Laser scanning is hot. Process plant design software vendors such as AVEVA, Bentley Systems and Intergraph have long had partner programs to integrate LIDAR models into their design and operations workflows; Autodesk is now actively promoting it — and last month AVEVA upped the ante in adding intelligence to point clouds.

A bit of backstory for those not into plant design: A process plant may take years to design and build and then has an operating lifespan of decades. Maintaining these plants creates a dilemma for many operators: should they keep CAD operators on hand to update 3D models for every maintenance project or do something else to capture the “as is” data when a larger overhaul is required? Increasingly, operators are going for the latter and using laser scanning (aka LIDAR — LIght Detection And Ranging — remote sensing using light) to create very accurate point cloud models of the actual state of an operating plant.

Laser scanners are getting significantly cheaper and faster, with modern scanners capable of capturing over a million points of data per second even when the scanner is moving at automobile speeds. The output of a scan is a dense cloud of points in 3D space, representing every obstacle the laser encountered in its scan. But what do those dots represent? The points are much like the old bitmap data representations, lacking the intelligence that identified a series of adjoining dots as a line, let alone recognizing that a clump of points is a piece of equipment. CAD operators have to “trace” over the scan results to identify pipes, tanks, structural supports, instruments and other components. When the laser scan and 3D CAD model don’t align, the operators typically update the CAD model to reflect the results of the “as found” point cloud. It’s a slow process but often the only way to ensure that a CAD model actually represents what’s built.

Last month, plant and marine software design provider AVEVA announced the release of its new IntelliLaser product to streamline this whole effort. IntelliLaser relies on technology developed by Z+F UK to associate the 3D coordinates contained in the point clouds with an existing 3D design model in AVEVA NET to create hot spots in the clouds. The hot spots are linked to tag data that is associated with all available engineering data about the plant’s CAD model, such as maintenance data, data sheets and procedures. Then, using a browser interface, a user can identify a pipe, identify the other items around it, click on the pipe to see a list of other documents and data in which the pipe is referenced, and so on.

It sounds complicated but it’s not. During a demo of IntelliLaser last month, AVEVA’s Neil McPhater explained that ‘hot spotting’ takes a matter of minutes to align laser scan coordinates with 3D CAD model coordinates and create the intelligence layer on the point cloud. User intervention is required when a component is in the scan but not in the CAD model, for example, but the CAD model can be from any CAD vendor, making this extremely handy in the fragmented world of large process plant projects. In addition, laser scans from any laser vendor or from multiple laser scan vendors can be used to populate AVEVA IntelliLaser. The result is impressive: a photo-realistic image that can be manipulated and interrogated almost as if it were a CAD model.