| From Real Life to Digital Models, All Thanks to Light
The practice of using laser and other types of scanners to reverse engineer various real world items - from small car parts to entire buildings - has been on the rise. From its inception as a military technology a few decades ago, it has done nothing but get better and become more widely utilized.
And while there are still some people in the engineering world who don't use it and many not aware of the many applications, this is changing. According to industry professionals, the future looks bright for the technology of using light to capture shapes.
The number of ways one can use scanning is limited only by your imagination. Scansite is a full service reverse engineering and 3D digitizing studio in California, and they have worked on many different types of projects.
The types of projects they have done are a good example of the various applications the reverse engineering scan data has. "We just did a Formula One race car and we've done a lot of classic autos," said Lisa Federici, president of Scansite. These automotive customers then took the scan data to make more parts or make scale models to test.
But it's not only manufacturing where reverse engineering or as-built modeling as it's referred to in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) space is useful; Scansite has worked on projects in manufacturing, architecture, automotive, aerospace and even art and artifacts. For example, they have scanned a triceratops dinosaur for the Smithsonian; works of art by Degas, Bernini, Michelangelo and more; models from the movie Star Wars; uniquely shaped houses and much more. This scan data was then used for digital archives or to make models and copies.
Scansite digitizing a helicopter’s air intake and the CAD model.
Scanning technology has been getting cheaper and easier to use, so "more people are becoming aware of it and using it more," said Steve Kersen, vice president of sales and marketing at NVision. NVision, Inc. is one of the many companies that manufacture scanners and software to process the scan data. Kersen has seen increased use of scanning but he hopes that it continues to grow. "We've been doing this for 22 years, and we do a pretty effective PR job but we'll still be at trade shows where people just aren't aware of this technology, and don’t know the hardware and software exist," he said. "The words reverse engineering I don't think are generic yet."
A NVision hand-held scanner imaging turbine blades.
Federici also sees increased interest in and use of scanning in reverse engineering. "It's definitely exploding. People are using scanning more and more, for a couple of reasons," she said. "It's kind of brought back good old-fashioned model making, like bike helmets and ski goggles, and; a lot of that stuff is still hand-made. You can make a hand-made master and then you can scan it and reverse engineer it." This is because designers can make a clay model faster than making a digital model first.
The other reason she sees why scanning is growing is the increase in the tech savvy workforce. "Everybody coming out of college these days is worlds beyond where people were fifteen years ago," she said. "They understand computers, and they can already think in 3D … that's just changed the industry.
Tom Charron is vice president of marketing and product management at Rapidform, a 3D scanning software vendor. He has seen much of the increase in interest focused on mid-range level scanners. "This is new, and it's largely fueled by the FARO Focus scanner," he said. "That's a mid-range scanner, they scan out to 50 to maybe 200 or 300 feet. And we're seeing a lot of people buy those systems to scan buildings, large vehicles, aircraft and boats and military vehicles."
You can have all the scanners you want but you also need software to process that information. On the processing software side, Charron said there is a push to make models from the scans solid models instead of just surface models. With surface models they are, "dumb geometry, and you can't really do much with them. So that's why there is this big push towards making solid models that are actually based in features, where every feature is a unique element," Charron said. "When you open it in Inventor or SolidWorks or Creo or any of those, it's a native file that behaves just like you had designed it from scratch." Rapidform recently released the newest version of their software Rapidform XOR, and it improves upon that Charron said.
The 'holy grail' that all three industry experts mentioned is the point where you can go directly from a scan to a full parametric CAD model, or a one- button solution so to speak. And while the technology continues to get better, this level of ease will probably never be a reality.
"Software just can't read our brains. It will tell you that this looks like a place, this looks like a cylinder, it's telling you what it looks like, but you still have to tell it 'yep, that is what it is,' because sometimes the software gets it wrong," Kersen said.
Charron has similar feelings. "I don't know that we'll ever get to the holy grail of one button. There are just some things humans can do that computers cannot do, and this might fall under that category," he said. "From us, what you'll see are new releases that add to the automation each time and eventually we'll get pretty close to automating all of it."
It also depends on the particular CAD software you are using whether or not you need an “'in-between software”' to get that data into CAD, Federici said. "If you're going to use something like Pro-E or SolidWorks then the answer is yes, but if you're using Unigraphics or Alias, then no," she said. "It totally depends."
Federici said that scanning is the bridge between the real word and the computer, but you still need a way to get that data into the computer. At Scanform, they use different in-house software applications that they have developed, as well as software from Geomagic, another major vendor in the industry.
And there are probably more scanners out there that capture the data as there are software systems to process that data. Already mentioned are the companies NVision and FARO, but there is also Trimble, Leica Geosystems, Hexagon, NextEngine, Creaform and more.
Scanform has used many different types of scanners over the years. "We've used just about every scanner on the market," Federici said. "We've used lasers, and then we've used sound wave scanners," and they have even used data from CAT scans and MRIs. Right now they are using ATOS structured light scanners.
What the future holds for this technology, as with any, is hard to predict. But a continuation of the growth and advances we've seen is likely. "The future is that more people are going to be doing it, and needing it, and being aware of it," Kersen said. Charron said that along with easier to use scanners, "we'll see prices coming down. On the software side, we've gotten over the hurdle of giving people solids instead of surfaces, the next big step is to automate this as much as possible."
(For other examples of how scanning is being use check out these case studies. Revealing the Secrets of Stonehenge Through 3D Digital Modeling and Motorola Accelerates Product Development; 3D Scanning and Software Saves Time, Money)
Brock Haroldson is a graduate of New Mexico State University where he received a degree in journalism and mass communications with honors. In his free time, Brock enjoys playing bluegrass and folk music, mountain biking, photography and cheering for the Denver Broncos.