Industry Pioneers: Christoph Frhlich

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In the Beginning
There must have been something about the business environment in Germany in the 1990’s that encouraged the development of not one, but two of the world’s leading 3D laser scanner manufacturers. Not only did Bernd Becker launch what would become the innovative line of FARO scanners, but Christoph Frhlich was busy following an amazingly similar path (for those who recall) leveraging his industrial automation Ph.D. research into a prototype of a laser scanner. The one major difference with Christoph’s story is that by the time he was finishing his Ph.D. his father had already built Zoller + Frhlich into a highly successful manufacturing business.

Let’s go back some 50 years to 1963 when schoolmates Hans Zoller and Hans Frhlich started Z + F in a former coal cellar with the idea of creating individual control systems. Right from the beginning, the newly founded electrical engineering company put a strong emphasis on promoting innovation, developing new ideas and creatively solving problems. Christoph notes, "It has always had a straight forward looking philosophy which is based on a solid educational foundation."

In 1966 the company moved to a new building in Wangen/Allgu that is still the headquarters of Z + F. Building switch cabinets was the basis for the invention of the insulated wire end ferrule in 1969. This design is used all over the world for solderless connections in wire harnessing. They are still produced as well as improved in Wangen/Allgu.

Today Z + F has more than 200 employees in Germany and is managed by the second generation of the Frhlich family. Zoller + Frhlich is an internationally operating company and cooperates with dealers in more than 40 countries. There are also permanent subsidiaries in the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy, which employ a total of about 50 people, but it was Christoph who got them into the laser scanning business, although it he did not start out with that intent.

Research and Development
While pursuing his PhD in the early 1990’s at the Technical University in Munich, Christoph focused his research on developing a robotic vehicle that could navigate the shop floor production lines without being tied to physical guides or tracks. This involved the development of a 2D, phase-shift based laser scanner that showed some technical promise. Yet, it was purely out of personal interest, not business development that Christoph removed the sensor from the vehicle one day and began scanning building facades.

Christoph remembers, "After completing my academic studies in 1994 I started to work at Zoller + Frhlich full time. I was writing my doctoral research study and in 1996, when I finished my studies, I became the manager of the company together with my father." He continued, "It was actually my university professor who thought that the scanner had a wider potential that was worth exploring and my father agreed, giving me the freedom to develop it further as a sideline to my other work for the company."

In the beginning it was really difficult to establish laser scanning in the company. It took about 2 years to develop the first working model. The first project was the high speed measurement and inspection of railway tracks, first in Germany and then in Switzerland where it was applied to tunneling work. This was followed by a research project with the CarnegieMellon University in the USA.

Christoph recalls, "This established its market potential, and with the help of some former students from the University–and many late evenings over coffee, we went on to develop the world’s first optical 3D laser measurement system for the documentation of the "as built" situation."

Market Success
Launched in 1996, the scanner was initially applied to production line applications in the automotive industry (as was Bernd Becker’s), a market in which Z+F was already well entrenched. However, because of the all-purpose nature of the scanner and successor models, with data capture rates rising from 500 pixels/sec to more than one million, the laser scanners have been adopted for everything from risk analysis to cultural heritage and from forensic science to architectural design.

"In 2002 we launched the IMAGER 5003," recalls Christoph. He continued, "In the beginning of 2003 Leica offered to sell our scanners as an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version under their name. At that time almost nobody had known of Z+F as a manufacturer of laser scanners. In 2006 we had our breakthrough with the IMAGER 5006. That was the first laser scanner in the world which was "stand alone" i.e. it did not require external , batteries, laptop, control box, etc.–it was all integrated into one case."

At the end of 2012 Z+F launched the first HDR- color scanner worldwide–the IMAGER 5010C. This device scans colored laser point clouds, even in difficult lighting conditions using an integrated CCD camera. Additionally Z+F recently launched a new high speed 2D laser scanner–the Z+F PROFILER 9012. This model also offers to serve the area of tunnel- and road surveying, and many other mobile scanning applications. All the manufacturing work is done in-house as it always has.

Family is Most Important
As far as the people who influenced Christoph, he notes, "From the beginning my father, Hans Frhlich gave me support with my idea to establish laser scanning in the company. Until today I’m getting backing from my mother and my sister Cathrin. Nowadays she’s working at Zoller + Frhlich together with me, which is a perfect combination as she takes care of all business related topics, giving me time to focus on technical aspects." Outside of work Christoph enjoys watching football (Bayern Munich), cooking and fishing.

When asked for his assessment of the current state of the laser scanning/ LiDAR industry Christoph answered, "I think the laser scanning industry is still growing. We constantly try to improve our products in order to maintain our leading position in the market. Today it’s not just about building faster and more accurate laser scanners, nowadays we need to make the process easier and more productive for the user and to make new techniques available to them."

In terms of the most pressing issues within the industry Christoph thinks there is a need for qualified experts with field experience, the need to develop more and new technologies and that quality needs to be strengthened.

"At first many people were thinking laser scanning is a strange idea," recalls Christoph. "The only backing I got was from my family. Of course, I’m happy that we are in the position in which we are today, and we could celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2013. I consider it a very important task in my life to continue to run the business with my family. There are still more ideas as we have many goals we want to achieve!"

I am sure the next 50 years will be even more exciting.

Gene Roe is the Managing Editor and Co-Founder of LiDAR Magazine.

A 644Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Gene V. Roe

Gene V. Roe Ph.D., P.E., PLS... I have over 40 years of experience in the surveying and mapping field. I am a registered Professional Engineer, Professional Land Surveyor and hold a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering. I have taught surveying and civil engineering at the University of New Hampshire, built a 50 person survey engineering firm, and in 1985 founded the first GIS consulting group in New England. In the early 90's I shifted into the software development business where I have focused on CAD/GIS integration, while helping to build successful start ups like Softdesk and Blue Marble Geographics. I hold two US patents for a GPS-based, personal navigation device. I have also worked in the remote sensing arena where I was part of the highly successful development of the ultra-compact, Buckeye LiDAR/digital camera system, currently being used by the military to search for IED's. Most recently I have focused on 3D laser scanning, where I led the effort at Autodesk to integrate this technology into their graphics' engines. As the Chair of the ASTM E57.04 data interoperability subcommittee I am leading a team that is developing a standard data exchange for terrestrial laser scanners. I am also the ACSM delegate to FIG Commission 8 - Spatial Planning and Development.
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