This article discusses reverse engineering software is slowly changing the way design engineers do their everyday jobs. With the pervasiveness of computer-aided design packages, reverse engineering technology has become a practical tool to create a 3D virtual model of an existing physical part. This model is then available to be used in 3D CAD, computer-aided manufacturing, or other computer-aided engineering applications. The reverse engineering process needs hardware and software that work together. The hardware is used to measure an object, and the software reconstructs it as a 3D model. The physical object can be measured using 3D scanning technologies such as a coordinate measuring machine, laser scanner, structured light digitizer, or computed tomography. The wider accessibility of handheld-laser scanners and portable CMMs like the one used at Excel Foundry means more companies can afford reverse engineering for their own unique ends. The scanner has turned out to be equally useful for engineering and for local archeological and preservation projects; and so far, it has been used to help preserve endangered artifacts.
When fmite element analysis software- once the purview of experts with advanced degrees-made the jump from mainframe to desktop computer about 20 years ago, it opened up the world of analysis to design engineers and radically changed the way they worked.
Now reverse engineering software is slowly changing the way design engineers do their everyday jobs. With the pervasiveness of computer-aided design packages, reverse engineering technology has become a practical tool to create a 3-D virtual model of an existing physical part. That model is then available to be used in 3-D CAD, computer-aided manufacturing, or other computer- aided engineering applications.
As reverse engineering hardware and software become more accessible and more affordable, more engineering companies-especially the little guys-are incorporating the technology into their business practices. The tools can speed development and cut production costs.
One reason for the growing accessibility: reverse engineering software can be tightly integrated with the computer-aided design programs engineers use every day, so designers need not learn the ins and outs of different software systems. They can access most features via their CAD programs, said Braxton Carter, chief technology officer at ReverseEngineering.com, a software developer in La Jolla, Calif.
At the same time, the costs of scanners and other hardware used to input measurements have been dropping, and the hardware is becoming smaller and easier to use, according to the hardware makers.
The trend is a boon for design engineers who seek to make reverse engineering a part of their operations.
The reverse engineering process needs hardware and software that work together. The hardware is used to measure an object, and the software reconstructs it as a 3-D model. The physical object can be measured using 3-D scanriing technologies like a coordinate measuring machine, laser scanner, structured light digitizer, or computed tomography.
ReverseEngineering.com, for example, develops software that imports raw digitized data from portable CMMs, laser trackers, and laser scanners into CAD and CAM systems. The company’s Web site talks specifically about compatibility with products from companies like Faro International and Hexagon Metrology. The software was released about two years ago and is now called upon by engineers at the U.S. Department of Defense and at industrial manufa cturing companies, Carter said.
"When reverse engineering and CAD are integrated, the obvious benefit is that you don’t need to be trained on several systems," he said.
One of his company’s products is integrated with the SolidWorks CAD package, for example.
"So when you start up CAD it looks like you’re only using SolidWorks," Carter said . "There’s no starting up of an additional product because it’s embedded in CAD. When the CAD menu comes up, there’s a button that starts up the capability to do laser scanning with your hardware of choice."
Other companies that make reverse engineering software that works with CAD and CAM systems include Geomagic Inc. of R esearch Triangle Park, N.C.; InnovMetric Software Inc. of Quebec, and Rapidform Inc. of Seoul.
Unlike the Old One
Manufacturers are fmding new uses for these CAD-integrated reverse engineering software tools.
One is a manufac turer that makes pumps featuring complex impellers, Carter said.
"There they’ll have a pattern maker make the impeller," he said. "And the pattern maker is pretty darn good; but at the end of the day, let’s say the original pump was pumping 20,000 cubic fe et per minute. But now, a year later, the pump company sees its pumps are only getting 19,000 cubic feet per minute. They have to figure out what happened to that extra thousand cubic feet il). performance."
The pump maker scans the year-old impeller into the CAD system. Once those measurements are captured, . engineers can compare the measurements taken from the actual impeller against the original, as- designed part. This helps determine exactly how and where the part has degraded.
With that information in hand, engineers can redesign the impeller to avoid future loss in pumping capability, Carter said.
Or take Excel Foundry & Machine of Pekin, Ill., which makes replacement parts for nearly every type of mining and rock-crushing machine. When the company sought to expand about three years ago, executives there faced a dilemma, said Chris De Witt, senior design engineer.
Engineers could continue with an already proven manual process for measuring the parts they wanted to recreate. They had been measuring replacement parts in the field with calipers and other manual instruments, and inputting the information into design systems. Or they could purchase a portable coordinate measuring machine for easier measurement, DeWitt said.
