Virtual Templating: Getting The Point(s)?

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   It’s an old-timer’s joke, but with bite: With that CNC machine that set you back a few hundred grand and then some, where’s the slot to shove in the template?
  Fabricators dreaming of vastly improved production with an automated production center quickly find those trusty custom patterns can produce a new type of logjam in the shop. A piece of wood needs to be transformed into a digital pattern of points and lines; or, in simpler terms, the template is created all over again into an electronic file.
   Computer consultants call this the analog/digital interface. Fabricators call it an expensive mess, and look for new ways of getting data for their CNC machines without essentially doing the templating twice.
   In the past few years, several companies began offering solutions involving digital photography, on-site digitizers and other data-input devices. A sampling of fabricators shows that the new ways of taking a measure work – but it’s not always a push-button process.
  
DOWN TO DATA
   Templates may be the backbone of custom stone work, but the 1:1-scale patterns – whether made of cardboard, plastic, luan or other types of wood – can be the bane of CNC production. The challenge is getting the exact measurements of the template into a form a machine can use.
   Some shops use a digitizing tablet to enter a series of lines, arcs and points that electronically mimics the template. However, even some of the larger tablet areas are often smaller than the actual template, so it’s not a matter of just tracing an outline; instead, it’s a process of piecing together different sections or attempting to enter scaled-down measurements, which is time-consuming and increases the chances of error.
   It’s also possible to use the CNC itself as a digitizer and trace the template with the tool head, or enter measurements directly into the machine. Both options are painstakingly slow and work against the whole idea of speeding up the shop with automated production.
   Instead, there’s a growing idea to go virtual, and replace the physical template altogether. Creating a pattern with digital photography -- a process pioneered by ETemplate Systems of Raleigh, N.C., and followed by INcounters of Abilene, Texas – involves the use of a series of targets placed on area to be measured, along a reference to a set measurement. A user takes a series of digital photos from different angles; the photos are analyzed by software to relate similar points between the photos, and the result is a 1:1-scale digital pattern in a DXF file type that’s compatible with CAD software and CNC machines.
   The digital-photo process is constantly being refined. ETemplate, for example, recently came out with refinements such as  “coded” targets to automatically relate those similar points and speed up the computer analysis.
   Another way to create the virtual template is with a mobile digitizer, as spearheaded by BVH Gregg Inc. of Missouri City, Texas. The digitizing entry device, at the end of a reticulating arm, marks the corners and other points on-site, with the data fed into a connected laptop computer. A CAD or other type of point-processing program, creating a file compatible with a CNC machine, can then use those points.
   And, there’s also the super digitizer, offered by Outline Technologies Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., which doesn’t replace the standard template at all. Instead, the standard pattern is brought back to the shop (or, to a mobile version offered by Outline), where a user digitally traces the template and creates a file for use by a CAD program or a CNC.
   The super digitizer doesn’t replace the template; instead, it creates a middle ground for shops that still want the comfort of a made-to-order pattern. And, as it turns out, even the users of the most-sophisticated electronic-measuring programs are still making templates ... but in a form that’s different from the old tack-and-glue format.
  
PICTURE THIS
   Photo templating may be the most-radical move away from standard work, with the digital camera signifying a clean break from the old tools of hammers and glue guns. It also begs the simplest question: Does it work?
   For several fabricators, the photo method is all but picture-perfect. It fits into the workflow of their shops – although not without some effort at the start.
   For Keith Kargol at Rock Tops in Macomb Township, Mich., the attraction of an ETemplate system was simple. After dealing with various types of templating, he figured there should be a better way.
   “We’d gone through the plastic phase, and the plywood phase, and the luan phase,” he says. “Transporting these in vehicles really became too cumbersome. We were looking for a better solution.”
   John Murray of Counter Intelligence Inc. in Silver Springs, Md., an INcounters user, found more of a problem than just trucking in the patterns. His company’s eight measurers bring in 20-30 templates a day – and, even with running four CNC machines, the work piles up.
   “We have hundreds of these,” he says. “We store these templates until they’re ready to go. And, we’re also talking about full-time people just processing these templates.”
   At Sprovieri’s Custom Counters in Addison, Ill., Tim Jendro notes that a large 3’ X 8’ digitizer didn’t meet the needs of larger jobs. And, even with a CNC machine, a number of jobs ended up being finished by hand using a cardboard template; to improve the workflow, his company acquired ETemplate.
   The biggest concern with photo-based measuring, though, came down to accuracy. Can a series of photos and some software get the job close enough to work when the pieces go out to installation?
   “If anything, we find that it’s too tight with measuring,” notes Rock Top’s Korgol. “If you’re between two walls, you leave 1/8” to play with it and make it fit. My guys couldn’t get the pieces apart to put in the epoxy if it was between two walls. So, I have yet to have an accuracy issue within the confines of the granite business.”
   “We’re accurate within 1/8”, or within 1/16” on both ends,” says ETemplate user Daniel Graber of Cabinets by Graber in Grabill, Ind. “Even when we’re doing humungous dips and curves on a wall, we’re eliminating scribing on the job site.”
   Photo templating isn’t an out-of-the-box solution, however. Even those users who find it’s a great way to eliminate physical templates admit it took some time to get the knack of the process, even after training offered by the software companies.
   “It was a week of getting it right,” Kargol says. “And, it was a rough week, because we had to go back and rework everything that we did. It wasn’t so much the fabrication; it was the photos.”
   Photo measuring, users agree, needs specific attention when using the camera. Photos need to be taken from certain angles to get the software to work efficiently, along with remembering other basics of good photography.
   “For instance, you don’t take the picture with the camera pointing in the sun, and you don’t get glare in it,” Kargol says. “Once we got past that hump, it was great.”
   Photo templating also doesn’t address every single job and templating issue out in the field, either. Graber notes some problems in templating jobs involving circles, although a touch-up of the points in a program such as Autodesk Inc.’s  AutoCAD® is an easy solution. Sprovieri’s Jendro, meanwhile, says that jobs such as very small kitchens or areas with multiple obstructions can pose a challenge.
   “However, that’s very, very rare,” he adds. “We run into that maybe two percent of the time.”
   The files created by photo digitizing speed up the prep time for making jobs CNC-ready. Rock Tops’ Kargol says that, on a recent standard countertop job, the measurer took 20 minutes to do the template on-site, and he spent a half-hour of computer time to get the file ready for production.
   “That was a good 110 ft² job,” he says. “We’re getting better, and getting more measures every day.”
  
