October 2, 2008 · Updated 2:12 PM
SNOQUALMIE - Think of it as the world's greatest ruler.
Encased in its nondescript black covering, the three-dimensional laser scanner made by Metron Systems Inc. of Snoqualmie doesn't look like it will revolutionize the manufacturing industry, but that's exactly what its creators hope will happen. With a single computer keystroke, companies such as Boeing can, within minutes, generate a detailed image of even the most complex part, accurate down to a thousandth of an inch.
"What we've done is we've developed a laser scanner that will enable manufacturers to speed up every part of the manufacturing process," said Metron Systems President Don Rich inside the company's offices on Snoqualmie Ridge.
The company is set to roll out its second-generation laser scanner this summer, called the "G2X." Slightly larger than a cigar box, the system uses a laser and a set of revolving mirrors to bombard an object with 5,000 points of light per second. The light bounces back to the scanner, which then uses the individual points to generate a three-dimensional portrait of the object. That picture, also known as a "point cloud," can then be compared to computer-assisted drawings to determine whether the object adheres to a manufacturer's design specifications.
The scanner was developed by Kyle Johnston, who holds a doctorate degree in engineering from the University of Washington and has an extensive background in optics. Metron Systems was created in 1997 in response to a request from the Boeing Co. to build a device that could accurately and swiftly measure a "wing stringer," an aluminum part 110 feet long. The aerospace giant contributed $2 million toward developing what would ultimately become Metron Systems' laser scanner.
Metron Systems employs 12 full-time workers and is part of The Inception Group, which oversees a stable of start-up companies on Snoqualmie Ridge, and was itself created out of The Clary Co. International. The Inception Group is led by Thomas Clary, who serves as chief executive of Metron Systems. The Inception Group's other ventures include MicroSound Systems Inc. and Advanced Cochlear Systems.
With the cash infusion from Boeing, Metron Systems built the first-generation laser scanner. But to measure the wing stringer, engineers created a donut-shaped device that housed eight scanners and moved along a platform. Under this setup, they were able to generate a computer model of the part in only a few minutes.
Previously, using rulers and calipers, it had taken Boeing employees more than nine hours to measure the wing stringer.
Because it uses light, the laser scanner can create a model of any free-form part, such as a turbine or a propeller.
"It's almost impossible to do that manually," said Les Mace, vice president of business development for The Clary Co. International, of scanning complex, free-form parts. And through Johnston's knowledge of optics, the laser scanner can image highly reflective, machined objects, as well as black objects, which have a tendency to absorb light.
Rich said while manufacturers' ability to develop ever-more-intricate parts has increased significantly over the years, they haven't been able to adequately measure their parts to see if they're generating an expensive piece of "scrap."
"One of the problems they have is they don't know if they're necessarily making [the part] better. The measurement systems haven't kept up," he said, adding that Boeing produces a titanium part that alone costs $2 million.
"They can't afford to lose one piece," he said.
Over the years, the manufacturers have witnessed the rise of coordinate measurement machines, or CMMs, which use probes to physically touch objects and then compare that information against computer drawings. But Rich said CMMs tend to need large amounts of space, and each CMM must be designed for a specific part.
They also require a lot of training to operate. Unlike CMMs, Metron Systems' laser scanner can be connected to a personal computer, and the software that comes with the scanner takes care of everything else.
With its G2X model, which is one-fourth the size and weight of the original scanner, Metron Systems engineered a portable device that can be used throughout the manufacturing process. One possibility is to install them on assembly lines so manufacturers will know as the part is made whether it's any good.
It can also be used earlier in the design process. If an engineer creates a part that works, they can simply use the laser scanner to image it, and then covert that image into a computer-assisted drawing.
"That can save a lot of time in the design process and reduce time to market, which is critical," Rich said. "A lot of times, the drawings will lag to the part."
The price tag for a G2X scanner is $55,000 for the scanner head alone, and $120,000 for the scanner attached to a platform that features a rotating stand. Rich said about 30 companies are working on scanners similar to Metron Systems', but the Snoqualmie company appears to be the first out the door with its product. And he added that for many manufacturers, it couldn't come at a better time.
"There's a tremendous market out there. There was a crying need for getting something out there," he said.
Metron Systems will begin selling its laser scanner this summer to a limited number of customers, giving Metron Systems time to ensure each system is tailored to meet the company's needs. In the future, Metron System has plans for a third-generation scanner, which would be about the size of a Palm Pilot.
The company debuted the laser scanner at a recent trade show in California, and Mace said the response was overwhelmingly positive. As visitors to the Metron Systems booth repeatedly put the laser scanner through its paces, the company discovered even more uses for it.
"We're hearing about new applications each day. At the show, people were coming up and asking, 'Have you thought about this?' and we hadn't," he said.