Demand Increasing for Laser Scanning, Part 2

Part 1 of this two-part series (June 2007, p. 80) describes how various types of clients are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of laser scanning and are thus increasing their demand for laser scanning services. Part 2 looks at two other drivers for this surging demand: an industry trend toward 3D design and presentation and the emergence of new software that makes it easy for clients to view and use rich, high-definition survey data.

Trend to 3D Design and Presentation

A current industry trend toward 3D design and presentation is helping to drive increasing demand for 3D laser scanning. This first occurred with significance in the plant industry, one of the first industries to move heavily into 3D design. Since all laser scan data starts out as 3D data, applying high-definition as-built survey data is a natural fit for use with 3D plant retrofit design software. Today, it's an everyday practice for many plant design companies to merge 3D as-built scan data directly with proposed 3D designs in order to validate the proposed designs and modify them as needed.

3D design is now also increasingly being used for architectural design and for civil design. Autodesk and Bentley are big drivers in this arena. Autodesk's new AutoCAD Civil 3D application, in particular, and the company's emphasis on 3D as its central, future direction have already caused many civil/survey firms to move up to 3D design for civil projects. Initial reports from users are positive. One of the benefits of 3D design, in general, is its inherent value as a good path to accurate 2D drawings.

In addition to its use in a pure design capacity, 3D is also being increasingly used for architectural and civil project proposals to clients and planning commissions. 3D adds value in the communications process as clients are better able to see and understand the proposal and its impact on the surrounding area.

As with 3D plant design, high-definition surveying is a natural fit with the trend to 3D for civil and architectural design, as 3D design software is, in general, heavily based on viewing surfaces and high-definition surveying is ideal for capturing and presenting surfaces in 3D.

3D Trend in Forensics

3D analysis and presentation is also increasingly being used in forensics. I recently received a call from a principal of a firm that specializes in accident reconstruction. He called to inquire about what options he had for using laser scanning technology and possibly offering laser scanning as part of his company's accident reconstruction services. At one point, I asked the caller what had prompted his inquiry about laser scanning. What he told me was interesting.

He said he'd recently been at a site manually measuring up a crushed automobile for a case that his firm had been contracted for. He said that while he was there, another professional at the site had started shaking his head at him as he watched him collecting measurements of the crushed vehicle manually. They wound up talking. The onlooker told him that this manual way was the old way of doing things and that he needed to "get with the times" and use laser scanning and 3D representation of the crushed vehicle. The caller noted that he'd been in the accident reconstruction business for 20 years using manual measurements and 2D drawings, but he had observed how his whole industry was shifting to 3D digitization and modeling. Hence, the call about laser scanning. This type of general mention of "the industry is shifting to 3D" is something that I increasingly hear from those looking into laser scanning.

New Breakthrough Software: Point Clouds for Everyone via the Web, Free

Almost anyone who has seen point clouds, including non-professionals, has said at some point, "I wish I could have scans of (fill-in-your-own-subject) on my computer so that I could view them and measure from them." Unfortunately for many, the software to view and measure from point clouds of civil and architectural scenes has only been usable by experts, such as CAD technicians, 3D designers, or laser scanning specialists. For non-experts, it's not only been hard to view and measure, but it's also been difficult to load large scan data sets and work your way through the scan data file structure trees to get to the data that you want. Moreover, for the casual, non-expert user, software that lets you measure from point clouds has often been considered too costly.

Well, all of that has recently changed …dramatically. Free software became available at the beginning of 2007 that allows casual non-experts to view point clouds of civil, architectural, and industrial scenes intuitively and to very easily measure between any two points within a scan. Moreover, the point clouds are much more manageable in file size than the original scan files and they can even be viewed via the web, as if you were viewing a PDF document! Measurements of point clouds via this type of free software can be used as a convenient, quick estimate for general planning purposes. Surveyors will be relieved to know that these measurements are generally not accurate enough for use as survey-grade measurements for engineering design so their surveying services will still be needed.

Viewing point clouds is now totally intuitive, even for the non-expert. No training is needed. The viewing software essentially "places the person where the scanner was." The viewer can rotate the view of the scan scene—just as you would rotate your head left to right— and/or move the view of the scan scene up or down just as you would raise or lower your head to look up or down. You can also freely zoom in or pan back.

The only requirement to take advantage of this free software is that the scan data first has to be published in a certain format. This is the point cloud analogy to "PDF." Just as anyone with a free Adobe Acrobat reader can read documents that have been written in PDF format (created with Adobe Acrobat Writer software), now anyone with this free point cloud viewing software in the proper format can intuitively view and measure and mark-up scan data files.

In addition to being able to view, measure, and mark-up scans, the "point cloud publishing" software also enables the publisher of the scan data to create a site map with icons that show where each scanner location was. Clicking on a scanner icon on the site map calls up the scan image for that location.

Since this software was released in early 2007, a number of users have started to take advantage of it. One of the most noteworthy examples is General Motors (GM). GM uses it for sharing high-definition surveys of some of its factories with a broad group of internal staff and external contractors. Now, without having to go to the factory floor, virtually any GM staffer can view the factory and measure from the scan images and even mark them up to share with others. As even non-expert GM staff have started to view and use the scan data at their desk, they have asked for additional scanning services for more and more of their facilities.

The bottom line is that with broader exposure of high-definition survey images to a much wider, non-expert audience, demand is further increasing for laser scanning. Other organizations who have started to take advantage of this powerful new software capability are reporting similar increased demand for scanning services.

Demand for high-definition surveying services is increasing. Organizations that had never had clients ask for it have started to receive inquiries. Organizations that have been providing laser scanning services are reporting an increase in the number of inquiries that are coming in specifically for laser scanning services. Several factors are driving this increased demand. These include (1) an increasing awareness among end clients of the benefits of the technology, (2) a trend towards 3D design and presentation, especially propelled by Autodesk for civil design, and (3) new, free software that makes it easy for any professional, not just experts, to take advantage of rich, high-definition survey information.

About the Author

  • Geoff Jacobs
    Geoff Jacobs
    Geoff is senior vice president, strategic marketing for Leica Geosystems, Inc.

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