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When it comes to aircraft, helicopters are about as cool as they come. Images of blades slicing through the air and thunderous chopper engines announce a search and rescue mission, natural resource surveillance, military dispatch, fire protection, or medical transportation. You see a chopper, and you know something important is going down.
But what is good can be made even better, thanks to companies like Tech Strake, who specialize in aircraft customization in Japan. CEO Masakazu Hikichi highlighted the importance of their work:
“Our main focus is aircraft customization,” he said. “This is important because it is for a valuable public service: customization of rescue helicopters, police helicopters, and terrain scanning by the Geographical Survey Institute.”
The task in this case: to equip a helicopter with a downward and diagonally facing camera for capturing aerial views of the area beneath it, for use in rescue missions and environmental surveillance, among other applications.
The helicopter waiting to be scanned. (Image by Tech Strake)
Adding a camera to a helicopter may seem like a simple assignment, but when anchored firmly in place to its undercarriage, and to assure effective use, a high level of detail and customization is necessary.
“Different industries need this kind of mount for photo work, and a lot of the time, a mount may not be easily available,” Hikichi explained. “For safe installation and to reduce the risk of dangerous flight or something falling off, these large mounts have to be custom-built.”
Here’s where Artec 3D scanners come into play.
For Hikichi, who has been using 3D scanning for more than a decade – eight years as an employee and for five years as the CEO of his own company, with frequent use of Artec Eva – the idea of using 3D scanning immediately came to mind.
“When this project came up, as a long-time user of this technology, I already knew about how well and accurate a 3D model I could get out of 3D scanning,” he said.
Teaming up with Artec Ambassador in Japan DataDesign Co., Ltd., a 3D scanning plan was formulated. Headquartered in Nagoya, home to many major automakers, the company sees a largely automotive-centric customer base, including Tech Strake.
Because of the focus on highly specific parts as well as larger surface areas, a combination of Artec Eva and Artec Space Spider was prescribed – Eva for capturing the entire aircraft, and Space Spider for zooming in to capture smaller details.
No mission is impossible when you’ve got the right scanner. (Image by Tech Strake)
“Eva is very light and easy to carry around,” Hikichi said. “It gets into tight spaces and still has a wide field of view and distance, while Space Spider can get into small crevices, and into parts with very small spaces, while still producing a highly accurate scan.”
The flagship scanner of Artec 3D, Artec Eva holds rank as the company’s most popular scanner with its light weight, ease of use, and versatility. The structured-light 3D scanner is suited for quick and accurate scans of medium-sized objects, ranging from car engines, to a human body, to furniture.
For Tech Strake’s field of work, where specialization is key and accuracy essential, 3D scanning has become vital for streamlined processing, such as for the manufacturing of one-off items like mounts, racks, or rigs for helicopters. And in this case, a customized camera mount.
“3D scanning is essential for creating customized objects,” Hikichi said.
“The biggest benefit is the accuracy we can get for measurements of complicated surfaces, like the very small parts that you’d have to get precise measurements around in order to make a precise fit.”
Scan data had to be combined for a full 3D model. (Image by Tech Strake)
This, he said, is very difficult to do without 3D scanning, and results in a lot of wasted time in manufacturing parts that don’t fit right, and then a lot of reworking is necessary.
“If you’re able to get a very precise measurement from a 3D scanner for these sorts of complicated surfaces, especially for an aircraft with very tight tolerances, it saves that much time, and that much more work.”
First designed for use on the International Space Station, the Space Spider is known for its ability to capture mechanical parts and complex geometries in high resolution, with submillimeter accuracy and vivid color. Sharp edges and thin ribs are no match for the Space Spider, which captures objects with intricate details such as keys, coins, and tiny machine parts in the best possible quality.
The camera mount successfully reverse modeled. (Image by Tech Strake)
The entire scanning process took no more than 10 hours – this included the setup required for scanning the inside and outside of the aircraft. After this massive task, scan processing began in Artec Studio: alignment, global registration, erasing unwanted geometry, noise processing, and sharp fusion.
Once the scanning and initial processing were complete, the data needed to be worked on further.
“We synthesized each data set, converted it to CAD data with Geomagic Design X, then used SOLIDWORKS to design the special gear,” he elaborated.
In SOLIDWORKS, the camera mount was designed and modeled around the 3D model that was imported in order to reverse model the part, keeping every surface and corner of the helicopter in mind. After that, the model of the newly designed camera mount was converted to machining data.
During the machining process, cutting tools remove material from a block of raw material – in this case aluminum – following a computerized path guided by the 3D model to form the object. With this combination of 3D scanning and reverse modeling, the team was able to get the best possible fit.
Being able to scan surfaces both large and small, both scanners have significantly improved the process for the Tech Strake team. “Before buying our Artec scanners, we would carry out manual measurements using calipers and molding using plaster,” Hikichi explained. “Especially when plaster was used, there was a limit to its capabilities and could not be molded cleanly due to dripping, and the efficiency of manual measurement was poor.”
“The Eva and Space Spider 3D scanners have not only massively reduced repetitive work, they have also greatly improved accuracy of data acquisition,” said Hikichi. “In addition, the scanners are highly portable and can be used to scan anywhere, including narrow spaces that were previously difficult to measure, achieving great performance.”
Every angle of the aircraft – both inside and out – had to be scanned. (Image by Tech Strake)
With Eva’s portability, size, and light weight, combined with Space Spider’s especially keen eye for fine detail, the process has improved, and work time has been significantly slashed.
“Compared to conventional construction methods, accuracy has been improved from the millimeter to the sub-millimeter level,” Hikichi said, “Therefore, we can greatly reduce rework as much as possible, and as a result, the total man-hours have been greatly reduced.”
Previously, he added, it would take several months to complete and produce a specific part for an aircraft. Now, everything is ready in two weeks. This doesn’t just save time; it saves cost, too.
The machined part ready for installation. (Image by Tech Strake)
Once the manufacturing of the part is complete, it needs to pass two tests: Satisfaction of the client, and safety checks from the aviation authorities.
“There are tight restrictions and tight conditions that have to be met for any equipment certified for use on aircraft,” Hikichi said. With Eva and Space Spider in use, it was clear skies all the way. “There were no complaints from either the end user or the government,” he said. “It passed inspection on the first attempt, and everything was as expected!”
And the Tech Strake team isn’t stopping here – they’ve got their sights set on more scanning opportunities, with plans to use Artec 3D’s new HD Mode and more scanners in the future.
”There are newer models coming out all the time, and the process of making them for new and different types of aircraft is ongoing,” said Hikichi. “In the future, we would like to integrate and utilize Ray, Eva, and Space Spider data.”
Now, the team is keen to see how far their clients go with the technology they are able to provide. Jeff Boyd of DataDesign said, “We are very happy to be able to contribute to the work of Tech Strake. Custom-made products and customizations are tailored to fit the actual product, so analog work tends to increase in these cases.”
“By digitizing via 3D scanning, maintenance and further customization become possible in the future. It can be used not only to improve the customer’s business but also to expand their service.”
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