Laser Scanning in Construction: Everything You Need to Know

Posted by John Alexander on 5th Dec 2019

Lasers have been a mainstream part of life – from epic battles in science fiction movies to useful applications in industries like manufacturing. Nevertheless, while the technology has been a bit slower to hit the construction industry, 3D laser scanning is quickly becoming a staple on sites around the world.

Laser scanning isn’t anything new, but it’s just now starting to gain serious traction in the construction industry. For instance, according to POB magazine, the demand for laser scanning in construction was only 20% in 2016. In 2017, demand minimally increased to 22%; however, a year later, in 2018, it spiked to 57%. The annual growth rate for 3D laser scanning is believed to be around 15% currently. Valued at $3 billion in 2016, it’s a market that is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2024. In other words, if you’re not taking note of this budding technology now, it’s time to do your research.

Is laser scanning being utilized on your construction projects, or are you still exploring the potential of the technology? One thing is for sure, when it comes to 3D laser scanning: every construction professional would benefit from learning more about the innovation. Here’s a closer look at the emerging technology:

Laser Scanning 101: The Basics

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of laser scanning, it’s worth it to take a moment to define exactly what it is. Specifically, laser scanning, also known as high-definition surveying (HDS) or reality capture, is a means of using a laser to map an area with high accuracy.

On a construction site, laser scanning is used to capture detailed data, providing accurate information for every nook and cranny on a site. The data it provides construction professionals is known as “point cloud.” That is, a database connecting points in a 3D coordinate system. While we could go into a world of detail about point cloud and what it can do, the most important thing to remember is that it keeps an extremely accurate digital record of an object or space as it pertains to a project.

A Brief History of Laser Scanning in Construction

As we said, 3D laser scanning isn’t new technology at all. In fact, the technology’s roots date back to the 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it began being utilized for design and engineering purposes. In fact, laser scanning followed a similar path to adoption as GPS or global positioning systems. Once deemed a luxury, GPS is now found and utilized in millions of applications across a variety of markets. Today, laser scanning has become commonplace in a similar manner, now moving into a variety of markets, including construction.

Laser Scanning in Construction Explained

So how is laser scanning used in construction today? The technology has come a long way from how it was initially just used in performing building and maintenance on industrial facilities. Today, it’s administered for building infrastructure and much more.

Here’s a closer look at the use of laser scanning across a project’s lifecycle:

  • Design: Specifically, when it comes to site design, laser scanning is a starting point even sometimes before BIM. Many professionals today are adopting a scan-to-BIM method of design to capture detailed information to kick off and manage the process early.
  • Construction: Another big advantage of laser scanning is when it comes to construction coordination, specifically in avoiding conflicts between different systems (i.e., HVAC, electrical, plumbing). Data can also be shared between parties to help with any remote coordination. Scanning isn’t just performed at the beginning of a project either; it can be done at various other points along the timeline to better document milestones, reduce the necessity of change orders and pass off work to other trades professionals. Laser scanning in construction can also help document where errors were made and identify a solution faster.
  • Operations, retrofits and renovations: Laser scanning captures a very high level of detail, and this helps create a permanent as-built record for both owners and facility managers. In the end, this data can help with building operations, renovations and future building additions and even demolitions.

Benefits of Laser Scanning in Construction

There are plenty of benefits to deploying laser scanning on your next project. Here’s a look at some of the most significant reasons why your projects could benefit from laser scanning:

  • Improves quality and accuracy: Laser scanning is accurate and allows construction teams to take planning and detail to a whole other level on site.
  • Provides immediate information: Scans can be performed and accessed immediately, thereby improving operations, streamlining productivity and reducing rework.
  • Cuts costs: Laser scanning is fast — much faster than conventional methods of project mapping. Scans can be completed in minutes, which is far quicker than conventional methods, many of which can take hours or even weeks. What’s more, is that the data scans created empower teams to develop more detailed workflows. Construction is a bottom-line business, so any cost savings that project teams can produce only goes to increase profitability on a project. In fact, some estimate that using laser scanning versus conventional 2D scanning on a project can demonstrate a savings of up to 50%, with the most significant gains coming from an accelerated timeline.
  • Reduces manual labor: Manual labor can be tedious and prone to error. Laser scanning can help reduce it and also ensure a higher degree of accuracy. Scanning also reduces the need for other parties on a project (i.e., architects, engineers, surveyors, etc.) to make multiple trips out to the site to verify plans.
  • Streamlines coordination: Finally, 3D laser scanning can help improve coordination and collaboration on a jobsite, which can thereby lead to faster and better overall decision-making. Better collaboration can improve project team relationships, enhance communication and help facilitate the end goal of creating a great project.

Laser Scanning Challenges

There are pros and cons to every technology, and while laser scanning has plenty of benefits, it also has its share of drawbacks. Though the payoff from implementing laser scanning is significant, the practice also has some risks. Here’s a look at some of them:

  • It’s expensive: Though scanning can help lower overall project costs, there’s a somewhat significant cost to implement the technology — especially if you want it done right. This high upfront cost can be a turnoff for many companies.
  • It takes practice: Like any technology, workers need to be thoroughly trained on how to use the technology successfully. When it comes to this, there may be a skills gap within your company, and training could help add to the expensive upfront costs we mentioned above.
  • Scope: While scanning can help produce highly detailed site plans, workers still need to have some sort of familiarity with the area for the best results.

How to Start Implementing Laser Scanning in Construction

If you want to take the necessary steps and begin introducing laser scanning on your project sites, we’ve compiled a few tips to get you started:

  • Start early: When it comes to introducing laser scanning on your projects, the earlier you implement it, the better. Ensuring the highest level of accuracy starts with implementing it right from the get-go.
  • Choose to buy, rent or use a service: Investing in any technology — let alone laser scanning — doesn’t come cheap. That’s why it might make more sense for your company to rent equipment or use a service in the early days while you dip your toes into the world of laser scanning. Then, once the return on investment becomes clear and you’re able to see how valuable it can be on your projects, it might make sense to invest in the technology.
  • Use it simultaneously with other tech: Don’t just think of laser scanning in construction as the be-all, end-all — be sure to use it simultaneously with other technology for your projects. For instance, it often works hand-in-hand with BIM and can be used to create a more detailed and accurate BIM models.