I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career working with new technologies. From an early age I was always fascinated with the opportunities that technology can provide. Technology, as a tool, has the ability to change the way we perform almost any task. Things that were once complex and time consuming can now be done easily with very little effort. The expected result would be that we are able to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time with an increased level of quality. I say “expected” because that isn’t always the case. Why? Because technology is simply a tool that when used correctly can provide significant benefits but doesn’t by itself guarantee a successful result. Like any other tool, it’s the correct use and application of the technology that generates successful results. The challenge for our industry is that the application of technology in a work process is very difficult to certify or regulate. Technology is constantly evolving and as soon as standards are set for one application, the technology has advanced, and the standards are obsolete. I’ve witnessed this throughout my career in as-built documentation and particularly the rapid adaptation of laser scanning.
Laser Scanning 101
In simple terms, a laser scanner is a survey instrument. It uses a laser to measure distance and encoders to measure angles. With two angles and a distance, you can calculate a 3D point. It’s the same principals used in traditional surveying for centuries. In the mid to late 1990’s, technology began to be developed where measurements could be taken up to 100,000 points per second to almost any surface without the need of a prism or reflector. In addition, the scanner had the ability to measure everything visible within a full 360-degree field of view. The operator no longer had to rely on sight and crosshairs to measure a point, they just position the scanner in a location where the point is visible and hit the button. This proved to be game-changing technology for as-built documentation. Entire buildings or process units could be surveyed to an incredible level of detail and accuracy in just a fraction of the time versus traditional methods. Fast forward to today and laser scanning is being used in almost every industry around the world. Today’s scanners are capable of +1M points per second, can integrate HDR color photos and are small enough to carry in a backpack. With all the excitement surrounding the capabilities and potential applications, many have lost track of the realization that the laser scanner is just a tool, hardware and software, nothing more. Without an established, proven work process to collect and implement the data in a way that will benefit the project, laser scanning provides very little value.
It’s not that easy?
I recently taught my 16-year-old daughter how to drive. From the very beginning I told her that “operating a motor vehicle” is not that difficult. You have a couple pedals and a steering wheel. We have been using those at the local amusement park for years. However, the act of driving safely from one location to another is much more challenging. You must know where you are going, understand (and hopefully follow) the rules of the road, constantly be aware of other drivers and limit your distractions. Additionally, you need to understand your automobile, it’s maintenance intervals and performance limitations. I often use this analogy when asked to speak about laser scanning. Operating the laser scanner is now as simple as taking it out of the box, turning it on and pressing the scan button. If you can use a cell phone, you can operate a laser scanner. The challenge is what happens next? Like driving, for a successful journey (project) there are many other variables to consider besides just how to operate the scanner. What is the deliverable I need that will enable me to meet my project goals? Which type of scanner should I use? How many scans are required to capture my project area? How do I register one scan to the other and verify everything’s correct? What coordinate system will the scans be in and why? The difference between operating a laser scanner and executing a successful laser scan project can become daunting to those with little experience utilizing the technology.
Who do you trust when everyone’s an expert?
I have many friends in the engineering and survey industry. I’ve always admired the hard work and dedication they’ve put in to earn their PE or PLS certification. I respect the process of formal education, apprenticeships and eventually earning the right to pass an exam and receive the recognition of being a highly-skilled expert in their field. In the ever-changing world of technology, these types of education and certifications are next to impossible. Technology is rolled out for use often before it has even finished development. In 2010 a low-cost laser scanner became available and with no formal training or certifications required to provide a laser scanning service, dozens of start-ups formed looking to capitalize on the emerging laser scanning market. This led not only to a rapid decline in quality but also to an influx of self-appointed “laser scanning experts”. At that time if you had more than one project under your belt, you were considered an expert. With so many experts in the field, how do you know who to trust? The one objective criterion that can always be used is industry experience. Has this company previously executed projects in similar size and scope to mine? Do they have references to back-up their claims? Are they familiar with or have backgrounds in my specific industry? You can’t become an expert in a field without a significant amount of real-life, hands-on experience. Technology changes quickly and experience is sometimes hard to find but it’s out there and the best way to ensure the technology will benefit your project is to work with someone that has used it successfully many times before.
In the process industry it is not uncommon for a project to obtain tens of millions of dollars in savings from reduced rework made possible by the correct use of laser scanning technology. With so much money and potential risk involved with laser scanning, why hasn’t it been regulated? Technology rapidly changes and there are simply to many subjective variables when it comes to executing a successful project. A method that is successful for a bridge won’t work in a refinery. Exhaustive knowledge of the scanner’s capabilities and registration software doesn’t guarantee all the tie-points will be captured or the field team will work safely. Ultimately when deciding on how to proceed with the greatest chance of success, whether it is a doctor performing a surgery, a contractor replacing your roof or who to trust with your laser scanning challenges, experience should often be the determining factor.
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or Call Matthew Craig (832) 372-6212