The US Air Force Wants Your 3D Scanner Ideas

One key piece of technology from Star Trek is the replicator, a machine that 3D prints up almost anything using some hazily-defined high technology. You have to wonder though, how did the patterns for Earl Grey tea or a spare part for a shuttlecraft intercooler come to exist in the first place. Maybe someone designed them, or perhaps they scanned the real articles. The US Air Force is betting on the latter, and they’ve asked for white papers and proposals for innovative methods to scan objects for 3D printing.

It isn’t surprising military planners would like to have effective 3D printing. After all, you can’t carry every spare part you might need into a theater of operation. Not to mention spares for your friends in joint operations or for enemy gear you might happen to capture. Having a truck that could turn out whatever your troops need is an attractive proposition.

We’re curious though, a printer you are likely to haul out to a forward operating base will probably print using filament, and while that is great, we all know there are limitations to parts you create with these machines.

Still, maybe they envision giant industrial metal or ceramic printers that would airdrop parts anywhere in the world in a day or two. The objectives are ambitious:

  • Demonstrate a cutting edge automated 3-D scanning system capable of quickly and accurately scanning complex Additive Manufacturing candidate parts to produce 3-D models. The solution should address any anticipated hardware and software tools necessary to scan parts with complex geometry, various surface color and reflectivity, and provide a means to address part geometry that cannot typically be scanned; e.g. blind holes and internal/hidden geometry.
  • The innovative solution sought will be able to process scan data quickly and efficiently and require minimal human interaction during the scanning, modeling and data processing. The proposed solution should address its ability to fully operate and be able to be updated while not connected to an internet source. Additionally, it should be sized to accept, manipulate and process parts of at least 500mm in diameter, height of 1000mm
    and weight of at least 50 kilograms

So automated, high-resolution scanning for very large and heavy parts. You can deduce a little about the printer they imagine, after all, 50 kilos of PLA is probably bigger than the specified build volume.

If you want to get in on the action, you had better hurry. White papers are due soon. We don’t see much 3D printing for jet fighters, but we do see a lot for RC aircraft. Some of them are quite advanced.

41 thoughts on “The US Air Force Wants Your 3D Scanner Ideas

    1. My biggest take is the US military are metric, through and through. NASA and now military. Come on guys, liberate the shackles and pound the pound into the ground!
      [Not trolling, as a Brit in my 50s I never got on with imperial]

      1. “[Not trolling, as a Brit in my 50s I never got on with imperial]”

        And thereby representing the hardcore Brexit imperialist who have never understud that the world are developing (and yes the earth rotates around the sun, not the opposite!), and still imagines that Queen Victoria rules.

        Poor Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

          1. English are pretty much euro-mongrels when it comes down to it, Celtic, Brythonic, Gallic, Norse, Roman (Plus mercenary troops and vassal state volunteers from all the frig over the known ancient world) Saxon and Anglic only 30 generations away (or so).

  1. Seems like what they are asking for is a portable CT scanner. I had a CT scan about 15 years ago and even then the device seemed pretty minimal and like it could be made back-of-truck portable pretty easily. I don’t know if a CT scanner can penetrate the kind of material that they would need to scan tho.

    1. A much much much larger “Neutristor” than the ones that were developed 8 years ago would be useful (in disposable cartridges) and then use neutron radiography to complement X-ray radiography and create combined Neutron tomography with X-ray tomography. Then how dense the material is, does not matter as much.

      Search for “phoenixwi neutron-image-gallery” in your search engine of choice, there is a fantastic image of a 1920’s rotary phone taken with a 170 kV X-ray beam, 440 kV X-ray beam and an N-ray.

      But the scan times may take a while, and you would not want to be in the same location while the scanner is powered on.

  2. From what I understand of Star Trek, replicator is same as teleporter technology. The chefs produces food and drink and have the system beam it up then recorded the data down to every atom. Those data are generally “low resolution”, just basic atom position and not finer detail since food has no soul or anything.

