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Mike Richman

Metrology

3D Test and Measurement Comes of Age

World Metrology Week starts today

Published: Monday, May 19, 2014 - 15:34

World Metrology Week is a good time to think about how the science of test and measurement affects our lives. From reducing the time and cost of large-volume manufacturing and assembly to helping ensure the safety and reliability of aircraft, automobiles, and sea vessels, portable coordinate metrology in particular has provided wide but largely unacknowledged benefits to the modern world.

The Coordinate Metrology Society (CMS) stands at the forefront of the effort to advocate for the advancement of this industry and shine light on its many accomplishments. For 30 years, the CMS, together with its annual signature event, the Coordinate Measurement Systems Conference (CMSC), has defined metrology for an influential group of academics, vendors, and test and measurement professionals.

The first CMSC took place in San Antonio, Texas, in the autumn of 1984. In the three decades since, the CMS has helped industry achieve almost unbelievable improvements in the volume, speed, and accuracy of coordinate measurement. The CMSC today is a showcase event for high-level users, academics, and providers of the hardware and software that have powered these advancements.

“CMSC is known as a place to gather and make connections in the portable metrology world,” says Rina Molari, past chairperson of the group and portable metrology application engineer for Hexagon Metrology. “The sustainment and growth of our technologies are dependent on the new members of our community.”

With that focus on people in mind, and understanding that furthering knowledge will be the key to the future, the CMS is leading change and improvement by developing industry’s first-ever Level-One certification program to validate professionals’ proficiency in the use of portable coordinate metrology tools. With the Level-One certification program launched and a Level-Two program not far behind, a bright future for the group seems assured.

In the beginning

That was anything but the case in 1984, however. At that time, best-in-class metrology technologies included theodolites, photogrammetry systems, structured-light, and humongous, fixed coordinate measuring machines (CMMs). No one had heard of a laser tracker. If you wanted to get something into or out of the cloud, you needed a Learjet. Arms were for putting into jacket sleeves.

Those who were there from early on can speak to the state of the industry at the time and the importance of the young organization. “The value of the CMS was in promoting the evolution of 3D metrology starting from back in the days of electronic theodolites. We appreciate the forum that it has provided during these years, encouraging industry peers to compete and drive innovation in an open space,” says Deighton Brunson, president of Brunson Instrument Co.

Within a year of the first CMSC, highly accurate hinged measurement devices began to appear, and a few years later, “measurement arms” were being designed exclusively for the industrial market. Meanwhile, the technology behind laser trackers was in development, culminating in the debut of the first tracker in late 1980s. In the following years, technological breakthroughs such as laser radar, laser scanning, laser projection systems, indoor GPS, and trackers equipped with ADM and then 6DoF all contributed to the development of increasingly elegant and accurate equipment offered to industry. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, metrologists had a variety of tools at their disposal for a variety of jobs, big and small.

Advances in hardware were accompanied by a burgeoning software market for industrial design and measurement analysis. Computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) were proven theoretically in the 1940s, and commercial applications of CAD/CAM software stretch back to the 1960s. Solid modeling came on the scene in the 1980s, just in time to advance (and be in turn advanced by) improvements in the hardware’s ability to capture more and better data.

All of this, of course, was intended to bring portability to the science of industrial metrology for in-place measurement of large parts and assemblies found in industries like aerospace, automotive, and more. For years, precision measurement meant taking a part off the production line and analyzing it in a controlled environment. But as metrology equipment got smaller, and accuracies began to nearly match those of the fixed behemoths in clean rooms, the idea of in-line, real-time measurement quickly gained traction in industries such as automotive and aerospace, where high-volume, close-tolerance assembly was (and is) a way of life.

The rapid differentiation of these devices, not to mention steady improvements in accuracy, speed, and dimensions of the measurement envelope, was an impetus to growth in these early years. The CMS and its members were instrumental in leading these developments, and the CMSC became a true showcase event within industry. With its annual lineup of cutting-edge research papers presented by the leading practitioners in the field, the CMSC continually pointed the way forward and challenged assumptions about what was possible in industrial metrology.

