End of the Decade Discussion

3D Scanning Technologies Industry Roundup: “Conversations with leaders in the scanning and digitizing business”

Projects -

Excerpted and edited from 3D Scanning Technologies magazine; Vol. 2, No. 1, February 2009

Featuring Michael Raphael - Founder, President, and Chief Engineer of Direct Dimensions, Inc.

1. As a longtime observer in a maturing technology market, what do you see?

The market for 3D scanning is following the usual cycle for other advanced technologies. While some aspects of our field are maturing, others are just gaining traction, still others just launching, and many are just trying to get noticed.

For example the portable CMM market is relatively mature given its 15-plus year run so far. Technical advances by the OEM’s for these products also are slowing, as probably are sales. Clearly there will be continued sales but most of the low hanging fruit, as they say, has been picked.

Meanwhile other 3D imaging categories, such as long range scanners and application-specific solutions, such as dental scanners, are very hot topics right now and sales are growing. I am fascinated by the recent growth in these areas and consequently we are watching closely for similar category killer apps (like dental) that have similar mass market potential. Think of it, there are 6 billion people on this planet and they all eventually need dental work where 3D imaging can help. We are working on similar body-related concepts where personalized shape capture enables individualized medical treatments as well as security and entertainment applications. See our new ShapeShot™ website for more on this.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects for our industry and for me are the technologies that are still flying under the radar. Being a ‘one-stop-3D-shop’ for nearly 15 years, we are often asked to test new 3D imaging technologies – both hardware and software – before they hit the market. Given our unique dual business model of providing both 3D services as well as product representation, we have a unique ability to match new solutions to old problems – or – we know where the holes are for potential market opportunities. This is one of our more valuable business assets and keeps us strongly leading edge.

2. What’s happening in the manufacturing and/or service area of the (medical, dental, auto, aero) scanning industry?

In general for these industrial sectors we are noticing an increase in adoption and acceptance of 3D scanning as a increasingly common tool for solving technical problems. Clearly everyone in the industry is helping to achieve this adoption including the OEMs, other service providers, technical interchange groups, and users. The more awareness and promotion of 3D scanning technology, the more people will try it, come to accept it, and then eventually demand more of it. We in the industry already know that it works well and that it can help solve a lot of manufacturing problems; we just need more customers to understand this and fortunately this is definitely happening faster now.

3. How do the low/high cost scanning systems fit into the industry?

Regardless of cost, most 3D scanners have a place in the proverbial toolbox. Price is usually NOT the most important factor for selecting a scanning system. That’s why at Direct Dimensions we use and sell so many different types of scanners. There is no ‘magic’ scanner (yet…!) that can replace all the various solutions offered by all the different OEMs. Clearly each technology has a place in the market, or they would not continue to exist for very long.

I have accepted this challenge for over 20 years – that is: constantly working to determine the best technology for every particular application. Today for example, with other like-minded experts within SME’s 3D Imaging Tech Group, we are working to categorize and classify the various 3D scanning technologies relative to applications. Our goal is to help demonstrate when and how all the technologies fit together, how they overlap, when & why to consider what technology, etc. So far we have compiled an extensive list of project characteristics, such as object size, color, geometric complexity, etc. In parallel we are working to identify a complete listing of all 3D scanning technologies with broad categorizations. This has indeed been a difficult task due to the complexity of the applications and the number of 3D solutions in the marketplace.

If anyone is interested in helping our SME 3D Imaging committee, of which I am the current chairperson, feel free to contact me directly for more information.

4. Do you feel scanning has achieved respectability as a needed process in the manufacturing world?

3D scanning technologies in the manufacturing world can be classified into three main use cases: 1) quality control, 2) reverse engineering, and 3) rapid manufacturing. The first two areas have been in use at some level for nearly two decades and are continuing to grow steadily. The third area – Rapid Manufacturing or RM, is relatively new and only just starting to reveal its potential.