    24th century technology improved to where you could almost create any original object. Example you wanted a glass vase in green with engraving of a dragon. Computer could select existing vase similar to user’s description, color it green by altering a few atoms, and alter the surface to display dragon

    Today? We could only do surface scan in 3D, and system like cat scanner is not detailed enough to record every single atom at every specific spot.

    1. Star Trek never addresses any possible issue with any lack of continuity of self in the transporter.

      So I would imagine there’s something more than just super high resolution happening there, or the characters would probably have some concerns about stepping into machine that destroys and reconstructs you.

      Any machine that could be used to make a perfect clone rather than transport someone, would probably scare people, unless there’s some future philosophy that makes people absolutely sure a perfect reconstruction is actually them.

      1. Technically they did (at least the cloning part), in an episode of TNG called “Second Chances”. This is the episode where a perfect clone of Will Riker is created in a transporter accident. The clone takes the pair’s middle name of Thomas and goes his merry way.

      2. “Star Trek never addresses any possible issue with any lack of continuity of self in the transporter.”

        Besides the Riker incident that someone else already mentioned I thought that was a concern that some characters had in the begining of Enterprise as transporters were relatively new then. I thought it was implied that this was a somewhat controversial thing for the time.

        Eventually plot emergencies forced them to do anyway it after which they basically said “F’ it” and from then on convenience won out without ever really answering the question.

        Which I think is brilliant because that’s probably about how it would go in the real world if anyone introduced the technology. Well.. with a bit louder protest and some protests and/or riots back on Earth anyway.

      3. Err. Have you watched some Star Trek? I mean, they DO go over this stuff. First of all, that is the very reason McCoy don’t like them. Spock does explain in one ep where they discuss this that individuality is a meaningless concept when all you’d need is a slight modification to a transporter in order to create perfect replicas of yourself. It’s pointed out once in DS9 and once again in Voyager that the only reason there is a sense of individuality is because of design decisions of the transporter system. As in, they’ve specifically chosen to prevent it. In part by using a memory buffer that is self destructive, exactly so that there is no lingering copy of you in the memory that could be rematerialized, as one example.

        So yes, a transporter can make clones. DO make clones at times. And it DOES scare a lot of people as pointed out repeatedly in DS9. Or did you think it wasn’t deliberate that almost all ships with civilians docked and the people going through an airlock rather than use transporters? Cisco even specifically brings up that they wouldn’t have such long queues to dock if people would get over their fear, obviously referring to the transporters.

  3. As Wes Chatam said in “The Expanse, (Season 5,) ~”No…” ~5000 patents a year are sidelined under the auspices of Nat’l Security. Stuff that would help us keep the US Gov’t honest as well as others. They are not having any that nonsense. Nor I, theirs’. My very über patriotism has decidedly waned. What to think of a country that steals land, violates treaties, and TAKES the name American from Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Inuits, (if not more?) ~”Only We, and the elite of us, matter.” The BEST CASE FOR OPEN SOURCE IMAGINABLE. Others have put it, (meaning something entirely different than what was said but a code to finding,) and exposing truth,) “Trash the planet.”
    OPEN SOURCE YOUR REPLIES…! IF you feel others at a disadvantage, courts have set the precedence for, Reverse Discrimination. Use it or lose it.

  4. Who are you talking to? Government leaders? Business owners? The general public?

    I don’t personally care what units things are measured in so long as they are accurate and consistent. But as an American I find it incredibly frustrating that every design I can find on the internet uses standard metric sized fasteners but goods in the local hardware stores are all primarily US measurements. (which does differ from Imperial in a few ways such as liquid measures).

    But it’s not like a store is a democracy. We don’t just keep voting back in the “freedom units” every 2 or 4 years. Metric has NEVER been a checkable item on any ballot I have filled out.

    I mean sure, most stores have an area with a much smaller selection of metric items. Usually they come in little baggies with one or two pieces at a price that would normally get you ten or more times as many in local units. Some people think you can vote with your wallet. But as I see it buying that crap is just showing the hardware store that you are willing to pay big bucks for fewer parts! Why would buying what they offer encourage change?

