Approaching a plant retrofit without first understanding the condition of the plant’s assets is like buying a 50-year-old house without an inspection: There’s no guarantee that things will be in working order. Having a precise understanding of the condition and location of existing infrastructure is essential for developing a successful — and effective — retrofit plan.

New technologies go a long way in helping to build detailed, accurate models of a facility and its assets. Today, lidar scans can be taken of a site or facility by a relatively small crew to collect point cloud data and images. Unfortunately, underground utilities are a greater challenge. It is typically necessary to rely on existing as-built drawings, surveying and potentially potholing to discover the location of utilities.

The collected information from lidar scans is then run through processing software to create point clouds, accurately recreating the current conditions of a facility or site as a 3D space. These point clouds can then be referenced into 3D modeling software to assist in the design of a new facility or re-creation of an existing facility or site.

In this way, as-built documentation can be updated to reflect the facility as it is, helping the owner and the project team collaborate on what retrofits are required and how any changes will influence their process or business. By understanding the lay of the land, decisions can be made as to what renovations need to be made to facilitate new or relocated equipment.

Point clouds also help keep project costs down by removing the need for multiple visits for measurements or to verify existing conditions. Having an accurate point cloud allows the project team to be on-site virtually — without travel time or expense.

In addition to these technologies, the industry is introducing virtual reality (VR) into the marketing and design portions of retrofitting projects. With VR, teams can use the point cloud and model built from that data to create a virtual space that the owner can experience through VR goggles. This new way of visualizing the space and the updates that could potentially be made to it is an effective way to help them understand how an update or retrofit will work and how it will affect their overall processes.

One of the greatest strengths of using modernized technology to design and deliver retrofit projects is that teams can present design options, showing the space as it is, then adding in the equipment or processes considered for retrofits or updates. The owner can then compare these levels, going through each potential change to better understand the benefits of each.

Joe Anaya is a CAD section manager and structural detailer at Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in developing accurate 3D models for water utility clients, demonstrating how updates to facilities can affect their business.