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3D Laser Scanning for Sculptural Applications – What to Consider

There’s no doubt that we live in an increasingly digital world. In fact, the line between the physical and the digital has not only become very blurry, but it’s often impossible to even figure out where it is. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of art and sculpture. Where these fields once revolved around what one could physically create with their hands, new technologies are giving artists the means to capture their creativity in digital format.

While the old school might lament any kind of shift away from traditional processes, those willing to embrace technology are discovering new ways of not only creating art, but taking it to new creative levels. One technology in particular is bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds. Combined with the power of CNC technology and automated foam carving systems, 3D laser scanning is revolutionizing how sculptural work is produced. Sculptural-related businesses, including those who create sculptural enlargements, themed environments, props and a range of other artistic projects, are finding they are able to build creative projects in any scale with an efficient, profitable and, most importantly, accurate production process.

WHEN GOOD ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

When it comes to sculptural replication and enlargement, whether it’s for a themed environment or a work of fine art, accuracy is paramount. With many projects being displayed on a monumental scale, even the slightest error can become blatantly obvious. Without technology, conventional sculptural replication and enlargement relied on manual methods, which meant the ever present potential for human error. This isn’t to say these methods we’re doomed to inaccuracy, but even acceptable accuracy required countless hours of meticulous and tedious effort. These processes become a time consuming art unto themselves and were limited to specialists who would devote long periods of time to one project. As a result, opportunities to commercialize sculptural enlargement on a larger scale were essentially non-existent. 3D laser scanning, however, is changing the game.

Technical details aside, 3D laser scanning allows for virtually any existing physical object to be scanned and recreated in digital format. Simply put, it uses the power and accuracy of lasers to bring the physical world into the digital realm. The resulting digital files can then be used as the foundation for efficient duplication and enlargement processes using automated CNC foam carving and cutting technologies. These technologies use the scanned file to perfectly recreate the art or sculpture in any size. Unlike conventional enlargement methods, however, they arrive at perfect accuracy with speed and efficiency. As the foundation for automated foam carving systems, 3D laser scanning is therefore opening the door for companies that wish to produce art and sculptures on a larger scale, and to do it in a way that works for their customers and for their business.

A SCAN OF THE SCANNING MARKETPLACE

While laser scanning is proving invaluable to sculptural-related businesses, finding the right scanner for the job can still be tricky. If you’re in the market for a scanner, you’re aware of the range of options that exist. There is a confusing range of products and suppliers, with many claiming to have the perfect solution for any kind of scanning application. While this is the nature of the beast, it’s critical that you find a scanner that works for sculptural applications.

Ultimately, the final sculptural product can only be as good as the original scan. If there is limited detail captured at the scanning stage, there will be limited detail in the reproduction, especially when the object is being enlarged. Countless sculptural companies have been left with an expensive paperweight after realizing that their new scanner could not meet their needs. To avoid this, it’s important to understand how various scanners compare when it comes to technical capabilities, but there are some overlooked considerations that are especially important for sculptural applications. These considerations are often ignored because most scanner suppliers do not have relevant expertise or experience with sculptural projects.

Software Considerations

Like much technology these days, software is critical for 3D laser scanning. At the most basic level, it’s important to find a scanner that has integrated software for both file manipulation and machining. Purchasing a scanner that does not include its own software means having to rely on a third party software solution. This not only adds additional costs (which can be significant), but also introduces many potential integration problems. If problems do arise, you’ll have to work with multiple suppliers for support instead of one point of contact that can handle both your hardware and software concerns. This is especially important when you consider that many potential problems involve a combination of hardware and software issues. Also, take some time to navigate the scanner software prior to any purchase to ensure that it’s intuitive and easy to use. Some programs are notorious for their complexity and you don’t want to be held up for weeks trying to make sense of the software.

Another important software consideration is the ability of the software to handle very large file sizes. The nature of sculptural and artistic scanning applications means that many scanned files will be very large – sculptural scans can exceed 300 MB in the standard.STL format that typical scanner software uses. Because this software is built for other applications where files tend to be smaller, it is often unable to deal with large scans. The large file sizes freeze and crash computers and they make file manipulation and editing excruciatingly slow. Reducing the file’s size is simply not an option in these cases, as a more manageable size means that much of the file’s detail would be lost. This translates into many more hours of hand resculpting and finishing once the piece is produced. Scanner software that’s specifically created for large sculptural scans maintains detail in file sizes that won’t choke your computer.