    So if you want to build a new 3d printer, CNC machine or other large project off of online plans and you don’t want to break your budget just on the screws and nuts you order from China. And wait. And wait some more. Six months later they probably arrive. Meanwhile the plans have become obsolete or your interests have moved elsewhere….

    Then you open up HaD and some metric warrior joker is asking when all you Americans are going to finally switch to metric!

    But you know what? I think most of the nuts and bolts in our cars are metric now. I don’t know about other items but honestly most things are glued together now anyway and so curvy and rounded that length and width are whatever you want them to be based on where you take the measurement. Maybe our hardware stores are just offloading all the old warehouse crap and will switch to metric when it’s gone.

    1. hah! I’m super fortunate to live near a great hardware store with a decent selection of metric nuts and bolts. Though one time I went to the checkout and said, roughly, “I hope you trust me to add up the price, I got $12.38” and the guy held up the bag, probably 10 grams of metal, and said, “really?? $12.38??” and i said “yeah they’re metric 3mm screws” and he said “oh yeah of course.”

      But just from a hack perspective, since I mostly print from scad, it is usually pretty convenient for me to substitute english fasteners. I have a few objects sitting around that were engineered for M3 and M8 but wound up using #4/40 and 5/16″ instead. I mean, so long as I don’t have to thread into an existing nut/receiver.

      So yeah I totally agree it’s obnoxious but it’s not so bad to make do.

  5. I kind of doubt that scanning is the best way to produce a replacement part.

    First, fixing incomplete scans is hard and no scan I’ve ever seen came out perfect not needing that. So I doubt many jobs will be less work to scan than to just design a part from scratch in a CAD package.

    Second, scans would capture all the real-world imperfections and details. I’m not sure exactly how to best word this but anyone who has ever converted an image of a simple geometric object from a photograph to a vector image probably knows what I mean. You get way more lines and angles defined than are necessary to accurately define the object. And they are talking about doing this in 3 dimensions instead of 2!

    I think they might be better off just setting up some computer desks in a warehouse and forming a CAD team who is tasked with making creating CAD files of EVERYTHING beforehand. Bring in a Jeep, a plane, a gun, whatever. Take it apart, catalog and make a CAD file of each piece, reassemble and move on to the next item.

    1. “I think they might be better off just setting up some computer desks in a warehouse and forming a CAD team who is tasked with making creating CAD files of EVERYTHING beforehand. ”

      Or get the original designs from the supplier.

    2. Siemens has some neat ways to embed the scan data in the CAD and still get Nurbs out in the newer version of Solidedge. The scan becomes the template. The scan will save you time if done right.

  6. I don’t know why the hacker community is ok with being cooped with the war department. Seeing a hackathon put on by the air force during defcon ensured I will never attend that conference again. Making a 3D scanner sounds innocent but remember the end result is always turning random humans into dust from 30 miles. Do not allow these people to take your brain power and apply it to evil. The hacker community is about freedom and equality not fueling the forever wars. I have never and will never participate in a hacker group who buddies up to war criminals so I guess this is it for me as a 10 year hack a day reader. Good riddance.

      1. I’m sorry you had to go through that, the fact that a single person can decide the fate of a young generation is inexcusable. I was in the army but never in danger, the people I met there were some of the most professional, intelligent and compassionate people I’ve known. Imagine if we could take those people, their technical expertise, ingenuity, logistics and passion and turn it to improving the world. It’s not a pipe dream, there are examples like the USAF special tactics squadron setting up an airport in Haiti out of a card table, binoculars and lots of coffee and cigarettes. Or the incredible hospital ship Mercy, Image a fleet of those. Turn our, best in world, EOD teams to the mine fields of Cambodia. We could deradicalize the world and keep the best parts of our DoD without firing a single shot. I have no idea how to get there but It’s certainly better than what we are doing now.

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