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3D technology may not be new to the construction trades. But current 3D tools may soon seem as basic to the industry as "Space Invaders" or "Super Mario Kart" are to video-game enthusiasts, thanks to a new wave of innovations that are just around the corner.

3D scanning has been around since laser technology was adapted to the task in the 1960s. Roughly three decades later, laser 3D expanded to the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) fields—and in the years since, it has become increasingly common as a way to document as-built structures, siting models and buildouts, as well as for forensic engineering analysis and other applications.

The introduction of 3D cameras, however, promises to take 3D imaging into a whole new era. Instead of lasers, 3D cameras use visual depth sensing to instantly and intelligently scan and image an object or setting. A variety of techniques are used, including structured light, active stereovision and time of flight.


3D imaging can compute a full-depth reconstruction of rooms, objects and entire buildings in full color and with complete textural clarity—and accurate to fractions of a millimeter. The technology greatly enhances the BIM process, providing unmatched clarity along with information that is essential to everyone in the design/build professions. It not only improves laser scanning by accurately capturing color but also can be mounted on vehicles and machinery for continual scanning.

New Range of Uses

Advanced 3D technology is expected to find its way to a range of existing and new applications that will make construction less costly, faster and more accurate. Soon, practitioners will find 3D imaging in multiple places.

Portable scanners: 3D-camera-based scanning systems provide far more information than traditional scanning. Handheld or mounted units can show construction workers where to place structural members, doors/windows, piping, electrical and other components with incredible precision. 3D cameras also enable all types of safety inspections. Inspectors will be able to conduct reviews remotely without expensive onsite visits.

AR/VR headsets: As a form of hologram, augmented reality/virtual reality headsets will allow engineers and construction leads to visualize changes before they’re built. Newcomers will come up to speed quickly on upcoming projects; moreover, AR/VR will allow designers and architects to explore project alternatives and new types of design.

Drones: 3D-capable drones will facilitate the creation of BIMs as well as “digital twins” for construction planning, building analysis, environmental systems and more. Site surveys can be done before and during the construction process, facilitating everything from site clearing and pre-foundation work to progress updates.

Autonomous equipment: Many heavy equipment OEMs are investing in 3D imaging for autonomous hauling and site preparation tasks; others are developing aftermarket technologies for the conversion of existing vehicles. Repetitive tasks, including bricklaying, demolition, welding and cement drops, are eyed as candidates for autonomous/robotic solutions using 3D cameras, with or without artificial intelligence capabilities.

Training: The construction industry will be facing labor shortages for some time to come. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 6% annual growth rate for construction workers through 2030, while the Home Builders Institute sets the number of open construction sector jobs in the United States at 300,000 to 400,000 each month. To help fill the need, 3D-enabled VR/AR devices can facilitate vocational training without sacrificing safety or wasting materials. It will speed the adoption of skills in wiring/electrical, plumbing, HVAC and other specialties; it will also help on the jobsite where piping, lighting, wiring and other systems are to be installed. 3D imaging can provide immediate feedback regarding potential errors, dramatically reducing costly inspection and rework while also increasing safety.

Multiple Benefits

3D image capture and visualization will save time and money, while improving quality and safety all along the AEC spectrum. Using AR/VR headsets, for example, team members will be able to collaborate effectively in real time, even on projects under construction half a continent away. Such innovations will save millions in materials and delays while eliminating needless travel and improving productivity.

Project monitoring is already a primary focus. 3D imaging is being used to instantly compare actual measurements against predefined models to ensure matches in size and placement. Wiring, piping and structural work are just a few of the ways 3D cameras can be used to scan, evaluate and identify errors in construction. As-built modeling also helps improve performance every step of the way, from construction reviews to lifecycle cost analysis and maintenance.

No other technology is so adept at helping designers and trades to finish projects with as much speed, accuracy or situational insight. Laser scanning and photographs cannot compete with the degree of information provided by the next generation of 3D imaging. In the construction industry, innovation can be a game changer. 3D-imaging technology promises to take that game to the next level.

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