Chris Palmer

Strategy, Energy, Education, & Technology

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By now, most are likely more than familiar with 3D printing. It’s been all over the press and is, even as you read this, drastically re-inventing manufacturing. Perhaps equally transformative, but far-less well known, is the related process of 3D Scanning.

Before I get too deep, I should note that this is an update to a 2013 blog post I did on the same topic. That article was lost, and instead of just re-writing it, I figured it warranted an update, as this space is developing very quickly.

In 2012, while working on a client project, I was tasked with the challenge of investigating the viability of of using a scanning apparatus to build 3D models of oil & gas assets. In the process, I learned a great deal about the technology, and its use cases. Some of which I am going to share with you today.

Microsoft Kinect

Chances are, you or a member of your family has already used a 3D scanner. You just may not yet know it. It’s quite likely you even have one in your living room (24 million units of the device have been sold as of Feb 2013). In 2009, Microsoft unveiled the first details of ‘Project Natal,’ which would later become known as ‘Kinect.’ Kinect is a motion control device that uses technology developed by Israeli firm PrimeSense.


The technology works by emitting an array of infrared dots into the activity space, and measuring X, Y, and Z coordinates via the size and intensity of the dots (aka a “depth map”) when they are captured back by the device’s infrared camera. The result is a relatively low-resolution 3D model, but a 3D model nonetheless.

In 2012, Apple confirmed that it had acquired PrimeSense. It is important to note that the new version of the Kinect shipping with the Xbox One was developed in house at Microsoft, and is significantly more accurate than the 2010 model.

While the Kinect is an interesting example of how accessible the technology has become, it’s not entirely suitable for industrial use. In these cases, high-resolution handheld and tripod mounted scanners, leveraging laser tracking as opposed to infrared, provide a more appropriate results.

Hand-held 3D Scanners

Above all else, hand-held scanners provide the benefit of versatility, as they can be used to scan even very small objects with accuracy. These units have a wide range in terms of price and resolution. Of the manufacturers I’ve had the opportunity to become familiar with, two of the most prominent are Artec, and Creaform.

Mounted 3D Scanners

The mounted scanner is most useful in situations where the physical size of the object being scanned is simply too large to make efficient use of a hand-held unit. Mounted scanners have the potential added benefits of being automated and more resilient to heavy duty use. There are a number of excellent manufacturers in the space, including Z+F, Trimble, Leica, and FARO.

FARO has an intriguing set of videos on Youtube that show the capability of these mounted scanners. In the video below, they show the highly detailed scanning of a castle built in 1717 (skip to 10:35 to see the result):

Combining Hand-held & Mounted

Both of the above technologies has its shortcomings. In oil & gas, one of these challenges is capturing data in tight spaces often missed by the mounted units that are otherwise needed to create these large models. The solution to this is to do initial scans using a mounted scanner, and filling in gaps using a hand-held unit. So long as file formats are consistent, point cloud data can often be easily consolidated (using a software package such as LFM), enabling the completion of detailed 3D models that can then be used in platforms like AVEVA PDMS (Plant Design Management System) .

One of the most interesting examples I’ve seen of these different technologies being combined is the ongoing Smithsonian x3D project:

File Formats

These units typically build point cloud data. However, a proper watertight mesh design is required for 3D printing. Common file formats are STL (solid one color) and OBJ/PLI (includes color data). It is important to ensure that your devices are working in a common file format if you are using hardware from more than one manufacturer.

Structured Light vs. Laser

The two most common types of 3D scanners are Structured Light and Laser. It is important to understand the difference. The key difference is the light source. With Laser scanners, a laser is emitted, and a sensor examines the reflected lights angle to determine distance between the source and the object. Structured light units instead project a pattern on to the object, and the sensor evaluates changes the edges of the pattern to determine distance. Each of these technologies can be found in both mounted and handheld devices.

Geomagic has a great write up on the deep technical differences between the different technologies here.

The Push to Mainstream

At CES this year in Las Vegas, a number of 3d Scanner manufacturers were in attendance. The general consensus is that, now that 3D printing is gaining mainstream acceptance, it’s time for scanning to do the same. While these more affordable solutions are not likely to replace the heavy duty ones detailed above, they will still no doubt continue to push the technology mainstream.

Matterform unveiled a package for $579USD at CES that includes all the required software.

Makerbot, famous for their 3D printers, has also began selling their own small-form 3D scanner similar to the Matterform unit (not handheld, not mounted). First unveiled in late 2013, the MakerBot Digitizer is a ~$1000 solution available today, with 3D printing output as the top priority.

Also last fall, Occipital announced their Structure device: A light-based 3D scanner that attaches to the iPad. The company launched the project via kickstarter, raising $1.3 Million (of a $100,000 goal). Working with PrimeSense, the result is the first mobile-based 3D scanning device. If you already have a lightening-based iPad, the best part might just be the cost: $350USD.

On a related note, this winter, I’ve had the privilege of working with an enthusiastic group of Calgary high school students as they develop and operate their own business via Junior Achievement. My team decided to leverage these very technologies in the development of their product. 3D scanning and printing enabled this group of students to avoid developing a 3D model from scratch, and gave them the opportunity to actually manufacture a product in a way that we could have only imagined 5 years ago.

Head on over to to learn more about this Junior Achievement Company.

If you have any questions about anything I’ve posted here, feel free to comment or use the contact page to drop me a line. I’d be happy to clarify where I can.

Categories: Energy, Technology 1 likes

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