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3D Scanning Technologies February 2009
Conversations with leaders in the scanning and digitizing business
For this issue we captured Michael Raphael, president and chief engineer of Direct Dimensions, Inc. and the new Chair of SME’s 3D Imaging Tech Group. Our interest is in what he sees for the future of the 3D scanning technology industry. He also was kind enough to share his thoughts, perceptions and suggestions for connecting with ongoing conversations within the industry.
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. I would believe that while some aspects of our field are maturing, others are just gaining traction, still others are just launching and many are still waiting to be noticed.
For example, the portable CMM market to me seems relatively mature given it is over 15 years run so far. The technical advancements by the OEM’s for these products are also slowing. Clearly there will be continued sales but the low hanging fruit has been picked.
Meanwhile 3D technologies such as long-range scanners, low cost desktop units and application-specific solutions, such as dental scanners, are very hot topics right now. I am fascinated by the recent growth in these areas and we are looking closely for other killer apps, like dental, that have similar mass market potential. Think of it, 6 billion people on this planet, they all need dental work, and the 3D problem aspect is relatively easy—a perfect storm for exponential growth.
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 14 years, we are often asked to review new interesting 3D imaging technologies—both hardware and software. Given our dual business model of providing both 3D services as well as product representation, we have a unique vantage point of knowing what technologies solve what problems—or more importantly—where the holes are for potential market opportunities. I believe this is one of our more valuable business assets.
What is happening in the manufacturing and/or service area of the (medical, dental, auto, aero) scanning industry?
In general, for the industrial sectors we are noticing an increase is adoption and acceptance of 3D scanning as a tool for solving problems. Clearly, everyone in the industry is helping to achieve this, including this magazine—so thank you too! The more awareness and promotion of 3D scanning technology, the more people will try it, come to accept it, and then demand it. We in the industry already know it works and can help solve many manufacturing problems; we just need more customers to understand this and fortunately, this is definitely happening faster now.
How do the low/high cost scanning systems fir into the industry?
Regardless of cost, most 3D scanners have a place in the toolbox. Price is by no means the most important factor. That is why at Direct Dimensions we use and sell so many different types of scanners. There is no “magical 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 a particular application. Now with the 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 application. Our goal is to show how all the technologies fit together, how they overlap, when and why to consider what technology, and so forth. 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 indentify a complete listing of all 3D scanning technologies with broad categorizations. So far, I can report that this is indeed a difficult task due to the complexity of the applications and the number of solutions in the marketplace.
Do you feel scanning has achieved respectability as a needed process in the manufacturing world?
In the manufacturing world, 3D scanning technologies can be classified into three main uses: 1) quality control, 2) reverse engineering and 3) rapid manufacturing. The first two have been in use at some level for nearly two decades and are continuing to grow steadily. Rapid manufacturing is quite new and only just beginning to have its potential realized.
There is no question the scanning market for manufacturing inspection is huge. Companies want faster solutions and they believe that non-contact scanners can provide this. The demand for these solutions is definitely increasing. However the current method—the traditional CMM—ha been around for over three decades and is a very mature and well-accepted process. For scanning to disrupt this, the industry needs more maturity including product performance standards, better-integrated platforms and adjustments 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. Scanning it an essential part of these processes with the potential to foster continuous improvements to the many facets of manufacturing.
What are your company’s experiences during the late 2008 economic downturn?
o far we have stayed busy during the downturn and of course we are happy about this. 2008 was a growth year for Direct Dimensions in a number of ways and so far 2009 looks even better. We have always maintained a dual business model in that we provide both 3D technical services and also represent and sell a range of 3D products. Plus our client base is extremely diverse in terms of industries. With out base in the Baltimore area not being heavy industrial, we have always looked beyond traditional manufacturing for our business. Clearly we have a lot of military, defense, and federal organizations in our area, which has been great and generally steady, but we also reach out to the many great museums, universities, and hospitals located on the east coast. Our knowledge and diversity in applications is one of our greatest assets and should help us weather this economy.
What do you see on the 2009 horizon for the scanning and imaging industry?
It is my view that our industry is in a good position as it relates to the economy. Clearly the overall global economic situation is not good now and may get worse in 2009. Nevertheless, 3D technology is still relatively niche and early in its growth cycle compared to much larger industries, such as CAD. Out growth curve is yet to come.
Just look at the number of firms making and selling 3D solutions—there are well over a hundred worldwide. It is like the car industry in the early 1900s: many smaller companies which 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 will have to see how that plays out given the economy but I think the small and mid size firms have better immunity to global economic trends if carefully managed.
Do you recommend any on-site blogs or discussion groups?
I highly recommend this form mostly on longer range scanning: www.laserscanning.org.uk
. I occasionally check in on a laser scanning group forum at www.3dlaserscanning.org
and of course the SME 3D Imaging Forum at www.forums.sme.org
I follow Spar Point Research reports at www.sparllc.com
featuring the business case for the 3D technology by way of application case study justifications.
A new source of collaborative discussion can be found in several relevant “LinkedIn” groups (business-oriented networking site):
• Portable CMM Users
• Laser Scanning
• White Light Scanning Pros
• International Metrology
I also receive a significant amount of 3D industry news delivers to me daily by e-newsletters from many vendors, trade magazines, online news sources, Google News Bots (a search bot that collects documents from the web to build a searchable index) and RSS feeds.
We regularly update our website: www.directdimensions.com
, our blog at directdimensions.blogspot.com
, our eNewsletter
now published monthly and our new YouTube channel
featuring videos and animations from some of our more interesting projects.
Which areas offer the most growth potential?
Of course, the magic question is where does one invest for the future? You could follow current trends, which I would suggest indicate growth topics discussed above, microCT and conebeam technologies for medical applications, long range lasers for architectural and forensic sand automated scanning for manufacturing inspection.
At my firm we hedge this uncertainty by working in virtually all possible directions for 3D scanning. This provides perspective, allows us to spot trends and then grow and adjust over time as the technology catches up to the problems.
Industry watchers should also take interest in the following indicators: a growing number of conferences and events featuring 3D scanning including SME’s 3DI, CMSC, SPAR, IAFMS, ASTM’s E57 and TCT launching this year; regular users meeting by many of the major technology suppliers such as PolyWorks, Geomagic and Rapidform; and probably the biggest indicator that our field has achieved a critical mass—this magazine 3D Scanning Technologies.