The construction industry is on the cusp of a disruption. As projects get larger and complex, the growing stress on environment sensitivity has also seen a demand for sustainable construction. Coupled with this, shortage of skilled labor and introduction of automated machines mean there is an urgent need for new ways of thinking and working.
And thinking it is. The rise of the great computer power in a world where the real and virtual worlds are often colliding, and merging, are changing the way the world’s infrastructure is designed and made.
Real-time 3D modeling is the hottest trend in the construction and allied sectors. It is the latest in a series of high-end technologies that are transforming the construction sector.
What is real-time 3D modeling?
Real-time 3D modeling has a host of benefits over conventional CAD or BIM 3D. While the latter is about creating a digital model of an asset before it is built, the former is all about creating a digital model of an asset or an environment that is already built in real time using a combination of LiDAR, photogrammetry and other emerging technologies.
“3D modeling for buildings or infrastructure projects employs an intermediate digital representation using any number of reality capture techniques and technologies such as LiDAR and drone photogrammetry. The digital representation represents a snapshot in time of the project site for highly accurate, contextual, and rich visualization,” says Michael Mizuno, Senior Product Manager, Reality Solutions, Autodesk.
“Recent advances in digital photography and photogrammetric processing, Cloud-based computing, and high-speed scanning have combined to enable the development of cost-effective 3D models,” points out Mark Nichols, General Manager, Trimble Navigation.
Low cost per measurement, capability of surveying a large area quickly and at high resolution, and with just one survey extracting data multiple times, are some of the main advantages of 3D modeling. Combination of high-quality imagery with the model helps in easy understanding of the situation and requires less complex interpretation than paper or 2D models.
Real-time 3D modeling provides a very fast and cost-effective way of sharing the existing state of an asset with an engineering team so that they can make design, construction or operational decisions using a digital engineering model, explains Phil Christensen, Senior Vice President, Reality Modeling and Cloud Services, Bentley Systems.
Further, “3D-enabled visualization of areas that don’t have camera coverage [blind spots] are useful for quick decisions in case of any kind of emergencies such as fire, accidents, change of routes,” points out Hanuman Chodagam, DGM, U&G BU, Cyient.
Real-time modeling would also be instrumental in designing smart urban habitats. Geo-enabling a city makes it easier for city administrators to understand the problem and enables them to make faster and effective decisions by visualizing and analyzing 3D models. “Many professionals and city departments involved in urban planning and development are benefiting from the convergence of 3D city data and intelligent 3D solutions by integrating all types of geospatial contextual information right from the sky through satellite imagery to underground via radar information,” adds Chodagam.
Return of Investment deterring adoption?
Construction industry is capital intensive and cost considerations are crucial. For the popularization of both BIM and 3D modeling, the sum of initial investment and the RoI are factors which could dissuade many companies from embracing these technologies.
However, as per experts, the initial apparent high costs on BIM and 3D modeling are commensurated by time saved, and savings via better resource allocation and optimization of manpower. “If a 3D reality model enables an engineer to work without having to visit the site of the asset, an organization can save 80% or more,” underlines Christensen.
As Nichols explains, using real-time 3D modeling in conjunction with mixed reality devices to help in making better decisions at the outset of a project can have a huge RoI, but the RoI will vary according to project based on both the project complexity and the skill level of the project team.
Then there are other variable factors as well, including the management of the project, its accurate status, possible budget overruns etc. “3D real-time modeling solution offers better decision-making and situational awareness, a unified collaborative environment across domains and departments, increased operational efficiency [by up to 20%’], effective monitoring of projects [by visualizing], therefore reducing costs and time, or increasing revenues (such as property tax by up to 30%),” feels Chodagam.
From the vantage point of construction industry and city planners, any solution is beneficial only if the outcome is tangible. What adds to the appeal of 3D modeling is that it is outcome-oriented as well. Real-time 3D model provides a digital context for a proposed new building or an infrastructure project and can help influence better design of the building’s location and exterior.
“Better understanding of the surrounding area during the design process can result in exterior design changes that ensure the exterior of a building has a style that fits the surroundings,” explains Nichols.
According to Michael Burenkov, Product Manager (Mass Data Software), Topcon Positioning Systems, improved understanding of the context around the proposed building site (surrounding buildings, vegetation, etc.) could influence architectural design. Analysis of shifting sunlight and shade during the day/night cycle could influence placement of windows and solar panels.
