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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest


The Amazing Hidden World of Metrology Technology

Industrial measurement equipment deserves the same amazement we give to an iPhone 7

Published: Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 12:03

Technology is amazing. It’s amazing that I own a smartphone with more power than a 10-year-old laptop. It’s amazing that we have self-driving cars or smart appliances that tell you when you need to go shopping, ideas considered science fiction 20 years ago. It’s even amazing that you are reading this article on your smartphone... on the internet—an invention that isn’t even 40 years old and is arguably the driver for most of the technology advances we have seen since its development.

But forget about consumer technology, in our field amazing technology revolves around dimensional measurement. Visit any industrial trade show that features dimensional metrology equipment, and the speed and accuracy with which measurements can be done today are astounding. In fact, the advances in speed and accuracy have come so far and so fast that they are no longer a selling point. Speed and accuracy are a given.

And we take all this for granted.

I was told not too long ago that, really, when it comes to speed and accuracy—the basic meat and potatoes of measurement—there isn’t much difference between competitors of similar products. Regardless of whether we’re talking portable 3D measurement equipment, or large coordinate measuring machines (CMMs), or even single-dimension tools like height gauges and linear variable differential transformers (LVDTs), it’s no longer just about speed and accuracy. The focus has instead shifted to connectivity and the user experience (UX) as differentiators.

Amazing patents

And yet... hardware engineers aren’t quite ready to turn everything over to the Mountain Dew-guzzling UX programmers. Engineers (who incidentally prefer coffee) still have a few tricks up their sleeves, and with apparently extra time on their hands, they have been submitting ideas to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office faster and more furiously than Vin Diesel... from the first movie, definitely not the second... or the fourth... or the 10th. I can hardly keep up with the patent submission notifications I get each week from the larger metrology companies.

And some of these ideas are really ingenious, even if they may not get turned into products. Companies try to cover all the bases and patent even those ideas that very likely will never make it to the first step of product development. Remember Amazon’s drone-launching dirigible warehouse patent? Like that.

Here are some of the ideas that caught my eye.

Imagine that you could mount any kind of portable 3D measurement device in a backpack. Your body is the platform, and your arms and head control the measurement. That’s kind of the idea behind a patent from Hexagon.

A person wears a backpack that has, say, two portable articulated measuring arms, one for each of your own arms. The backpack location is tracked by a stationary measurement device such as a laser tracker. This locates the backpack and its measurement equipment in global 3D space. The operator wearing the backpack could walk up to an object and start taking measurements with the measuring arms. The backpack system creates its own local 3D measurement cloud of the points being measured, which is then correlated with the location of the backpack as measured by the stationary laser tracker and, voilà, a system that can take precise measurements within a huge volume.

Instead of articulated measuring arms, the backpack could contain laser scanners, a structured light scanner, a photogrammetry system, and more. The beauty of this idea is the mobility. Currently, taking measurements at multiple locations to measure large volumes involves leapfrogging tripods, cables, and power sources from one location to the next.

It’s not inconceivable that this invention could carry multiple types of measurement systems at one time—although it might take Brian Shaw to carry it.

The next great idea is from Faro. This one uses drones as part of a structured-light scanning system. Structured light scanning is a method that uses a pattern projected onto a surface and multiple cameras to measure the deformation of the pattern as it wraps around features on the object being measured. The data can be used to calculate the 3D shape of the object.

In this case, a stationary projector or a projector mounted on a drone is used to project the pattern onto a large object, while another drone moves around that object capturing the 3D data. The drone is taking the place of putting a person on a lift who is trying to navigate around an object like a building, an aircraft, or antenna—the standard way of using such technology.

There are several benefits to this idea. Drones are more maneuverable than a lift and can be programmed to take the same measurement path time after time. One version of this invention uses a laser tracker to track the drone. Also, because the projector itself can be mounted on a drone, the ability to move around an entire object without having to move tripods and cables and so forth does open up some interesting measurement possibilities. Like the ability to measure objects on water or high above the ground where a lift or tripods would be impossible.

Both of these ideas are feasible because of advancements in computing and measurement speeds, as well as lighter-weight and less power-consuming components. All of this means measurements can be taken so fast that movement or vibration are no longer an issue, making a human measurement platform feasible, or enabling small drones to carry a measurement system to, until now, unheard of places.

But let’s come back to Earth a bit. Not all patents are on the edge of fantastical. Many are still about pushing the limits of measurement science, refining current measurement techniques, and, yes, improving the user experience.

During the past five years or so, we have seen more and more integration of smartphones into products, mostly as a way to enhance a machine operator’s experience. Like this patent from Mitutoyo that just makes so much sense.

If you have ever worked at (or watched) a manually operated portable or fixed CMM, you know that the operator typically has a laptop on a table near the machine that gives him his work instructions. His head constantly swivels between looking at the laptop screen and looking at where he is moving the probe. Not the best ergonomics.

In this patent, a smartphone is mounted at the end of the probe arm just above the probe and acts as both an input device (i.e., touchscreen) and display device. Without ever having to take his eyes off his work, the operator has access to guided work instructions and other relevant information right where he needs them… at his work.

The idea is simple and effective and really just involves paying attention to how operators use equipment—the user experience, and looking for ways to make their job easier and more efficient.

Hiding our light under ugly bushels

Every day new patents related to our field enter the patent system: guided measurement using 3D goggles, heads-up displays, smaller and more intuitive operator interfaces, and of course, faster and more accurate measurement technology. Whenever you see a new product at a trade show, it is the result of years of work built on ideas that at first seemed crazy, but then really smart men and women found a way to bring them to life.

But because they aren’t always packaged like an iPhone 7, we don’t look at industrial measurement equipment with the same amazement. It’s just a piece of (usually ugly) equipment... yawn. Ironically, we don’t want our equipment to look too slick, and so we miss out on just how slick it really is. I know a metrology company that had to uglify its product because buyers thought it was too pretty to do what it did. (To be honest, it was a pretty darn ugly box to begin with. So they had repackaged it to make it more aesthetically pleasing... now it’s ugly again. Buyers. Go figure.)

All of this leads us to miss the fact that amazing technological work is going on behind the scenes at metrology companies. Work that allows us to create mechanical products that are incredibly dimensionally accurate. Measurement equipment that can accurately and repeatably measure entire commercial aircraft to within a few millimeters, and its landing gear components to within a few microns. Equipment that has to measure correctly every time and work with the operator to make those measurements. This equipment is every bit as cutting edge and high-tech as anything Apple or Samsung turns out, in fact, more so. Your Android phone is not responsible for ensuring that your plane won’t crash on the way to the next Consumer Electronics Show.


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.