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There’s nothing like driving 140mph… legally. Although there are not too many places in the world where you can do that, the German Autobahn is one of them. As host of the first modern freeway, Germany not only builds roads that allow fast driving, it also produces cars that are safe at high speeds. Home to arguably the finest machine shops and manufacturing plants on the planet, southern Germany has given us the Porsche, the Mercedes, the BMW and the Audi. Mercedes and Porsche are headquartered in Stuttgart, the second largest city in southern Germany after Munich.
But precision engineering is not limited to Germany’s auto industry. At last year’s SPAR Conference in Houston, we met with what appeared to be a new laser-scanner company, FARO Technologies, and from what we learned in our conversations with them, agreed that we would visit their factory in Stuttgart when we traveled to Germany for the Intergeo Conference and Trade Fair. Meanwhile, we started our research and discovered that the story is really about two companies, one a small start-up and the other a giant global player in measurement.
The story begins in 1982 with two brothers, Bernd and Reinhard Becker. Each availed himself of an excellent education. Bernd first obtained an EE degree, then a certificate from the world-famous Fraunhofer Institute, then a Master’s degree in Operations Research from Stanford, and finally, a PhD degree, the thesis for which was simulation software he and Reinhard had written. Reinhard received a degree in medicine and then another degree in computer science. Together, they developed a very successful software package (SIMPLE++) that enables corporations to perform simulations for factories and factory processes. The software allows for planning, simulation and optimization of manufacturing plants by providing an on-screen view of an entire factory that enables engineers to design complete plants, simulate operations, and identify potential bottlenecks. In addition, the software is used to plan material flows, work-in-process inventories and sequence of operations. More than 4,000 copies of this unique software have been sold worldwide.
In 2001, the Becker brothers started iQvolution. The company developed a laser scanner because, as Bernd understatedly said, "We wanted to build things that are of benefit for the global markets." iQvolution also performed laser scanning services, and pioneered 3D laser scanning and modeling projects in the European car industry. In 2005, iQvolution merged with FARO.
FARO has its own interesting history. The company was founded in 1981 by Simon Raab and Greg Fraser, who met while completing their PhD work at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. After two years of development, FARO launched three medical/surgical products that were used to measure human limbs for prosthetics. The company moved from Montreal to Lake Mary, Florida in 1990. Shortly thereafter they were asked to develop a larger, more robust version of their technology for use as a portable quality control tool for manufacturers.
By 1994 FARO had completely transitioned from the medical markets to the much larger worldwide industrial manufacturing market. FARO went public in 1997 and its shares began trading on the NASDAQ exchange. With more than 13,000 installations and 5,700 customers globally, FARO and its international subsidiaries design, develop, and market portable, computerized measurement devices (known as CMM, for coordinate measurement machines) and software. The products allow manufacturers to perform 3D inspections of parts and assemblies on the shop floor. This helps eliminate manufacturing errors, and thereby increases productivity and profitability for a variety of industries. Products include:
FaroArm, capable of measuring to 20-100 microns;
FARO Laser ScanArm, which adds a small scanner to the end of the FaroArm;
FARO Laser Scanner LS, the surveying product, which comes in 20, 40 and 76 meter models;
FARO Gage and Gage-PLUS, capable of measuring to 5 microns (according to Becker, there is no competition for this device);
FARO Laser Tracker X and Xi, which measures out to 35m to an accuracy of 20-80 microns;
and the computer-aided manufacturing measurement (CAM2) family of advanced CAD-based measurement and reporting software.
Stated another way, currently, the measurement range of FARO’s products covers everything from 0.005mm accuracy to 76 meters range.
The company produces its own software, but also cooperates with specialist partners who produce software tailored to a specific market. With the exception of the LS model, these products are targeted at shop floor manufacturing applications (metrology) and are used in machine shops and manufacturing plants all over the world, providing precision as-built positions as well as in-progress measurements to assure that something is being built correctly. The list of their automotive clients in Europe includes Teutonic giants BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen.
Becker shared some of his company’s experiences. For example, they have had great success with the car industry. He told of a paint shop inside of a large building. The company needed to move the entire paint shop to another building, and because it had been accurately scanned, they were able to do so with a minimum of problems. These scan models are useful not just for detecting clashes (for example, new support beams interfering with existing support beams), but also can be effectively used in communications, supplier management and asset management.
He told about another facility that was completely remodeled. Comparing the existing plant plans with the laser scanner model, errors were discovered with geometrical deviations of a foot or more. Many new items were added to the structural steel and many others eliminated. Scanning and modeling reduced surprises and costly changes of prepared piping systems and steel structures.
Becker also told of a change to a car plant they had scanned concurrent with the planning that saved the owner several weeks in shut down time. Considering the costs of shutting down, moving and re-starting, the week saved much more than paid for the costs of the scanning and modeling.
It has been Becker’s experience that one scanner will feed four digital modelers. Critical to the success of modeling is a good communication with the customer as to what the intended uses of the model will be. As Becker said, the scanner is a machine, and it’s hard to argue with a machine. He compared modeling to the difference between taking a photograph and painting a picture. Selling point clouds is simple, but selling a model is not, because humans are involved. For FARO, the future holds automatic registration of scans, using natural surfaces rather than spheres or other targets.
