To scan the world: the story behind Direct Dimensions

09/25/2023| Anna Mishonova

To scan the world: the story behind Direct Dimensions

09/25/2023 | Anna Mishonova

Located on Dolfield Road in Owings Mills, Direct Dimensions  is a company like nothing you have seen before. And even within its own field of 3D scanning, the organization is very unique, according to its CEO and founder, Michael Raphael.

Michael started his path in 3D metrology at the very dawn of the emerging innovation, in 1985, as an engineer at what became Lockheed Martin. While working there, he was tasked with solving aerospace manufacturing problems and helped develop the FaroArm , “a revolutionary portable three-dimensional industrial measurement technology” that is still used worldwide. This 3D scanning machine became a starting point for Michael’s career trajectory. After 10 years at Lockheed Martin, he founded Direct Dimensions, to use FaroArm to scan various objects and locations as well as selling the device to third party customers.

Today, the company operates with a wide variety of 3D scanning tools to provide scanning services to customers, which falls under four major categories: industrial scanning, architecture, museum/art, and cinema. To each of them, 3D scanning is an essential tool.

For engineers, scans can provide a very detailed 3D model of complex components with captured texture, material, and size both for design improvements and for quality control (comparing the scan with dimensional requirements). What’s more, Direct Dimensions helps “reverse engineer” old parts: if the part is too old to have been designed in the computer, or the schematics for it are missing, a 3D scan can aid in creating a new CAD “blueprint”. For architects, capturing a building in 3D eases design work for renovation and can help find structural issues. Museum and art conservators can get detailed scans for historical preservation and analysis, as well as replication. For modern cinema, 3D metrology is a must-have—any CGI application requires a scan of the film sets, props, and actors to apply the effects in the computer.

Direct Dimensions has worked with the largest studios in Hollywood to scan major locations and A-list actors. They have provided services for over 75 major films, including “Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Men in Black 3,” among others. The process for “Endgame” took the company two and a half years: for a year, they worked in Atlanta to scan sets during filming, then continued its work back in Baltimore for another year and a half. Michael’s personal favorite film project is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a 2013 adventure comedy-drama starring Ben Stiller.

Outside of the film industry, Direct Dimensions frequently works with the Smithsonian museums, providing scans for historical preservation and analysis. From Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, to dinosaur bones, to the museum buildings themselves, the company digitizes everything. One of its biggest art projects was scanning the Liberty Bell for artist Jeff Koons  at fingerprint resolution; it took eight years to then make a perfect copy of the artifact using the 3D scans.

Direct Dimensions doesn’t stop at inanimate objects – it has worked directly with Johns Hopkins Hospital to scan and 3D print life-like facial prosthetics.

“If a person loses an ear, we can scan their other one, mirror it, and print a copy,” said Michael. “The process has become pretty straightforward, so we taught the doctors how to do it and provided them with 3D scanners and now they are able to help patients on their own. This way, the technology becomes more accessible and widespread.”

In short, Direct Dimensions covers a stunning variety of fields. With 30 employees (25 in Maryland and 5 across the U.S.), it provides services worldwide – from India to Iceland. Michael believes that this multidisciplinary approach is the company’s most unique and strongest virtue.

“Even if one industry is slow, we can always lean into the others,” he said. And with the emergence of metaworlds and virtual tours, the necessity of 3D scans only keeps growing.

Understandably, Michael is a big fan of digitizing everything, not only for the sake of virtual reality, but also preservation. “When the floods hit Ellicott City, my team and I went there to scan the damage and provide our services for free. Of course, scanning the town before the disaster would be better,” he said. With climate change hitting more and more habitats, 3D scanning can provide valuable information and help preserve the knowledge of today’s world for the future.

The company cares about what’s to come not only with its work, but also with its community. It currently has three interns from various fields (architecture, video games, and engineering) and hosts regular visits for student and school groups. The most recent visitors were Volunteer Medical Engineers, who learned about scanning for people with various disabilities. Providing people with a 3D model of their surroundings can help them orient themselves or their wheelchairs around their living spaces.

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