Off-Grid Van Build Uses 3D Scanning For Smarter Planning

Folks who refurbish and rebuild vans into off-grid campers (especially with the ability to work in them remotely) put a fantastic amount of planning and work into their projects. [Rob] meticulously documented his finished van conversion and while he does a ton of clever work, we especially liked how he shows modern tools like photogrammetry can improve the process.

Photogrammetry helped turn a bunch of photos from different angles into a textured 3D model with accurate dimensions.

[Rob] used a camera and photogrammetry software to 3D scan the van inside and out. The resulting model means that CAD tools can better assist with the layout and design phase. This is an immense help, because as [Rob] points out, an empty van is anything but a hollow box on wheels. Every surface is curved, none of the sides are identical, and there frankly isn’t a right angle to be found anywhere. When every little scrap of space counts, it’s important to have an accurate reference.

Of course, mapping the work are was just the beginning. It took six months, but he turned a Volkswagen Crafter cargo van into a slick off-grid camper capable of remote work. The full series of videos is on his site, but you can also watch the video highlights, embedded below.

The photogrammetry was done with Meshroom, and if you’d like to know more, we’ve previously explained different 3D scanning methods and how they can help with design work like this.

44 thoughts on “Off-Grid Van Build Uses 3D Scanning For Smarter Planning

  1. I wonder what are the bonuses he could not explain on the video (last comment of the video). I suspect it is some hidden compartments.

    The build is a bit on the heavy side with all this wood. And I hope for him he won´t attempt to cross to often borders, customs might frenetically tear his nice build apart, in some places…

    1. “The build is a bit on the heavy side with all this wood”
      Yes, but he appears to be using real wood and plywood, a significant weight savings over termite barf.

  2. Actually yes, they are pretty hard when you take into consideration how complex a van interior is.
    It’s even mentioned in the article:

    “This is an immense help, because as [Rob] points out, an empty van is anything but a hollow box on wheels. Every surface is curved, none of the sides are identical, and there frankly isn’t a right angle to be found anywhere.”

    1. The inside is complex but also extremely limited in other ways.

      If you need insulation because the outside is, well, very hot or very cold, how do you actually do that in a vehicle when the inside is already very tiny? 1/2″ of fiberglass isn’t exactly going to do much of anything if it is -40 degrees outside.

      1. Not only that, but when you insulate a van you have the vapor barrier on the wrong side of the insulation. Especially bad if you use any kind of organic insulation. Wonder how many of the “vanlife” builds that ends up as a moldy water damaged mess after its first winter.

      2. It’s pretty obvious you have no idea what you are talking about. For one, nobody building a van uses fibreglass. There are much better materials (albeit more expensive) that do a better job insulating. Secondly, you fill between (and inside) the ribs of the unibody, so you get a lot more than 1/2″, closer to 2″. My van maintains a nice 70F even when it is -40F outside.

        1. Nobody should be insulating with fiberglass. It’s cheap and that’s about it. There are better alternatives but very few vans are insulated with custom geometry aerogel due to the price.

          Yes, there are better insulators. Fiberglass is about as cheap as you can do and yes, it does cost more to insulate better. But you are limited size wise since you cannot really do 6″ or 12″ of insulation on both sides of the inside of the vehicle. 1.5″ of almost any insulation is still going to be a poor quality insulator. Better than nothing? Sure. But what R-Value or U-Value are we actually talking about here?

          There is a reason building codes (in most countries that have them anyway) require more and more insulation the more northern or southern you are building a property. None of them would be ok with something around an R-6 and neither would anyone inside of the vehicle for that matter. The outside of most vehicles is also metal and sits outside, exposed to the sun or not, depending on the time of day.

          Yes, there are diminishing returns on the value you get for the insulation R-Value or U-value. But you cannot get that much out of a van to begin with due to physical limits is my main point.

          If you are managing to maintain 70°F despite it being -40°F out, which obviously can be done, you are wasting a huge amount of energy to do so if it is that cold out and the vehicle is poorly insulated.

          Point here is that it is a trade off, even more so with van’s like these where the entire project is a tradeoff. You can spend more money upfront on a better “quality” insulation or you can always spend more money on paying for energy needed to maintain a habitable temperature in the vehicle over time. Pick one.

  3. This would be a good way to design and 3-D print some molds for superlight custom-fit carbon-fiber parts. I wonder if the camera-based photogrammetry is as good as the real 3D scanners the pros use for this.

    1. With an idealized setup, expensive cameras, lots of angles etc….photogrammetry can hit 1 part in 30,000 on a 3m object, point positions would be accurate to 0.1mm at 68% probability. Few photogrammers hit this sort of accuracy, but its technically possible with hard work and LOTS of data.

      A $600 revopoint mini captures at 0.02mm and outputs a cloud with 0.05mm point distance out of the box.

