Seeing A Factory As Never Before With 3D Laser Scanning

In January 2015, I was asked if I would be interested in taking charge of the new Faro Focus3D X scanner  which had been purchased by Manufacturing Technologies to highlight in our Brilliant Factory Lab (which, at the time, didn’t even have a home yet!). I dove right in, dragging the wheeled case to my desk, setting the scanner up on its tripod, and scanning my and my neighbors’ cubicles. This little spinning, blinking device generated quite a bit of interest from my neighbors.

The inaugural scan: Nicole's cubicle
The inaugural scan: Nicole’s cubicle

The Focus3D X is a non-contact laser scanner developed to record “architectural façades, complex structures, production and supply facilities, accident sites, and large-volume components.” As it spins, it collects 3D points (up to 976,000 points per second!) to create a point cloud. Once scanning is complete, the scanner takes pictures, giving each point a color. When you put all that data together, you get a photo-realistic 3D model of a space that allows for measurement and manipulation. And the class 1-rated laser is safe for use in populated areas, so a building or room does not need to be empty before it is scanned.

After taking three scans around my desk and spending some time with the software packages required to connect all the scans together, I decided I should move onto something bigger. Next I scanned one of the large conference rooms at the Global Research Center. This time I focused on giving the scanner good reference points to allow the software to perform a more automated registration.

As we eventually want to use this technology for factory scanning, I needed something bigger and more complex to practice on, so one weekend I brought the scanner home and scanned my house. Scanning a two-story house with around 20 separate areas (including rooms, closets, hallways, etc.) proved to be challenging. In order to successfully register scans, the multiple scans must overlap. Since a laser scanner cannot see through obstacles and only scans what’s visible in its “line of sight,” some planning must be done to ensure that there is enough overlap, especially around all the doorways.

scan blog2
In order to test the equipment on a more complicated space, Nicole scanned her home.

As the Brilliant Factory Lab was coming together, I took scans of the lab throughout the construction process. Some of the scans were even used by the designers to help with planning. But, since this lab was meant to showcase manufacturing technology, scans of my house and an empty conference room weren’t going to cut it; we needed an actual manufacturing space to scan.

Scans of the Brilliant Factory Lab during construction.
Scans of the Brilliant Factory Lab during construction.
Scans of the Brilliant Factory Lab during construction.
Scans of the Brilliant Factory Lab during construction.

I reached out to some contacts at my old stomping ground, the Steam Turbine/Generator plant in Schenectady, NY. We set up a date for me to come down and scan a section of the factory called the Punchline where large sheet metal punchings are made for large electric generators. Because the laser is safe for populated areas, the scans could be taken during an active shift, which led to much interest from the surrounding operators. After half a day and many visitors stopping in to see what was going on, I had 18 scans of the area covering 34,199 sq. ft, or 0.8 acres. For a typical structural scan (mid-range resolution), each scan takes less than 10 minutes.

Part of the Steam Turbine/Generator plant at GE Power & Water in Schenectady, NY.
Part of the Steam Turbine/Generator plant at GE Power & Water in Schenectady, NY.

As we continue using this technology and the software associated with it, we are constantly looking for ways it can be used at GE.  One clear use is documenting our factories to allow for better planning for new equipment and line improvements. We are able to merge our existing infrastructure and equipment with synthetic data, such as CAD models of fixtures and products. We can also use the scanner to bring our “as-built assemblies,” such as a large piping skid, back into the digital world, providing them with a digital twin. These scanners can replace the process of hand measuring each pipe flange location and orientation and manually inputting that data into a computer.

These highly detailed and highly accurate scans will make it easier to model factory floor layouts.
These highly detailed and highly accurate scans will make it easier to model factory floor layouts.

We are also working to get our point data into our virtual reality tools, a process that brings its own challenges. A trimmed version of our punchline containing one quarter of the 0.8 acre factory floor with the ceiling removed contains 51 million data points (xyz and rgb data) and file sizes can be over 2 GB. Even when trying to load these files onto a 3D TV in the Brilliant Factory lab, we met graphics card and memory challenges, which we have been working to overcome. Using a variety of both licensed and open source software, we have successfully gotten our trimmed punchline into our virtual reality CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). We soon hope to be able to have factory “tours” via an oculus rift, allowing for wider access to factory development.


2 Comments

  1. Wendy Kirk

    That’s my kid!

  2. Nate Kuslis

    Wow, Nicole, what a nice house you have