Some technologies with incredible promise are still early in their development, and it is for that reason their true potential hasn’t been realized. However, as these new fields develop and begin to draw attention, the capital and vision necessary to build them into the tools of the future will surely develop, just like it has for the many great innovations that have come before.
Three dimensional scanning or 3D scanning is one such technology. When combined with 3D printers or what some call “micro-manufacturing,” 3D scanning can not only capture the physical dimensions of an object, but it can transmit that data to a printer and reproduce that object in near perfect detail and in virtually any quantity.
For anyone even tangentially involved in manufacturing, the benefits are obvious. But let’s take a closer look and see if there are any other interesting uses for three dimensional scanning.
One might conclude that making gears, bolts and spare parts would be the most obvious use for an object scanner, but the truth is anything that requires a mold can benefit from this technology. The reasons are a matter of simple math.
All a mold does is capture the shape of a physical object by using another physical object to mimic it. This is the principle behind the plaster cast. Once a mold-maker has built a plaster cast of an object or, for example, someone’s face, they can use that cast to reproduce the object. This is the basic technique behind making a halloween mask.
With a 3D scanner, the cast is no longer necessary because the object’s physical dimensions are stored as data by the scanner itself. Once that data is captured, a 3D printer or even a machine shop or lathe can reproduce the object according to its exact measurements.
One of the most popular and expensive processes that uses mold-based casts is orthodontics. Without an accurate three-dimensional representation of a patient’s teeth, an orthodontics manufacturer can’t make braces to fit. However, with an object scanner, it is not only possible to get a perfect measurement, it is also possible to manufacture braces or other orthodontic appliances to sub-millimeter tolerances.
Ever break a pencil? Or a wooden spoon? Or a child’s toy? What if you could instantly repair any three dimensional object without glue, missing pieces or any possibility of the repair failing? It can be done with a three dimensional scanner and printer, and the best part is it is once again simply a matter of math.
Take the humble wooden spoon. Suppose the handle breaks into three pieces. Normally, you would be wooden spoon-less until you could buy a replacement. But if you had a 3D scanner, you could scan all three of the pieces, feed them into a software application that could match up the pieces based on the shape of each fracture, and then feed the combined data into a 3D printer that could produce a new spoon. With off-the-shelf hardware this entire process could be completed in less than an hour.
Now suppose you break your house key? Or the buckle that holds your purse strap? Or the tray for your tea service? For some families, the payback on a micro-manufacturing investment might be as little as a few weeks.
A 3D scanner can measure a physical object to within sub-millimeter tolerances. At that level of precision, it is possible to fit two objects together almost seamlessly. The practical applications are legion, especially in the world of construction. Door locks, hinges, washers, nuts and bolts, light fixtures and floor tiles are just a few of the construction staples that can not only be measured and perfectly reproduced, but manufactured at the building site by anyone with the proper equipment.
Any general contractor will tell you saving a day or more by avoiding having to wait for a three dollar part is a financial transaction that makes a lot of sense.
Micro manufacturing and 3D scanning technologies are in their infancy, but it is clear both will have tremendous impact on every kind of market from medical devices to aerospace to telecommunications. It is definitely a field worth investigating.