Innovative use of 3D technology leaps construction projects into future

Edmonton, AB — Project teams at Ledcor Group — one of Canada’s largest multi-discipline construction companies — are taking a reality check. Thanks to the ingenuity of Mitacs researchers at the University of Alberta, they are successfully blending the virtual world of 3D models with real world imagery, giving them a hands-on way to manage large infrastructure construction projects from start to finish, even when off-site.

“For the first time, our researchers are addressing the challenging question of how to make the technology work in a dynamic, fast-moving domain like construction,” says Ming Lu, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department. Lu is overseeing the team of PhD-level researchers responsible for the unique application, whose ongoing work is funded by Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating a more innovative Canada through research partnerships.

Ledcor project engineers traditionally use digital photos and videos to capture site-specific information when designing, managing and building large projects, ranging from dams, highways, bridges and pipelines to residential or commercial buildings. However, they were lacking an efficient way to store and retrieve those images. It also took time to match the images to their detailed 3D design drawings in order to be more precise in their planning and proactively discover potential problems.

The visualization platform developed by the researchers leverages Google Earth to deliver an inexpensive and easy-to-use digital tool that solves both problems. What makes the methodology unique is that the ground photos taken by Ledcor engineers are now automatically time-stamped and geo-referenced, and easily combined with both Google Earth and drone footage, all of which are stored internally in a private platform. The result is a true likeness of the physical environment surrounding a proposed construction site, and the designs are then overlaid on top, creating a virtual environment that all team members can access as they move forward through the various stages of construction.

“This tool allows us to understand a job inside and out very quickly,” says Rod Wales, Vice-President, Operations at Ledcor. “One of the real advantages is that we’re able to see our plans in real time and space, as they’re being built, without having to travel to the site time and time again.”

The platform facilitates sharing of information throughout the life cycle of a construction project, providing a snapshot at key intervals to support decision making related to estimating, planning, and controlling. Modelling time is shortened using 3D modelling software and because ground images can be easily retrieved and compared to live Google Earth views, project teams are able to compare planned models to structures as they’re built, making it possible to track progress remotely and make changes when necessary.

“It’s evolving as we go,” says Wales, noting that the company is now applying the technology as the basis for a project management ‘war room’ where everyone works collectively in the same digital environment.

“We can build our models, drop them into this mixed reality environment and very quickly see how everything works together,” he says. “Things jump out at us that we may not have seen otherwise and we can quickly make adjustments at the planning stage, saving time and money in the long run.”

Mitacs researcher Chaoyu Zheng, a second-year PhD civil engineering student at the University of Alberta, is working to further develop the visualization platform, including the addition of embedded hyperlinks so that project managers can access relevant information at a glance. If a particular component is being built with concrete, for example, it can be tagged and linked to the corresponding documents outlining the characteristics of that concrete, such as strength test results or detailing design and quantity information.

“Through our research, we’re constantly exploring new ways of doing things,” said Zheng, who spends two to three days each week at Ledcor’s Edmonton office. “Our partnership with Ledcor gives us a firsthand look at the real needs of the company so we better understand the difficulties they’re facing.”

Zheng was preceded on the project by University of Alberta PhD student Duanshun Li, who has since been named by Mitacs as one of 150 scientific innovators whose work will have a positive impact on our country over the next 150 years.

According to Professor Lu, the project has created an effective model for training PhD students at the university, “preparing the students with the skills to practice engineering, lead innovation and implement research for productivity and competitiveness of the Canadian industry.”

“We started out with a simple idea to work on visualization,” adds Wales. “Thanks to the Mitacs researchers, what we have now is stunning. What would have taken us years to accomplish on our own, we’ve done in months.”

Quick facts:

  • Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 17 years.
  • Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.
  • Open to all disciplines and all industry sectors, projects can span a wide range of areas, including manufacturing, business processes, IT, social sciences, design, and more.
  • In Alberta, Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and Alberta Innovates.

Learn more:

For information about Mitacs and its programs, visit