Does it ever feel to you like there’s a disconnect between the reality in engineering and what’s most capturing the most buzz in the industry? Based on what you hear, you might think that engineering has gone to a completely digital process where nothing is prototyped until the last second in the design phase. But anyone that’d going engineering work today knows the reality. Sure, digital means can be used to verify and validate a design, engineering projects are littered with reverse engineering and physical prototype tweaks and modifications.

Getting those physical items back into the digital world is important to close the loop. Scanning and reverse engineering has been around for a while but hasn’t necessarily filled the gap. Recent talk however points to a next generation of those tools however. So to get one perspective on what’s changed, I talked with Tom Charron, the COO of Rapidform, to understand what has changed. Below you’ll find my take on the background of the company and the software, the capabilities provided and of course some of my commentary on just how useful it is.


INUS Technology Inc., which was founded in 1998, is the developer and distributor of Rapidform software. On January 27, 2011, INUS Technology Inc. announced their partner program with 3D scanner hardware partners (press release).

Capabilities Provided

So what exactly does Rapidform do? Essentially, it can take scanned data of a physical object and turn it into a parametric CAD model, a surface-based CAD model or a mesh that could be used for simulation. Here’s essentially how it works.

  • Scan to Parametric CAD Model: This procedure seems relatively simple. Once you bring a set of scan data into Rapidform, you can use automated design tools to create a CAD solid model. Once complete, you can transfer the model into a format for Solidworks, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER (now Creo), NX and AutoCAD. It’s not snap-your-fingers quick, but it is faster than you’d think. It is similar to some of the tools CAD providers have offered to automate the creation of a 3D model from 2D sketches but based on 3D scan data. The key part here is that you ultimately end up with a parametric CAD model, not just a dumb solid.
  • Scan to Neutral Surface Format: This is the procedure you might remember from the past. Once you have the scan data, you can start fitting surfaces through it in an automated or interactive manner. In the end, you have a surfaced model you can save off as IGES, STEP or in other familiar formats. While the first procedure above is most interesting, there are some interesting implications for this procedure also based on changes in the CAD industry of late.
  • Scan to Mesh: For those of you that do use polygon-based software, such as 3D printing or mesh-based simulation tools, there is this option too. Rapidform offers some automated tools to quickly get to a polygon-base model. You can save it off as STL, OBJ or similar formats.

Those are the options. Now, what exactly do these capabilities mean for an engineering organization? Let’s talk about it.

Analysis and Commentary

Before we dive into the implications of this next generation of reverse engineering software for the engineering organization, we should talk a little bit about the way it worked in the past.

The Past is Prologue

When this type of software first came out, let’s be honest, it wasn’t necessarily the most useful solution. You would scan a physical object, generating points clouds that would be extremely large in terms of size. You could then weave surfaces through those point clouds, painstakingly tweaking the accuracy of the fit. And when you were done, there was no features, parameters or intelligence behind the geometry. It was just an explicitly defined model you would have to tweak manually. Engineering organizations that were frequently working with physical models were the ones to put in enough time and effort to find value in it. But in my experience, this type of software never was widely adopted. Coming out of that generation of this type of software, everyone knew the shortcomings. It was slow, both in terms of generating the model and in terms of hardware responsiveness. And it didn’t generate intelligent models.

Two Procedures with New Value…

Fast forward to present day, and companies like Rapidform have tried to directly address the shortcomings of the previous generation. They’ve taken what has been painstaking manual steps and automated them with smarter technology. They have also streamlined the path to a more intelligent model as seen in the scan to parametric model procedure as shown above. Those advances in themselves definitely provide value.

But that’s not all there is to the story. Some years ago, an explicit model without features, parameters or intelligence behind the geometry was a real problem. Today, with the advent and wider adoption of Direct Modeling approaches, unintelligent models don’t pose nearly the issue that they once were. Direct Modeling capabilities can be used to manipulate and tweak models generated by the scan to neutral surface format procedure as described.

… But Temper Your Expectations

While both of these procedures are definitely more valuable now than they have been in the past, the software isn’t a magical cure. Is using these two procedures faster than modeling a physical part from a clean sheet? I would say definitely yes. In the scan to parametric CAD model procedure, you at least have a reference in the scan points that you can use to check accuracy against the physical part. And in the case of the scan to neutral format procedure, you don’t even have to take time to create features at all, which is definitely a shortcut. But in either case, a user will need to sit down and generate a model, albeit faster than starting from scratch on a blank screen.

Conclusions and Questions

Rapidform Software, developed and delivered by INUS Technology Inc., is a reverse engineering technology that allows you to build a parametric CAD model, a neutral surface formatted model or a mesh from 3D scan data. Smarter technology is used to automate the procedures to generate these models as well as make them more intelligent. But additionally, advances in the form of Direct Modeling also make the scan to neutral surface format models more valuable than ever before. However, this technology isn’t a snap-your-fingers magical cure. The models still have to be built.

So that’s my take on Rapidform and the advancements in reverse engineering software. What are your thoughts? Should we revisit our expectations for this type of technology? Sound off and let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.