growing fast and have many great uses.

A traditional helicopter used to map utilities and large areas generally costs about $25,000 per day. A one-meter drone quadripod, on the other hand, costs about $2,000 per day. Though the smaller one-meter drones can accomplish tasks that the helicopter is currently doing, there are other tasks that the smaller drones can perform that traditional helicopters cannot do. For example, smaller drones can more effectively and safely map underground pipes, mines and tunnels. Currently, sending two scan technicians into a tunnel requires about six surface and sub-surface support staff. An unmanned drone with avoidance technology would be a great solution.

Augmented reality and the ability to project 3D images easily and to large groups is already available and is changing the world of education. A small but growing company, ViziTech USA, is doing very creative and trendsetting work in this area. 

This is where the science of 3D technology is repackaged so that the average person can use and understand it. This is a powerful tool and will lead to great changes in many industries and educational processes.

The design and construction of future projects will still require the same basic processes that are required today. But the use of precision data before, during and after construction—and the visual way the data can be viewed—will greatly reduce errors and downtime events.