Late last year, in a steel and concrete building adjacent to the railroad tracks in Zeeland, a handful of enthusiastic engineers foraged their office for anything that might have interesting data hidden inside.
The computed tomography (CT or CAT) technology they were using for the first time has been commonplace for decades in hospitals around the globe, where it is applied to produce cross-sectional images of the body, but it’s also something the manufacturing industry has been “begging for,” Jeff Mass, founder and CEO of Diverse Dimensions Inc., told MiBiz.
“Early on, we put everything in,” he said, recalling that initial test subjects of the company’s now six-month-old CT scanner included dozens of plastic parts, a leaf and even one unfortunate spider. Through the CT scan, the spider that measured “smaller than a thumbnail” became a file format native to computer-aided design (CAD) software, which showed a stunning amount of detail — even the hair on its legs. From there, it was 3-D printed into an impossibly large version of itself and displayed as an inspirational trophy of new possibilities.
“We could never do that with any other piece of equipment,” Mass said. “This is a whole new niche for us and nobody’s offering it here.”
Diverse Dimensions has invested upward of “half a million bucks” in the technology, according to Mass, hoping it will serve the needs of regional manufacturers by saving them time and money. Uses for industrial CT scanning include analysis of thickness and porosity, part-to-part or part-to-CAD variations, and failure. Compared to the conventional practice of destructive testing — that is, destroying an object or part to determine its defects — industrial CT scanning is groundbreaking, sources said.
“That saves a lot of cash for a company when they’re making little expensive parts,” Mark Ebels, general manager at Diverse Dimensions, told MiBiz. “For instance, in mirrors or any electronic thing where there are a lot of internal electrical connections, you can just quickly take an X-ray of it and see everything is connected.”
Outside of the industrial CT scanner, there is only one other way to look into a small part that has been sealed, and that’s with a hammer, Ebels said.
According to Delaware-based Market Study Report LLC, industrial CT scanning is expected to expand at a 6.3-percent compound annual growth rate after 2018 and reach $450 million by 2025 as the technology gains in popularity for nondestructive testing, or NDT.
“An increasing number of industries are discovering that X-ray CT scanning is a vital tool to ensure the highest product quality,” according to the report. “The ability to inspect internal features on a part with various complexities without the need to disassemble the part is one of the biggest contributing factors to why industrial CT scanning’s use is increasing among part manufacturers.”
The root cause
Mass started his career in the automotive and furniture industries with a background in manufacturing and quality engineering, finding an appetite for using data to solve product build and scrap issues. The Faro Arm, a portable tool from Florida-based Faro Technologies that uses lasers to measure 3-D objects, worked intuitively for Mass, who invested in one of his own and started taking on second-shift and weekend measuring jobs on the side.
“I try to see what’s big in the technology, or what’s big in root cause or solving people’s issues, and I buy the equipment to make that happen,” he said.
In 2004, after he had burned through his vacation time with odd jobs, Mass opened Diverse Dimensions full-time. The company grew quickly, he said, until the recession, when he was forced to use his home equity and savings to make payroll for his two employees.
“But shortly after that, everything started to come back,” Mass said. Now, Diverse Dimensions has nine employees, 16 Faro Arms, six laser scanners, and one industrial CT scanner for hire.
Before last year, Diverse Dimensions had some limited experience with sending parts to industrial CT scanners offsite, but the practice proved essentially inaccessible due to cost.
“We’d send (parts) across the state and it was crazy expensive,” he said. “But all they did was CAT scans. My whole model is to have … revenues from those (Faro) arms help lower my cost demands to see if I can get more volume.”
During their testing period, the team at Diverse Dimensions discovered that a few materials are too dense for the CT to poke through, according to Mass. Heavy metals like lead, bronze and gold will come back with data solely about the surface area.
However, when the scan works, it spits out data that impress even the most seasoned engineer.
“We thought we had really good resolution with your typical laser scanners, which are top-of-the-line out there in the world,” Ebels said. “Now, we’re looking at this stuff astounded. You’re looking at serial numbers punched into stuff that you can hardly even see with your naked eye. It’s perfect.”
The machine and corresponding software use a turntable to take multiple readings from various angles and convert them into grayscale images based on the objects’ densities. Another software creates a data-heavy, color-coded comparison map. CT scanning can access internal data equally on solid and fibrous materials or smooth and irregularly surfaced objects, according to Ebels.
“It works especially well if the part has a lot of internal little passageways and it’s for a manifold or some of those valves or fluids,” he said. “If you want to make sure that things are intact and where they’re supposed to be, with the CT scanner or the X-ray, you can get inside there and peek at it.”
Paul DeWys, owner of Coopersville-based Forerunner 3D Printing LLC and DeWys Engineering LLC, told MiBiz that CT scanning is transforming the business of reverse engineering.
“We have customers who will send us injection-molded parts and a lot of times they will be old, old injection molds and the CAD has been lost or there were a bunch of hand changes that were done that no one documented,” he said. “The reason we use CT is that you get incredible detail and incredible interiors.”
DeWys, who initially used the CT at Diverse Dimensions to scan and 3-D print a family heirloom, previously had to ship parts for his customers to Detroit or Wisconsin for scanning, which was “ridiculous,” he said. DeWys said he is relieved that Diverse Dimensions has filled a pressing need by bringing industrial CT scanning into the region — and being open to all of its possibilities.
“They’re taking a big risk in that CT machine, which is great, because someone had to do it,” he said.