Cost and labor savings create competitive advantages
Construction costs are expected to rise by 2% to 3% this year, led by labor cost increases that are forecast to be 3% to 4%, according to data from CRH Americas. At the same time, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) space is expanding from its traditional base to include building control and fire protection systems; data and voice communications; and process piping. These changes represent opportunities for contractors to develop more business.
Evolution within the construction industry has prompted more and more firms to turn to technology to improve productivity, cut labor costs and reduce rework. Innovation is transforming crucial back office and field-based tasks, making it faster, easier and more efficient to do business.
“The construction industry will continue to innovate given the technologies interspersed throughout our daily lives, including apps, smartphones, tablets, and other devices,” wrote the authors of JBKnowledge’s 2017 Construction Technology Report.
For MEP contractors, survey layout with 3D laser scanning technology is a difference-maker. The solution empowers users to gather, track, evaluate and analyze accurate physical data in a virtual environment.
How survey layout and laser scanning works
The old-school way of capturing location data within the building relies on legacy tools like distance meters and notepads. The process is slow and ripe for human error.
Plus, things move as the building goes up. Concrete grows and shrinks. Structures settle. Users can’t rely on outside points, because as the building shifts, those do too. That means each floor needs a fresh scan to account for differences.
By contrast, 3D laser survey and layout technology is faster, easier and more precise — and doesn’t require multiple trips to the job site. The system enables users to get exact MEP placement on each floor, and to easily maintain control on each subsequent floor.
The technology streamlines workflows with a unified one-person rig, called a total station or multistation. Consisting of a total station on a tripod, story pole or range pole with a prism, and a mounted computer, the station is highly portable and easily deployed on different floors and at varying job sites. Laser scanning is used to collect large amounts of data in the field and used as a time stamp or as-built scenario.
Benefits of survey layout with 3D laser scanning
Frequently used for surveying outside the building, the technology has benefits for trades working inside, too:
- More accessible data. Collect a complete virtual record of everything that the eye can see. Hangers, sleeves and penetrations, stub-ups, cable trays, and other points are identified and imported into the model, which is available on-site and back at the office. When the layout data is integrated into a BIM system, users gain visibility into every aspect of every project. Store important information like fixtures used; install, replacement, and repair dates; warranties; and more.
- Fewer errors, less rework, and reduced risk. Lasers deliver 1/8-inch accuracy depending on distance, meaning fewer return trips to job sites because of missed dimensions or incorrect measurements. This reduces gas, vehicle and labor expenses; maximizes work time; and lowers expenses related to reorders. The technology also helps mitigate risk. Overhead scans can be taken from the floor — no more climbing on ladders or scaffolding. And fewer truck rolls keep vehicles and crews off the roads, decreasing the potential for accidents that impact insurance premiums, reduce available headcount and even trigger fines.
- Less time and labor costs. Contractors want to get on the deck as soon as possible to lay out piping, plumbing, and electrical penetrations to put in holes before concrete is poured. Survey layout with 3D scanning lets them get ahead of the process. Using a robotic total station on the deck alleviates the need for two crewmembers — the person carrying the prism pole has a computer on board. By some estimates, crews can trim onsite data-capture time by as much as 50% to 70% over traditional surveying. And the more accurate data can be used for prefabrication and coordination, significantly slashing rough-in times.
- Multiple uses. Digitized survey layout technology has uses beyond the planning phase. It can also be deployed prior to project hand-off to establish as-built coordinates. This is especially valuable since MEP contractors frequently continue to work in the building after occupancy. It’s also useful when working on renovations and upgrades, offering the power to quickly and precisely document conditions before design or construction commences.
How the technology works
A crewmember places the unit in the corner that offers the best perspective of the survey area. Then the total station locates each control point and uses light and radar to measure and chart distances, inclines and angles. The procedure is repeated for at least two control points on the deck.
The unit triangulates the points and notifies the user if it’s in tolerance or not, so the crew knows whether to reshoot or proceed to identifying and locating hangers, sleeves and penetrations on the deck. The total station allows the user to layout or collect one point at a time. The 3D scanner collects millions of points and produces a high definition project point cloud that can be used to reference at a later date.
How to choose an MEP layout solution
Technology investments can be capital-intensive, so it’s critical to select a solution that provides the most upside. When evaluating options, look for a package that:
- Meets the firm’s specific needs. Sit down with field and office staff to get a clear understanding of the functions and capabilities. Focus the discussion on current and anticipated needs. Ensure that the solution meets the needs of other areas of the company, such as survey control. If the company is planning to expand, verify each potential solution’s ability to easily and cost-effectively scale with growth.
- Integrates and operates with existing solutions. Make a list of the current hardware and software — including BIM — to ensure that the existing tech stack meets each solution’s requirements. Scanning and layout solutions require powerful hardware, and point clouds use a lot of storage, so make sure that there is extra processing power, network performance and cloud capacity as needed. Explore compatibility with solutions used by general contractors and other frequent partners to ensure easy collaboration and data transfer.
- Provides training and support pre- and postsale. New technology requires different skills, so it’s vital to get sufficient training and support from the solution vendor. Review case studies and talk to other MEP contractors about providers with proven track records in the specialty. On- and off-site instruction is a must-have. Confirm that a sales engineer will be assigned to the account to get the team up and running. And don’t forget to find out how each solution provider handles ongoing tech support and system upgrades.
When to invest in building layout technology
Now is the time to adopt this technology.
Data from the JBKnowledge report shows that only 38% of companies aren’t experimenting with new technology at all, although that number is down 20% from the previous year. Of those considering new technology, drones are the most popular followed by prefabrication, 360-degree imaging and 3D scanning. And as BIM grows, JBKnowledge expects layout with laser scanning implementation to continue.
That means much of the competition is already in the technology game and reaping the benefits.
The sooner MEP firms implement these solutions, the faster they’ll start benefiting from reduced rework, higher productivity and other operational wins that ultimately make them more competitive. Simply put, failing to embrace technology risks the entire business.