      A $24k artec will run laps around a revopoint, but the mini is pushing pretty close in terms of eventual result.

  4. This is inspiring!

    Having done something similar to a small-ish sailboat, the interior construction process is a bit like building a concert piano inside a drainage culvert – everything is curved and there’s not much room. The video would be better if it showed at least one thing that went wrong (unless he’s that good at it all) just to keep people who are trying to do it from being discouraged. Also – a battery hold-down strap or two. Please.

  5. Tape measure?! Pah! You young whippersnappers have it too easy these days. Back in my time we measured in cubits and we liked it. If it was good enough for the pyramids, it’s good enough for you!
    A 3d scanner is like a billion tape measures at once.

        1. My 1st grade teacher asked me to name something Spanish.

          I said ‘Spanish fly’. I knew it was funny, because laugh track.

          In HS health I was disciplined for adding a sound effect to the birth film. Boorummm! Teacher even knew where the sound came from.

          Bill has a lot to answer for, but I’d still pay for tickets!

  6. Using a miracle of high technology to create a digital model of a vehicle.. so you can modify it to live inside because rent is too high in the hive cities. And to stay off the grid. Gibson smiles upon us

  7. warning:living in vans/busses,and just generaly bieng on the
    road is habit forming,at a certain point owning a house
    is just another place to camp,changing the view is monumental but doable,carving notches through the forest
    bit by bit to get a view of the bay,its a trip

    1. Once while working night shift, I played with the thought of buying a used conversion van. So, if I was too tired coming off work, I could catch a few ZZZ 💤 in the parking lot. Winter time could be tough though.

    1. If you wanted the full treatment, find an old (early 1980s) Toyota minivan. I saw at least one in the bay area at that time painted like a shuttlecraft, including the registration number (NCC 1701/7 etc) .

      1. I knew kid that nerdy in HS.

        He also installed an air dam made of floor mats and spoiler made of a literal pair of cafeteria trays. They folded at about 15mph. Might have been dangerous, if it wasn’t so slow.

    1. Nah, you’ve heard of overloading keywords in computer languages, and all the confusion that causes. It is better to keep comments thoughts singular. It is easier to reply to that aspect of the comment than to have to specify which part you are replying to.

      Besides, the more comments an article generates, the happier the advertisers.

        1. As long as they have or do one or more of the following, I am OK with multiple comments:
          * Relevance
          * Make me laugh
          * Inform me
          * Make me think

          IMHO, This commenter does this far more often than not.

  8. This guy has some mad skills. Cabinet-making, sewing, electrical, and other stuff.

    As an engineer and licensed pilot and other things, I have noted at times, my arrogance. This video was nice and tasty humble pie for those of us that think a little too much of ourselves.

  9. The fabrication shown in the video is pretty impressive. That’s a lot of skills to have for such a custom-everything job.

    Van life seems lonely. I guess that’s why the bed is really only for 1 person.

  10. I used my David-3D structured light scanner to get a good idea of the volume in my van when i built my bed/bench. As everything is curved it would be a nightmare to work without it as I could never be shour all the parts are able to move as intented.

    Articels like this remind me of documenting more of what I do.
    “Do good things and talk about it.”

  11. i want to know more precise shapes sometimes, especially if i’m gonna use a technology like 3d printing. but for the relatively traditional fabrication techniques here, it’s overkill. like for the cabinets, you just decide the height and depth and that tells you the upper corner of it, and then from there you build to the wall. knowing the precise shape ahead of time doesn’t tell you anything. while you are working, you do need to know where the wall is, and luckily, the wall is there, telling you.

    not saying it isn’t fun. not saying i don’t envy the ability to have more detailed measurements than you need when you start the project.

    really, the reason the excess stands out to me is that i’ve known some people (ahem) who put more effort into unnecessary planning stages than into the build itself. so my “criticism” really should stand to highlight and applaud the follow-through :)

    1. ‘Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with axe.’

      Old German slander about American machinists.

      I bet those same machinists are _ashamed_ of the garbage money pits Benz makes today. They should be.
      I blame the fact that 40% of German cars now go to China, where they are simply status symbols that are preferred to stop working at 6 years old (or sooner).

  12. Design for manufacture (DFM) issues are easy to make. Scale or accessibility isn’t always obvious when working on a part in CAD. Just ask a machinist how often they’re asked to produce impossible features.

  13. If I’m not wrong, there is a DIY van builing site on the Internetz that has internal drawings/scans of most common vans for their paying patreons, and are selling drawings of a lot of things you might need in a camper.

    I want to build one, but I will use the Cardboard Aided Design method, and measure the complex curves with spaghetti, a rubberband and a cuttingboard…

    I have personal needs and prefernces that I haven’t seen any other van build implement, so I will be stealing ideas from many vanbuilds to my own, and make it fit me.

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