POINT ON SITE
   For other fabricators, however, photo digitizing doesn’t fit their needs for a variety of reasons. Instead of taking a camera on-site, they take a digitizer.
   At Chicago-based Soupcan Inc., Gerry Santora worked with photo digitizing for several years before switching over this spring to a BVH Gregg Stealth digitizer. While he thinks the photo process is “a brilliant concept and idea,” he also had a bigger concern: “The only problem with it is that it’s not real-time.”
   While a photo setup takes several shots and time spent in computer processing, the results from the on-site digitizer are immediate. And, Santora adds, “it’s fast and accurate.”
   Just how fast? Santora remembers that, when he used his CNC machine for data entry, it took up to 25 minutes to record one template. The first day he had the reticulating-arm digitizer, “we scanned 12 templates in an hour and ten minutes,” he remembers. “And, they were all good files and able to be put into production.”
   It’s also helped with in-the-field use at Stone Crafters in Melbourne Beach, Fla., where John Didgen notes that the shop went from “measuring two jobs a day to three or four.”  And, he adds, carrying around the laptop, stand and digitizing arm “is a lot less bulky than a pile of wood and saws and glue guns. You just carry around one measuring device.”
   Soupcan’s Santora notes the system, which mounts on its own tripod stand, is “pretty light” and works for him in fieldwork. He also uses it to measure sinks that aren’t in a CNC-machine or AutoCAD database – he works with unique foreign sinks and some handmade units – and also came up with a shop-made adapter for measurements.
   “We created a block where there’s a little depression where we can nestle the nose of the digitizer,” he says. “We can run it around the perimeters and know every time that the point is exactly on the perimeter.”
  
MIDDLE GROUND
   And yet some companies can’t break themselves from creating that on-site template. For them, the super digitizer provides the bridge between practical plywood and digital data.
   At Tops Unlimited Inc. in Fenton, Mo., Rob Berner runs a 5’ X 12’ FastTrack system from Outline Technologies to process templates. He’s also anything but bashful when asked about why he still clings to physical patterns in a CNC production environment.
   “It’s a very inexpensive insurance policy,” Berner says. “If the template’s been made correctly, it reflects the reality of the job site; you can refer to that now, or a week from now, or however long it takes to fabricate. And, as we go into production, we’re constantly going back to that template for more information.”
   Not that Berner is some kind of guy that shuns the future; he studied all the different ways of digitally measuring a job, and even investigated using a Nikon Corp. digital measuring device used by surveyors before settling on the oversized digitizer.
   “In order to quickly capture data points, it seemed the logical way to do it,” he says. “The template is within 1/64”; and, for a full kitchen job, it takes 15 minutes to digitize it.”
   Berner still takes a bit more time with the digital pattern, since it takes some work in a CAD program to add overhang and radius corners. The extra work also points out something important about any of the digital-measuring programs; it’s a measuring, not a design, tool.
   The points recorded by any of these programs or devices don’t go straight to a CNC machine. Fabricators use a variety of programs, such as AutoCAD, CADKEY Corp.’s CADKEY Workshop™ or CADopia LLC’s IntelliCAD™ to prep the files. Users of Gregg’s Stealth digitizer can opt for JetStream, a bundled program that helps convert digitized points to CNC-ready files, while Sprovieri’s Jendro – who previously worked in CNC software development – also offers a program called CT Toolbox V1.2 for prepping CNC files.
   Even with the push to virtual templating, two of the program and equipment vendors – ETemplate and BVH Gregg – are actively supporting making physical patterns ... but of something entirely different than plywood.
   Instead of a hammer and some wood, templates feature a thin plastic sheet cut by plotters regularly used in the sign industry. The plotters take a digital template and, using a small knife instead of a pen, trim the material for a lightweight template.
   For some users, the material is a 10mil clear acrylic sheet that shops can use to place over a slab and determine the best areas for fabrication. Others use a pressure-sensitive-adhesive white vinyl that can be used for marking stone for lower-tech hand-tool finishing, and also to help in laser-guided cutting of stone by bridge saws.

This article first appeared in the September 2003 print edition of Stone Business. ©2003 Western Business Media Inc.