The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is a notoriously information-hungry sector. Professionals demand increasingly detailed information as a project progresses from the initial brief through initial site surveys through detailed design to completion and handover.
In the past, a lot of this information was in paper-based form, but today’s designers and constructors are increasingly working with a multitude of AEC software and hardware solutions. From design and information management applications supporting building information modelling (BIM) to drones, 3D cameras, and laser surveying technologies, rapidly growing volumes of data are being created, accessed, and managed by multiple users, whether in the design studio, in the project management office, or out on site.
The demand for information becomes particularly acute during the capital-intensive phase of construction delivery. The main contractor may have several specialist subcontractors working in parallel on different work packages, and careful coordination and sequencing of their work will be critical to keeping the project on time and on budget. Moreover, the construction team will also want to ensure that they can efficiently compile the as-built data needed by the client post-handover to manage the new asset.
At different stages of a project, laser-scanning to produce point cloud data can be invaluable. Reality capture techniques can help to accurately record 3D data about existing assets, particularly where, for example, an existing facility is being upgraded or extended. Designers can use this point cloud data to mesh as a foundation for their design work. During construction, laser surveys can then be used to capture vital as-built data (for example, structural steel and concrete, or building services installations) before the constructed work is obscured by later work. Such scans can be used to populate information models used for handover – sometimes called as-built BIM.
As reality capture technologies have advanced, users have been able to generate increasingly detailed and accurate surveys, each image formed from millions of data points. However, this depth of information also raises some information challenges, particularly if site-based personnel want to access and interact with the data.
Typical laser-scans are captured in individual files that can be anything from 2GB to 100s of gigabytes. Compiling several files to produce accurate 3D imagery can multiply the data challenge many times over. And the files may be in proprietary formats that require special AEC software applications to process them.
This demands a high-powered computer with advanced processing capabilities and high storage capacity – and such computers are not cheap, nor are they devices that many users will want to risk on-site. Moreover, efficiently sharing images with other members of the construction team will demand high-bandwidth connections – construction sites may be in locations poorly served by telecommunications, while the temporary connections and networks established in many site offices are usually not geared to downloading and sharing huge files.
Intelligent meshing technology can make a huge difference here.
A single flat surface in a point cloud, for example, might be represented by hundreds of thousands of data points. Meshing enables a much more efficient representation, capturing the surface edges while combining data points registered across its surface. A user’s view is then made up of a mesh of numerous geometric shapes that can be much more quickly assembled, viewed, and explored. Such techniques can reduce files to 1/100th of their original point-cloud size – measured in MB rather than GB – and, with the mesh files being software-agnostic, they can be viewed and shared via readily available applications.
For the onsite data user this means rapid access to data at acceptable levels of fidelity using applications on existing desktop and laptop machines, even via tablets or smartphone apps. Site internet connections are no longer clogged by time-consuming downloads, and there are significant savings in local file storage. This all adds up to less time spent data-wrangling on site. Moreover, as discretely identified objects, they can also be more easily coordinated by object type or trade, speeding up team workflows.
And where the meshes are used to check the accuracy of new structures or new installations of equipment against the original design models, these lightweight, software-agnostic meshes can be opened 70% faster in design tools. This accelerates as-built BIM checking processes; once accuracy has been verified, the next stages of construction or installation can be expedited, potentially cutting hours, even days, from construction delivery programmes.
The client/owner-operator will not only potentially get the new facility sooner, but they will also receive streamlined as-built information for re-use to support post-handover health and safety (H&S) and operation and maintenance (O&M) processes, and to support future investments as the asset is refurbished or expanded.
Intelligent meshes therefore deliver major time, cost, and quality benefits, to the designers, contractors, specialists, project managers, product suppliers and others engaged in delivering projects. Construction margins are typically less than 10%, so costly mistakes or loss of efficiency can easily turn profit into loss. As the AEC industry gears up to become even more supportive of the whole-life of built assets, those benefits are also directly shared with AEC industry customers. And with digital information set to be the default for the ‘Golden Thread’ of building safety, meshes will also indirectly benefit the people who live in, work in, or otherwise rely on complex buildings and infrastructure.
Steve Salmon is a seasoned technology general manager who has worked in both software and hardware technology businesses, starting with a software and service company that helped businesses get on to the internet, through the mobile phone revolution, and latterly a consumer electronics solution to keep vulnerable children and adults safe. The common theme was early adopter industries where technology has been the catalyst to change and improved profitability. Having led a number of businesses to a sale, Steve joined Pointfuse, a mesh software company, three years ago to develop a very interesting and unique software technology into a solution that enhances existing workflows in the construction industry.
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