Direct Dimensions founder Michael Raphael with the FaroArm 3D scanner.
Anyone heading to the movies to see Russell Crowe shepherd the animals of earth into a massive wooden ark when “Noah” comes out tomorrow won’t see any trace of what made that computer-generated ark possible: the 3D scanning technology employed by Owings Mills-based Direct Dimensions.
The technologists at Direct Dimensions have taken thousands of three-dimensional scans since the company’s founding in 1995. But building a profitable business on 3D scanning? That vision, as one might expect, is the product of Direct Dimensions’ founder, president and chief engineer Michael Raphael.
“The world is being digitized,” he said during a February tour of his company. “A lot of companies in today’s world are relying on digital data, some of which needs to be or is used in a 3D, digital environment.”
Sometimes, that digital data needs to be created, and that’s where Direct Dimensions comes in — it’s the local company making 3D, digital pictures of anything it can get its scanners close to.
Raphael’s company has taken 3D scans of sections of airplanes, wind turbines and automobile parts. Scanning engineers have created digital versions of the bust of George Washington that sat inside the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, and they recently completed a 3D scan of the Washington National Cathedral.
As of seven years ago, Direct Dimensions began working with Hollywood, assisting movie studios with computer-generated imagery for films. “They’re adopting scanning as a means of taking the real world and putting it into the computer so the scenes look more real,” said Raphael.
His company has taken 3D scans of Ben Stiller, Russell Crowe, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, and it’s Direct Dimensions that’s responsible for the skateboard Stiller rides in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the Times Square Garfield flies through in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” coming out in May, and the ark into which Crowe herds animals in “Noah.”
“We still work in world that’s analog and physical,” Raphael said. “There’s a huge quantity of objects, spaces, things that are analog that aren’t in 3D, that aren’t digital. If we want to interact with them, we need them digitized.”
Computer-aided design technology has been in development for decades, but the personal computing boom of the 1990s made it widespread. Only recently — in the last five to 10 years — has 3D CAD been adopted increasingly by the architecture, construction and consumer-product industries. Those cases on iPhones? Up until the iPhone 5, when Apple first released the design guidelines for making protective cases, the dimensional data needed to design a case that would fit an iPhone could be obtained only via 3D scan, which would produce a digital, multi-dimensional picture for firms designing cases to work with.
Raphael happens to be one of the pioneers of the gradual shift to digital design that has been happening over the last 30 years.
After graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in engineering science in the mid-1980s, Raphael took a job with Martin Marietta (which merged with the Lockheed Corporation in 1995 and became Lockheed Martin) in Middle River outside of Baltimore city. His job, he said, was just to solve manufacturing problems, including those found in the Patriot missile and Titan launch-vehicle programs.
“Engineering problems were being improved by CAD,” said Raphael. “But you still have errors in your engineering. People are making parts and making errors — the tooling’s wrong, the engineering’s wrong. My job was to get to the bottom of all this.”
By the late 1980s, Raphael said, that shift to 3D design in industrial design and aerospace design was becoming more apparent. When he first started at Martin Marietta, drafting boards for making paper drawings were still around. Slowly they were being replaced by desktops with CAD software.
His breakthrough came during the course of his time designing parts for airplanes at Martin Marietta. This was done on the computer, and then parts were measured afterward. Raphael wondered why the company wasn’t doing this process in reverse: measuring the parts in 3D, and then manipulating that 3D image on a computer.
Watch an interview with Michael Raphael:
The sorts of 3D scanners Direct Dimensions has available today were nonexistent then, but Raphael did find a a company, FARO, that manufactured a portable digitizer — the mechanical arm in the photo at the top, the point of which had to be touched against whatever object was being digitized — for medical professionals. The device itself wasn’t accurate or fast enough to be used for industrial-scale projects, but Raphael and Martin Marietta worked with the company to produce the industrial-grade FaroArm. They received the first prototype in 1991.
Four years later, Raphael walked away from the security of his job at Martin Marietta to found his own 3D-scanning company right as the technology was taking off. He bought his own FaroArm, and for 10 years digitized a variety of objects by touching the point of the arm to every inch of object surface.
“Much later we stuck a laser on it so we didn’t have to touch anything,” Raphael said.
And in that decade, 3D-scanning technology has improved rapidly. In the late 1990s, it would take Direct Dimensions several weeks to take an accurate 3D scan of a statue bust and then convert the scan data into a usable digital file format. The same scan would’ve taken an hour, at most, today.
“Anything back then was outrageously expensive,” said Raphael. “Today, if you want to digitize the world, there’s lots and lots of tools.”
Check back on Technical.ly Baltimore next week to read how Direct Dimensions pioneered new technology to take accurate 3D scans of people.