From Digital to Real and Back Again
Kathleen Maher
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 6: (June/July 2011)

From Digital to Real and Back Again

It’s getting real, folks. Increasingly, the real world is becoming interrelated with the digital world, and this is driving new frontiers in software. Scanned data is being fed into computer-aided design (CAD) programs to serve as a starting point or even to co-exist with CAD data, depending on the application. And, on the other end, the digital is becoming real thanks to 3D printing machines. This mixing and matching of the real and virtual is causing a major shift in the way people work with software, including CAD programs.

CAD has always been based on a one-to-one relationship between the digital data and the building, place, or physical entity it is describing. Nevertheless, CAD is usually one step removed from the real thing—it’s an interpretation because something always seems to change between conceptualization and realization. Much of the work going on in CAD and its related fields is aimed at tightening the loop between conceptualization and realization…and sometimes, back again.

Saving History

Digital scanning is one of these important links in this reality chain. Consider, for instance, Oakland, California-based nonprofit CyArk, founded by inventor Ben Kacyra. Through his work in construction, Kacyra invented laser scanning for large sites and promoted its use in architecture and construction. He founded the scanner company Cyra Technologies, which he sold to Leica and is now part of the Swedish metrology giant Hexagon. CyArk is Kacyra’s current venture—the company scans archaeological sites, builds models, and preserves information for the future.

These architectural scans were taken in approximately six hours, and processed in a day with Pointools software. The resulting point-cloud data can be brought into CAD programs and put to practical use.

As is so obvious now, many important sites are located in conflict areas and are in danger of being lost or destroyed (see “Preserving the Past,” September 2001). Kacyra founded CyArk after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, sixth century statues carved into the side of an Afghanistan cliff, in 2001. He realized then that scans would leave an accurate record of what was lost and might even make it possible to reconstruct the Buddhas using 3D scan data. That’s because the scanners record more than 3D data; they also record the RGB and light intensity of the scanned object’s surface, which provides additional information, such as usage of different materials, the presence of cracks, and so forth. This type of data, for instance, has proved more than theoretical, having been especially useful in reconstructing Native American petroglyphs.

For these types of projects, CyArk works closely with the World Monuments Fund (WMF), which was founded to help preserve important cultural heritage sites around the world and to educate people about the historical sites and the need to preserve them. A WMF Watch List was created to track sites that are especially endangered, and the WMF has worked directly with CyArk to gather information about some of those endangered locales. The teams often find themselves in logistically challenging situations when scanning critical areas—many of the world heritage sites are located in conflict areas, and some are in extremely remote areas, while ecological threats are becoming an almost universal challenge.

The use of scanning is also growing in industry, as the price of large-scale digitizers drops and the technology becomes easier to use. Hexagon, in fact, has changed directions after acquiring Intergraph, one of the largest companies in plant design, transportation, and GIS. With the acquisition in 2009, Hexagon maintains that it is going to work on closing the loop between digital information, the CAD model, and the object it describes. While scanning is often used to create a digital model of an object produced at a manufacturing plant, it is also used to create a digital model of the plant itself. In this type of application, scanning helps describe what’s going on inside the plant, especially since after years of adding on and retrofitting, the plant no longer conforms to its CAD models.

Bentley Systems, with interests in GIS, transportation, plant software, and CAD, has also been involved in this kind of work. At its annual Be Inspired Competition and Conference, the company highlights innovative uses of technology, and the variety of applications in which scanning tools come into play is surprising. For instance, LIDAR scans have been used to find and identify power lines across a wide landscape, and then to get that information into a GIS system where the information can be used for maintenance purposes. Like Hexagon, Bentley offers tools for the plant industry to manage information gathered from scanning the inside of plants in order to digitize pipe layouts and understand where new pipes can be installed without clashing against one another. The company is working with London-based Pointools’ point-cloud management software, which is integrated into many of Bentley’s products.

Today, it often makes more sense to work with CAD and scanned data simultaneously, says Joe Croser, vice president of products at Pointools. In applications such as factory-floor optimization, companies will scan a factory floor, and to reconfigure a layout, firms may erase a machine image and add a CAD model in its place. Because products like Pointools’ Point Cloud enable scans with hundreds of millions of points to be seen and manipulated just like any other 3D file, it’s unnecessary to convert the information to CAD data—in fact, the process may take too long.

