Engineer helps shape 'World Events' High-tech device used in checking design of Olympics statue

Faro arm makes it work

Direct Dimensions aims to take on complex problems

June 23, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

When Michael Raphael, a Baltimore design engineer, got his first look at a prototype of an intricate, modernist sculpture commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, he wasn't sure he could crack the mystery he'd been summoned to solve.

A former engineer with defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., Raphael had tackled his share of design brain twisters. But this one was imposing.

The reason: the sculpture, "World Events," wasn't in one piece. It was to be a web of miniature human figures welded together to form the shape of a head and torso with arms embracing a sphere.

Another layer of complexity that Raphael, the founder of Baltimore-based Direct Dimensions, which specializes in measuring complex surfaces and shapes, encountered was that neither the miniature figures nor their leg, arm and torso parts were uniform in size or shape.

In short, the mystery Raphael flew to Atlanta this past fall to solve was this: Was the sculpture safe? Could it tip over or collapse from its own weight or a design flaw?

That, of course, would be bad for the reputation of the artist, renowned British sculptor Tony Cragg, not to mention embarrassing for the committee and Atlanta.

After all, millions of tourists and sports fans descending on Atlanta between July 19 and August 4 to witness the Olympics, would see, if not take the time to appreciate, the sculpture. On June 7, the city of Atlanta placed 'World Events' in a prominent midtown location as a permanent fixture of the Atlanta cityscape to commemorate the Olympics.

"When I first got there and had a look, I wasn't so sure we could get it done," said Raphael.

Raphael, whose firm is located in the new University of Maryland Baltimore County Technology Center near Catonsville, was asked to answer that question by making calculations based on a 5-foot bronze model of the planned 25-foot tall aluminum figure that would weigh five tons.

Uzun & Case Engineers, an Atlanta firm hired by artist Cragg to determine the sculpture's structural integrity, were so stumped solving the question they initially turned for help to Georgia Tech's top design engineers. But they couldn't crack the case either.

"It would have been nice to have been able to make a few quick calculations on a napkin and say it's OK," said James Case, a principal at the Atlanta firm.

"But the sculpture is a very complex structure that required sophisticated technology to determine that it was safe. I don't think there's any way we could have figured it out with standard engineering calculations. It would have taken months."

To the rescue came Raphael and his Faro arm, a piece of high-tech wizardry that is revolutionizing how engineers make calculations about designs for everything from fighter jet engines to industrial machine parts and, now, artwork.

Raphael's firm got the nod for the job after Florida-based Faro Technologies, which makes the arm, suggested Uzun & Case contact the Baltimore outfit because it had a mobile arm and specialized in tackling problems on site.

The Faro arm, a sophisticated measuring device first used in medicine to map out plans for brain surgery and to design TTC orthopedic devices, calculates and feeds into a computer the coordinates of highly complex shapes and surfaces.

3-D images

Raphael's three-man firm Direct Dimensions developed a computer program for the Faro arm to create three-dimensional images of complex shapes.

This helps determine how such factors as tension and weight might affect the integrity of the surface being studied.

Using his mobile version of the Faro arm and a laptop computer, Raphael and an engineer from Uzun & Case cracked the sculpture mystery in four 12-hour days.

Using the three-dimensional images created by Direct Dimensions, Uzun & Case determined that the sculpture was essentially structurally safe, but that its cost could be shaved by reducing the amount of metal at the base where the sphere (which symbolizes the Earth and the Olympic Games) joins the torso.

"It was a painful process. The complexity was enormous," Raphael said.

Plenty of business

But thanks to the wizardry of some Baltimore-bred technology, artist Cragg was able to make adjustments, complete his sculpture and get the finished work to Atlanta in time for the unveiling ceremony earlier this month.

While challenging, the high-profile nature of the Olympics assignment has also helped Raphael and his partner, Richard Lee, who both left Lockheed Martin in 1995 after 10 years' service, drum up business for their young company.

Still, during their first year -- usually one of the toughest financially for a start-up -- the partners say they've had enough business that they are beginning to think about expanding their staff.

Jobs so far have ranged from helping a York, Pa., firm determine how to convert left-side mounted steering mechanisms on American-made trucks to right-sided European models, to helping Lever Brothers' Baltimore plant resolve a problem it had with its soap-making machinery.

Mobile version

Another company wants Direct Dimensions to figure out how to strengthen its design for boat propellers (another brain twister for design engineers).

Direct Dimensions touts itself as one of the very few high-tech firms in the country with a mobile version of the Faro arm -- and the software programming and technical understanding to tackle complex measurement problems.

In fact, Raphael and Lee were pretty familiar with the Faro arm technology even before they left Lockheed Martin.

Before resigning last June and launching their company, one of their projects had been working with Faro Technologies to develop the arm's technology for use by Lockheed in the industrial sector.

"There are so many applications for this technology that we just knew we would get work if we started a company," Raphael said. "We didn't expect to end up at the Olympics, but we knew we'd get some interesting assignments."

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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