The advent of 3D technologies has opened a whole new realm of possibilities when it comes to designing products. 3D scanning in particular has many benefits for product development. And while in the past, the process of obtaining a 3D scan was difficult, today the situation is very different. With the right handheld scanner and software, it has become so easy that even kids can properly use 3D scanning technologies. In fact, numerous students across the country are starting to use these types of technologies in the classroom. Take for instance the Mid Pacific Institute, which has created hands-on scanning classes around the reverse engineering of museum artifacts.

Just as students have embraced the technology, product designers and engineers are also jumping on the bandwagon. As evidenced by its success in the classroom, utilizing 3D scanning, can be quick and easy, and its applications for product development are no exception. What’s more, it brings designers and developers an array of benefits, which include:

Allowing for More Intricate Designs Quicker

Whether you are working with a clay or wax model at full-scale or small-scale, 3D scanning technology has made the process of transitioning from physical object to digital model much quicker and smoother. Leading 3D scanning technology companies have also started to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into their offerings, allowing the scanning process to be more automated and intuitive, while decreasing the time needed for training. This will allow for more sophisticated product designs to prevail, where in the past, designs would be simplified since the digital design process was so laborious and thus costly.

There is also the benefit of being able to scan and merge together different physical objects to create a unique design. Although more of an art application, a good example is the #WOODVETIA campaign launched by the Schweizerholz (Swiss Wood) and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. The campaign revolves around the creation of historical Swiss figures in wood to promote its benefits as a sustainable building material. To create the full-bodied figures, figurative artist Inigo Gheyselinck first creates a bust of the historical figure out of clay. The hand-sculpted bust is scanned. Then a person is selected who has the same body type as the historical figure. They are also scanned. The bust and body are digitally merged together and then the life-size historical figure is CNC machined out of wood. This has allowed for the design to be applied to a unique medium and reduced large amounts of during the creation process.

In addition, 3D scanners have also allowed for better ergonomic designs. With the ability to digitally capture human anatomy, products can truly be created to conform to the human body. As wearable technologies and products advance, this will only become more important. The same logic can be applied when designing aftermarket parts that are meant to fit with existing products. For example, a company that wants to create custom seats for cars can remove the stock seats, scan the interior of the vehicle and use the digital model of the car’s interior during the design process. This would allow the company to virtually test different seat sizes and designs within the vehicle. It would also provide exact measurements of where the vehicle’s rails and bolt holes are so that the new seat can be designed to perfectly align during installation. 

Artist Inigo Gheyselinck develops a wooden figure by combining 3D scans of a clay bust and a human model.

Adding Flexibility to Designs

Say a visual prototype was created, which doesn’t have working parts. As mentioned above, using a 3D scanner, the exact shape of the product can be digitally captured. The 3D scan can be used to create the proof-of-concept prototype, which would be extremely close to the product created in mass production.

Having a 3D model from the first stage allows for design flexibility throughout the process. During the initial design of a product, using a 3D scan and editing program allows users to ensure that surfaces are represented in high fidelity, products are symmetrical (by mirroring scans) and enables users to scale the overall size up or down. Moving from one phase to another, the design can be further edited to make space for internal components or simply to change the look of the product as feedback is received. Pairing 3D scanning and modeling with rapid prototyping technologies, such as CNC Machining, 3D printing and plastic injection molding, allows for the prototype to come together quickly. Depending on the materials, scans that are used to create molds helps to ensure complete accuracy and guarantees that parts fit specific design requirements.

For example, MU Form Furniture, manufacturers and distributors of furniture products for the modern home and business, was using a more traditional approach to product design since its preferred material to work with was high quality bent ply. To produce an original piece, MU Form would ship a physical prototype model to a factory overseas so they could reverse engineer the model by using a router duplicator to create a wood mold, which would be used to shape the bent ply. This method produced a somewhat accurate representation of the piece, but it was understood that manual work would need to be done on the mold to fix curvatures and surfaces. Due to the trial and error process, inaccuracies in the final production piece would occur.

Today, the company has incorporated 3D scanning and simplified the trial and error process. Using this technology, the furniture designer develops the physical prototype of a furniture piece, which is then reverse engineered using a handheld 3D scanner. The model is edited and perfected digitally. The 3D model is then emailed to the factory, which creates an accurate CNC metal mold directly from the file.

MU Form Furniture uses 3D scanning in product design.

Streamlined Logistics

By eliminating trial and error processes, 3D scanning quickens the design process by improving accuracy and cutting down on logistics. As MU Form Furniture experienced, by having a 3D scan of a product, there was no need to ship a physical prototype to a factory for replication. Instead a manufacturer anywhere in the world could have the 3D model overnight, whether it was of a small single part that needed to be altered or of an entire chair that needed a mold to be created. The processes of 3D scanning an object is also quick. In a matter of minutes, a 3D model can be captured. With the right technology the model can even be rendered as an object is being scanned.

Using 3D scans and CAD models of other parts, a designer can ensure that parts are going to fit together on the first attempt. If a custom part needs to be designed out of house, the 3D model will also serve as a useful tool during the collaboration process.

Providing the Designer with a 3D File

During product design, it’s not uncommon for a product to be shipped around the world before it goes to mass production. With 3D scans, 3D files can easily be created and supplied in place of a physical product - saving time and money on logistics. In addition, these same 3D files can be used as an additional resource when applying for patents.

There are also added benefits to having a 3D model when it comes to working and selling products to retailers and online marketplaces. It is becoming more and more common for retail websites to incorporate 3D models of their products for shoppers to view from every angle. There are already many platforms available that let consumers decorate a 360-degree online room by dropping in 3D models of furniture and products that are available for purchase. To take it a step further, these companies are looking for new ways to leverage augmented and virtual reality to create immersive experiences for those shopping at home. The décor and furniture segment has been ahead of the game in this area, but it won’t be long before everyday items get the same treatment. Having a 3D model ready will become an added benefit for placing products on these virtual shelves.

The examples above only brush the surface of the benefits of 3D scanning. Utilizing this technology ensures accuracy from the very start of a project, speeding up time to market. As brick and mortar retailers continue to look for ways to boost their online shopping capabilities, having 3D models of products will soon become a requirement and those already utilizing 3D scanning today will be ahead of the curve.