3D Scanners: The Neglected Half of the Consumer Manufacturing Trend

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BY AARON J. ISAACS

Why I Care.

For the “disruptive” garage innovator an evolutionary breakthrough awaits consumers; an accurate, affordable, and simple-to-use 3D scanner.  The kind of breakthrough scanner that simplifies current labor intensive, complicated, and expensive versions, and excite the DIY consumer base.  Similar to the excitement found throughout the ‘consumerfacturing’ 3D printer communities.  Of course, it’s not just the DIY community who would benefit.  Low cost, high quality scanners would proliferate cultural heritage initiatives, drive 3D innovation, seed new applications, and expand into cross-discipline research and development centers. 

The kind of tolerances needed to be of any real use require the accuracy found in expensive commercial grade 3D scanners.  Today, commercial 3D scanners vary in price range anywhere between $3K to $100K+ depending on application.  Low-cost consumer and home project 3D scanners deliver acceptable results for novelty and marketing purposes.  A few silver linings exist as affordable natural user interfaces (NUI’s - Kinect or XTion) are being converted into 3D scanners, despite their intended purpose of capturing your gestures.  Another troubling obstacle for consumer quality scanners occur with texture and surface types.  Black and shiny seem to be common troublemakers.  All of these factors add to the complexity of creating a highly tolerant, affordable 3D scanner.  

Ultimately, transitioning breakthrough technology from the lab into the hands of consumers requires buy-in from consortia.  The stage of funding called the “Valley of Death” is the funding gap between lab research and the transition to the product marketplace.  Fortunately, the DIYer garage industry is very good at experimenting, raising awareness, and supplying the grassroots demand for opportunistic entrepreneurs to raise capitalize.  Thus, bridging the innovative evolution, which typically stalls when there is little to no buy-in from industry, government, and academia.  

Real-View 3D - An affordable scanner that overpromised, and under-delivered. Source: Nerdapproved

Real-View 3D - An affordable scanner that overpromised, and under-delivered.

Source: Nerdapproved

Why Don’t They Care?

Recent efforts by the Obama administration to lead America’s additive manufacturing, that’s 3D Printing, technology through the “Valley of Death” took shape in the funding of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). The goal, among others, of NAMII is to take 3D printing and other methods for translating digital images into parts that you can hold in your hand from laboratories and specialty shops into factories. Thus, bringing manufacturing jobs back to America. The statement “translating digital images into parts” is intriguing, as it implies 3D printing.  It does not say “parts into digital images”, which implies 3D scanning. Why isn’t scanning mentioned in this initiative?

I read in some far off forum, a simplification of the importance of both technologies to each other; “if 3D printing is the output, then 3D scanning is an input”. The statement resonated with me, because there’s many applications that benefit from the input of a perfect replica.  Unfortunately, NAMII isn’t addressing 3D scanning technology, thus stalling potential breakthroughs.  Who decided that 3D scanning technology wasn’t related to our manufacturing community? It’s possible the relationship between those funding the Institute, as Michael Molitch reveals here, have goals that aren’t aligned with the entire 3D field as a whole. Additionally, a number of obstacles concerning copyright and patent infringement will need to be ironed out, as Michael Weinberg articulates in  “What’s the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing?”. Perhaps, the old adage that “one in the hand, is worth two in the bush” has some relevance here.  The idea that you can create something you can hold is simply more exciting than something floating in virtual space.

Check out this Pixar Lamp 3D Print by Ben Van Den Broeck Photo by Ben Van Den Broeck

Check out this Pixar Lamp 3D Print by Ben Van Den Broeck
Photo by Ben Van Den Broeck

The type of turbulence needed to help unshackle innovators from the fear of court reminds me of Daniel Suarez’s cyberpunk thrillers, Daemon and Freedom™, where a distributed, persistent computer application, known as The Daemon, systematically hijacks thousands of companies financial networks after the original programmer's death. Through some external brute force tactics, his program uses some “disruptive” technology to usher in technological freedom.  I’ll take pause to clarify I do not wish the destruction of current order done in by sword-wielding unmanned motorcycles slicing up a generation of hackers - and yeah, that happens in his book. I do wish consortia would further 3D scanning research efforts to make that leap across the proverbial “Valley of Death”, and establish fair legislation so the garage industry “Wozniak’s” can continue to innovate. A breakthrough of this caliber would generate a lot of needed buzz.

Why Can’t They See Everyone Else Cares?