“We very much look forward to this annual gathering of our customers and industrial metrology colleagues as it provides the opportunity to showcase the results of our own 30-year technology evolution,” says John Brown, president of Geodetic Systems Inc. “Photogrammetry has evolved from film-based systems employing awkward, large cameras to a highly automated and accurate, fully digital, image-based technology that is well-suited to a host of noncontact 3D measurement applications.”

Changes and advancements

As the organization matured and hardware and software systems proliferated, the interoperability of these systems became a pressing issue. Users often had trouble importing data acquired from specific measurement tools into third-party software that could analyze and compare that information. By the mid-1990s, however, “agnostic” measurement software suites capable of interfacing with a variety of portable measuring devices began to appear. This ushered in an age of ever-closer cooperation among vendors, which in turn made portable metrology better and easier for users.

Cooperation of this nature has been a longstanding hallmark of the Coordinate Metrology Society, and the group’s signature effort of recent years has sprung from that attitude of partnership. The Society formed a Certification Committee in 2009 to consider the need for professional certification in the field of metrology. After market research and an investigation of existing certifications, the group determined that a properly structured certification program would be of value to the group and its members. At that point, the committee began the development of a preliminary Body of Knowledge. Starting in 2010, the CMS Certification Committee performed statistical studies each year at CMSC, for the purpose of identifying skill gaps in the general metrology community. These workshops enticed hundreds of attendees each year to test their knowledge of core metrology principles based on a variety of portable tools typically used in dimensional measurement.

Out of these efforts grew a pilot written examination in 2012, followed by the first CMS Level-One certification examination in 2013. For the first time, industry could turn to a validated source, backed up with a vetted Body of Knowledge, to certify that an operator had a basic understanding and proficiency in the best practices of dimensional metrology. This year, the organization will launch the CMS Level-Two certification on a portable CMM at the CMSC. This is a practical, device-specific performance assessment involving the use of an articulating arm to collect a series of measurements on an artifact, and then analyzing specific features of that artifact. Other device-specific certifications will follow in the coming years.

Industry’s eager acceptance of the certification program is proof positive of the invaluable role that the organization now plays within this booming space. Longstanding CMSC-oriented manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, automotive, and shipbuilding continue to have strong demand for portable coordinate metrology solutions, and they have been joined in recent years by applications within fields such as historical preservation, medical device, alternative energy, antenna and communication systems, and many others.

Looking ahead

The tools and technology used by metrologists are continually improving, and emerging trends such as 3D printing, nanotechnology, automation, and mass customization will change the future of industrial test, measurement, and alignment in ways that we can hardly imagine today. In the CMSC’s next 30 years, the entire concept of “manufacturing” will likely morph into something very different from our current understanding.

Whatever changes are to come, however, you can be sure that there will be a place at the table for the Coordinate Metrology Society, for as long as products are produced for people, the need to ensure quality will never go away. Faster, better, smaller, more portable—the Society has met every challenge over 30 years and provided the key to manufacturing excellence the likes of which no one could have dreamt about in 1984.

So what will 2044 look like? It is hard to predict, but whatever happens, you can be sure that the CMSC will still be the place to discover just how far users and vendors can work together to solve problems and push envelopes, all in an incredibly collegial atmosphere. “I remember the feeling at my first CMSC; that connection you get when you realize that there are other people dealing with the same challenges as you,” says Chuck Pfeffer, past chairperson of the group and director, product management for 3D imaging at FARO Technologies. “I realize that sounds more like a support group than a conference, but maybe that’s why it is such a special event.”

It has been an amazing 30 years for the Coordinate Metrology Society and the Coordinate Metrology Systems Conference. The members, including users, vendors, and academics, have all made outstanding contributions to this truly unique group. If the past three decades are any indication, the spirit of partnership and cooperation will continue for many years to come.

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Mike Richman