Getting a reliable 3D representation of your factory with AR

We are entering a world where even the most solid-seeming things, like factory buildings, are constantly being modified to meet the ever-changing needs of customers and the introduction of new industrial processes.

It can be surprisingly difficult to keep track of every feature and dimension of such a large, complex structure, even when newly built. After several generations of modifications and additions, it’s even harder.

3D laser scanning, IoT sensors, data analytics, and an AR display can provide a rendering of the structure exactly as it is now, a digital twin, allowing for reliable planning, permitting, and operations.

The problem of “as built” plans

Structures never go up exactly as they were designed. Traditionally, these changes during construction are recorded on paper “as built” plans. Later changes are recorded as additional markups or partial drawings, rather than a completely revised plan.

These documents are essential for managing the equipment, ventilation, lighting, energy, safety, and other aspects of a facility. Later changes during occupancy need to also be included. Over time this results in a large and hard-to-parse stack of diagrams and documentation.

Inadequate or missing documentation imposes costs in the billions of dollars every year on building managers, who need to reconstruct, validate, or modify their documentation before they can make maintenance or renovation plans of their own.

And buildings can change surprisingly over time. A new regulation or change in use might require revamped ventilation. A new industrial process depends on the movement and placement of large machinery. A new product needs close-by component storage, and modifications to the current loading facility.

It used to take at least a decade before refitting and repurposing was necessary, but that time has dropped significantly.

A building system example

Consider just one system, the roof. Information about a factory roof includes a date and manner of construction, the materials of which it is made, the fasteners that hold in on, condition assessments, maintenance records, and warranties, and can also have data from moisture and temperature sensors, drone photographs, and infrared images.

When upgrades are proposed, or a rehab of the structure required, all of this information must be considered.

Building Information Modeling (BIM)

Software can now be used to create and 3D building data from initial concept design to maintenance. BIM has long been used mostly during design and construction, and more by architects than builders. But with IoT sensors throughout the building providing data, and AR allowing for anyone to get a 3D view of the structure as it currently exists, BIM is increasingly valuable for managing and understanding the building over its entire life cycle, and owners are getting used to getting accurate 3D models of their structures.

Surveying existing structures through 3D laser scanning

But most existing buildings have not been tracked since construction in this way. Creating the virtual twin of an existing structure is called “reality capture”, and is often done through laser scanning.

A laser scanner sends out millions of light pulses to get accurate distance measurements to every point in a structure. The resulting data “point cloud” is then incorporated in BIM to model the structure.

Some businesses find updated laser scans useful as well. Solar Turbines designs and builds custom turbines for a variety of clients. Their products are so physically large that they have run into trouble moving a new design through their existing plant without partially disassembling structural members or moving another piece of equipment. Rescanning the facility can feed into planning for the proposed turbine, ensuring that the physical plant restrictions are part of the design.

Currently, there are no universally recognized BIM standards, so one reality capture model may not interoperate with another. Perhaps the interoperability that comes with IoT platforms can eventually incorporate BIM and reality capture as well.

Augmented Reality, IoT, and BIM

A factory isn’t just a structure, it’s a working enterprise. IoT information shows how equipment is used, where there are bottlenecks, what areas workers tend to congregate in or avoid, what temperatures and air qualities are in each location, and a vast range of other measurements. All of those can be taken into account when any modification or retrofit is proposed, and then the effects of the change can be assessed. This ensures that the building continues to learn.

And AR ensures that everyone working on a project is actually working on the same building, by minimizing the opportunity for unshared assumptions. Everyone sees the same 3D rendering, and can be sure they are talking about the same surface or system. And during the course of work, everyone can see the same updated display of what is complete and what remains to be done.