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Progressive Engineer July 2004
Digitizing for Posterity
By Barnaby Wickham

In the summer of 2001, Michael Raphael ventured to Washington, D.C. to try to drum up business for his Owings Mills, Maryland-based 3-D imaging company, Direct Dimensions, Inc. Wouldnít it be nice, he asked government officials, to use lasers to create a digital record of the precise size and shape of important government landmarks and monuments for posterity? Yes, it would be nice, everyone agreed. After returning home, Raphael called back every couple of weeks and left messages, only to have them go unreturned.

Fast-forward a few months past September 11. By now, Raphael had given up calling. Then, his phone rang. How soon could he be there? Raphaelís proposal had gone from a nicety to an imperative. Within a couple weeks, Direct Dimensions had digitally recorded most of the Lincoln Memorial, including the entire larger-than-life figure of Lincoln himself.

In the nine years since Raphael founded Direct Dimensions, he has worked on more interesting, high-profile projects than most of us encounter in a career. Another example: the company laser-scanned and digitized eight original Wright Brothers propellers for exact recreation of the Wright plane in time for December 2003ís 100-year anniversary celebration of manís first flight. Another project involves the complete electronic recreation of the Parthenon in Greece, in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Raphael, 41, hasnít always had such ambitions. By his own admission, he just sort of fell into the work. In fact, he wasnít always sure he wanted to be an engineer. Approaching college age, Raphael wanted to become a doctor but didnít think he was smart enough. So instead, he attended Virginia Tech and became an engineering science and mechanics major, specializing in the hyper-challenging "physics of engineering," as he calls it.

Following graduation in 1985, Raphael spent a decade at the former Martin Marietta. The aerospace manufacturer, now part of defense giant Lockheed Martin, employed Raphael as a liaison engineer. "If the shop had problems making things technically, or if they made a machining mistake, we were responsible for interfacing between manufacturing and engineering," he explains.

In this position, Raphael spent a lot of time gauging large aircraft components. "We wanted the best tools to do these kinds of things," he remembers. "However, we didnít have all the tools we needed to measure in 3-D." Martin Mariettaís coordinate measuring machine didnít have the capacity for large airplane parts or the mobility to measure parts on the shop floor.

While looking for a better tool in 1989, Raphael stumbled across a 10-year-old medical product, actually an artificial human arm with a shoulder, elbow, and wrist that performed 3-D measurements of spine curvatures and other body gauging applications. However, he recalls, "It wasnít industrial. It wasnít meant for a manufacturing environment." Undaunted, he spent the next five years working with the armís manufacturer, Florida-based Faro Technologies, to equip the four-foot-long device to withstand heavy-duty use, while still capturing precise measurements to an accuracy of .002 inches using a stylus or laser tip.

In 1995, the aerospace industry took a tumble, and Raphael saw the writing on the wall, he says. Armed with a masterís of engineering administration degree he obtained from George Washington University in 1990, Raphael teamed with his old Martin Marietta boss to form Direct Dimensions to concentrate on exploiting the advantages of the improved Faro digitizing arm. His partner soon fell away, leaving Raphael as sole captain to pilot Direct Dimensionsí course.

Should the company concentrate on aerospace or automotive applications? Government or private industry? Measuring device sales or digitizing services? How about all of the above. Raphael discovered there wasnít enough business in any one segment to risk specialization. Today, he doesnít regret that approach, as he wouldnít have developed the breadth of knowledge he has without the varied experience that resulted. And he feels this has allowed Direct Dimensions to stay open to many possibilities. "We havenít been able to focus, but we think the future will be focused for us," he says. "There will be 50 applications, any one of which could be its own business."

In the meantime, Raphaelís nine-person, $1.5-million firm continues to garner a wide variety of often-high-visibility assignments. These include scanning human limbs to create perfectly mirrored prosthetics and digitizing the Degas sculpture for the Baltimore Museum of Art to record priceless artwork for posterity and create lookalike trinkets for the gift shop. They scanned an outdoor marble monument to allow for the recreation of sculpture deteriorated by acid rain at the Monumental Church in Richmond, Virginia. A job for the Israeli Navy had them measuring and analyzing ship propellers to ensure the complex devices are optimally shaped. Much of this work takes the form of reverse engineering, as it involves creating computer models of items for which no known drawings exist, so the original object can be recreated.

Some 50 percent of Direct Dimensionsí sales come from selling the same machines they use to provide digitizing services. Raphael serves as a sale representative for 12 measuring devices from a number of manufacturers. Not only does this give Raphael the ability to recommend the right product for an application, it also allows him to provide the same valuable feedback to manufacturers that led to product breakthroughs half a career ago. Unlike Raphaelís unconventional career path, the product improvements that will result will prove no accident.