You also need to ensure that the software can output to 3D CAD/CAM programs and that it does not output to a proprietary format that requires conversion. Some scanners do not export to standard files and therefore require expensive 3D programs to make the conversion – without these additional programs the 3D model can essentially be useless. This is not a good situation to be in once you’ve started a project.

Scale & Accuracy Considerations

Maintaining perfect scale is of critical importance for sculptural applications. While many scanners are built for accuracy, they are often not built to handle the scale requirements of larger sculptural projects. The scanning area for many scanners is very limited, which means that larger objects cannot be captured with a single scan. In these cases, many scanners rely on a process that involves merging large numbers of individual scans to digitally recreate the full object. The highly technical nature of this merging process creates a situation where the scans are merged with little tolerance, resulting in inaccuracies that can seriously hamper the quality of the final scanned file. In many cases, these inaccuracies aren’t clearly obvious until the piece has been produced, which results in many hours of manual rework and, in some cases, having to completely redo the project. Ensure that you find a scanner that can maintain accuracy regardless of the size of your project. One option is to find a scanning system that allows for larger parts to be scanned in one piece, thereby avoiding the problematic merging process.

Labour Considerations

While many laser scanner suppliers make similar claims, their products are obviously not all built alike. Like any product, cheap laser scanners are cheap for a reason and you’ll be sacrificing something by choosing to go this route. Most obviously, the lower end scanners typically require a much greater amount of manual labour – this is especially true for sculptural applications that often involve larger projects. This labour is most obvious when it comes to manual scanning adjustments during the actual scanning process and the additional computer work required to prepare the scanned files for production. For instance, some scanners require manual physical changes to the scanner to be able to change resolution. Some require days of work to align scans to create a single digital file of a full model, while others require hours of computer time to separate scanned parts to prepare for the machining process. In all of these examples, there’s not only the added time and labour, but any manual intervention increases the potential for human errors, errors that can quickly cause a project to go sideways.

For sculptural applications, it’s important to find a scanner that minimizes the amount of manual labour required during both the scanning and production preparation stages. Find a scanner that can automatically adjust resolution during scanning and one that has blocking functionality to automatically break scans into multiple pieces for efficient manufacturing. A more automated scanning solution will not only allow for a streamlined process, but also ensure that scale, accuracy and resolution are maintained throughout the entire process.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

By taking your search for a scanner beyond the traditional considerations that many scanner suppliers focus on, you’ll be able find a scanner that works for you. There’s no doubt that the conventional considerations must come into play, such as cost, size and technical specifications, but it’s important to dig deeper. For instance, those that simply use cost as their determining factor and don’t consider the process requirements for sculptural related work may end up paying much more in manual labour and rework. Similarly, if you don’t consider the cost of additional software or the need to have it integrated with you’re scanner, process and troubleshooting problems might render your scanner all but useless.

What’s the best way to find a scanner that works for your application? See it in action. Rather than taking scanner suppliers’ claims at face value, have them walk through the process with you in person so that you can see exactly what is required and how well the scanner delivers. You’ll often find that the 3 minute process shown on their website actually takes hours to complete – or in some cases, is simply impossible given the capabilities of the scanner. Don’t get caught in that trap. Send the suppliers an object similar to those you will be working with and have them scan it live and send you the resulting scan immediately. When you get the file back, remove any bitmap images that might be covering scan detail so that you can see the quality of the scan. With this approach, you’ll be able to see how well the scan stacks up to the original object. Once again, you’ll often find that the results don’t match the suppliers’ claims of quality. The bottom line is that you have to do your research and find out for yourself if a particular scanner will work for your applications.

Ultimately, finding the right scanner for sculptural applications is closely tied to finding the right supplier. As there are many laser scanners to choose from, there are also many scanner suppliers. Unfortunately, the technical support offered by many scanner suppliers is not up to par, and many do not have expertise in sculptural and artistic applications thanks to their focus on more mainstream applications. A supplier that has a strong customer service track record and knows how to use the scanner for sculptural work on the production side will be invaluable. They can not only offer a single point of contact for assistance, but they can ensure that you get a scanning solution that is proven for sculptural applications. With the right supplier and scanner, you’ll find that 3D laser scanning can vastly improve your processes, products and business.

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