Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Scanning the Scene

3-D laser scanning helps facilities work through the renovation and building process faster

by Thomas Walsh, PE,Chris Zmijewski
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Building renovations can be a nightmare for laboratory facilities. From biocontainment and contamination issues to finding the space and time for proper surveying and construction, the entire process is daunting, and it is often so difficult to negotiate around lab operations that the drawbacks seem to outweigh the benefits. However, three-dimensional laser scanning, a new tool in the construction and development world, is helping facilities work through the renovation and building process in a much faster, less disruptive manner.

The hands-on tradition
During a building or renovation project, traditional survey crews set up their equipment at various points in a space to measure the angles, alignment, footings, foundation, and other spatial dimensions that inform the final design and construction details of the renovation. This process requires setting up equipment, measuring from point to point, taking it down, and repeating the process until enough information has been collected on the entire space. This data is then literally handwritten onto the building plans of the space in question.

The problems with this method, especially for sensitive environments such as labs, are many. Hand-measuring all the spaces is time-consuming, which can seriously impact a facility conducting time-sensitive research. The process is also quite invasive; meaning the crew and their equipment must repeatedly enter and exit the space, compromising the sterility or continued operation of labs that require such conditions. With laser scanning, however, the entire facility can be “measured” much more quickly and with much less equipment, allowing the crew to get in and out as fast and cleanly as possible.

Technology goes to work
The way it works is the scanning equipment pulses the scene repeatedly with a laser, collecting the spatial data for each of the hundreds of thousands of points it sees, and then reproduces that data to form a series of images. The resulting views look much like digital photographs but have all the three-dimensional angles and perspectives of the real thing. These 3-D images allow designers and builders to get the full perspective of the site, down to the window heights, sprinkler systems, piping, electrical outlets, casework, wall devices, and equipment in the room.

This kind of information is invaluable especially during the planning and design phases of a renovation project, for the scan images show not only every detail of the site but also the exact dimensions from the interior to the exterior of the building, which makes designing the floor plans and the wiring, fireproofing, HVAC, and other building systems much easier and more accurate. For lab facilities, in particular, the benefits of laser scanning go beyond its usefulness for design purposes. There are a number of efficiency and safety benefits as well:

Time.As mentioned, the speed of laser scanning is one of its most significant advantages. Depending on the complexity of the space, scanning an average-sized research laboratory, for example, could be completed within hours. This same process could take the better part of a day if done using conventional methods. Again, for facilities undergoing time-sensitive or continuous research, the less time the process takes, the faster lab technicians can resume their work. What’s more, the data collected is processed within minutes and quickly converted to working CAD files, making it available to designers almost right away.

Space.The speed of the laser scanning process isn’t the only factor that minimizes disturbances to the work in a lab; its relatively simple equipment avoids conflicts as well. Laser scanning requires only the laser scanner and one operator to collect the field measurements. There is no need for extra people, tools, ladders, and other equipment to crowd the space and pose the risks of damage to a lab’s equipment.

The streamlined process also helps a survey crew get into spaces that would otherwise be difficult. The scanner can be elevated on a post to reach high spots or mounted over ductwork or inside the ceiling to measure interstitial spaces and other areas. This does require moving the scanner a few times, but it allows access to these types of spaces that traditional survey operations can’t provide.

Safety.The versatility of the scanners means survey staff are much less likely to need to climb ladders or balance on lifts to reach out-of-the-way spaces. And for biocontainment or sterile labs, crews can simply set up the equipment and walk away, allowing the scanner to do all the work and avoiding any need for protective suits, respirators, and the like.

Accuracy.The amount and detail of the data collected by laser scanners is staggering. Rather than measure from several point A’s to point B’s as in conventional survey operations, the scanner measures literally millions of data points within the same geospatial coordinate system, providing extremely accurate measurements and nearly photo-quality images. This level of detail also means the likelihood of needing to make return field visits is very low, which reduces costs and, again, disruption to the lab and its operations.

The accuracy of this data also helps designers better plan a lab’s space, which is especially useful for small labs or labs with a lot of large or complex equipment to accommodate. The 3-D images that result from laser scanning allow designers to examine the room from all angles and create precise models of how the many pieces can fit together. In other words, they can take all the components of the room as if they were pieces of a puzzle and continue putting them together in the model until they find a solution that works. With such accurate measurements, the model is extremely reliable and allows crews to begin construction quickly and with confidence. This same idea can be used to model how material, people, and processes flow through a space, helping identify bottlenecks, the potential for cross contamination, and other issues.

Validation.Similarly, laser scanning can be a particularly valuable tool for facilities with legacy systems or others that need validation from such authorities as the FDA. Laser scanning provides real coordinates and as-built data within a tenth of an inch, fully documenting each pipe, valve, and vent—the entire system. This is especially helpful for a lab that is planning to change its process or system, as the documentation can prove that all components are in place before the new system is implemented.

Compatibility.One of the more useful benefits in the long term is the ability of laser scanning data to provide a comprehensive, consistent, and compatible record of not only a specific lab or room, but also its relationship to the entire building, campus, or surroundings. As the data can be converted into other building modeling software programs such as CAD, it is easily integrated with other parts of the building. That means, for example, that the building team could develop a full model of an entire research campus, including all the interiors and exteriors, the streets, the infrastructure under them, etc. Each of those components would be labeled accordingly, creating a comprehensive, accurate foundation for any future renovations or changes, as well as a flexible plan that can accommodate those additions.

Planning for the future
While the use of laser scanning is just getting its start in the laboratory and research world, its potential to streamline the building and construction process for these facilities is immense. For starters, facilities with limited existing documentation, with plans for significant changes, or with especially critical environments are well-suited to take advantage of this technology. The visual images it creates can also help a facility get approvals and the budget to move forward on renovation projects as they help visually communicate not only the current state of a space but also the benefits and possibilities for its growth and improvement.

As the technology continues to develop, this communication will become even more sophisticated, allowing facility managers to have access to all the measurements and geospatial data right from their desks. The hope is that ultimately these systems will allow users to highlight a building or space on their computer screens and pull up all the related building information, including photo data, walk-through animations, dimensions, and other details. This information can then be used to forecast what the facility could look like in 5 or 10 years and project the costs of making those changes.

With the many complications the lab environment can pose for construction and renovation projects, 3-D laser scanning is a sophisticated tool that can provide some simple solutions for keeping a lab, its staff, and its research up and running.

All photos courtesy of Stantec