Technology has greatly accelerated 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 put pressure on accomplishing tasks and projects in less time.

However, the ability to complete these tasks and projects profitably and within schedule depends largely on the quantity and quality of information available. Without the necessary time to investigate the potential risks and physical limitations of these efforts, it becomes more difficult to complete a project as successfully and efficiently as possible.

Physical identification and positioning of facility assets and materials early in a project can help to minimize change orders during construction. These change orders can be costly and can also add time to a tight schedule. Often, existing drawings are outdated and may not provide sufficient information. Using 3D laser scanning when designing projects — especially for smaller capital projects like brownfield plant improvements — can help reduce the potential for project 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.

3D laser scanning is not a new technology. First entering the market in the mid-1990s, the technology was slow and limited by the storage capacity and processor speeds of computers used at the time. As the technology has progressed over the years, costs have decreased, providing a convenient tool for design teams to utilize to execute small projects with reduced field resources and change orders. Laser scanning can provide benefits including:

  • A higher level of detail compared to photos or drawings.
  • Ability to easily update after construction is complete.
  • Convenient integration into 3D modeling 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 with no 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.

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

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


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Bryan Durant is a mechanical engineer at Burns & McDonnell with more than 17 years of experience designing power plants. As the plant improvements mechanical business unit manager, he’s responsible for the identification, development and execution of small operations and maintenance and capital projects.