“3D modeling solutions are relatively new and promising tools that are supporting city architects and engineers to digitally model the different elements of a building in real-time and quickly understand how specific changes in design or construction models will impact other variables such as structure, load, energy efficiency and the fiscal bottom line,” Chodagam adds.
Where 3D modeling fits in infrastructure lifecycle?
The utility of 3D modeling is at multiple levels but out of the four phases in the infrastructure lifecycle — plan, design, construct and operate — the usage varies based on requirements and the project type.
3D modeling with reality capture can be used throughout the lifecycle of an infrastructure project — capturing the existing conditions, detecting potential issues early on, verifying design intent against construction, and having data from the construction and maintenance phases drive design decisions on future projects, explains Mizuno. “We’re focused on connecting all phases of a project through better collaboration, data management, and highly accurate and efficient reality data.”
Initially, due to high cost, 3D modeling was mostly employed in the maintenance phase of high-value assets such as oil and gas refineries, hospitals, semiconductor fabs, explains Burenkov. However, “As technology democratized, we now see greater adoption in planning and construction phases.”
Chodagam finds 3D modeling to be useful during the initiation and planning phase where users can visualize the actual outcome of an infra model — may the subject be a city building, a bridge, or a road. It is extensively used during the project monitoring and control phase as well for illustrating real-time scenarios and changes that take place over a period of time.
However, Christensen is quick to point out that its use in asset inspection is growing quickly. “Reality modeling is applied throughout all phases of the project, including urban models for conceptual planning and more detailed models for detailed engineering designs for transportation, construction monitoring, and asset-life inspection and management,” he adds.
Nichols of Trimble also feels that while the most obvious uses are at the planning and design phases, which are where adoption is highest, the technology has potential to improve efficiency during the construction and the operations and maintenance phases as well.
Burenkov feels 3D modeling allows for much better quality control during the construction phase. “Instead of spot checking installation tolerances of a small percentage of elements such as structural steel, complete coverage can be achieved in an automated manner.”
Using reality-captured data has the benefit of widely covering spatial information from a job site. However, the raw data can sometimes be very large and can pose sharing and storage challenges. The value of this data is dependent on how quickly the insights from it make it to those relying on it, explains Mizuno.
How smooth will be the transition?
When it comes to making 3D modeling real time, it might sound just like a very normal upgrade of 3D modeling after adding a real-time component. But it is not as simple. To make sure that real-time 3D modeling functions smoothly, as well as those using it, are able to adapt to it smoothly, it is essential that the transition is smooth. This is one area where contentious opinions may arise, depending on the size, scale of the projects and the expertise of a particular company.
Nichols uses the analogy of transition from standard television to high-definition television where the content richness in enhanced, to point out the vast difference in quality between 3D modeling and real-time 3D modeling. “The transition would be seamless because the reality model from the users’ perspective is simply a richer 3D model, provided that the suppliers deliver the tools to use the models across the phases of construction,” he adds.
Christensen believes that a seamless transition from 3D modeling to real-time 3D modeling is not only possible, but it is already happening and that too very fast. “We have integrated 3D reality models into our design engineering workflows. So yes, designers creating BIM models can now work in the context of their digital 3D reality model without leaving their design environment,” he says.
Burkenov begs to differ here since he believes any complex system cannot have a seamless transition. “This transition will not be seamless. Digital coordination around traditional 3D models (BIM) is not an entirely solved issue. Seamless integration of reality models adds an additional layer of complexity to an already complex system,” he elaborates.
What is the role of emerging technologies?
Emerging technologies like LiDAR, drones, mobile mapping, location intelligence etc. are expected to both popularize and boost 3D modeling of structures in real time, making the process more precise and versatile.
3D modeling in real time is a combination of host of methods including conventional surveying, digital photography, and laser scanning.
“Photogrammetry based on digital photos has been an incredibly useful addition to the reality modeling mix since it doesn’t require any special equipment and gives a visually intuitive result that is a lot easier for most people to understand than a point cloud,” says Christensen.
The main advantage of photogrammetry is that it depends totally on sensors. Digital cameras are inexpensive, small, and widely available. Current progress in computer vision algorithms and increased access to greater computational resources (GPUs and Cloud computing) automated processing and popularized photogrammetry as the tool of choice for UAV applications. But this doesn’t mean photogrammetry doesn’t have its downsides. “Indirect measurement approach relies on lengthy post-processing with widely variable output quality. While LiDAR sensors are typically larger and more expensive, they compare favorably in these respects,” believes Burenkov.
