Technology has greatly accelerated the pace of our professional and personal lives over the past 20 years. The development of smaller, faster computer processors, smartphones, wireless communications and information storage capacities has precipitated huge advantages across the economy and society. But it has also created pressure to accomplish tasks and projects in ever less time.

The ability to complete these tasks and projects profitably and within schedule depends largely on the quantity and quality of information available. It becomes more difficult to complete projects successfully and efficiently if the necessary time is not allotted to investigate the potential risks and physical limitations of the work.

3D laser scanning is an important technology through which companies can increase the quality of their data — saving time and money when compared to traditional drawings. With wide applicability, 3D scanning is used across many sectors and functions. Frequently, for example, it is used in the U.K.’s National Health Service to create models of organs for doctors to use when practising surgery. It is also used by the police to capture and log crime scenes for later analysis. As computing power rapidly increases, 3D laser scanning is being utilised to ever-greater effect. When applied to construction projects, it carries significant benefits.

Not a New Technology

For some time after 3D laser scanning first entered the market in the mid-1990s, its capabilities were slow to evolve. More recently, costs have decreased markedly, increasing access to a convenient tool that allows design teams to execute small projects with reduced field resources and change orders.

Combining laser scans with existing drawings can enhance efficiency, enabling projects to move rapidly through the conceptual design phases and into detailed design by reducing the need for on-site drawing verification. Existing drawings often lack details of changes incorporated after the drawings were issued. Utilising these drawings to plan conceptual arrangements, routings, elevations or access corridors enables the team to advance the project until confirmation of the conceptual designs against the laser scans. This comparison helps the team adjust designs quickly to keep fast-paced projects on track while minimising interferences that might occur in the field.

Laser scanning provides many other benefits, including:

  • A higher level of detail compared to photos or drawings.
  • Ability to easily update after construction is complete.
  • Convenient integration into 3D modelling software.
  • Use of a Class 1 laser, which is considered eye-safe and is safe for personnel and operators.
  • Reduced physical access requirements for measurement of inaccessible areas, areas lacking platform access or areas where a lack of training may prohibit measurement taking.
  • Reduced need for site travel, site access and repetitive information requests between the client and design-builder.

Using laser scanners during the design phase can also reduce the need for costly and disruptive power system outages (or, alternatively, contingency material procurement) that would otherwise be needed to make measurements of equipment that is within safety clearance distances of live high-voltage conductors exposed in substations.

Using 3D laser scanning when designing projects — especially for smaller capital projects like brownfield site improvements — can help reduce the potential for impacts during installation. By identifying piping, electrical conduit, equipment, steel or access corridors not identified on drawings, engineers and designers can limit potential design interferences. All 3D laser scans are conducted alongside up-to-date surveys, allowing the scan to be accurately located in the 3D realm.

Safety and Sustainability

As COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online work, taking a high-quality 3D laser scan of a site reduces the necessity for engineers to travel physically to the location. This scenario played out frequently during lockdown — with few engineers needed to take the scan and clients afterwards receiving a virtual site visit.

As things continue to evolve, this model can be leveraged successfully for a sustainable future by reducing the need for travel to work sites, lowering carbon emissions from vehicles and reducing health and safety risks. Indeed, it is now possible to download phone apps by manufacturers such as Matterport to bring 3D technology to your pocket.

Efficiency and Savings

Once a project moves into the construction phases, 3D scanning provides further benefits by helping identify and position facility assets and materials. Performed early in the project, this step helps minimise change orders, thus reducing cost and adding flexibility to tight schedules.

While not every project should require laser scanning, the benefits of its use, particularly for congested brownfield sites, can greatly outweigh the initial cost of the scanning survey. Incurring a single interference during an outage requires engagement of the engineering team while construction stalls, resulting in both financial and schedule impacts. These costs greatly surpass the minimal costs of the laser scan. Utilisation of laser scanning tools can provide the necessary edge for successful project execution by identifying smaller issues before they become major challenges.


Digital substations will play a crucial role in helping the U.K. move toward a net zero future by 2050.

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Alex Lenia is an electrical designer with Burns & McDonnell, working from the firm’s rapidly growing office in the U.K. He is skilled in AutoCAD, Revit Modeling, Autodesk Inventor and Building Information Modeling (BIM).