Transforming engineering by embracing digital scanning and immersive technology

Posted On: 
13th April 2018

Simon Evans from SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business writes about the vital role played by immersive technology is helping to not only create a data-driven economy in the UK, but transforming construction and maximising clean growth across the country.  

"Having the ability to visualise a problem or design proposal is important to identifying the right engineering solution"
Credit: 
Atkins

Over the last 60 years, technology has played a vital role in transforming the energy industry, increasing efficiency, productivity and improving the safety of workers and facilities. 

After decades of invention and billions of pounds of investment, immersive technology, that is, software and devices that blend our physical and digital worlds, is rapidly becoming more accessible, powerful and cost-effective. 

The Industrial Strategy states an ambition to be at the forefront of harnessing the power of innovation. The benefits of digital engineering are many and varied, and our use of immersive 3D technology is helping to not only create a data-driven economy in the UK, but transforming construction and maximising clean growth across the country.  

For many years these immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), have promised much but failed to convince a reluctant business and consumer audience outside the gaming world, who often viewed it as a ‘gimmick’. With targeted and engineering-led applications, VR and AR are now proving their value and are delivering tangible business benefits, particularly in three key areas:

Safety 

Whether it’s the energy industry, rail or construction, the utmost priority on any project or site is clear – to make sure that its workers return home safely at the end of each day. Technology has already helped reduce human intervention in all manner of on-site processes, and immersive technology can minimise these risks even further.  

The ability to digitally scan an area with dimensional accuracy has significantly reduced the time it takes to measure or inspect the condition of an asset. This in turn reduces the chances of human error and the unfortunate all-too-common need for follow up visits and inspections. 

Data can now be captured more accurately, efficiently and cost-effectively than was possible just a few years ago, and significantly so when compared to traditional survey methods. The data collected contains forensic details on the most complex and restricted areas of a site, and can be used to create a highly accurate 3D model. Such models provide an as-built record of the asset upon which additional layers of information can be securely applied, creating a single source of truth. Through these models, engineers and operators are now able to explore complex and restricted areas in an immersive environment before they access the real facility. 

Taking advantage of an immersive environment has many real-world benefits. Workers can develop an awareness of the area, plan their approach, identify key challenges or installation clashes, and decide on the actions needed to address them. Workers can revisit the ‘digital twin’ of the site as many times as needed, which limits the time they spend in a high-risk setting and minimises disruption and downtime on the actual site. 

Efficiency

With the use of immersive technology, workers are now able to familiarise themselves with a facility or equipment in advance of going on-site. Virtual ‘walk throughs’ of the facility can help workers collaboratively prepare for different tasks and scenarios with spatial context and understanding. This reduces the duration of their planned activities, which minimises costs. 

Digitally scanning a facility and producing a virtual version, or ‘digital twin’, that can be accessed through a desktop application, mobile device or using immersive technology, further supports and enables data-driven decision-making now and for future works, at all stages of the asset lifecycle.

Immersive technology has also proven to be valuable in project operations, for scheduling maintenance and anticipating problems. It can be used to analyse signs of wear or damage to vital components and help colleagues assess how quickly maintenance or repair work should be scheduled. 

Engagement 

By using immersive 3D technologies, clients are now able to visualise a site, facility or its equipment and enhance their understanding of the assets, enabling them to make informed decisions. 

This helps to close the gap between the original drawings or 3D CAD models and the current status of a project or work. For ageing assets, this gap can often be very large and the condition of the actual asset unknown or very different. 

Realising such benefits is not just a technological or engineering challenge. It requires a deep understanding of the constraints and requirements of operating in complex and highly regulated environments. Equally, immersive technology should not be viewed as an additional service or capability, but rather as an integrated tool that can add value throughout the lifecycle of a project and enhance the engineering delivery. 

Where could immersive technology take us? 

The value of immersive visualisation in engineering is becoming more apparent and cannot be ignored. Having the ability to visualise a problem or design proposal is important to identifying the right engineering solution. Equally, knowing when not to choose immersive technology is just as important as understanding its potential. 

Using VR and AR in combination with Building Information Modelling (BIM), 4D (scheduling), 5D (cost) and 6D (performance) data, provides a well-informed, holistic view and takes the art of de-risking an asset, for both its people and its bottom line, to a whole new level. 

Of course, fundamental to the use of these digital technologies is the ability and requirement to manage, access and most importantly secure the data – particularly against cyber threats.

As owners, operators and engineers embrace and explore these new developments in digital technology, far from a gaming gimmick, the tangible benefits for any number of industries could indeed be impressively augmented.