One of the things that attracted me at the SPAR show in Houston was the fact that the LS, with its self-contained hard drive, does not require the use of a laptop. Also, the scanner is modular, consisting of four quadrants, thereby making servicing or upgrading easier. The LS 420 scans at 120,000 points per second, and will complete a 360×320 scan in 4.5 minutes, much faster than a TOF scanner.
When we took the production room tour in Germany, I was fascinated by Becker’s explanation of how these scanners work: the return signal is funneled through a tiny hole to the detector. Using an avalanche amplification device, much the same as is used for night-vision goggles, the photons strike the detector surface and then are cascaded through the chip, each step amplifying the weak signal until it is detectable, then converting it to an electronic current which the processors then can pass along as xyz data. The production room is fascinating, with all the necessary parts neatly contained in rolling cabinets, and all work stations spotless examples of German efficiency.
We asked Becker to comment about the fact that FARO is late to market with the type of scanner normally used by surveyors. He explained, "We are not that late to the phase shift scanning market, which still is very new and growing very fast compared to the time of flight scanner market. FARO has a long history in metrology and high-accuracy measurement and has plenty of scanning history under its belt. It has a good strategy, part of which is a fair price for the product and creating solutions, rather than just a piece of hardware." With a lower price for scanners, the company believes that the market will explode.
He cited China as an example: the energy market in China is poised to make a $2 trillion investment, more than what America and Europe will have to spend to replace or refit their aging electricity generation capacity. Just for the process industries, which represent 25 percent of the total scanner market, FARO is investing in that market in terms of R&D as well as market awareness. Becker said, "Initial results are very promising in terms of new solutions from very mobile hardware to specific software solutions."
FARO realizes that anything can be scanned, but to win, it must sell a solution. Part of that solution is partnering with software developers such as California-based INOVx, which is also a scanning service provider. The benefit to users would be the long-sought Holy Grail of scanning: faster modeling. Becker mentioned that a great deal of money is being invested in future products to address all needs.
At Intergeo, FARO displayed 19 more innovations than they showed at the 2005 show. We saw a backpack model, a carbon-fiber tripod, and a PDA that connected to the scanner running as a web server. JPEGs of the scans can be viewed. FARO has also created a wireless capability that eliminates cables, as well as a small battery that fits between the scanner and the tribrach. The battery can be recharged in four hours. We also saw FARO’s color solution, which uses a top-mount camera. We were impressed with how fast color data was incorporated. In two minutes, a fully automated 50 megapixel 3D overlay was created.
Also at the show was TIGER, a cool scanner mounted on a four-wheeler. In addition to delivering a helical scan that would be useful in tunnels, the remotely-controlled vehicle uses a robotic total station for tracking, and will have potential for police and security uses.
Another cool application is in forestry. Previously, timber cruisers would walk through the forest sampling a certain number of trees, and use that information to decide whether it made financial sense to cut the trees. Now, with a limited number of scans, not only can the need for an experienced eye and an educated guess be eliminated, but with the use of sophisticated software that digitally takes horizontal "slices" of trees in the sample, a very accurate yield can also be determined. With automation being applied to the lumber industry, just as it is being applied to every other conceivable industry, when seen onscreen, this application makes instant sense.
Somewhat outside our market, but nevertheless fascinating, Becker showed us applications for architects and real estate professionals. FARO sees potential uses for police for such things as accident or crime investigation, and once the data processing becomes automatic, onsite models. [Editor’s note: Handheld scanners are not that far off!]
Another useful application was that of a stadium. From the resultant 3D rotatable model, a ticket purchaser will instantly be able to see both the location of his or her seat and the quality of the view.
I asked Becker for some advice for surveyors. He quickly replied, "Addiction to accuracy is hurting surveyors." This is not the first time we’ve heard this, as it has also been said about surveyors and GIS. In my opinion, those that can see the writing on the wall will survive and succeed. Those that can’t will go the way of the surveyor for the auto factory who was comfortable with the amount of money he was making re-surveying the same points, only to wake up one day after the tidal wave had passed him over.
All technical information aside, I simply cannot let this report go by without a special mention of food. Unlike most American conferences, Intergeo guests are sometimes invited to attend an in-booth after-exhibit-hours supper. FARO laid out a feast of Swabian food (Swabia is the region around Stuttgart). The Germans have a particular kind of pasta called spaetzle. To this day, I find it amazing that simple "noodles" can taste so good. We went back for thirds. Bernd told me that a popular joke in Swabia is that a man evaluates a potential wife on her ability to make spaetzle, and claimed that his mom makes the best spaetzle he has ever tasted. With attention to details right down to the food, it’s no wonder that the Germans have achieved such a worldwide reputation for quality.
Today, FARO has more than 650 employees worldwide with a 40-40-20 split between the US, Europe and Asia. As mentioned earlier, Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes and Porsche, is known the world over for its machining and manufacturing prowess. I was quite impressed with FARO’s scanner. The modular approach makes sense, and will allow a customer to grow as needs change. The internal storage eliminates the need for an external laptop. These scanners are manufactured down to the micron level, and it takes not only specialized equipment, but also specialized manufacturing know-how and highly trained employees. FARO is well aware that the price of the equipment is holding back the adoption of laser scanners, and has priced its equipment accordingly. All in all, even though late to the market, I predict we will hear a lot more from FARO in the future.
Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.
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