Over the past few years, the federal government General Services Administration (GSA) has transitioned to the use of building information modeling (BIM) for complex design and engineering changes to existing facilities. GSA has seen reductions in the time to design and construct facilities, and the cost reduction benefits gained through the use of BIM have been so significant that the GSA now requires BIM on all government construction projects.

An integral part of this BIM design is 3D laser scanning, which can collect as-built data from sensors placed on construction materials and then export this data into CAD drafting formats that include Revit and Navisworks . The end product is a BIM model of an existing building that has a complete architectural, structural, electrical, plumbing, HVAC information repository that can be used for facility remodeling, expansion and structural integrity analysis. When a 3D scanner is used in conjunction with BIM, the 3D scanner can capture sensor-based information and make it meaningful by establishing a point cloud, or a set of data points in a three-dimensional coordinate system that is intended to represent the external surface of an object.

Adding 3D laser scanning to the BIM value proposition carries immediate repercussions for construction material manufacturers and builders. Manufacturers will be pressured to add sensor-based technologies to their materials so the characteristics in the materials can be easily captured in 3D representations. Builders who wish to bid on major contracts for government, and also for major companies, will likely be mandated to use 3D laser scanning and BIM modeling.

The 3D laser scanning market has grown 25 to 30 percent over the last five years, but despite the opportunities, adoption of 3D laser scanning in the construction industry has been relatively slow. Barriers to entry into this technology include its relatively high price of adoption, inability to surpass more traditional surveying and construction methodologies in some project scenarios, internal staff resistance to adoption of a new technology, and the difficulty of integrating 3D laser scanning with other important project technology tools like CAD packages that are not equipped to incorporate 3D laser scanning.

However, in failing to adopt 3D laser scanning or to at least place it on their technology roadmaps, construction firms in particular might be missing out on savings in areas of high cost and waste.

An example of this is the installation of drywall, which is very labor intensive and involves multiple steps of layout, measuring, cutting, delivering and installing. The productivity level in drywall installation is one of the lowest in the construction build cycle. Workers must cut drywall boards to fit unusual building dimensions, or for pipe, outlet and light switch holes. Poor accuracy during the process can result in time delays and labor overages, and also workflow delays and back injuries for workers who have to frequently bend over and/or lift materials.

Auburn University performed a 2014 study on the use of 3D laser scanning and BIM with the drywall aspect of a construction project. The goal was to utilize 3D high definition laser scanning to prefabricate drywall in order to reduce the time associated with hanging it.

The Auburn research did not prove that new methods to install drywall were faster than the traditional method of installing it from below the ceiling. However, the 3D laser scanning used in the project did produce 100 percent accuracy for the cutting of holes in drywall boards for light switches, piping and other uses. This reduced both waste and time. The Auburn study also recommended that manufacturers attach sensor/RFID-based technology to their materials so the materials could more easily be tracked and accounted for in construction projects.

The bottom line for companies in the surveying and construction industries is that 3D laser scanning as a complement to BIM will be an absolute requirement in large government and private sector projects in the near future, if not already. For companies that are less involved with these large contracts, 3D laser scanning should be on their technology roadmaps as a future acquisition in the next three years. There are still many areas of surveying and construction “on-the-ground” practice where 3D laser scanning must prove its worth, and there are also BIM and CAD softwares that lag in 3D laser scanning integration, but these problems are likely to be resolved as the industry moves forward into a new dimension of structural visualization that prevents errors, limits waste and reduces on-the-job injuries.