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3D Scanning: Moving Beyond Movies to a Factory Near You!


In the ideal world, every factory would have accurate, fully dimensioned, 2D/3D drawings of every part of the facility so new plant modifications can be easily designed. While this would be in place for new plants, in reality the first step in plant remodeling to meet demands for new products is often a time-consuming measurement and drawing process.

For complex plants, this takes too long and it can be difficult to attain high levels of accuracy. This lack of visibility often means that initial discussions of new layouts at a senior level are delayed or made worse by relying on inaccurate layouts.


The most common scanners for this purpose are tripod based with a rotating scanner and camera, with the camera there to color the scan points. The laser scanner uses phase shift to measure the distance between points from the scanner location. At each position, the scanner captures hundreds of thousands of measurement points per second in a full 360 degree data capture, creating a complete sphere pattern of dot positions. As equipment within the room obscures the scanning process, multiple scans from different positions are required to obtain information from all sides of the area’s contents.

Once multiple scans for a single area are complete, post-processing stitches together millions of data elements into a “point cloud.” The process is then repeated for other factory areas with post-processing joining individual point clouds together to create a “project point cloud” of the entire site.


The results of the process permits a 3D “walk through” of the “as installed” plant to a measured accuracy of up to 2mm, with the ability to dimension and add annotations to any 3D element.

That means plant remodeling is based on accurate data making the design process much quicker. It also means that reverse engineering of assets and components is possible. While 3D computer-aided design (CAD) users are likely to have powerful workstations to access files, standard users are supported by a secure web application that allows unlimited views within the organization from standard desktop personal computers.

The accuracy is so good that at a recent exhibition, many visitors thought the 3D scanned images were videos until they were shown how to “walk-through” and measure elements.

3D scan to CAD is 12 times faster than manual measurement.


Although 3D scanning for video games and the entertainment industry may be exotic, there are many uses that could be considered for factory use.

Import to 3D CAD: This is probably the most obvious requirement for project engineering and maintenance teams. The 3D scan to CAD process is 12 times faster compared to manual measurement with much higher accuracy rates. The point clouds are imported into software that sections the point cloud and uses the points to create a geometric configuration, a bit like tracing in 3D. The days of tape measure, paper and camera to create CAD layouts must surely be coming to an end. The three-step process of 3D scan – point cloud – to 3D CAD means that by step two, the 3D walkthrough and ability to dimension and annotate is available within a few hours. That means benefits are gained while work continues on the final step, the import to 3D CAD for further design work. Although import to CAD is important, it is estimated that as much as 60 percent of the benefit for the factory team could be gained once the point cloud has been created in step two.

Supplier Review: Want a potential supplier to quote for plant modifications, but don’t want him or her to see the full site? Don’t have time for the supplier to arrange a site visit? Give the supplier secure web access to a restricted part of the plant from his or her own location. The ability to walk-through and dimension allows both parties to view simultaneously and compare ideas and thoughts online. This allows more potential suppliers to be involved and reduces project quotation time.

Reverse Engineering: Have failed asset components from obsolete equipment, or missing CAD files from an old project? Use 3D scanning to quickly digitize a part and create a fully surfaced CAD model that can be then used to reproduce a local copy. There is no effective limit in terms of size, with larger and more complicated items just needing more scans.

Plant Reviews: The regional management team wants to quickly review plant layouts. Of course, a Gemba (or Genba) visit to the manufacturing floor is better, but for an initial check or quick safety review, a 3D walk-through will be quicker and much more realistic. The ability to dimension also means that initial assessments can be made to see if the new kit could possibly fit in that position.

Asset Register: Creating an asset register from scratch takes a long time and it’s not unusual for the process to take months. While a 3D scan won’t identify the plant nameplates or serial numbers, it’s a great start and will speed up the equipment identification process. Database links can be made in both directions with the 3D scan point cloud able to load an asset register and the asset register, in turn, able to load the 3D scan point. The is no reason why the process cannot be part of maintenance checks with the inspection content linked to, and taking the engineering to, a precise location in the 3D scan point cloud for a physical review.

Incident Investigation: One final application you may hope not to use is forensic crash investigation, which allows data to be recorded for office-based analysis and supports vehicle deformation comparisons against standard measurements. Could those techniques be used for industrial incidents? Almost certainly.

Being able to walk-through an accurate 3D layout increases plant visibility significantly. It’s as close as you can get to actually being there in the room. 3D scanning is here to stay with more uses being identified daily. Try it out and you’ll wonder how you managed without it.

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