If Keith Meany hadn't thought of the technology behind Skubot, someone else might have.
Or maybe Meany's deep knowledge of two seemingly disparate fields — plumbing and 3D technologies — made him uniquely qualified to invent it.
Skubot is a 3D scanning device designed for hardware stores. Its sensors scan and build a digital model of pieces of hardware within seconds. Then, the model is sent to a database full of product models, where the system searches for a match.
So if a customer walks into the store with a component they need replaced, the device will tell them which they need from thousands of possibilities with 98 percent accuracy, he said.
Skubot, which has offices in Mount Pleasant and on Rutledge Avenue in downtown Charleston, recently won an innovation award for 3D scanning at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Meany also has a partnership with Hewlett-Packard, a relationship that began when he purchased some of HP's structured light scanners for Skubot and the Silicon Valley giant took notice.
The local company is setting itself apart in a field of young businesses attempting to commercialize 3D scanning tech as it becomes cheaper and more widespread.
Steve Smith is senior director of engineering for HP's Immersive Computing Division and has been working with the Skubot team for more than a year. He said HP works with a number of businesses using 3D scanners for different, and usually very specific, purposes. Before long, footwear stores will be scanning customers' feet to find the perfect size shoe, he said.
"These solutions are going to be brought to market eventually by someone. It's inevitable," Smith said. "To be on the ground floor of this stuff is exciting."
Meany, president of Skubot, got his start in seafloor mapping, which laid the groundwork for his understanding of 3D scanning. He studied geology with a focus on seafloor mapping at the College of Charleston.
He launched his first company, underwater surveying and construction business Global Coast Survey, in 2012. It manages personnel for deep-sea infrastructure projects.
Meany got the idea for Skubot from his parents' plumbing parts business in Myrtle Beach. Longtime industry experts, his parents had no problem reaching into their mental libraries for exactly the part a customer might be searching for. But nowadays, fewer sales associates have that kind of knowledge, he said.
Meany wanted to test the idea that a scanning technology could reach deep into product lines and pick out the correct device. That way, big box stores wouldn't have to try to familiarize their associates for years with the products they sell.
Since then, Skubot has gone through a few iterations. About a doze pilot devices are in place at Ferguson Enterprises' stores, said Lance Buffington, a business development manager for the plumbing giant.
Most customers are contractors, Buffington said. They might be trying to find a replacement for a part that was installed decades ago, requiring the salesperson to locate an exact match from a sprawling database.
"It could have been built and installed back in the 1920s," he said. "You’re expected to find that part. It can become quite a challenge.”
Scaling Skubot and preparing it for a wider release required some work improving customer usability, especially its speed. When the first version was completed, it took about four minutes to find a match. The next took slightly less than two minutes. The latest device requires about seven seconds.
Buffington said that is an attractive prospect for the company because time is money for contractors.
Meany is planning to sell Skubot as a subscription service but the exact cost for users hasn't been finalized. If all goes to plan, it could be in stores by the end of 2019.