How I Finally Learned to Drop the Tape Measure and Embrace the 3D Laser Scanner
How 3D Laser Scanning is Changing The Financials Of As-Built Surveying
For the first 14 years of Precision Property Measurements, it was just a few trusty surveyors and me waking up at 5 AM, Monday through Friday, hopping on the freeway to beat the LA morning traffic, and breaking out our handy measuring tapes, pencils, and paper to collect our clients’ As-Built property measurements. Our “high-tech” equipment was a laser distance meter, but even that high-precision tool can only take 1 measurement at a time. In some ways, I remember those days fondly. It was much more of a physically demanding process back then, and there was something gratifying about coming home each day having put in a number of hours dangling from ladders or scraping through crawl spaces.
If I had the choice, would I go back to those early days?
Probably not, but there’s nothing wrong with reminiscing. Though we do hand measure our clients’ properties from time to time depending on size and scope, over the last 2 years 3D laser scanners have revolutionized the way we do business, both in the field, in the office, and financially.
With that being said, over a series of posts, I’d like to explain how different PPM is today now that we have made a big push into this amazing, revolutionary technology. This first post will be about how 3D laser scanners have transformed the financial dynamics of what we do best: delivering accurate, high-quality As-Built surveys to our clients.
So, if you’d like a behind-the-scenes peak into how one of the top As-Built surveying companies in the country is changing due to this innovation, then please read on.
First Things First—What the Heck is 3D Laser Scanning?
MacBooks are to parchment and quill as 3D laser scanners are to tape measures. What I mean is they’re almost not even in the same universe.
To keep it simple, 3D laser scanners shoot… well, lasers in all directions, and whatever the lasers hit gets recorded as a 3-dimensional point for us to decipher later. The laser scanners we use shoot tens of thousands of points per second! So even a small building will generate many millions of data points in very little time. The resulting file containing all of these 3D points is called a Point Cloud file. The next step for us then is to take that point cloud, and through a series of different processes and software applications, create a usable deliverable for our client: Typically, a 2D AutoCAD drawing or a 3D Revit model.
These days, working with point clouds is what we spend quite a bit of our time doing here at PPM. Whereas a couple of years ago, we were creating accurate As-Built plans based on our hand-draw sketches containing individual measurements, now we are working with this incredibly accurate digital point cloud data. The challenge for us is that the point cloud contains everything that the lasers hit – wall decorations, furniture, coffee cups, pets… just look around you right now and you’ll get an idea for everything that can be contained in a point cloud. Our job is to focus on providing only what’s important for our client.
As you can imagine, this dramatic change in our process has been quite an adjustment in how we deal with dollars and cents here at PPM, so, next, I’d like to tell you about the 2 major ways that 3D laser scanning has changed the financials of our company.
“Looks like we’re going to need a bigger equipment budget.”
When I started with PPM back in 2002, it cost about $5,000 to outfit my workers or myself with all of the tools we needed to start on a client’s project. This provided us with the field equipment, which was pretty minimal back then, plus the computer and software we needed in the office to create the finished CAD product.
Now, since the 3D laser scanner came around, we’ve seen quite an uptick in how much overhead we need for our field and office operations.
First, the 3D laser scanners—there are many different units on the market so the price will vary, but the 3D laser scanners that we use cost about $50,000 a piece. That’s right, this single tool is 10x more expensive than our entire kit cost only a couple of years ago.
Second, we need a much more sophisticated and high-powered computer and networking system than what we used back in the good old days, in order to handle all that point cloud data. So, over the past couple of years, we’ve replaced all of our production computers with high-end models, bought new servers and networking equipment, dramatically increased our local and cloud data storage capacity, and we are about to significant upgrade our internet speeds so that we can quickly transfer data to and from our regional offices, field survey crews, and clients.
You might be wondering how we can afford to make these investments without any increases in the rates we charge our clients. Good question. Well, there are more than a few cost advantages of using 3D laser scanners for As-Built surveying, as you’ll see in the next section of this post.
Less Time on Site = Less Time in LA Traffic!
With the adoption and integration of 3D laser scanning into our processes, our productivity has increased dramatically. First off, we save a ton of time in the field. A couple of years ago, to survey a typical Single-Family house, we would have needed 5-7 hours at the site – a full day’s worth of work including travel. Our day in the field used to consist of sketching, measuring, maybe using a laptop to draw on site, and although we were great at it, the process was pretty tedious. Also, because we’re located here in Southern California, we would start at the crack of dawn so we could be done by early afternoon and not have to suffer through endless gridlock.
Now, using a 3D laser scanner, that same house would take maybe 1 to 2 hours in the field – making our time in the field about a quarter of what it used to be. For larger projects which used to take multiple days, this reduction in field time can also save a lot money in travel, as we now only need one trip to the project instead of 2 or 3. It also makes out-of-state projects more financially feasible, since we can save money on hotels, rental cars, and per diem due to our much quicker surveying process.
The other part of the As-Built process, the office work, has not yet seen any significant gains in efficiency, but things are trending in that direction. Currently, it still takes us about the same amount of time as it used to, to take the field data and draft it into AutoCAD or Revit. But we think that over time, as we get better and better at working with point clouds, and new software comes along that help automate different parts of the process, we will see similar gains in our productivity on the backend.
Because of this shift in the process, PPM is working to revamp our labor force. Everyone is learning new skills, and our hiring plan has changed dramatically. Whereas previously the general ratio was one office worker for each field surveyor, now the field work is so efficient that we need 4 to 5 drafters for every surveyor. Just another change like so many others that is brought about by the transformation of our business with 3D laser scanners.
Now, you may be asking yourself…
Why Do We Love 3D Laser Scanners So Much?
The answer is simple: We want to deliver the best and most accurate products as we can to our clients, and 3D laser scanners are the perfect way to accomplish this for the foreseeable future. Though overhead costs have increased, and we have to remake our labor force, there have been just as many positive aspects of switching to 3D laser scanning.
For instance, in order to accommodate all of the additional drafters we need to work with point clouds, we’re opening a new office in Salt Lake City, which we are calling our “CAD Command Center”. This move has upped our profile on a national level and will set us up to achieve our Mission of opening at least 8 new Regional Offices by 2025. It will also increase my opportunities to go skiing once winter rolls around.
But beyond all of the financial ups and downs that this new technology has caused us, it’s our commitment to our craft and our clients that informed our decision to adopt such a business-exploding piece of equipment.
At PPM, we’re looking forward to the future and all of the technological developments that will bring our business into the forefront of the 21st century. To us, there’s no improvement without innovation, and we’re glad that we’re placed firmly on the cutting edge of what is sure to be a revolution in the As-Built survey business.
Thanks for reading!