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Factory Layouts Modified More Quickly

New, inexpensive software stitches laser-scanned point clouds together using scanned objects as the registration targets.

How often do automotive suppliers change their factory floor layouts? “More often than you’d think,” answers Ed Martin, senior business development manager for Autodesk (autodesk.com). Small changes include minor kaizen projects, adding workstations to handle another model variance, or removing rack storage. Massive changes include plant consolidations and new-product expansions. In all of these factory projects, continues Martin, “you might have certain ‘monuments’—things like heat-treat ovens, stamping presses, and other equipment that doesn’t move very often—among the fabrication and assembly processes that are being reconfigured.” Even without these monuments, there’s often the problem of fit for the people and equipment. What’s more, factory layout documentation is often lacking (or missing).

To facilitate layout changes, Autodesk has developed ReCap Pro. It is a software program that helps solve these as-is and to-be factory design problems by capturing large 3D datasets of a factory layout from laser scans that can be subsequently edited and manipulated and presented as photorealistic 3D or panoramic images.

The mechanics of target-less stitching
Laser scanning has come down dramatically in price, portability, and efficiency. The scanners are compact, roughly the size of a breadbox. The computers running the scanners and storing the scanned data have also improved, now capable of quickly crunching and storing massive amounts of data, inexpensively priced, readily available, and, in the case of laptops, as portable as the scanners. Now, one last hurdle in digitizing laser scans of an entire factory is how to “register” multiple scans. Not too long ago, spherical or paper targets had to be located within line-of-sight of the scanner. Software would use these reference points to orient the scanner and the scanned objects. Note that an entire factory typically requires multiple line-of-sight scans. Software “stitched” these scans together to create a single panoramic or “3D” view. Proper stitching required matching identical targets in multiple, overlapping scans. This was not a problem as long as the targets existed. However, on the factory floor, stuff happens. Over the course of a scanning project, targets often got moved, people inadvertently removed them, targets fell off their mountings, or targets got hidden by movable inventory or machines.

ReCap Pro captures and manipulates point-cloud data from a laser scanner, and then displays the scanned datasets as near-photographic images. The user clicks on a couple of identical objects that appear in overlapping images and that haven’t moved during scanning. The software uses these objects as reference points to orient and stitch the point clouds together into a panoramic view of the entire dataset.

At this point, the scanned dataset is ready for other software programs. For example, it can be imported into the Autodesk Factory Design Suite, which allows users to go beyond 2D representations of the factory floor and work on the factory layout in a three-dimensional context. People can manage, clip, and identify objects and machines in the point cloud; copy, move, or delete them; work in layers; make objects and machines disappear from the virtualized view; create installation drawings and other types of documentation. By importing the dataset into Autodesk Navisworks and Inventor, people can perform as-built comparisons, and, say, interference checking and construction verifications when adding or removing equipment. 

The point-cloud data can also be tied to workflows, particularly those related to equipment status. In Microsoft Project, for example, people can combine the point-cloud dataset to a time line for when equipment is to be moved. “You can simulate sequences and actually visualize the changes when adding or removing equipment in the factory,” says Martin. Plus, because the scanners come with digital cameras, the resulting visualizations are in true color. (Colors can be changed as necessary.) “Trust me, if you’ve ever looked at a black-and-white point cloud, color is better,” comments Martin. It’s a lot easier, for example, to pick out gas lines, fire protection equipment, electrical drops, and other small, blandly colored items against the backdrop of a complex view of a factory.

ReCap Pro is hardware-independent, supporting text-based formats and formats from all major 3D laser scanner manufacturers. It is currently available as a free, fully-functional trial. While details about commercial availability had not been decided by the time of this writing, Autodesk plans to rent the software on a quarterly, monthly, and annual basis so customers can pay for what they use.