There is no question that 3D scanning is coming into its own as an industry and a profession. We are seeing news about 3D scanning grow nearly every day from not only within our own industry sources such as LiDAR News, but also in more mainstream publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph. I did a quick Google search on 3D scanning (which admittedly I do pretty often to keep up) and as usual found a whole bunch of interesting links, news, and stories.
But if you think the news in our world is growing, you should Google 3D printing and see whats happening over in this sister field to us, also called Additive Manufacturing, or just AM. I say sister field because to me, our world of 3D scanning is all about digitizing things in our physical world INTO digital forms in the computer – where AM is all about taking 3D data OUT OF the digital world of the computer and bringing it into our physical world.
Right now the AM industry is undergoing an amazing explosion of interest, growth, news, and especially attention. Those of us involved in anything related to 3D scanning should be paying at least some attention to this news and watching at least some of whats happening over there. I say this because I believe that growth in AM can and will affect growth in our world of 3D scanning. Why you say?
Physical objects need to be digitized in order to use AM
Real stuff in our physical world (parts, artifacts, even people) must be digitized into 3D formats, generally into some form of CAD, such as polygon meshes, in order to then leverage any type of 3D printing. Real stuff includes legacy objects, such as aging aircraft components, museum sculpture or historic artifacts, or even a knob for your dishwasher. Quite likely these things do not currently exist in any 3D CAD or digital format. This is where we come in we scan these objects and then make accurate digital models from our raw 3D data.
At that point you can scale the model, mirror it, digitally sculpt it, or manipulate in many other ways before you then 3D print it to make the new physical part, mold pattern, or display model. Whatever you want, lots of room for creativity and experiment all in a low cost one-off manner; super cheap compared to traditional tooling-based manufacturing.
And fortunately for us 3D scanner folk, in most cases, the percentage of our real world stuff that already exists in 3D digital forms ready for 3D printing is pretty small today – a good thing for our 3D scanning industry. As more people find more things they want to 3D print, for whatever reason, particularly personalized and customized things, well be there with our scanners ready for them.
AM products also need to be dimensionally inspected
Another reason 3D scanning will grow around AM is the use of scanning for quality control and inspection. AM is a relatively new manufacturing method. New processes and materials are being developed every day. As the demand goes for more AM and it becomes a regular part of industrial production methods for our everyday goods, these parts will be subjected to dimensional inspection just as any other machined or molded part requires some level of inspection. As such, 3D scanning stands to grow as a viable tool for controlling these processes and assuring customers receive accurate end products. In-line inspection using automated 3D scanning and point-cloud to CAD comparison will grow.
Gartner Adds Hype to 3D Scanning
One sign that our little industry is growing up is the recent inclusion of 3D Scanning to the Gartner Hype Curve. If you havent heard this yet, you need to pay more attention to your news feeds. To me, this is a really big deal, and suggests a rosy future, at least for a while until we dont live up to the hype, hence the name. But meanwhile, over in our sister field, 3D Printing received the coveted top spot on the curve signifying that the industry is red hot. I have no problem letting 3D Printing pull us along. As the demand for printing rises, so will the demand for more 3D scanning.
US Government Backs 3D Printing
Another recent and perhaps most significant development in this area is the creation of NAMII the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. As the first of up to 15 institutes for manufacturing innovation, AM is definitely getting serious attention now. A consortium of government agencies, research institutes, and commercial operations will focus investment and research specifically into all things AM and this includes 3D scanning for reasons stated above. Keep an eye out for news related to NAMII over the coming year.
SPAR Keynote on 3D Printing
Think back this past April to the SPAR Conference in Houston. We were treated to a different kind of keynote speaker for our usual 3D scanning audience. Abe Reichental, the CEO of 3D Systems, one of the larger OEMs of AM technology, mesmerized us with his vision of the 3D printed future. It may have seemed new to some at the time, but that speech was a glimpse into a vision that will drive our future. I say embrace it and let it come.
As a footnote to readers interested in current news about AM, see the following:
Additive Manufacturing Grows Up IndustryWeek, (Hessman, 9/5/12)
In-depth resources for 3D printing, www.3ders.org
Wohlers Associates independent consulting firm for the AM & 3D printing industry