Interviews

Bringing Reality into the Information Space

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FARO is known as a trusted source of high-precision 3D measurement, imaging and visualisation technology. In the surveying and mapping field, the company is particularly well known for its laser scanning solutions. GIM International’s Wim van Wegen recently met with Dr Bernd-Dietmar Becker, chief technology strategist and head of FARO Labs (the company’s research and innovation department) to discuss what we can expect from laser scanning and its role as key reality capturing technology in the years ahead.

You recently announced that you have divided your business into six vertical sales and product management business units. What is the strategy behind this?

We want to be closer to our customers and our industries, and we want to be more solution-oriented. This means we want to start with the customer problem, understand it completely and then deliver a solution that solves that customer problem. The end markets are described in the verticals, i.e. Factory Metrology, Product Design, Construction BIM-CIM, Public Safety Forensics and 3D Solutions. One good example is our market-leading laser scanner; it will work in all of these markets. However, the software often has to be specific, which is why we acquired two software companies in the Public Safety Forensic space: ARAS 360 and CAD Zone. We have now created specific software systems which use the same hardware (laser scanners) but deliver specific features and solutions relevant to the specific needs of a crime scene investigator or crash reconstructionist. We acquired another company, Kubit, which is focused on the construction space. Thanks to its diverse plug-ins to Autodesk products, we now have much better access to the Autodesk universe and customers like architects. So we derive the needs for the hardware products from the verticals and, if possible, we create one product – like the laser scanner – which is good for many verticals. We also create new products, like the handheld laser scanner, which will respond to a particular vertical’s specific needs, e.g. forensics or product design, based on our analysis of that vertical’s profile and potential market success.

In addition to the laser scanning itself, it’s also important to process, visualise and store the data. Which solutions do you offer for those aspects?

In terms of processing, we have a pretty audacious strategic goal of being in and out of a site 10 times faster than today, so instead of taking two weeks we want to take just one day. We’re moving in this direction stepwise. As a first step, how can our customer capture 3D data faster? We believe the indoor mobile mapping system is the right solution. There are already some solutions with handheld systems, but we think the quality is sub-standard and they are not that cheap either. So we are working on a faster capturing solution. Secondly, processing is becoming much faster. FARO Labs has developed the FARO Scan Localiser which constantly performs 2D mapping based on a SLAM algorithm during the scanning project. The Scan Localizer knows where the scan has been taken as well as the orientation. Then the laser scan data is ‘stitched together’ automatically as the scanner moves forward. You can immediately see if you’ve forgotten something, which happens often – a washroom or a storage room, for example. You can immediately check the map to make sure you really have every scan registered. With our automatic post-processing software you can still optimise the accuracy, but you’ll also immediately see the 2D map and all the scans which are registered in the box. We are working to simplify the software for specific industries such as architecture, construction or forensics with the new FARO Scene, task-oriented software. Many people don’t want the complexity of the whole platform, they just want to get results – and fast!

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In terms of data storage, way back in 2003 we did a huge project for BMW in Leipzig which involved 3,500 scans to capture the whole plant. We actually managed to send all that data via the internet to Slovakia to get it modelled into MicroStation. So, yes, data is a topic to some extent, but today as storage is becoming so much cheaper and the internet much faster it is less and less of a problem. Of course we’re also creating more data – we have now HDR colour and 165 megapixels colour per scan – but at some point of data density it is good enough and it will stop. Take Apple’s retina display; personally, as a human being, I don’t need more pixels on my display now, I don’t need four times retina. So the user’s need defines the limit. Therefore I don’t see that the data volume will continue rising forever. At the same time, the general bandwidth and the general need for high-volume data is increasing so the solution will overtake the problem. Lastly, we launched our WebShare Cloud system many years ago to bring the data to the cloud, as an Amazon web service. So you can store all the data in the cloud and then access it via the internet. We can now achieve much higher-quality visualisations in the cloud and ultimately everyone will work in the cloud only; there will be no local processing anymore. This means you have the full power and the parallel processing of the cloud, which also is inexpensive. Whether you run one computer for 10,000 seconds or 10,000 computers for one second, the cost is roughly the same. But if you can put things in parallel, which is possible here in many ways, you achieve much faster processing and the storage is pretty cheap too.

Many of your customers are in the construction sector, where building information systems are gaining in importance. Which opportunities does this open up for laser scanner vendors?

Many opportunities! As you know we bring reality into the information space, and the more IT systems someone has the better that is for us, since they need somebody who is delivering content. I relate the CAD system to the time of Rembrandt, when paintings were done by hand. But nowadays we have photo cameras, which means we can create realistic data very easily, quickly and reliably. The CAD system will only be used for new designs; people will scan what they have and model what they want to do in the future – the stuff that they don’t have. BIM alone won’t be enough; BIM needs a huge point-cloud entry point. And that’s actually gradually happening: we’re connecting to the Autodesk tools, via our team in Dresden for example. The automotive industry is also using MicroStation, which has a point cloud entry point. It is also embedded into Siemens NX – the Siemens simulation system Plant Simulation and Process Simulate. The scanned points are actually the most real and thus reliable data – they are the ‘photograph’, if you like. Any subsequent changes are deviations. Ideally, the BIM systems should be able to take in point clouds directly. That’s a great thing for the laser scanning industry, and especially for the service providers, since people who create content are needed. Everything is about productivity: about becoming much cheaper and faster, that’s the reality. Only the new designs need a Picasso or Rembrandt mindset!

What’s the geographical distribution of your global consumer base? In which application domains are FARO scanners mainly used at present and in which areas would you like to become more active in the near future?

Our distribution worldwide is roughly equal across EMEA, the Americas and Asia. Asia has been picking up really well. Regarding the application domains, architecture and construction – our BIM-CIM vertical – is our biggest laser scanning industry accounting for roughly 50%. Forensics is about 25% and growing very fast. The rest is product scanning: shipbuilding, car manufacturing, aerospace, etc. By using the best tools and combining them, we have opened up a new market – product design – which strategically is very interesting. It’s a cross-over between our traditional metrology side and our laser scanning side. This vertical covers all kinds of products: cars, ships, scooters, plastics, whatever. It’s kind of an overlap between the scan arm used in metrology systems – which is super-accurate but for smaller products – and the larger stuff you can cover with our laser scanners.

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