Google search “3D scanners” and a wide variety of scanners appear, from commercial to homemade in different hardware and software configurations.  Affordable consumer scanners tend to be heavy on the novelty side, and low end commercial grade scanner’s don’t live up to expectation. Still, signs of life.

  • The NextEngine 3D laser scanner for a modest $2995 promises a high level of fidelity that competes with commercial grade scanners. However, the software add-ons, which serve to improve the quality add up quickly. The price then easily doubles.  I read in one user review that it’s great for importing 3D templates into CAD.  This scanner is on the fringe of being affordable for consumer use.
  • The Desktop 3D Scanner by CADScan, and the PhoneScope3D Kickstarter projects.  The latter was unable to gain enough traction to meet their goal as explained by their creators, but in the creators informative blog it appears they’re coming back around.  I’d suggest to anyone campaigning a 3D scanner (or printer) to Kickstarter to start in the G+ Communities. As long as, according to “‘3D Printing’ Community owner, Whosa whatsis, you’re not “repetitive...[or] a nuisance.”

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  • Autodesk, an American multinational corporation that specializes in 3D software released 123D Catch. The 3D imaging software even received praise in a recent article on a popular DIY website, Make. I utilized 123D Catch iPad app while trying to develop 3D designs for a browser-based video game called Codename Eureka an associate of mine is developing. My experience was plagued with issues, but I finally resolved them in their forums. My expectations were too high, but when you release something with this much potential, shouldn’t you cater to all clients lining up to use your product?
  • Digiteyezer’s iPhone apps, iScan3D and iFace3D, look similar to AutoDesk’s 123D Catch at a glance.  They’ll be showcasing their products at SIGGRAPH2013 Exhibition in Los Angeles in July. Trimensional is one of the earlier iPhone 3D app scanners, but you must be in a dark environment for it to work according to their instructable. Only one Android 3D Scanner app was available for download. A novelty app using “image stitching” software that relies heavily on good lighting and the precision of your pic snapping hand to be steadier than mine could manage.  
  • A few applications have exploited NUI’s XBox Kinect’s ability to accurately scan objects. Asus has the XTion which uses the same technology as Kinect.  Kscan3D and ReconstructMe are interesting attempt.  
  • At the extreme ends are project sites and concepts. Here’s an instructable for a line laser scanner made of parts this gentleman found around the house, and the most promising 3D scanner concept <sigh> I’ve run across to date called the Armada.  

This is a small cross-section of the scanner’s I’ve run across, and I’m certain you know of a few I don’t. To serve my own curiosity, if you know of an affordable scanner with commercial fidelity then please post a link, or feel free to correct me if I’ve overlooked a promising breakthrough.

Why They Should Care

“If 3D printing is the output, then 3D scanning is an input.” - Anonymous Insight

A subset category of “range-mapping”, 3D scanning technology is lagging behind it’s reciprocate, 3D printing. Additive manufacturing technology is over 20 years old, yet just recently broke into the consumer market in dozens of styles and shapes.  The impetus behind the 3D printer demand are DIYers, and their ability to see beyond 3D printer’s novelty uses today. Hard core enthusiasts have turned to a few reliable sub-$500 kits which require a bit of trial and error to turn operational.  Through their efforts they’ve created a movement that caught the attention of savvy entrepreneurs who turned it into a marketable commodity. Simplifying a once expensive technology into a simple to use, and very affordable hobby for any interested in making things. Regardless of your printer choice, a spectrum of expertise congregate in a few informative G+ Communities (try ‘3D Printing’) building a timeline of lessons learned at your disposal.  Helping spur innovation and lead to more breakthroughs.  

You can find international 3D printing conventions, hackerspace communities, 3D printer stores, and tons of coverage surrounding 3D printing. Another indication that 3D printer surges ahead can be found in the form of push back by mold-injection and subtractive manufacturing businesses in the 3D printing forums and comment sections who feel threatened by the affordability of quality 3D printers springing up. No such push back in 3D scanner articles, because they’re not affordable enough to be considered a threat. While the printer consumer market treks forward, the 3D scanner market moves at a slugs pace despite the same early signs found in the 3D printer community. I’m an advocate of both 3D printing and 3D scanning technology. We’re still in a literacy phase, as I see one moving forward while the other stagnates. An opportunity exists to be the catalyst for the next “disruptive” technology. Until that happens, I’ll continue dreaming for the day I can purchase a $100 All-In-One 3DCAD-Scan-Printer!