"We needed to venture off into more complex parts and systems, and in doing so, it’s rather difficult to get all the dimensions you need with the old hand tools," DeWitt said.
Trouble was, the engineers knew the coordinate measuring machine alone wouldn’t be enough. DeWitt and his colleagues knew the CMM hardware needed software that could deliver measurement data into the company’s CAD system.
The company installed desktop reverse engineering software from Reverseengineering.com and purchased a CMM, a Romer from Hexagon Metrology Inc. in Wixom, Mich.
The new CMM does indeed allow the company to create more complex replacement parts than in years past, Dewitt said.
"Basically now anything goes," he said. "It opened up another world of opportunities. When somebody from sales comes to us asking if we can handle a large complex project, t.he first thing we’ll say is, ’Let’s get someone on a plane and measure it up.’ "
Excel Foundry engineers estimate that without the hardware and software package measuring parts and creating replacements would take about four times longer than it does now, DeWitt said.
The wider accessibility of handheld laser scanners and portable CMMs like the one used at Excel Foundry means more companies can afford reverse engineering for their own unique ends, DeWitt added.
Handheld scanners can now digitize 3-D surfaces in real time and read that information into CAD systems. The tools further speed the reverse engineering process.
Take the product design firm Protosys of Porto, Portugal. the company specializes in marine design. In a bid to move into new markets, it recently invested in a 3-D laser scanner. What it didJ;l’t count on, however, was the attention from the archeology community, which asked Protosys if its scanner could lend a hand with archeology projects, said Alexandre Pinto Basto, a Protosys product engineer.
The company’s new handheld Zscanner 700 can digitize 3-D surfaces in real time. Because it can be connected to a lap top computer via a FireWire cable-and because many CAD packages can be run on small computersthe scanner works well in the field and can ,be used to scan large objects.
Conventional scanners require multiple setups with fixed-position tripods, mechanical arms, or external positioning devices that must be aimed and re-aimed directly at target surfaces, Basto said.
The new handheld scanner-from Z Corp. of Burlington, Mass.—makes it easy for Protosys engineers to capture data from large, complex surfaces like recreational boat hulls to create digital models that helped solve customer’s assembly problems, Basto said.
When boat manufacturers introduce new models, they often reuse hull designs and spend the bulk of their product development efforts on the deck, cabin, and furnishings, he said. Since their molds are based on handcrafted hull patterns, hulls are rife with minor imperfections. Minor imperfections add up, however, and can create headaches when a boat is assembled. When it’s time to glue the hull to the deck, for example, the parts too often don’t fit together.
Protosys is helping boat manufacturers solve the problem by laser-scanning the hulls and incorporating the data, flaws and all.
The design firm imports the scan data as a digital model into its 3-D CAD software, which is PowerShape from Delcam of Birmingham, England. Designers and engineers can tweak the CAD model of the deck to ensure that the hull and deck fit together, Basto said.
His company is also using the scanner on new hull designs, he added. When a boat maker seeks to make a bigger craft, often the new hull design is simply a larger version of a previous hull. Protosys can scan the smaller hull, import the 3-D digital data and enlarge a design without starting prototypes or mold patterns from scratch. Engineers are simply scaling up the design, Basto said.
"Traditionally it takes a year to develop a new hull and cover with two people working full time on the design," he said. "Now it takes less than four months."
Scanned and Preserved
The scanner has turned out to be equally useful for engineering and for local archeological and preservation projects. So far, it’s been used to help preserve endangered artifacts, Basto said.
For example, an archeology team discovered hundreds of engravings in the central Portugal valley of Ch as D’egua-Piodao. Made by Bronze Age humans, the engravings had eroded to the point where they were almost lost, said Paulo Ramalho, an archeologist.
The archeological team attempted to capture the signs and symbols of the engravings by shining bright lights on translucent film on top of the stones and painstakingly pencil-tracing what detail was revealed. Despite everyone’s best efforts, much of the detail was inaccurate and the original was feared lost forever, said Ramalho, who was part of the team.
In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the project, the archeological team contacted Protosys, Basto said. He scanned the engravings and was able to capture in minute and accurate detail the surface impressions the archeologists couldn’t get.
"It was astonishing what the scanner turned up," Ramalho said. "Its accuracy far exceeds that of the human hand, eye, or brain, so it captured signs, symbols, pictures, num" bers, and letters we were missing.
"As a result, we obtained far more information than we could have developed ourselves and deepened our understanding of these ancient peoples’ lives, their territory, their movement, their habits, and their religious practices," he said.
Of course, a pump maker’s desires are perhaps simpler: to improve or maintain pump performance. But it is becoming more practical for manufacturers of all sizes to join archeologists in reaping the benefits of reverse engineering.