Figure 1 This model from an InteliSum project in Manitou Springs, Colorado was created to verify how a new road design would affect the existing buildings on the street.


X, Y and Z

3D Ties to ROI

Rod Franklin
Denver, Colo.

There’s a good chance you haven’t met Z. He’s easy to miss. In any room, Z tends to hang back. But George Bauer wants to introduce him to as many people as possible. Though Z’s visualization skills may sound like fantasy, there is no magic in his depth coordinate—only practical, useable data.

As vice president of marketing for the Irvine, California company INOVx Solutions Inc., Bauer spends his days working the logistics of laser scanning and software configuration contracts for companies that want to give 3D form to their existing physical plants–a trick Z’s depth coordinates help bring to the computer screen. Bauer’s customers are the first-generation adopters of high-definition 3D virtualization, and they’re using the technology to trim maintenance routines, manage assets, heighten their awareness of surrounding danger, and catalyze knowledge transfer among the employee rank and file.

Players in the energy, chemical, food, construction and drug manufacturing sectors are crunching ledger numbers that make Z’s presence look more and more like a worthy investment. As the oft-excluded member in the full trio of X (width), Y (height) and Z (depth) coordinates that must be present in any algorithm to synthesize visual space three dimensionally, Z can be integrated into an oil refinery’s existing information systems at prices ranging from $400,000 to $500,000 for a single processing unit to several million for an entire plant, Bauer says.

Once Z is there, 2D pictures of coking units or heat exchangers morph into alternate cartoon realities. Z lives wherever the front of something turns gradually into the back of it–an essence that makes possible the study of components that previously remained hidden within complex mechanical environments. This capability is a benefit that can turn the cognitive intellect squarely on its ear. In fact, the overall result of Z’s impact on industry promises to be a game-changing paradigm for those professional service categories in which visual acuity ranks high. Of these, engineering is probably the most natural beneficiary.

Figure 2 This is a screenshot of the actual instant 3D model for a U.S. pumphouse that needed a scrubber replacement. By using the Instant 3D Model, the engineer at InteliSum was able to verify that the new scrubber would fit and connect correctly in the existing environment

A central question for the potential 3D client is whether the technology can pull the weight of its own initial investment, and then some. If the answer is yes, a state transportation department might be interested in hiring a vendor like InteliSum Solutions Inc., another Irvine firm, which specializes in LiDAR-scanned 3D modeling primarily for highway contractors, plant operators, building managers and architects. Or, if the projected ROI looks solid for a utility, earthmine Inc. of Berkeley, California, might get the call to scan miles and miles of service area with its fleet of truck-mounted panoramic stereo cameras.

Promising returns on scanning investments have been easiest to justify in capital-intensive industries. Their physical plants stand as the icons of early adopter 3D success stories. INOVx has completed hundreds of scanning and software consultation projects, and counts among its clients giants like Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble, Dow, BP, Chevron and the U.S. Navy. Its literature cites the following ROI figures:


  • more than $1 million in corrosion monitoring savings for Shell Canada;
  • productivity increases of 25 to 30 percent for thickness monitoring location inspection teams working at a joint venture refinery in Venezuela;
  • a shorter engineering schedule and 50 percent reduction in reworks, due to improved design accuracy and efficiency, at a ConocoPhillips refinery that required new piping in a congested area;
  • an estimated $10 million benefit in fire damage repairs at another plant after workers were able to complete the job two weeks faster than originally anticipated.


Engineers assigned to the twisting mazes of pipe and pump that INOVx models for these organizations use a solution called RealityLINx to stoke their talents to a level that is at once both analytic and intuitive. The software ties 3D visuals into existing enterprise management databases, operations and maintenance software, CAD, and document management systems. This merger helps an employee combine his data-intensive review of a factory subsystem with the more visceral act of seeing it, and at all possible angles–a technical mashup of the human analytic process.

The ability to “walk” through a plant from a workstation desktop, aided by visual procedures embedded in 3D models, can result in leaner inspection and maintenance routines. INOVx quotes studies showing that the combined effect of such benefits can greatly reduce the effort mechanics spend on maintenance planning and, in the process, can hike subcontractor wrench time from 30 to 55 percent. More time on the wrench leads to quicker turnarounds. Fast turnarounds translate into increased plant availability, which leads to higher profits.

Figure 3 earthmine’s mobile stereo panoramic collection system drives and scans hundreds of miles a day.

Building a business case for 3D versus the traditional 2D drawing and CAD approach actually begins on a basic level. Engineers at most plants should be able to list the top ten mechanical systems that are the most logical candidates for 3D modeling. These components would benefit from scanning for the simple reason that an open view of their back side is something that employees would like to see on a frequent basis.

When scoping out a plant for isolation points and clearance metrics, obstructed vision has always been a paramount issue. “It comes up a lot,” Bauer says. “In this case you can go to the model query and say, ‘show me the next available valve upstream.’”

Utility substations stand as another category that can fare well in this new working dimension. According to a 2005 paper by a Bentley Systems Inc. engineer, strong potential exists for cost improvements in areas like substation site selection, design alternative evaluation, design automation, virtual walk-throughs, commissioning, communication with neighbors, operations, and maintenance. Without Z, these cost benefits are but a pipe dream.

Figuring a leveraged ROI in support of virtualization has also been a fairly clear-cut chore for architects and transportation experts. InteliSum Inc. directs much of its attention toward these markets. Its LiDAR scanning services are based on the photomechanical properties of the InteliCamera, which is designed to capture information in a way that allows for the commingling of XYZ coordinates with RGB color values and GIS data inside individual pixels that have been rendered “intelligent.” This commingling produces 3D pictures that double as three-tiered datasets. See Figure 1.

