Quality Scan: A Competitive Edge: 3-D Scanning
By Rhex A. Edwards
Manager, Business Development
Over the past five years or so a quiet revolution has been occurring in 3-D scanning technology. If you haven't been following this industry, you'd certainly have missed the progress. If it has been more than five years since you last looked at it, today's 3-D scanning capabilities are a totally different offering than the last time you checked.
Considering that newspapers, TV news programs, magazine articles, and almost everyone you speak with are talking about American companies that are closing plants, sending jobs overseas, or outsourcing manufacturing and assembly operations, it's troubling that more companies aren't investigating this technology. Ready to deliver a profound effect on lean manufacturing strategies, 3-D technology is a flexible and affordable solution that small shops and large shops alike can use to rapidly capture real-world information about design, quality, and process problems. But 3-D scanning seems to be eluding engineering and manufacturing people in America compared to European and Asian industries.
Today's 3-D scanning technology has benefited from the same developments that have impacted every aspect of our lives--computer power, software development, networking capability, and lower costs. Today's scanning technology gathers hundreds of thousands, even millions, of points of information about an object in just minutes. Accuracies are measured in microns. And millions of scanned digital points are processed in real time for a variety of applications. The result is a 3-D model that reveals every minute detail about an object: the form and shape, curves and edges, and every feature and detail. Even the texture and surface qualities of an object can be rendered.
Scanning technology is coupled to software that can be used for many common manufacturing processes and operations. A host of modular solutions are available for product design, prototyping, quality inspection, manufacturing process analysis, problem investigation, competitive benchmarking, and so forth. Companies performing reverse engineering and 3-D scanning services have used this technology in various forms for years; now it's available for anyone. It doesn't require special or sophisticated lighting, controlled environments, special fixtures, or powerful computers, and it doesn't require engineers or technicians to operate.
Portable, flexible, accurate, and affordable, 3-D-scanning systems are designed to be mounted onto equipment commonly found in manufacturing--equipment like CMMs, robots, portable CMMs, or scanning systems can be designed into special equipment and machines. Manufacturers have developed products that are easy to learn and easy to use. They employ intuitive menus and icons that make it easy to process scan data for many types of operations. User guides and help menus direct users through setup tasks, and assist with problem identification and solving. Powerful macro capabilities are used to automate repetitive steps or tasks. Import and export functions provide interfaces with all popular CAD packages using CAD file formats or standard industry translators.
Historically, applications have fallen into four categories: reverse engineering, toolpath generation using CAM software, prototyping, and inspection. It's becoming increasingly commonplace to find applications involving real-time inspection that provide complete part-quality information. Imagine inspecting 100% of the features and surfaces of a part and as you scan, see a color map appear that compares the manufactured part to the CAD design. And it's not selected information that's being inspected, it's everything about the part! Then imagine clicking a button that generates a report complete with graphics, section cuts, and any feature of interest--problem or not.
Today, 3-D scanning is a technology that a company can use to design, inspect, or re-engineer a product. It is a competitive edge for companies willing to investigate, embrace, and implement. Hopefully American industries won't stay on the sidelines too much longer, and continue to let this technology be harnessed by our off-shore competitors.
This article was first published in the August 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.