Inside a $1 Million Measuring Tool: Our Custom AICON 3D Arena
This scanning system is powerful enough to turn your fingerprint into a vast topographic map. Learn how structured-light 3D scanning is evolving vehicle design and manufacturing quality control.
Metrology in Manufacturing
In a perfect world, a component could be mass-produced without error, every single time – each product an exact duplication of the digital CAD model it was based upon. Unfortunately, this level of perfection is yet unrealistic in today’s manufacturing world.
The expected wear-and-tear of instruments, equipment falling out of calibration, and even facility temperature and humidity can subtly morph crafted components out of spec – a micrometer at a time. For a carmaker, a wrongly manufactured part can have costly implications.
To solve this problem, metrology – the study of measurement – has become more and more important in the production process. The field has advanced drastically over the last century, from calipers to Coordinate Measuring Machines (CMM) – devices with mechanical six-axis arms that probe an object’s surface, recording each point-of-contact before mapping its geometry in a three-dimensional space.
Laser scanning systems were the next step in speeding up and digitizing the process of recording physical methodologies, but accuracy was still something the industry sought to improve.
Structured-light 3D scanning is the latest “must have” technology in this field – it is extremely accurate, efficient, unobtrusive, and user-friendly.
An operator prepares a suspension component for scanning to compare its construction against its original CAD design.
What is Structured-Light 3D Scanning?
Structured-light 3D scanning is a method of measurement based on the way that light reacts upon solid surface contact. These scanning systems project light patterns onto objects to calculate how those patterns deform across their surfaces with hypersensitive cameras. This process effectively captures an object’s every curve and facet to digitize its exact three-dimensional geometry.
To build out a 360-degree 3D view of a full-size car, numerous individual scan images are combined to create a single, cohesive model. Reliable points of reference ensure all scan images are accurately linked together. Traditionally, these “points of reference” take the shape of circular, high-contrast stickers that are applied across an object’s surface.
Three reference points establish an affixed, triangulated starting point for object scans. A second image then incorporates these three starting points combined with nearby correlating points. Hundreds of subsequent scans slowly expand this cache of mapped coordinates – all charted by their location in relation to those first, triangulated three.
A precise pattern is projected across a suspension component. Any distortion in these parallel lines is measured and tracked down to 25/1000 of one millimeter.
Finally, object scans are overlapped and stitched together digitally using the reference points – resulting in a detailed, three-dimensional replica of the object.
This virtual model can then be sent to CAD software engineers to compare against its designed intent for errors, logged into the system to track manufacturing developments, or utilized as a framework for 3D rendering artists.
Scan accuracy and detail varies by product, but the upper bounds of its potential can be staggering. Our custom-built AICON 3D Arena records millions upon millions of individual surface points per scan – a single raw scan file can contain more data than an entire high-definition feature film.
A full-vehicle scan can include over 15,000,000 individual data points, all captured in just two hours' time.
Popular Uses of Structured-Light 3D Scanning
Initially, this technology was only popular within the field of reverse engineering – the practice of digitally replicating pre-existing physical products. Digitized scan detail was hindered by the computational limitations of the time, so it primarily saw use in applications where the speed and ease of scans were paramount.
As technology improved and its potential for accuracy became unlocked, structured-light 3D scanning exploded within the turbine blade industry, where the most minuscule structural imperfection can result in disaster when rotating at such extreme speeds.
Because structured-light 3D scanning systems require significant processing power to parse the millions of points present in each scan, it was primarily utilized in these niche circumstances for years.
More recently, large automakers have adopted it on their production lines as a smarter and faster way to ensure quality control of key components.
Integrating this technology has expedited design development and allowed for faster, more effortless collaboration between our designers, artists, and engineers.
The eye-shaped markers embedded into the floor provide reliable, infrared-sensitive points of reference for the above tracking camera array. Leveraging these, the system tracks both the exact position and angle of the mobile ground scanner at all times.
Inside an Industry-Leading Scanning & Tracking Arena
Our AICON 3D Arena platform combines a structured-light 3D scanning system with wireless probing and optical tracking technology. This entire infrastructure – the first of its kind in the U.S. – cost almost $1 million to integrate into our vehicle design studio.
Altogether, this system is able to scan within an accuracy of 25 microns – a micron being one-thousandth of one millimeter. Its largest margin of error is about half the width of a human hair.
Our 16 MoveInspect XR tracking camera array hangs above the scan zone, acting as a positioning system to meticulously track the mobile ground scanner.
Sixteen specialized high-resolution cameras are suspended above a scan zone large enough to encase a full-size SUV. This camera array acts as a positioning system, tracking a ground-level mobile scanner as a specialist maneuvers it through the arena to capture detailed scans from every possible angle.
An infrared-sensitive reference field built into the arena’s floor emulates the collection of circular, high-contrast stickers that were traditionally placed across objects’ surfaces during scanning. A clay car model would require over 200 of these stickers, delicately applied and removed so as not to mar its clay surface.
As millions of archived data points are processed, the geometry of the suspension component takes shape in seconds. These points are then connected to form a unifying surface texture, bringing all of this disparate data to life.
The embedded reference field tracks the scanner itself – recording its location and angle in relation to the object during each scan. This ultimately paints an equally detailed picture, but eliminates the need for reference stickers and overlapping scans – making for a much quicker, more elegant measuring process.
All told, employing this arena’s reference field saves an average of three hours per vehicle model scan, allowing us to return these sculptures back into the crafty hands of our clay modelers more quickly, minimizing wasted time and cost.
A modern take on the CMM, this Bluetooth-enabled probing wand precisely measures points-of-interest – such as a vehicle body line – with a simple “point-and-shoot” gesture.
For veterans in the metrology field, this arena integrates a reimagined, versatile variant of the Coordinate Measuring Machine – a longstanding mounted metrology tool that measures 3D geometries based on point-of-contact. Our CMM tool takes the form of handheld, carbon fiber, Bluetooth-enabled wand that wirelessly reports 3D points to our central scanning system – saving time, studio space, and computer processing power.
A wireless hand control fires the StereoScan R8 mobile ground scanner – taking new 3D scans with the click of a button.
If all of this seems rather complicated, you would be surprised to learn how intuitive and straightforward the AICON 3D Arena system actually is. With proper training and practice, a skilled operator can get up to speed in a few weeks’ time – making for a lesser known, but highly-valued career path.
In the quest to streamline our processes, pursue greater manufacturing precision, and ensure vehicle production quality, our early adoption of the AICON 3D Arena platform technology has brought us closer to that “perfect world” of perfect measurement than ever before.
If you are interested in working in our 3D metrology lab, we encourage you to explore available positions on our careers page. If you would like to learn more about the scanning and tracking equipment integrated into our arena, visit AICON’s official website.