There is no question that the scanning market for QC (dimensional inspection) is huge. Companies always want faster solutions for validating manufactured product and clearly non-contact scanning can provide this. Today’s primary method – the traditional CMM – has been around for over three decades and is therefore a mature and well accepted process. For non-contact scanning to disrupt this, the industry still needs maturity in the form of common performance standards, tighter delivery platforms, and integration to internal manufacturing quality procedures.

Reverse engineering, while sometimes controversial, is a legitimate process that allows a company to benchmark its competitor’s designs, convert legacy parts to digital formats, and capture hand-sculpted shapes for use within a CAD model. While the term for this process may not be the best, the technology has been proven to help in many different applications even beyond product design including 3D documentation for historic preservation, as-built architecture, and custom medical prosthetics, just to name a few.

Speaking of custom medical applications, I expect this area to grow substantially by means of rapid manufacturing, or RM. 3D imaging, combined with nearly 25 years of rapid prototype technology development, will come together to enable the long envisioned concept of mass customization. Products will be tailored specifically to individuals to provide custom fit medical orthotics, braces, protective gear, armor, even eyeglasses. RM will impact consumer products, security measures, medical appliances, and even our forms of entertainment.

5. What do you see on the horizon for the scanning and imaging industry?

It’s my view that our industry is in a good position as it relates to the economy. Clearly the overall global economic situation is not great yet but 3D imaging technology is still relatively niche and early in its growth cycle compared to the much larger CAD industry, for example. Our major growth cycle is still to come.

Just look at the number of firms making and selling 3D solutions – there are well over a hundred worldwide. It’s like the car industry in the early 1900’s – lots of smaller companies that later consolidated into a few large giants. At some level this has started in our industry with some of the larger players, such as Hexagon, Leica, and Faro, making strategic acquisitions. We’ll have to see how that plays out given the economy but I think the small and mid size firms can have better immunity to negative global economic trends if carefully managed.

6. Which areas offer the most growth potential?

Of course, the magic question - where does one invest for the future? You could follow current trends, which would indicate some of the growth topics discussed above, such as 3D microCT and conebeam CT technologies for medical applications, long range lasers for architectural and forensics, and automated scanning for manufacturing inspection.

At Direct Dimensions we hedge this uncertainty by working in virtually all possible directions for 3D scanning. This provides experience and perspective, and allows us to spot trends over time as the technology catches up to the problems.

Industry watchers should also take interest in the following industry indicators: contined growth in the number of conferences and events featuring 3D scanning including SME’s 3D Imaging, CMSC, SPAR, IAFMS, ASTM’s E57, and TCT; regular users meetings by many of the major technology suppliers such as PolyWorks, Geomagic, and Rapidform.

7. Where do you recommend learning more about 3D imaging?

We promote and participate strongly in the following 3D imaging trade conferences. I encourage anyone interested in this field to attend these events:

I also highly recommend this online forum which primarily deals with long range scanning: www.laserscanning.org.uk. This may be the most active technology-neutral networking site within our 3D field.

An industry friend of ours, Gene Roe, regularly publishes a great blog at lidarnews.com.

A growing source for collaborative discussion can be found in several relevant “LinkedIn” groups including:

  • Portable CMM Users
  • Laser Scanning
  • White Light Scanning Pros
  • International Metrology
  • And new groups form regularly

We also receive a significant amount of 3D industry news delivered daily by newsletters from many vendors, trade magazines, online news sources, Google Alert news-bot emails, and RSS feeds. So feel free to inquire directly with any questions – we’ve probably read something about it.

We also regularly update our already extensive website with new materials at directdimensions.com, we post almost weekly to our blog at directdimensions.blogspot.com, we have published our exciting newsletter every month now for over a year to nearly 50,000 subscribers; our YouTube channel features videos and animations from some of our more interesting projects, and now you can even follow us up to the minute on Twitter!

Thanks for a great 2009, our 15th year in business, and here's to a great 2010.

Michael Raphael
Founder, President, and Chief Engineer