Why 3D Scanners are the Hot New Craze in Reverse Engineering

During World War II, the United States Army’s bazooka rocket launchers were advantageous to their fighting strength. However, during the war, German adversaries captured some bazookas in North Africa from the Americans. The Germans reverse engineered the weapon, modifying it to launch larger projectiles.

Today, reverse engineering is high science; the engineering that creates it relies on sophisticated software, scanners, and other cutting-edge technology. This technique is becoming more useful as legacy parts and components become more obsolete. Additionally, manufacturers that originally supplied them sometimes discontinue their operations, are sold, or simply cease their business altogether. In such cases, it's necessary to reverse engineer parts and components to supply replacement and original parts for follow-on production runs. In other instances, existing components and designs are modified through reverse engineering to perform a new function.

The objective is to create a working CAD design to enable CAM and production. A finished part is scanned using a 3D point cloud scanner. Then it is gradually formed into various mesh structures and again integrated into a CAD drawing, where it is further refined. It may be modified for tolerances and finishes; ultimately it becomes a new design, ready for production and sometimes integrated with CAM software.

Reverse engineering can be a competitive tactic. Recently, Volvo was spotted transporting Tesla Model 3 vehicles (it recently outsold all other U.S. premium sedans in July 2018) to Sweden. Why? To be reverse engineered, of course.

Iran has purportedly reverse engineered a long-range, air-to-air missile once part of the standard armament of the U.S. F-14 fighter jet (now retired). The Shah of Iran bought it before his deposition. They are now mass producing the missile after adjusting its configurations to improve precision and range.

While these examples demonstrate some of the more dramatic uses of reverse engineering, much reverse engineering today is a common practice in engineering design.  

“Solutions on the market today are capable of capturing tens and hundreds of millions of 3D points very quickly and can overwhelm computer resources and the capabilities of software applications,” says Ken Steffey, Director of Product Management for FARO – a firm specializing in 3D measurement, imaging and realization technology, located in  Lake Mary, Florida.

Faro develops and manufactures equipment for high-precision 3D capture, measurement, and analysis.

"Knowing how to adjust the capture parameters of the hardware so enough detail is preserved in specified areas requires sophisticated technology,” he said.

This technology keeps getting more sophisticated as design-centric industries demand more precise scanning. By all indications, the market for 3D scanner technology is hot and growing as companies seek component designs that are new and improved with enhanced precision. According to the market research firm Occams Business Research and Consulting, the market for 3D scanning equipment is forecasted to grow at a 7.5 percent compounded annual rate over the next five years.

"Reverse engineering is expected to pick up a high pace during the forecast period,” the company said in a statement about their research. "The main applications of 3D scanners are in automotive, defense, manufacturing and aerospace. There, 3D scanners provide high precision, which is why the reverse engineering market is expected to rise at a high rate."

Engineering design software companies are integrating their product lines to incorporate reverse engineering. ReverseEngineering.com 2018 is one such enterprise that has created an application that integrates smoothly with design software SOLIDWORKS. In their words: “Users process point clouds, hard probes, and 3D laser scans directly in SOLIDWORKS.”

Reverseengineering.com describes how to quickly create a pipe or tube: sweep a circle along an automatically generated path. Measure manifolds. Add the bends in afterwards. Complex tubes may be modeled quickly with specific measures. The entire process is actually more accurate than previous modeling methods.

"Overall, I think we’ll start getting better products faster that will also be more affordable,” says Bo Helmrich, owner of Digitize Designs, a reseller of 3D scanning hardware and software maker in Greenville, South Carolina. "With the right tools, companies will be able to reduce their design time and engineering hours for a project, which will create more affordable products with shorter lead times. In addition, these reverse engineering tools allow companies to make more precise measurements as well as create products that are more customized and tailored, which will result in higher quality products."

You can discuss reverse engineering and many more topics in our new GrabCAD Groups forum.