Optimizing equipment scanning

Implementing and leveraging this scanning technology, enhances productivity and provides multiple benefits for project owners.

By Mark LaBell May 24, 2022
Courtesy: SSOE Group

In the past 10 years, advances in 3D laser scanning, also known as reality capture, has evolved from an unwieldy, expensive and error-prone process to a “must-have” cutting-edge technology for manufacturing design and construction.

The 2020 Laser Scanning & 3D Surveying Trends report — jointly developed by Point of Beginning (geomapping e-zine and website) and Clear Seas Research — shows that the laser scanning/reality capture market continues to grow, with 95% of respondents saying that demand for 3D services has increased over the past year.

Because newer scanning equipment can document existing infrastructure and equipment conditions more efficiently and accurately, they are rapidly replacing the time-consuming, expensive and less accurate method of manually recorded field measurements.

In addition, the latest technology utilizes data points that can create highly accurate as-built drawings that can convert to incredibly realistic 3D models that clearly identify collision or clash points in piping and equipment. As a result, manufacturing companies find laser scanning extremely useful when existing drawings are not available or are outdated due to multiple renovations and equipment relocation or when adding equipment to a manufacturing line.

In the past ten years, advances in 3D laser scanning, also known as reality capture, has evolved from an unwieldy, expensive and error-prone process to a “must-have” cutting-edge technology for manufacturing design and construction.

In the past ten years, advances in 3D laser scanning, also known as reality capture, has evolved from an unwieldy, expensive and error-prone process to a “must-have” cutting-edge technology for manufacturing design and construction. Courtesy: SSOE Group

Select the right scanning technology

As with any tool or project, it’s imperative to understand deliverables and site conditions as well as how the information will be used after it’s captured in order to achieve the end goal for the project at hand. There are different types of scanning technologies available:

  • Short-range: position relative, discipline-specific capture – excellent for detailed equipment scanning.
  • Long-range: can be geo-synchronized to align point cloud with 3D design model; ideal for overall site (interior/exterior), construction progress, all disciplines, retrofits and additions.
  • Aerial or drone: ideal for construction progress, topography, exterior site (roof, preliminary site).

Equipment scanning often requires higher resolution scan settings to capture the appropriate level of detail such as the opening for a connector for a piece of new process equipment. These scans may take longer and need multiple scanning positions.

Equipment scanning does not require the use of survey control, which is necessary when scanning a large facility because modeling coordinates are critical for general coordination. Instead, details are the focus of equipment scanning to ensure all piping and connections are the right size and shape to identify any issues prior to on-site installation.

Facilitate equipment maintenance

It is a manufacturing fact of life: production equipment will wear over time and require maintenance and new parts.

To maintain production levels and ensure worker safety, it is important to understand how a particular component or part wears over time in order to schedule preventative maintenance. An initial laser scan with a blue or white light scanner, which captures detail at the sub-millimeter level, can provide a baseline.

Follow up scans will show individual wear points. For example, a vessel will be laser scanned during initial installation to verify the wall thickness in a chemical process plant.

Annual scans will determine how much wall thickness may have deteriorated, giving plant engineering enough time to replace the vessel to avoid a catastrophic failure involving a chemical leak that damages the building and puts employees’ health at risk.

Supports reverse engineering and equipment reuse

3D scanning also supports reverse engineering. Many equipment manufacturers have patents on their machines, own the 3D models and often only share simplistic 2D documentation. This makes it difficult to re-tool or modify a piece of equipment or repair a defective component. Reverse engineering allows manufacturers to enhance and improve their production lines.

Because 3D laser scanning captures a very high level of detail, the resulting as-built drawings are very accurate, allowing manufacturing owners to reuse or reconfigure equipment easily.

Scanning improves shop drawing accuracy

In the case of equipment, shop drawing accuracy is critically important. For example, prefabricated piping and equipment modification projects often require tolerances of up to 1/8th of an inch.

Laser scanning provides an added quality control check prior to installation, saving costly change orders and retooling. For example, in chemical process engineering, before an expensive piece of equipment is delivered to the site, laser scanning of the install location identifies key connection points and pipe sizing.

This data can be merged with engineering drawings to create a 3D model to verify all connections are correct. This planning process helps the crew work more efficiently and saves valuable time.

Expedites expansion design and engineering

Many manufacturing owners will conduct a full site 3D laser scan, including both equipment and supporting infrastructure before considering an expansion.

Often, upgrades or renovations have taken place and the as-built drawings on record are not accurate. The 3D laser scan model will identify any mechanical, electrical or structural engineering deficiencies that must be addressed to support an expansion. It will also identify potential “pinch points” in getting large pieces of equipment into an existing facility.

Safety first

Laser scanning is more cost-effective and less expensive than traditional measuring; it is also much safer because it can be done on the ground level. Injury and accidents are significantly reduced because crews do not need to collect data and measurements at higher levels or near operating machinery. Remember to coordinate scanner placement with operations personnel, to minimize potential conflicts with forklifts or hazardous areas.

Practice makes perfect

Today’s scanning technology has simplified. While simplicity is a selling point, there is a learning curve associated with the equipment, especially as it relates to “stitching” of the different laser scans positions to create a model.

The adage regarding data entry still applies: “garbage in … garbage out.” For this reason, it is important to utilize engineers who are familiar with the technology and have a proven track record in delivering accurate, usable models. It is not a technology problem; it is a human error problem.

Optimizing scanning

Laser scanning of equipment allows manufacturing organizations to gather substantially more accurate information in less time. Implementing and leveraging this technology, enhances productivity and provides multiple benefits for project owners.

Laser scanning allows multiple individual users to access information without going to the site and that they would otherwise have to rely on phone calls, images, as well as pass through information marked up on 2D drawings.

Laser scanning allows multiple individual users to access information without going to the site and that they would otherwise have to rely on phone calls, images, as well as pass through information marked up on 2D drawings. Courtesy: SSOE Group

Laser scanning allows multiple individual users to access information without going to the site. Information that they would otherwise have to rely on phone calls, images, as well as pass through information marked up on 2D drawings. Through this process, scanning enhances the overall communication and intent in a much faster timeframe than ever before, especially in the COVID era.


Mark LaBell
Author Bio: Mark LaBell is a Senior Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) Technical Leader at SSOE Group (www.ssoe.com), a global project delivery firm for architecture, engineering, and construction management. He has served as a user and customization expert in BIM / CAD software for over 15 years, and he provides support and training for users to educate them on how to maintain a sound and practical user environment. Mark has presented at numerous conferences, including Advancing Construction Technology 2018, Autodesk University 2018, BIMForum, SPAR International, PSMJ AEC Thrive Summit, BIM Integration Congress, and Midwest University. He can be reached at Mark.LaBell@ssoe.com.