Point Clouds Are Essential to the Construction Industry; Here’s How to Maximize Their Value

October 16, 2019 Clair Vander Zwaag

If you’re not using point clouds in your projects yet, you should be. These detailed 3D data sets and imagery, typically captured with a laser scanner, provide an accurate digital replica of the site at a specific point in time. When tied to a good coordinate system, point clouds enable you to select any point and get a northing, easting and elevation, minimizing the potential for errors and accelerating the construction process. 

In renovations or brownfield redevelopments, the rich, complete data captured with a laser scanner can provide the required information on existing building conditions with the accuracy needed for construction planning. As construction progresses, laser scanning data can be used to compare the newly constructed work against the as-designed model or drawings for quality assurance. If laser scanning is used throughout the entire construction project, the new facility will have as-built documentation from all the major milestones in the project, creating a complete and accurate record of what is behind the walls, above the ceilings and under the floor slabs for owners to use throughout the lifecycle of the building.


Point clouds provide accurate data for a high-productivity approach to building construction. Image from Leica Cyclone REGISTER 360 software, courtesy of Lydig Construction.


But for all their benefits, point clouds have long been considered a project resource rather than a process resource. Contractors that have outsourced laser scanning have often used it at specific stages, typically for construction documentation or validation, deviation detection, or concrete flatness analysis, with access granted only to specific individuals or teams. Bringing the technology in-house has provided greater flexibility and more creative approaches, but the true value of the point cloud is still largely untapped. 

So, how can you make point clouds work to your advantage?


Define Your Objectives Upfront

Knowing what you want to achieve is crucial. Define your objectives from the outset. Will you use the point cloud for coordination analysis, 3D modeling or 2D drafting? Are you interested in basic visualization capabilities or an augmented reality (AR) / virtual reality (VR) experience? These parameters will help you identify the right solution and the right approach. 


Develop a Scan Plan

From one-button portable and handheld imaging laser scanners to compact high-speed scanners and rugged survey-grade scanners, there are a lot of different ways to capture a point cloud. Understanding the capabilities and limitations of each technology as well as how to control the data collection can help you maximize the outcome.

Many contractors have successfully added point clouds to their workflow by starting with a simple one-button-push imaging laser scanner that integrates directly with Autodesk ReCap Pro software. This provides a seamless approach for anyone who needs to use the data in AutoCAD, Revit, Navisworks or other Autodesk solutions. 

There is also a lot of excitement around the newest handheld imaging laser scanners that use simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology to record your trajectory through space while capturing images and dimensionally accurate point clouds in real time as you move. The ease of use and small form factor make it possible for just about anyone at any skill level to scan anywhere for dynamic analysis or validation. 

Watch SLAM Technology In Action


Contractors that rely more heavily on point clouds in their coordination models typically use robust high-speed solutions that provide high accuracy with high-dynamic-range (HDR) imagery and in-field registration so they can quickly capture accurate and comprehensive data across an entire site or structure. Processing software that exports directly to the RCP and RCS file formats make it easy to use the point clouds in Autodesk software. 


High-speed laser scanners like the Leica RTC360 enable you to capture, register and add accurate point clouds to a Revit model in a matter of hours. Image courtesy of Lydig Construction.


Regardless of the technology used, planning for the scan is vital to achieve quality results. Key factors include the constraints of the site, how to establish and tie into a coordinate system, how the data is stitched together, what level of accuracy and density you need in your data, how to obtain proper coverage, and how “clean” the data should be when transferred to processing software.  All these considerations affect the usability of the point cloud data. 


Manage the Data Wisely

As technology advances have made it faster and easier to capture billions of points of data across a construction project, determining how the data will be stored and managed becomes crucial. Invest in terabyte storage drives, store the raw point cloud files, and back up your data regularly. Make use of automated backup options, and use redundant setups for storage disks to ensure data quality and integrity.

You’ll also want to consider data collaboration and accessibility. How else might your projects benefit from the point cloud data beyond what you initially envisioned? Think about the subs and trades that require accurate measurement data—how would access to high-quality point clouds affect the speed of completion and level of risk at each phase? Using software that allows for easy point cloud viewing and collaboration can transform an entire project into a high-efficiency machine. 

Integrating point cloud data as a process approach in construction brings us closer to the reality of the living building information model (BIM)—a model in the cloud that is used and updated by general contractors, subcontractors, MEP contractors and trades, as well as facility owners and managers. These accurate, living models will enable smarter, more informed decisions throughout the lifecycle of the structure. As construction creates its digital future, the point cloud is the foundation. How will you build yours?

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