Shana Lindsey, director of research and bridge operations for the Utah Department of Transportation, has lauded InteliSum’s approach as an effective alternative to traditional surveying. When her department hired the firm to model a bridge badly in need of replacement, workers were able to build the structure miles from its target location, transport it and then install in a single weekend. Lindsey quoted a cost savings on the order of 75 to 90 percent, much of it owing to the higher accuracy of 3D over 2D drawings and consequent elimination of return trips to the field.

The accuracy of 3D LiDAR has made oil and gas customers as integral a part of InteliSum’s client base as they are for INOVx. According to InteliSum media and marketing specialist Kirk Edwards, CAD wasn’t enough for firms in Brazil that contract to work for Petrobras, the nationalized oil company. Modeling with LiDAR to produce LD3 files and Intelipixels that can be poured seamlessly into CAD systems has helped them reduce the margin of error inherent to the 2D drawing approach. See Figure 2.

Figure 4 An application built on earthmine’s Flash Viewer API that provides mapping and measurement tools shows the ferry building in San Francisco with an inset satellite map.

Any ROI analysis engaged to weigh the 3D option should account for both short-term and long-term cost efficiencies. Frank Algarin, InteliSum’s vice president of sales, says the initial expense for LiDAR scanning doesn’t seem so dear to those clients who have seen how the InteliCamera can produce millions of reference points in the span of a day, as opposed to the 200 or 300 points recorded per shift in more traditional transit surveying.According to Algarin, LiDAR’s swifter modality costs about $75,000 for ten days of scanning–a fraction of the estimated $120,000 a company might spend for 30 days of conventional surveying, followed by three weeks of post-processing. This amount of scanning is sufficient to cover 100,000 square feet of a building or three to four stories of a 500-square meter oil platform. InteliSum’s fee also pays for post-processing and a CAD deliverable.However, the more permanent ROI is where virtualization makes its real play. “When you’re looking back at ROI, it really gets back to more information and better information when you’re conceiving your design,” Algarin explained. “Then it starts to escalate geometrically after that, as far as the savings. Because once you collect your 3D drawings, they’re done.”

INOVx has quantified this impact over a one year period. Its subject of study was a 100,000-barrel-per-day refinery. Based on an annual cost of $100,000 per employee and a conservative guess of 12.5 percent improved productivity for each group of 60 operations and engineering staff members, the ROI equation yielded an estimated $750,000 in yearly cost savings.

Somewhere down the road, a company may trick out its 3D datasets to model “what-if” scenario planning and find itself drawing additional returns in the process. Bringing a company’s procedural culture to this point, naturally, will require the devotion of some front-end time in the interest of saving more later. “This is a disruptive technology,” says Bauer. “You need to re-engineer your work processes and work in a different manner.”

Benefits may compound, once staff members have learned the software. Virtualization can help a training professional transcend intellectual biases that for years have compelled him to declare that adult learning theory sits already at its theoretic apogee and isn’t going anywhere new soon. Or experienced workers may use the models informally to convey knowledge in ways that are happily symbiotic with the bent of their younger colleagues, who have grown up in a world that barks its endorsement of the newest and glossiest technologies.

Another type of ROI analysis considers the value-added product factor. Earthmine Inc. has focused on the nascent market for large-area 3D mapping, using its panoramic stereo cameras to scan hundreds of miles daily at normal driving speeds for clients in government, utilities and online mapping. See Figures 3-4. Because the firm offers an end-to-end solution for collecting, processing and delivering point cloud data, its licensing fees take into account the multiple ways a customer can use the information.

On earthmine’s side of the transaction, ownership of the data remains intact and continues to draw revenue each time a new customer licenses it. “We want to build a large data library of street information that can be shared amongst many stakeholders,” explains John Ristevski, one of the company’s founders. “We’re definitely going for the platform play.” On the customer side, data purchased from the platform for a singular purpose will cost less than data being redeployed to many markets. With earthmine’s application program interfaces (APIs), partners can produce a wide range of end user applications capable of pulling returns in their own right.

“If they’re creating derivative products from our content, it’s priced at one tier,” Ristevski said. “If they are using it more as an interface, like in a local search Website, it is priced at another tier.”

To varying degrees, the door is opening for some new 3D modeling markets. Some of the most promising of these lie in the realms of telecommunications, tax appraisal, public safety and emergency response. InteliSum has been devoting more time lately to building information modeling–that algorithmic hallucination where architects turn cartoon corners and descend cartoon staircases that aren’t yet built–and reports a five-to-one ROI for its most recent project.

From an investment perspective, other applications of 3D visualization may be a little iffy. Because quick response planning tries to foresee the intangible, the technology could find itself positioned as hero in one modeled disaster scenario, but a false and costly prophet in another. For insurance companies, there’s the question of who–underwriter or beneficiary–ultimately pays for the rendering process, and whether the increased transparency it provides should inspire a trend toward lower premiums or be used to clobber customers with higher costs. Finally, spokesmen for both InteliSum and INOVx say that the real estate sector, at least for now, views 3D modeling more as a nice-to-have than an essential.

Tired soldiers of the business wars will need to be convinced that 3D visualization should not be consigned to the throwaway status of mere eye candy. What will become more evident to them over the next few years is the continuing cascade of supercharged pixels into our working world.

To some, it does look a bit like fantasy. But those with down-to-earth experience in visualization should be able to reassure the would-be 3D customer that Walt Disney has left this particular room.

Z told them so.

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