As Toyota revamps its manufacturing sites in the US, it, too, has been taking advantage of scan tools. In fact, there are several companies working with the automotive industry to use scanning technology for revamping plants and to design cars. Can-Tech Design in Guelph, Ontario, has been working with Toyota to scan factory floors and to create digital models of the factory. At Ford, scanning technology is being used to digitize the factory floor, select and erase equipment, and add in models of new equipment. As a result, the company has dramatically reduced the time it takes to change its floor configuration so it can begin to manufacture a different vehicle model.

In other plants, a similar process can be used. The facility can be scanned, and the resulting point cloud can be used to determine where to place new pipes. The information is full-3D data, so the relevant points can be selected and erased, and models for the pipes can be added. Jason Adamowicz, project manager for 3D surveying at Ghafari Associates, contends that the technology is helping to drive building information management (BIM). In an interview with Ghafari Magazine, he maintained that there are some people who have worked in 2D their entire careers but didn’t see the value of accurate 3D models until they were able to interact with 3D scan data. “Under the right conditions, we can scan about 80,000 square feet of plant space in a 24-hour period,” he stated.

CAD and rapid prototyping are becoming more fashionable across surprisingly atypical industries. Iris van Herpen, a Dutch avant-garde couture designer with a futuristic undertone, has blended fashion and technology, employing 3D prototyping to produce an Escapism collection of wearable masterpieces, including this one above.

On a Human Scale

Before large-scale scanning, there was a lot of close-up work being done, including reverse engineering. In fact, reverse engineering is one of the earliest uses of scan data, whereby designers digitize a real object using a variety of tools, including probes, cameras, and low-cost hand scanners. The point-cloud data can then be imported into a CAD program to re-create the object or to refine the design so a different object can be generated. Sometimes it’s used to replace a part for which the original design is lost, while sometimes it’s, ahem, used to “borrow” a design. However, in all these cases, the origin of the CAD model is in the real world; it’s not inside the head of an engineer.

Ping Fu, CEO of Geomagic, believes that the future of engineering software will entail starting with the real world and real people, while the machine will use computational algorithms to provide geometry and topology information to engineers—rather than an engineer sitting in front of a machine to describe what’s inside his or her head. Fu uses this analogy: Scanning to CAD is the process of data mining; an engineer creating CAD on screen is, in effect, generating a database of sorts.

An architectural CAD elevation drawing of scan data with photographic information overlaid on the laser data creates a photoreal, measurable deliverable, here depicting the San Antonio Missions National Park in Texas. At left is the scan data of the facade, including intensity maps.

As an early innovator in the field of point-cloud translation software, Fu has long been involved in the process of reverse engineering. Whether large scale or small scale, the ability to work with point clouds often means the difference between success and failure. Point-cloud data always results in a huge amount of data, and the information from the different scans has to be aligned and rationalized to the other scans in order to create a useful model. Holes have to be filled. The amount of data has to be intelligently processed. And, if you want to get the data into a CAD program to create a manufactureable model, you must understand how to transform the information into useful engineering data.

Indeed, the advances in point-cloud software have done as much to move the industry forward as they have in reducing the prices for scanning hardware and increasing awareness in the architecture and manufacturing communities.

Reverse Engineering Humans

Increasingly, Geomagic has been developing software that can help to better engineer humans. The software is going mainstream in dentist offices, where direct scans of a patient’s mouth can be used to construct bridges and crowns that fit perfectly and do not require physical molds.

Fu has been working closely with Scott Summit, of Bespoke Innovations, who uses a combination of tools, including scans and rapid-­prototyping machines, to build not simple artificial limbs, but beautiful custom legs that are functional and add emotional value.

Scan data is now so detailed that it communicates the exact layout of the factory floor. Ford has found that it can dramatically shorten its cycle time by using scans and models.

Unfortunately, the steady progress of war and the use of land mines and IEDs mean there is a growing need for artificial limbs and this type of service. Summit is also working with people who have lost their legs as a result of cancer or traffic accidents. The use of scans has dramatically improved the ability of technicians to create human-shaped legs that fit comfortably and enable clothes and shoes to fit normally. Thanks to innovations in electronics, the artificial limb can actually respond to impulses from the nerve endings at the point of amputation.

Sadly, there’s no getting around the fact that a person has suffered such a loss and that the artificial limb is still artificial. However, Summit has been trying to eliminate as many barriers as possible to make amputees feel more at ease, particularly in social situations. Using scans to generate organic shapes that correspond to the lost leg, Bespoke creates new custom prosthetics with rapid-prototyping machines. Bespoke has a line of artificial legs called Fairings, which compliment a patient’s personality. Less a replacement, the artificial limb can be thought of as an extension of the patient and something the person will be more comfortable wearing.

