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From real world to video and back. Gexcel's 3D

3D city model
27.02.2015
Height, length and depth: these are the three dimensions forming the acronym 3D, an umbrella term for several innovative technologies sharing the aim of reproducing (through ad hoc imaging systems) or even recreating (through 3D printing techniques) physical reality at an increasing level of detail, overcoming the limitations of two-dimensional representation. For instance, we can today use devices for the laser scanning of solid surfaces and subsequently perform digital modelling of the data collected: this makes it possible to address successfully engineering and architectural problems both at the design stage and at the construction site, reducing execution errors and greatly improving workers' safety.

To better understand the potential offered by these technologies, we had a chat with Giorgio Vassena and Angelo Colombi, respectively CEO and Director of the Sardinian operations of Gexcel, a spin-off of Brescia University established since 2012 at the Technology Park of Sardinia, which develops cutting-edge geomatics solutions and services, with a focus on the processing of data collected by scanner lasers which measure accurately and rapidly the geometry of objects, buildings and spatial elements.

Gexcel has recently won an international award for the innovativeness of its 3D scanning system composed of the 4D Inspector application and the hardware solution Scan Armor. What is it all about?
The system, by using networked computers, makes it possible to control remotely a 3D measuring sensor, called FARO Focus3D (laser scanner), and an automated metal container. The 4D Inspector software sets measuring time automatically and makes it possible to compare the measures obtained in real time. Movements are visualised by a simple colour image which highlights rapidly and simply those sectors of the structure or object which are moving or undergoing deformation, sending an alarm signal when pre-set threshold values are exceeded. This technology has a range of possible applications, including among others: the monitoring and control of civil engineering structures or tunnels and the monitoring of the safety of structures and buildings damaged by earthquakes and catastrophic events. This application ensures the safety of workers in hazardous environments (for example inside churches or other buildings damaged by earthquakes) or in sites involving the risk of contamination, such as nuclear or industrial installations. A highly sophisticated software, integrated with industrial automation and telecommunication technologies, has generated a technologically complex solution, innovative but simple to use.

Where will the new system be manufactured and which markets are you aiming at?
The system, developed initially at our office in Brescia, is produced and developed at Gexcel's base in Sardinia, within the Technology Park at Pula. The target markets are mainly emerging countries, where fast-paced technological development spurs strong demand for advanced technologies to be implemented in the new manufacturing and safety processes. While we operate in the classic international markets, including of course Europe, the strongest demand for our products is currently coming from the Asia-Pacific region (especially the great markets of China, India and Japan), Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, it is precisely from the Asia-Pacific sector of US multinational company Faro that Gexcel obtained the much coveted Faro Award for 2014, as best technology using Faro's 3D measurement sensors. In particular, in Japan Gexcel has licensed use of its trademark to Sokki Gexcel Solutions (SGS) which markets Gexcel products on the Japanese market. Other markets where our products are making headway are South Africa (for applications in open-cast diamond mines) and South America, where 3D technologies are growing at a fast rate.

What are the hurdles in breaking into international markets and how did you work your way around them?
The first hurdle is achieving and maintaining excellence in our technology, which can be hard to do especially for Italian SMEs, bogged down as they are with red tape. In Europe, we often have to dispel the widely held misconception that everything Italian is scarcely reliable, including Italian products and businesses. In Asia, by contrast, being from Italy is seen as a plus. Another difficulty lies in the traditional approach of Italian companies, typically more focused on designing customised solutions than a standard product. Gexcel has decided to follow the German example, developing quality products to be sold on the global market, adopting an approach focused on product design and ongoing product improvement. Gexcel has signed software supply agreements with major international companies producing 3D laser scanner sensors, the main being US multinational Faro (with which Gexcel has also signed an agreement for the provision of training and support to the international network of sellers), Canadian Optech, Italian Stonex and German Zoller+Fröhlich.

So we may say that Gexcel is today a successful business reality with its "roots" in Sardinia, in the labs of the Region's Technology Park, and “branches” worldwide. Can you tell us something about the know-how you found at the Park, in particular your collaboration with CRS4's Visual Computing Group?
Gexcel operates successfully at a global level, with roots in Sardinia and both national and international partners. Specifically, CRS4's Visual Computing Lab (ViC), led by Enrico Gobbetti is Gexcel's main, most interesting and most productive technology partner. It was this collaboration which led to the transfer of Gexcel's registered office from Brescia to the labs at the Technology Park in Pula and the opening, a few days ago, of a second operational unit in the Elmas industrial park. Gexcel's creativity has combined with the high competence of CRS4's ViC team which, besides its recognised top-level scientific know-how in the field of Visual Computing, has a high and uncommon capacity to translate theoretical and scientific knowledge into workable, highly effective solutions for application to industry. In short, a shared passion for our work has generated great synergy between Gexcel and the ViC team in the field of 3D data processing and handling. CRS4 and Gexcel are currently engaged in a number of R&D projects, including several at European level, relying on funding from the Region of Sardinia and own funds, acting as a partner in a network of SMEs and research centres.

You are currently also working with CRS4 within the "Electronics" cluster of Sardegna Ricerche. What project are you working on?
We have been strongly committed to the "electronics" cluster set up by Sardegna Ricerche from the start. The need voiced by several enterprises in the cluster was to have at their disposal a development software platform, i.e. the technology base for developing software and systems able to measure automatically the "three dimensions" starting from photographs. Currently, several software systems for extracting 3D features are available globally, but cannot be implemented in tools and systems created by enterprises. By sharing their respective know-how and needs, cluster members have identified a set of common objectives, which has enabled them to optimise investment in R&D. The cluster is also a useful opportunity for sharing ideas and knowledge, a virtual network for developing the excellence of each enterprise in its technology sector.

What are in your opinion the growth prospects in the 3D scanning sector in Italy and globally?
The market for the management of 3D digital reality is growing exponentially both in Italy and globally. In particular, the approach to the design of buildings and structures is now shifting from 2D (floor plans and elevations) to 3D. This, in view of the subsequent IT management of the building through the BIM – Building Information Modelling – approach, requires 3D design and worksite management. The applications of 3D technology are well established in the medical sector and are steadily growing in industry and infrastructure. The drawback still hampering the uptake of 3D technology is the difficulty in using the systems. Gexcel is committed to making 3D technologies user-friendly and accessible. We are currently applying them in the worksite of the Italy pavilion at the Expo 2015 Universal Exposition. In the industrial field, Gexcel has created a system for detecting in real time the geometry of large pieces heated in the forge to 800 °C: the system consists of several 3D relief sensors operated remotely, through which the 3D shape of the red-hot piece is obtained, with ongoing, efficient quality control, removing the need for human presence in hazardous areas.

Useful links
Gexcel – official website
Gexcel Award

Andrea Duranti
Reporter