Laser Technology In The 21st Century: A Look At How Augmented Reality And 3D Laser Scanning Is Transforming Lasers In Construction Environments

Words: Ashley Johnson

Words: Ashley Johnson
Photo: HalfPoint

Lasers have been used in construction for more than 50 years. Starting with laser levels and evolving to measure distances and scan building sites, lasers are a ubiquitous, indispensable tool for any contractor or professional in construction. 

Spectra-Physics, known today as Spectra Precision, out of Dayton, Ohio, was the first enterprise to succeed with advancing lasers for commercial use. Today, through technology lasers are not only more advanced than ever but accessible and cost-effective. 

A brief history of laser innovation

The first laser to be invented and introduced was by Theodore Maiman in 1960, an American engineer and physicist. This ultimately led to the development of other types of lasers. Spectra-Physics introduced the first commercially successful laser for interior construction environments and cost $8,000. This innovation required users to manually adjust the laser, pointing it in the direction it needed to go, and leveling the laser manually with the assistance of a built-in carpenter’s bubble level. 

The 1970s were a time of mechanical innovation for lasers. The 70s saw the introduction of self-leveling lasers, a rotating laser, and 90-degree split beam lasers for layout work. 

The next big challenge to overcome with lasers was how to provide power. Because heat was such an issue and could decalibrate a laser, the power box was kept separate and then plugged into a wall outlet. Battery operated lasers were available but inefficient because they were essentially car batteries. 

Spectra introduced an integrated power box in the 1980s although it still required a wall outlet to operate. 

Lasers took off in the 1990s starting with the visible laser diode that replaced the helium-neon laser tube, which was bright, precise and sharply focused. The first visible laser diode was shaped like a football and large. But it was cordless and less expensive. 

With the introduction of integrated scanning technology, lasers could identify a target and lock onto it. Electronic self-leveling lasers resistant to wind and vibration were introduced to replace self-leveling lasers with compensators and multiple beams. Power increased from 300 hours to 30,000 on a smaller power supply. 

Laser technology in the 21st century

Today, lasers are being used with greater precision, accuracy, and convenience to measure, align, and capture everything from straight lines to square footage to 3D models of buildings, structures, and spaces. It is critical that any measurement or calculation is taken with a high degree of accuracy to avoid unnecessary labor costs and wasting costly materials.  

Technology has made it possible for manufacturers to design and produce smaller lasers packed with helpful features and capabilities. Augmented reality is now being used by smart devices and lasers to conveniently measure and calculate dimensions quickly.

Contractors used to carry around multiple tools and devices to level a surface, capture the square footage of a room, or measure the eaves of a roof. Now they can do it with their smartphones.

By combining lasers with augmented reality, contractors can accurately calculate lines and distances of 60 feet and 120 feet not possible by traditional tape measurers. Square footage of hard to reach areas like gables or roof lines also can easily and quickly be calculated automatically. Products like the Arrim One1 feature a device that plugs into an iPhone or Android device and overlays measurements on an augmented reality display. 

3D scaled, measurable photos let contractors take photos of elevation, flatwork, and roofs and then measure anything within that photo. This eliminates the necessity of workers having to go inside a structure to measure openings on upper levels, capture out-of-reach measurements, track wall production by employees. 

“The beauty of this feature is you can mark laser points on walls and move back up to 600’ to get the whole elevation in the picture to then measure at any time within the app,” said Scott Wilson, a representative for Arrim One. 

A similar device by Plott Cubit3 uses dual-axis lasers, a roller wheel, and input from an augmented reality smartphone application to ensure measurements that are precise and accurate. The roller wheel assists users with taking measurements over uneven or irregular surfaces. Combined with a smartphone, this application lets users envision a project prior to completing it.

Lasers are being used for more than just leveling surfaces and measure distances. They also can scan an area quickly and accurately to provide detailed data and accurate information for every possible surface, crack, alcove, and more. 

In refractory installation of kilns, laser alignment devices4 improve accuracy and ensure proper installation, even on long kilns. Laser alignment devices also improve productivity by reducing setup time marking a kiln or other structure versus using radial welds and a plumb line. 

“There have even been instances where the laser discovered improperly installed retaining rings,” said a representative of Bricking Solutions. “These rings are the foundation of properly installed brick.”

When mapping a project or job, laser scanning can provide instantaneous results, taking only minutes instead of days or weeks. This reduces costs and encourages workers to produce detailed workflows. 

Laser scanning technology

Laser scanning is the process by which laser beams are used to map and capture details of building sites, similar to how a camera takes a panoramic photo. While commercially available since the 1990s, laser scanning has only recently exploded through the accessibility of hardware, software, and deliverables to reduce costs and increase utility. 

Contractors increasingly see the value that lasers play in scanning a job site or building to compare newly constructed work with models or blueprints. Laser scanning can identify conflicts before they occur. This reduces risks by eliminating inaccuracies before turning them into change orders during construction. 

In new construction, laser scanners can analyze a concrete slab or floors for uniformity or flatness. This allows for more reliable data pertaining to material volume and how much to order, eliminating waste, and leading to more accurate orders. 

When renovating a building or structure, laser scans can replace outdated or nonexistent drawings. Importing this data into CAD packages allows contractors to generate highly accurate drawings based on existing conditions.     

3D models generated from laser scans allow contractors to properly understand the space surrounding a construction site. These models allow very specific context to be taken of surroundings. This is important and advantageous in cases where the location is in a risky area like traffic or terrain, is surrounded by a historic building, or during renovation projects. 

Equally compelling is that laser scanners now can be used to help embed sensors in and around sites that allow teams to regularly monitor performance and progress in real-time. 

By incorporating laser scanning technology throughout the entire construction process, workers can document every phase, component, process, and material used. This information can then be used to generate a highly accurate time-lapse record that can be used and referenced in the future. 

Lasers will continue to evolve and adapt to modern construction environments thanks to technology. When faced with a pandemic like today, it’s more important than ever to possess the capability to augment work processes remotely, quickly, and cost effectively.

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