In another example, writer Randall Newton reported a very personal use of 3D models and rapid prototyping on Jon Peddie Research’s newly acquired GraphicSpeak Web site (formerly It involves Sens­able’s haptics technology, which is unique in that the modeling tool, called Freeform, has more in common with digital content creation software, such as Autodesk’s Mudbox or Pixologic’s ZBrush. The software is designed to sculpt and mold organic shapes, producing voxels, or volumentric pixels. The point here is that Freeform was used by the Centre for Applied Reconstructive Technologies (CARTIS) in Wales to create a nasal prosthesis for a man with basal skin-cell cancer. The digital mold was created from CT scans of the man’s nose and then output with a rapid-prototyping machine using a solid elastomer material. The prosthetic is held in place with two magnets surgically implanted into the bone of the patient’s face.

Rapid Prototyping Breaks Out

As Fu contends, technology is becoming a much more direct part of our lives. If anyone disagrees, they don’t have to look any further than the Maker Faire events, now held internationally to highlight the ways in which people are adopting and adapting technology for their own uses. Once familiar only within the domain of engineering, rapid prototyping is becoming known as “3D printing,” perhaps because it is seen as a technology that will go mainstream—as mainstream as the ink printer.

During the past three years, prices for rapid-prototyping machines have dropped dramatically. It’s possible to build a 3D printer for approximately $1000 using do-it-yourself kits like the one offered by MakerBot, and people are taking a hard look at these machines for a broader array of uses.

The MakerBot is becoming quite the attraction at Maker Faires, as Kai Backman, one of the founders of Tinkercad, the first cloud-based CAD program (as far as we know), can attest. Backman originally started Tinkercad to support the growing base of people using 3D printers—3D enthusiasts who want to design and make their own 3D products. He went to this year’s Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, a hero. He claims there was huge interest in Tinkercad, but also in the MakerBot machine that he had brought with him to demonstrate the reality of mainstream 3D printing. So taken was one youngster that the boy offered to trade his complete LEGO collection for Backman’s MakerBot.

Other printers, still higher in price, are getting attention because of the materials they can work with. For example, Shapeways can print models using food-safe ceramics, silver, and gold. Shapeways is a new spinout from Royal Philips Electronics. CTO and co-founder Robert Schouwenburg believes that rapid prototyping is the future of manufacturing, and is working toward that goal.

The company has established an online community and marketplace where people can make, buy, and sell their own creations. Shapeways’ vendor-members are creating model train parts, home décor products, and custom jewelry. There is even a custom-fit bikini available from Continuum Fashion. The N12 bikini was designed in Robert McNeel & Associates’ Rhino using a custom application that enables the creation and alignment of disks that conform to the shape of the model so that each bikini fits perfectly and uniquely. By the way, the name N12 comes from the material that’s used to print the bikini. (An interview with Robert Schouwenburg is available on GraphicSpeak at

Future of 3D Software

According to analyst Terry Wohlers, the 3D printing industry has been growing rapidly during the past 25 years, witnessing an average annual growth rate of 26 percent—undoubtedly Schouwenburg and Backman will prove to be correct in their predictions. Already, sophisticated hobbyists are gravitating to 3D printing, and it’s just a matter of time before the technology becomes even more accessible. Of course, timing is always the tricky part.

It has been decades since the analysts at Jon Peddie Research began tracking 3D hardware and software. Whole companies have risen and fallen on the hope that 3D visualization, modeling, and exploration would go mainstream. Many of the people and companies mentioned in this story have been around for much of that time; they’ve survived to see the industry change and their work change with it. Alas, other companies have failed to manage the multiple chasm crossings required. 3D technology began in industry but was grown through the game industry; now we believe we are seeing 3D technology come back into its birthright.

Nike is putting digital technology’s best foot forward while designing a shoe with an ultimate fit.

The entire industry, even small machine houses, is now able to take advantage of 3D capture, modeling, and output tools. Part of the magic has come with reduced prices, though much of the magic has come as the circle between capture and output closes. We’re also seeing the arrival of easy-to-use 3D software, a trend initiated by Google’s freeware SketchUp, and the newly introduced tools Tinkercad and Autodesk 123D, for those wanting to render and print 3D models. This long, long awaited arrival of easy-to-use CAD tools will undoubtedly help push new waves of 3D functionality.

At last, 3D is becoming something we can get our hands around.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at