In the future, miniaturization and cost reduction of LiDAR technology, driven primarily by the needs of the autonomous automotive navigation market would ultimately shift this comparison in favor of LiDAR.
Model capture creation directly using the cellphone is possible now and soon the ability to mix photos and LiDAR point cloud to capture 3D reality models would be realized. This would mean that a person on the site would be able to get a real-time 3D reality model using the cellphone. Leveraging visual fidelity of photos and high-resolution LiDAR images to create 3D reality model too would be possible very soon.
“With faster tools for data acquisition such as mobile mapping systems and faster processing, models can be kept up to date much easier than in the past. However we are many years away from true real-time models due to the volumes of data involved, the speed of communications, and the speed of processing,” stresses Nichols.
How AI and machine learning will be a disruptor?
Virtually no technology today is immune to the advances in the fields of machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence, and 3D modeling too isn’t far behind. AI-driven reality models would soon become a reality and construction industry has to be prepared for this tectonic shift.
“AI and machine learning are two crucial technologies for automating the information extraction phase of the overall workflow. Only when this greater degree of automation is achieved will we be able to unlock the full potential of 3D modeling technology,” believes Burenkov.
Recent developments in virtual and augmented reality, photogrammetry, and integration of Web technologies with GIS, satellite imagery and location data via GPS have opened up opportunities for large-scale urban landscape visualization and 3D virtual development for cities. It is noteworthy that the synergistic confluence of all these technologies would add more value and infuse dynamism in 3D modeling.
3D city experience is the key to any city’s development concerning the current growth of urbanization and infrastructure. 3D virtual modeling, visualization, dissemination, and management of urban infrastructure is one of the disruptive opportunities in the geospatial arena across the world that has innovations and challenges as well, underlines Chodagam. He adds that intelligent 3D models are the most discussed opportunities in geospatial space, which has their own significance, benefits and complexities.
With increasing uptake of BIM and 3D modeling, there would be a rise in IoT-based construction platforms as well. IoT is expected to transform the construction industry forever. Currently, it is in nascent stages but with ongoing research, it is expected that advances would be made at a rapid pace.
As Mizuno of Autodesk points out that sensor data displayed on models provide safety information in specific locations, and can help facility management teams make their buildings more efficient.
We are also seeing AR/VR/MR becoming more than a tool for comparing the real world and design. Design, coordination, execution, and facility management will all be steps in construction that could benefit from mixed reality.
The combination of BIM with real-time 3D models enhanced by the Internet of Things would bring a great value for information to understand the question of ‘where’ and ‘when’; of any incident or situation. This greatly enhances collaboration and communication across disciplines and communities. “Such combined 3D solutions offer a unified collaborative environment for cities, natively supporting standards such as Building Information Modeling and Geographic Information System,” stresses Chodagam.
What is the future?
Exploding population, shrinking spaces and crumbling infrastructure in cities leave us with no other option but adopting some drastic and disruptive measures. Large-scale urbanization will lead to a massive amount of infrastructure of all kinds delivered over the next 20 years. This will provide impetus to the espousal of all aspects of digital engineering.
Construction industry’s productivity has trailed that of other sectors for decades, and there is a $1.6 trillion opportunity to close the gap. This amount would meet about half of the world’s annual infrastructure needs or boost global GDP by 2%. As Nichols points out, governments should leverage the benefits of real-time 3D modeling systems to inform and improve their planning processes, enabling better community engagement in the planning processes, enabled by the simpler understanding of the rich 3D models of the real world, merged with the proposed planning changes. As for what should be done to accelerate the pace of real-time 3D modeling adoption and increasing awareness in the industry, this is an issue for each of the industry suppliers to address.
If construction companies use existing incentives around R&D, they should be able to accelerate the adoption of real-time 3D modeling within their projects. There is also a continuing need for more education into what can be done and the best practices for applying real-time 3D modeling and this is where the industry and professional associations can collaborate and contribute. However, as Christensen stresses, ultimately, it is going to require engineering and construction companies to commit to investing in digital techniques and training.
The initial high cost might serve as a deterrent in the adoption of real-time 3D modeling, but significant cost benefits accompanied by the mainstreaming of technologies like LiDAR, UAVs , and AI would make things easier.
The coming years would see more offsite fabrication, machines/robots augmenting staff, remote project management, modulization, global BIM adoption, consolidated software, and much less software fragmentation. It needs to be seen if 3D modeling can be synchronized with these technologies that will drive the future.