20 July 2015
The gap of 3D technology
3D printing has become accessible to a very broad community. On the contrary, 3D scanning technology is still addressed to a narrow group of experts. The question is: is there a need for open source 3D scanning software?
3D printing VS 3D scanning
3D printing is great; there is no doubt about it. We are still trying to figure out that killer application that would make everyone buy one but, in general, 3D printing technology has become more and more accessible.
Arduino and other micro controllers have been responsible for this. With a little bit of technical know-how, anyone can build his own 3D printer. And, if you are not that good with tools, you can buy a very good 3D printer at a fair price.
But 3D scanning is not quite there, yet.
We like to think of 3D scanners and 3D printers as sisters because of the relationship between scanning and printing paper. In reality, they are more like distant cousins.
Designing an object in a 3D modeling/CAD program is more directly related to 3D printing, and the gap between professional CAD software and consumer free 3D design software has been close.
Designing an object is as easy as printing it. This is because the professional software and the professional 3D printing industry have moved simultaneously toward the average consumer market.
In the past weeks, I have been involved in the production of a project for my own company (the details of which I will discuss in a future article). The project involves 3D printing and the scanning of six people.
My team and I were trying to come up with an inexpensive, yet effective way of scanning people. We considered the more common choices – 123D Catch and the Sense/iSense devices.
The problem with these is that they don’t generate precise scanning of the surface as they mask it by putting a texture layer on top of the scan mesh.
It is a beautiful result – no doubt about it – and an incredible technical feature, but this is not enough quality to scan and print a face.
We considered a software that transforms an Xbox Kinect into a 3D scanner. At the end, we decided that, if we were going to invest in the scanning, we might have as well hired an outsourcing service.
We hired a company that sells 3D scanners and also offers reverse engineering service. They weren’t sure if they could use that technology to reverse engineer a human face. Nevertheless, they gave it a try.
They placed markers on the face and they took several sweeps of the subject face. After that, they combined the 3D mesh with other meshes of the same subject to create an almost full 360 degrees 3D scan and finished the job with some modeling tools.
Perfect solution, but a very technical one, not quite mainstream.
3D scanning as a consumer product
Where am I going with all this?
Well, 3D printing in its consumer form is not perfect compared to an industrial version, but there is not much difference unless you’re an expert.
We are living in some kind of renaissance of 3D printers. Companies have achieved turning 3D printers into a consumer product by making it open source and easy to fabricate with off-the-shelf components.
We need that “Original Makerbot” of 3D scanners, something open source that could be assembled and modified by anyone.
I got the chance to talk to the owner of the company that gave us the 3D scanning service about the price and inaccessibility of quality 3D scanning for 3D printers and he doesn’t see the problem: “Regular people don’t have the need for 3D scanning and 3D printing at home“.
He has a good point, we don’t have that need.
But, a couple of years ago, we didn’t have a need for 3D printing objects either. That’s why a piece of technology that could be hacked and improved by the community could shake the 3D scanning business at its core.
I’m being very broad about 3D scanners. This is something I was thinking over the course of the project in which I’m involved. I don’t mean to critique the 3D scanning community, I mean to challenge it to develop something that could match the quality, the price and the openness of a homemade 3D printer so that it could be used as a complementary tool.
Particulaly I don’t think that designing an object is as easy as printing it, but the point here is scanning. I agree that Sense is not perfect and using kinect is far from being handy, but both of them work. The point here is that there is need of hardware, and they are coming. Apple bought Structure (Sense/iSense), Microsoft stoped doing Kinect because it is now at its Hololens and finally Google has shown Tango. Probably there aren’t plans for open source softwares, but with hardware then software can find a way.