3D imaging means different things to different people. While 3D imaging has been around in some form for decades, technological advances have brought it to new applications, thanks in part to improvements in image sensors, standardization of interface technologies and increased demand for new solutions for more complex imaging needs.
3D imaging is popping up in applications over a very wide spectrum, and use of the technology is growing rapidly. Here are a few instances where 3D imaging is emerging as a solution for the future and some applications where it is already having an exciting impact.
3D printing is a “wow” technology that is quickly going mainstream, with applications for rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing, and even medical uses such as 3D printed organs and prosthetics. Although users have not yet scratched the surface of possible 3D printing applications, 3D imaging may well play a part in expanding the use of 3D printing, by facilitating the measurement and inspection of 3D printed objects.
3D printers are able to use melted plastic to mold objects. Some 3D printers have the ability to melt and mold metal using a laser, enabling the printer to create metallic parts. 3D inspection enters in if the user is interested in examining the 3D printed object and comparing it to the CAD model to assess whether the 3D printed object is accurate, or, if there are inaccuracies, to gauge the size of those defects and assess how they might impact functionality. Such an assessment requires hundreds of precise measurements, a task that is essentially impossible to do by eye. Assessing an object with 3D imaging techniques saves time and promises a very high degree of accuracy.
The 3D printing industry keeps expanding, and is working with different types of melted plastics, hardened UV polymers, laser-etched or laser-generated metallic 3D models. As entrepreneurs look to 3D printing to produce usable products or components, they will likely need 3D imaging for measurement and quality control.
Time of Flight Applications
Another instance where 3D imaging is having an effect is by facilitating “time of flight” applications. Time of flight applications measure the time it takes for light to travel to an object and back again. Special sensors measure the distance that the light must travel. Time of flight techniques are often used in automotive applications, like pre-crash detection systems. As cars become more automated and consumers demand more sophisticated safety systems, 3D imaging in time of flight techniques will be vital to the success of such applications.
Sheet of Light Applications
Sheet of light, a traditional laser profiling technique, is one of the most used 3D imaging techniques in electronics manufacturing right now. In this technique, a laser is projected with a camera and that produces a profile of a moving object. As the object moves, the camera continues to capture multiple profiles. The object is reconstructed based on a series of images, each having a profile.
This technique is nothing new; it’s been around for 20 years. But, what is new and exciting is that advances in 3D imaging, reductions in the cost of lasers and high speed cameras, and the introduction of better sensors have expanded the availability and ease of use of this technology many times over. Additionally, 3D imaging is now using multiple sensors to cover occlusions, or blind spots in an inspection area.
Further driving the growth of sheet of light techniques is the push to establish standards that would enable cameras and software from different manufacturers to work together. These standards would enable the point cloud information, the points of the actual profile, to be standardized in format.
This standardization will enable companies that produce cameras and companies that produce software for 3D to deliver products that work together, which will open up competition, bring more products to market giving users more choice and options to consider. This will especially improve ease-of-use to solve problems with 3D imaging technology.
3D X-ray Imaging
3D X-ray imaging is already a very hot technology in the medical field, revolutionizing mammography and other kinds of medical imaging. However, electronics inspection is also seeing growth of 3D X-ray techniques, due to the rapid increase in electronics complexity, and the decrease in the size of objects.
As the electronics industry produces stronger, more powerful, more compact products, the technology inside those products is increasingly difficult to inspect with traditional machine vision technologies. Some manufacturers are using 3D X-ray imaging to inspect solder in small electronics that may be covered by other fixed components. There is no way to view the condition of the solder without taking the object apart, which would be counter-productive. 3D X-ray enables inspection of covered solder points. Confirming the integrity of the solder points is essential to reducing the odds of catastrophic failure of the electronics. 3D X-ray imaging is becoming an indispensable inspection tool for those electronics manufacturers that need to ensure the integrity of their products. Traditionally this inspection was performed offline, but now is being used online as well.
One of the fast moving, potentially transformative applications for 3D imaging has to do with robotics and automation. While a lot of what we’ve discussed so far has to do with using 3D imaging for inspection applications, 3D technology is also being used for position recognition—finding an object in a 3D space. This is going to be a game-changer in the advance of automation.
Until now, using robots for manufacturing required that components that need to be picked up and moved by a robot must be in a fixed spot. Moveable parts would need to be clamped down in a certain way or the manufacturing process would need to be adjusted so that the robot always picked up a part in the same way. Today, manufacturers are harnessing the power of 3D imaging to enable robots with the skill of “bin-picking”— locating small objects that are not fragile, and taking them out of a pile, one at a time. 3D imaging allows the robot to “see” like a human would. This “vision” enables robots to do tasks that were previously too difficult. Applications like bin-picking are becoming easier to do because of advances in 3D imaging, the camera technology, sensors, and the standardization of the software. All of this is bringing us closer to the possibility of delivering robots that can do nearly any manufacturing task that a human can, and probably a few that humans cannot.
The Future of 3D Imaging
3D imaging is already here and being used in many applications. It is changing the way some inspection applications are performed and opening up new possibilities for position recognition and automation. 3D imaging isn’t going to replace everything—there is still a role for 2D imaging. However, 3D imaging will certainly add a dimension and make certain tasks much easier to execute.
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