Capturing As-Built Dimensions from Existing Structures with Reality Computing

What is Reality Computing and how can it help engineers and designs?

Reality computing is one of the hottest topics is engineering and design.  However, if you are not familiar with the technology, you might question whether it is relevant to your engineering design work. 

Reality computing is the practice of taking information directly from the real world and using that data to drive your designs. By capturing complex geometries and even complete structures, reality computing can bring valuable context to your engineering challenges and eliminate tiresome and expensive redesigns.  In this post we’ll outline how engineers are economically using point cloud data to economically and quickly aid their design processes.

Here are a few examples of how reality computing has made a difference.

Using Point Cloud data to Capture the Interior of an Aging Powerplant before Retrofitting

For nearly a century, the Blackhawk Generating Station provided power to people living near the banks Wisconsin’s Rock River. After being shuttered for a number of years, the enormous industrial facility was donated to nearby Beloit College to be transformed into a modern student center. 

But getting from shuttered power plant to student center was no easy task.

Though still structurally sound, the Blackhawk plant was a mess of twisting and bending steel overlapped story by story. What made matters even more complicated were the lack of drawings that accurately described the plant’s interior.

Rather than painstakingly measuring out each section of the building by hand, Beloit’s designers hired a firm to scan the interior of the space with lasers. The laser beams bounced around the interior to create an incredibly accurate point cloud, essentially rendering a virtual copy of every nook and cranny in the plant.

Beloit’s design team were able to create a complete 3D model of the existing structure from the point cloud data using Autodesk’s ReCap software. With those 3D plans in hand the Blackhawk remodel was set to begin.

According to Beloit’s designers, “Autodesk ReCap is one of the best solutions for cropping, viewing, and visualizing point cloud data. With the multiple ways to manipulate the point clouds in ReCap, it really empowers the user with total control of digital visualization.”

In fact, without advanced laser scanning, point cloud data and the ability to transform that information from the physical world into a robust CAD file, the Blackhawk redesign may not have been possible.

Using Reality Capture to Verify Interiors in Remote Locations

Anchorage’s Municipal Light and Power (AML&P) serves an area that spreads across almost 20 miles of the far-north. Given the massive geographic range that the utility covers, AML&P employees aren’t always able to field-verify the company’s widespread underground electrical vaults.

After discovering reality computing, engineers at AML&P realized that they could simply photograph the interiors of their vaults to quickly verify their designs.

With nothing more than a point and shoot camera and a light source, AML&P’s technicians hit the road and captured data from the interior of numerous vaults across their territory. After returning to the office with their photos, engineers uploaded them to ReCap and created a 3D model of the interior of each of the vaults.

With this data AML&P were able to not only verify their vault configurations, but they gained excellent insight into where their designs could be improved. What’s more, AML&P’s engineers also found that having an accurate 3D model of a vault made communicating about redesigns and improvements much easier, particularly when discussing engineering with stakeholders who were not familiar with reading 2D CAD data.

“Three-dimensional modeling allows us to be there, to see it as it is. This isn’t an interpretation of the data-you are in the data. It’s a paradigm shift for the way we see our underground vaults,” said AML&P engineers.

Reality Capture can Aid Processes Outside of Traditional Design Work

While architectural, civil and mechanical designers can all benefit from reality computing, the technology is pushing the boundaries of where CAD can go. Take for example the Hydrous, a project aimed at documenting, exploring and understanding the vital ecosystems that live in and around coral reefs.

According to Hydrous, “Coral reefs are gems. They cover less than 0.01% of the ocean floor yet they provide [the world] with over $30B a year in economic services.” Losing or degrading these resources would be devastating for local fisheries and for the biodiversity of our oceans.

Unfortunately, scientists haven’t had a way to effectively measure or capture data from coral reefs without damaging the subject they’re trying to study. All that has changed, though, with the increasingly easy accessibility of reality computing.

Using a series of camera’s including underwater DSLRs, researchers involved with Hydrous have been able to dive down to reefs and measure them in an way that seemed impossible just years ago. According to Hydrous researchers. “the high-resolution 3D models make it possible, for the first time, to accurately track growth, disease, and bleaching over time. This is going to revolutionize coral reef science and education. ”

The First Reality Computing Conference is in February 2015

Reality Computing is quickly being adopted across a wide range of industries.  On February 25 and 26 I’ll be travelling to San Francisco to attend the first ever conference on Reality Computing, REAL2015. There I’ll hear about what’s currently trending in Reality Computing.  It should be interesting.

Autodesk has sponsored promotion of their reality computing solutions on  They have had no editorial input to this post.  All opinions are mine – Kyle Maxey