3-D Scanning: Technology With Unlimited Application

Human limbs, military vehicles and giant murals painted by Leonardo da Vinci -- these are just a few applications of 3-D scanning technology that are already being used in industries from medical to manufacturing to art.

Even though one vendor has been succeeding in the business for over 10 years, in many ways, this technology is just beginning to flourish in the IT channel.

It's not news that 3-D printers capable of conceiving plastic, metal or wax replicas of just about any person or object are picking up in popularity. In fact, consumers can pick a printer up at Staples starting at under $1,300. 3-D scanners, though often complimentary to a 3-D printer, have applications that exist in a whole different ballpark.

One common example of 3-D scanner use involves art preservation. For instance, a museum can keep a scanned copy of artifacts and paintings to recall later for repair or replication. In manufacturing, a 3-D image of a machine may be recalled to hone in on a particular part that may be broken for an easier fix. 3-D images are being used across the medical field to replicate organic matter into perfectly fitted prosthetics.

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Big, clunky equipment is not necessary to take advantage of this emerging technology. Some of the top scanners on the market are handheld and capable of reproducing accurate, digital 3-D models of small objects in a matter of minutes and larger objects like cars or buildings in a matter of hours.

As more demand is created, 3-D scanners have already evolved greatly from where they started. Anna Zevelyov, Director of Business Development at Artec Group, a Luxembourg-based company that has been producing and selling 3-D scanners for over 10 years, said their newest scanner, the Artec Spider, was designed with computer-aided design (CAD) users in mind.

"We envisioned that every engineer, product designer and inventor will have this instrument on his or her desk. Our goal was to create an affordable, easy to use, lightweight scanner that every CAD user will find useful," Zevelyov said. To date, Artec Group has partners in over 80 countries.

Scanners like the Spider will allow professionals, like those Zevelyov mentioned, to produce higher quality items with more ease and in less time.

Ron Robinson, president and CEO of 3DCAD Printer Inc., is convinced there are business opportunities around 3-D scanning and printing and has wasted no time getting in the game. Spending much of his career in the IT data storage business, Robinson is now investing a large portion of his time and energy into projecting his 3DCAD business forward.

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More specifically, 3DCAD's Robinson said his Atlanta-based company is focusing on the medical, engineering, military and education industries. "We've even been talking to NASA. They want to know if we have a printer small enough to work in the space station to print small parts," Robinson said.

If every necessary component to a spacecraft and its equipment is scanned before being sent into space, astronauts would be able to easily recall the digital file and reproduce it from the space station in the event something is damaged.

Bob Gaare, CEO of AlphaGraphics, also based in Atlanta, entered the business of digital printing on paper over 20 years ago. Gaare has recently teamed up with Robinson to add 3-D scanning and printing capabilities to AlphaGraphics.

"I've had architects and engineers look at the technology," Gaare said. "All of my customers are B2B so far; they see the potential to develop prototypes and 3-D models in order to visualize development."

Artec's Zevelyov specified that the company's resellers are generally focused on a few major industries. "Most of the businesses investing in our scanners focus on industrial applications such as prototyping, reverse engineering, product design and quality control. Many resellers approach medical clients in various sub-specialties like orthopedics, prosthetics, plastic surgery, oncology and wound care," Zevelyov said.

The capabilities of 3-D scanners that are already being utilized can easily spill over into industries that have not yet fully tapped into the technology.

One example Zevelyov gave was specific to the IT industry. "A scanner could be used to fit a new video card from one vendor into a laptop developed by another. A scan of the card could be used with CAD drawings of the new laptop to make sure the design, casing and other components work in such a way that they do not interfere with one another," Zevelyov said. Zevelyov said scanners are already being used in the design phase of some IT products like computers. As evidence, the things that can be accomplished by possessing a digital 3-D model of an object are really open to the owner's imagination. Manipulating, repairing, replicating, archiving -- the list is just beginning to form.

As Gaare put it, "3-D scanning and printing is now where regular printing on paper was 20-25 years ago. Speed and capability is going to go up and the cost is going to rapidly decline. Now, it's just a question of application, and the applications are everywhere."