Q&A – James Jobling-Purser and Nigel Hewitt

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones speaks to James Jobling-Purser and Nigel Hewitt from 3DMSI about their precision 3D laser-scanning technology.

James Jobling-Purser,  Managing Director, 3DMSI 

Company Managing Director James Jobling-Purser created his first business in hazardous environment surveying in 2007, exploiting an early remote surveying vehicle designed for difficult terrain. Soon after, he developed 3DMSI to offer a more comprehensive range of 3D surveying services. His research background has enabled James and his companies to take a pioneering approach to problem solving through the application of cutting edge laser-scanning for data capture and intelligent use of the 3D geospatial data captured. 

Nigel Hewitt, Strategic Development Manager, 3DMSI 

Strategic Development Manager Nigel Hewitt first worked in underground copper and gold mines in Africa as a mining engineer, including operational mining, surveying and mine planning. He secured a postgraduate mining qualification in Applied Geotechnics before adding a further degree in business. A change of career and relocation to Cornwall in 1992 brought new experience in managing economic regeneration projects. He joined 3DMSI in 2012 to help guide and manage the company’s growth and development.  

What was the impetus behind developing the technology? 

The 3DMSI team all have a surveying, mining or mining related background and, some years ago, we recognised that, although surveying is an integral part of mining operations, 3D technologies that were gathering pace in use in civil and other engineering disciplines were not being taken up with any consistency within the mining industry. At the same time, a research opportunity was seized by James to explore the possibility of developing a rugged, remotely operable platform for 3D survey instruments to provide a fast and safe way of deploying the technology.

What does your technology do and how does it work?

There are three areas to the technology:

  • The capture of 3D survey data
  • The means of safe deployment of the technology to capture a 3D survey 
  • The analysis and processing of 3D survey data

When capturing data, we predominantly use laser-scanning equipment. There are numerous laser-scanning devices on the market, working in fairly similar ways. They fire a laser beam into their surroundings to record information about the surfaces the beam contacts with. The beam both spins and rotates so it contacts with every surface within its range. Within the information captured for each point of data are the definitive coordinates of the point in space. If consecutive set-ups of the machine overlap, then a continuous data set can be captured for a space and later integrated to create one consolidated 3D model.

The second area is the deployment of scanning equipment into difficult and challenging environments. This could involve anything from using probe-type scanners delivered on rods to investigate restricted access voids through to robotic-tracked platforms able to negotiate dangerous environments remotely. We have scanned shafts, ore passes, and potentially unstable underground workings in the mining sector, as well as assessing voids that have unexpectedly appeared in construction sites.

The third area is the analysis and processing of 3D survey data. Initially, the data goes through several processes of preparation as it is integrated to create a dense cloud that takes the precise shape of the environment that has been mapped. We call this the point cloud, and it can then be processed in numerous ways, according to the need. The surfaces, now defined by the point cloud, can be imported into CAD space to allowing 3D modelling to take place. Integrated photographic data can be superimposed onto the model surfaces creating virtual reconstructions of the scanned spaces.

What is different about your technology to other 3D survey tools on the market?

Our technology is not new, but we are always on the look-out for opportunities either to exploit the technology in new ways or situations. The mining industry, for example, is a relatively new sector to embrace the technology. There are advanced mines making great use of the technology but, in the main, the industry is not used to having a comprehensive 3D model of a mine’s entire environment available in a form which can be simultaneously made available to any of the mine’s engineering, planning or service departments. This opens the model to enquiry in new ways that can lead to innovation in the way the model is used. A good example of this would be the application of computational fluid dynamics simulation to the model to visualise airflows and bottlenecks in ventilation in a shaft. This can lead to design enhancements in shaft furniture to improve airflow efficiencies.

How has the mining industry, being relatively conservative, responded to the concept of 3D survey technology? 

Some application areas, such as geotechnical analysis, have taken up the technology readily, but in a general sense the industry has only patchily taken it up at present. There is, however, a growing appreciation of the value it can add.

What kind of investment capital would a mining company be looking at to adopt the technique?

Some operators in the mining industry have already invested in scanners for geotechnical analysis and, in their case, it is a question of understanding the versatility of the equipment and establishing the equipment as a shared resource rather than the property of a single service department. For mines that are new to the equipment, the capital cost of a scanner could be as low as £5,000 for a reasonable second-hand machine to upwards of £50,000 for a fully capable new machine. On top of this, there is the cost of software and training. Software is initially bespoke for the manufacturer of the equipment and there will usually be an annual licence fee. That cost is dependent on the manufacturer chosen. Thereafter, there is a whole range of ways (and software) available to process and gain value out of the data set. The applications could range from creating traditional plan and sectional views (from the 3D model) through to full, photo-real animations created for investor purposes. 

What are the main benefits over traditional survey technologies?

Once a laser scanner is set in motion, it captures all the information around it indiscriminately, with rich information density and clarity. This means that there is no reliance (as with total station surveying) on singularly captured, discrete data points and subsequent approximate interpretation of surfaces between points. The technology, properly applied, is capable of much more intensely accurate surveying of surfaces than traditional methods, and in a much quicker time.

Are there any limitations to the technology?

The technology struggles in coal mines as the behaviour of laser light off the surfaces of coal creates problems for the scanning devices. Additionally, there is an issue educating users to establish confidence in the data generated and creating an understanding of the extent to which it can add value across multiple departments after the initial outlay. Knowing how far to train in-house data processors to deal with constantly recurring data processing needs and when to turn to specialists who are better able to deal with more bespoke applications is also challenging. The 3D survey still needs to be geo-referenced using conventional survey means and is not a replacement for traditional surveying.

How are you looking to develop the technology further?

Our main thrust, as a company, is applying the skills we have already learned in the mining industry to new sectors. We are engaging as quickly as we can with the architectural and construction sectors, as there is some related legislation planned for 2016 that will greatly accelerate the need for 3D survey accurate models. The industry will be required to provide Building Information Models for all new public buildings, and probably more and more structures in the future. This creates a need to capture and build base 3D models with the right level of detail for attaching intelligent attributes to detailed components and construction elements. 

We have also begun working regionally with super yacht builders and refitters, as well as ship repair and maintenance companies in the south west and have had great success delivering value in the uniquely shaped geospatial environments presented by ships’ hulls and below deck spaces. 

Where fragile heritage structures are threatened, there can be a valuable role in capturing structures in 3D with great detail and creating a digital archive. These could just be records, but could also be used to renovate, secure or reconstruct. We have recently been involved in surveying and providing a digital model of a historic harbour structure that was seriously damaged in the severe winter storms in early 2014.