With greater pressure on engineers to deliver innovative building designs more efficiently, new digital technology can be hugely beneficial in keeping costs to a minimum.

The U.S. engineering and construction sector enjoyed a robust year in 2019 as the country benefited from some of the slowest increases in construction costs anywhere in the world. Prospects for growth are looking promising for the year ahead as firms compete to build connected, “smart” towns and cities.

There are a number of exciting infrastructure projects ahead as $287 billion was invested following the Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019. This act will enable the Highway Trust Fund to maintain and repair America’s roads and bridges and keep the economy moving, not to mention kickstart smart city projects in Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco.

Despite forecasts revealing that growth in the construction sector will rise by a staggering 70 percent across the world by 2025, it’s fair to say that compared to other industry sectors, construction and engineering players have been slower to embrace digital technology. Many firms are also facing significant challenges such as labor shortages, low productivity, and a significant requirement to minimize costs.

Globally, earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) from construction activities are, on average, just 5.5 percent of sales. International challenges from Asia, supply chain constraints and rises in material costs will put further strain on margins which have traditionally always been relatively small compared to other sectors.

Fortunately, there are signs that the sector is starting to embrace digitalization. Professional services firm, EY, recently found that 98 percent of respondents agree that digital solutions will be critical to the future viability of their company and more organizations are starting to embrace AI, autonomous vehicles, sensors, thermal imaging, and digital twin technologies.

One of the most significant technological breakthroughs is Building Information Modelling (BIM) which is gaining currency as a platform for central integrated design, modelling, planning, and collaboration. It provides all stakeholders, including architects, surveyors, engineers, building owners, and facility managers with a 3D digital representation of a building’s characteristics throughout its lifecycle.

Sitting at the heart of BIM is digital technology which extends 2D technical drawings into 3D virtual information models, with project management and visualization tools. This means that spatial relationships, light analysis, geographic information, and quantities and properties of building components can be identified.

One innovation helping engineers integrate BIM into projects is simultaneous localization and mapping technology (SLAM), which can contribute to the reduction in program time, lower costs, and increase in productivity on-site.

GeoSLAM Eaton Lodge

Traditional build methods may have relied on hiring an expert to operate a static scanner, taking time to set up and then map out the site. Construction projects today, however, demand a quicker turnaround on data capture (site to office) – requiring regular surveys to generate new models as a development takes shape, as well as highlighting any potential issues early on in the build process.

The construction industry has traditionally been wary in adopting new technologies, but recent years have demonstrated the importance of using robots, drones, and new ways to report progress, making the development process – from creation to completion – more efficient and transparent for all stakeholders involved.

First developed in the robotics industry, tools using SLAM are capable of scanning indoors or other difficult-to-reach, enclosed spaces. Using information from sensors, normally LiDAR and imagery, digital 3D maps can then be created based on the location of the device, without the need for GPS.

SLAM-enabled mobile, lightweight scanners such as GeoSLAM’s ZEB-REVO or ZEB-HORIZON, can allow surveying teams to map and monitor sites on foot or with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As a scheme takes shape, any member of the site team is able to pick up a handheld 3D mobile mapping device and with a ‘walk and scan’ method of data collection, capture and process data in hours and minutes, rather than days and weeks. This not only saves time throughout projects, but also reduces the risk of injury when operating in potentially hazardous build locations.

For example, transforming the aging Attucks School in the Jazz District of Kansas City to a community arts center required the power of today’s real-time technology. The building, built in 1905 and renovated in 1922 due to overcrowding, has had a number of further developments over the years.

For any plans to be approved on the site of the Attucks School, the commission needed substantial and comprehensive drawings – materials, floor plans, site drawings, and elevations. But with several hazards identified, such as visible deterioration in the wood floorings, ceiling collapses, and air quality conditions including asbestos, a fast, accurate, and safe survey technique was required.

Civil engineering firm BHC Rhodes embarked upon the complex task of a 3D Revit BIM using GeoSLAM technology. Lightweight, handheld scanners, built for difficult-to-access spaces, were used to scan the property in only 4.5 hours, recording more than 43,000 measurements per second. A 3D model was provided two weeks earlier than expected providing a comprehensive picture of the asset. Only with these modern tools could a real-time digital twin of the aging building be created quickly, and safely.

It is not just single developments that can harness 3D scanning technology. As city planners attempt to create more efficient urban areas, many are turning to the idea of “smart cities”. Singapore, for instance, has embarked on one of the most ambitious digital twinning projects the world has ever seen.

Limited by space but still requiring significant growth to meet significant demand, the Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) created a dynamic 3D city model and collaborative data platform, including 3D maps of the region. Titled “Virtual Singapore”, it will be the authoritative 3D digital platform allowing users to simulate both present and future scenarios.

It quickly became clear that aerial imagery would not adequately capture information on “void decks”, open spaces typically found on the ground floor of the region’s apartment blocks. Also, semantic 3D modelling was required which comprises detailed information such as texture and material representation of geometric objects.

Using GeoSLAM’s handheld scanners, field teams could quickly capture a dense and accurate point cloud of an entire void deck, which was then used to model the deck geometry and incorporate this into the existing building models. 376 buildings with void decks were scanned in total, taking approximately 100 hours – a huge time-saving exercise which would have ordinarily taken up to 40 times longer if using traditional surveying methods.

Digital technology is changing the way our infrastructure is designed, constructed, and maintained. Although the construction sector looks set to benefit from huge growth for the foreseeable future, pressure on margins is unlikely to subside. With this in mind, it is vital that the sector, which has historically been slow to respond to technological change, embraces the digital technology that can help organizations to imagine, design, and build the structures and cities of tomorrow at higher volumes and deliver higher profits.

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