The clouds are gathering

16 March 2010

Three hot topics discussed in this column over the past few months have recently become a little bit hotter. The forecast is ‘cloudy everywhere’ as Martyn Day searches for an embarrassingly weak metaphor to glue everything together

I am not about to blow my own trumpet but it’s certainly going to sound like I’m puckering up and searching the attic for a trumpet shaped case. The last two months have seen some really excellent US-based technology conferences featuring amazing ‘cloud-based’ demonstrations reinforcing new capabilities I have been musing about on this back page the last few issues.

Point Cloud

I recently travelled to Houston to attend SPAR 2010, the only conference dedicated to the point cloud and laser scanning industry ( CAD developers like Autodesk and Bentley are set to deliver enhanced capabilities for importing and using accurate laser scanned raster data into their 3D CAD systems. This technology will make the capture and use of real-world environments or objects much more useful and offers an alternative to starting from a few sketches.

The main stage presentations graphically explained the benefits of point cloud data. Dr. Paul Debevec, associate director for graphics research, USC Institute for Creative Technologies talked about how his research on turning multiple photographs into 3D models had led to him working on the films The Matrix and Avatar, as well as choosing to virtually rebuild the Parthenon, including the Elgin marbles which reside, somewhat controversially, in London’s British Museum.

Combining the latest laser scanning technology, some homemade equipment and his research, Debevec is capable of capturing and displaying incredibly lifelike images that easily fool the eye. From scanning the Parthenon in five days, to capturing actors’ faces in different lighting conditions, using innovative techniques, the real world can merge seamlessly with CAD designs. Debevec’s work can be seen at and of course at cinema’s everywhere!

Looking more at engineering uses of laser scanning, Rajeev Kalamdani, virtual manufacturing supervisor at Ford Motor Company gave us a fascinating insight as to how the global motor company was using cloud point data with 3D CAD to enhance its virtual manufacturing, particularly with regards to Powertrain design and assembly.

Ford is to colour laser scan its manufacturing plants to simulate and assess the impact of new product and process introductions

Kalamdani has pioneered the use of laser scanning at Ford’s assembly plants around the world, as part of its digital factory drive. Here, all 30 facilities are to be colour laser scanned and merged with assembly cell CAD geometry to simulate and assess the impact (and clashes) of new product and process introductions. According to Kalamdani, “3D visualisation provides more accurate inputs early on in the decision making process, thus driving more predictable results during launch”. From experience, the company has discovered that CAD models, although precise in nature may not be an accurate representation of ‘as built’. Merging point clouds and CAD geometry, Kalamdani also succinctly explained the hierarchy of cost in creating digital models, in order of least expensive to most expensive. Ford holds data in points, meshes, tesselated and CAD formats. The only reason Kalamdani would produce geometry in CAD is if it were to be fabricated due to the high expense in creating virtual prototypes, with point cloud being the base capture option.

CAD on the Cloud

SolidWorks World (SWW) contained a mind-blowing keynote segment showcasing its future cloud-based design system. The SolidWorks bloggers and our very own Al Dean were suitably impressed with the browser-based demonstration. The month before SWW I talked to SolidWorks CEO, Jeff Ray who gave me the heads up that they were going to be demonstrating considerable chunks of their cloud-based research. The driving factor to unveil some of its cards so long before a product will be available was because Ray is seriously concerned that moving to cloud-based applications will provide the opportunity for a new developer to make in-roads into its market share. The aftermath of the event left many scratching their heads wondering what all this will mean for how they access and use modelling tools in the future, what the system requirements will be and what benefits this cloud approach will offer over traditional workstation-based design. SolidWorks’ recent exposé on this will mean most vendors in the space will become more vocal on Internet-delivered modelling systems.

Augmented reality

The TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design - in California is one of the year’s highlights for inspirational technology presentations. Many of the ideas and innovations demonstrated at TED will advance computing for years to come. This year Blaise Aguera y Arcas of Microsoft gave one of the most jaw-droppingly amazing presentations of its Bing mapping and augmented reality research ( It starts off with you thinking, “OK this is just a copy of Google Maps” but by the end you will be wondering whatever is next! What wasn’t demonstrated here, but was talked about at SPAR, was how Microsoft’s technology can find all images of a particular building on the web and reverse engineer a photorealistic 3D model from the multitude of pictures at varying angles that are online. At this point open photographic resources like Flickr become an amazing resource.

All this goes to show that when you’re looking for new technology trends, the future is never that far away these days. It took 20 years for Star Trek’s personal communicator to finally become a reality with the mobile phone. Today, if someone has a good idea, we can be down to weeks and months before delivery, as all these fascinating technologies converge.

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