How 3D Scanners Work

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3D scanning has slowly turned into an integral requirement of various industrial processes where design and simulation play an important role. The concept and technology have been around for some time but recent advancements in computing and scanning technology have allowed it to grow exponentially. Today, 3D scanners are a practical and affordable option for both hobbyists and professional users to enhance their operational capabilities.

For regular users of 3D scanners, it is important to understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology behind them. How do 3D scanners work? What kind of object can be scanned? Where can it be used, and various similar questions need to be addressed.

In the following text, we’ll go through all the basics of 3D scanning and cover all the important topics any beginner must know to use the 3D scanning technology to its fullest.

What is 3D scanning and How Do 3D scanners work?

In simple words, 3D scanning is the art of taking real-world objects and replicating them in a digital environment. These scans can then be edited, manipulated, redesigned, and analyzed with the help of various CAD tools available in the market. The 3D scanning process is quite distinctive because it is completely automated. All data points are gathered and processed by the computer and your 3D scanner.

It’s also important to note that unlike traditional CAD designs, you don’t need any particular set of skills to use a 3D scanner. This means that anyone can start the scanning process as the chances of human error corrupting your results are almost non-existent. The technology has advanced so much in recent decades, that even the most ordinary models can deliver excellent results.

While the primary job of all types of 3D scanners is the same, they have distinct operating parameters depending on the scanning methodology and the application. We’ll address the common scanning methodologies later in this article, so let’s focus on the type of 3D scanners available in the market today.

3D scanners, generally, have two categories depending on how they are used. You’ll often see a mounted (stationary) 3D scanner or a handheld 3D scanner in a professional environment. Most 3D scanning services in the industry can successfully cover a huge variety of industries with just these two types because of their versatility.

Mounted 3D scanners are fixed in a single position while the object is placed on a rotating platform that allows the scanner to cover all of its surfaces. In most cases, mounted scanners rely on 3D laser scanning technology.

Handheld scanners, on the other hand, require the user to move around the object to cover all surfaces. They generally use structured light technology to scan the object and are considered more flexible than their mounted counterparts.

What Type of Objects Can Be Scanned By A 3D Scanner?

The beauty of 3D scanning technology is the fact that anything which exists in this world can be scanned. From objects to living beings, and geological territories, you can transfer anything to your computer for further data processing. There are obviously many limitations due to several factors like light, surface, object size, etc. However, you can overcome those limitations by taking some small steps. For instance, 3D scanners can’t process reflective or transparent surfaces. However, you can proceed by spraying the surface with a matte spray, removable powder, or another layer that gives it a texture.

Major 3D Scanning Methodologies

3D scanning can be performed in many ways. While the operation may seem the same, the inner workings of your scanner may differ. In this section, we will not discuss photogrammetry, which is slightly different from 3D scanning.

1 – Laser Triangulation Method

Commonly used in mounted 3D scanners, this method relies on a laser pointer or a laser line to gauge the shape and dimensions of a particular object. The concept behind it is quite basic. When the laser interacts with the surface, the initial ray gets reflected with a slightly different trajectory. The sensor studies the reflection and uses basic trigonometry to automatically calculate the deviation angle.

In a single scan, thousands of such data points are collected, which are then processed by the software to create a digital mesh on the computer. The conversion happens in an instant, so you’ll be able to see the scan in real-time. Laser scans are quite accurate but have some limitations as well. Their biggest drawback is the fact that 3D laser scanners do not perform in well-lit conditions. You’ll have to close all the other sources of light to get the desired results from your 3D scanner. This quality severely impacts the versatility of laser scanners as they can’t be used outdoors during the day.

2 – Structured Light

Structured light scanners are an advanced version of laser scanners. These scanners use a series of fringes or other patterns that deform on contact with an object’s surface. The scanner analyzes those deformations and uses them to create a data cloud that can replicate the shape of the object. Structured light 3D scanners are generally better than their laser countertops as they perform well in well-lit rooms and are a little bit more accurate.

Typically, handheld 3D scanners rely on the structured light methodology as it is more versatile and can be used in a variety of situations without having any inaccuracies.

3 – Laser Pulse

Generally used for large environments, buildings, and other similar applications, laser pulse scanners rely on the speed of light to analyze the shape of the object it is scanning. When a laser beam hits a target object, the light is immediately reflected. The sensor calculates the distance by using the speed of light and the time it took to get the reflection. In one second, the scanner analyzes millions of laser beams and uses that data to create the accurate shape of the target object.

Laser pulse scanners are quite accurate and allow you to cover a wide area. However, this is the most expensive methodology in this list. The process is also time-consuming, so it is generally reserved for large-scale 3D scans.

Industrial Applications of 3D Scanning

As stated before, 3D scanning is among the most versatile technologies out there. One model of a 3D scanner available in the market can easily be used by two entirely different industries without any customization. This flexibility is among the biggest reasons why 3D scanning services are such a viable business. Most industrial 3D scanners require a significant investment, so companies rely on quality 3D scanning services for their one-time projects as they get access to quality equipment and industry experts.

Some of the industrial areas where 3D scanning plays a major role are:

1 – Engineering Design

Design engineering requires precise and accurate readings, which required a lot of time and resources to replicate in the past. Even then, traditional design methods could not process extremely intricate designs or achieve the precision offered by 3D scanning technology. The 3D scanning process also takes a fraction of the time required for creating digital models through CAD designing.

3D scanning technology imports data in the form of a mesh file, which is a perfect format for 3D printing. That file can then be converted through popular CAD tools for further processing as mesh files are quite hard to manipulate.

2 – Reverse Engineering and Maintenance

Recreating existing machinery and optimizing their design is a huge part of the R&D sector. The swift results you get are also beneficial for the prototyping sector as companies need to expedite their product development process to stay ahead of the curve. There are various other areas in the academia and maintenance sector, where reverse engineering existing parts is crucial. To learn about how 3D scanning helps with the reverse engineering process, check out this link.

3 – Medical Technologies

Another area where 3D scanning and 3D printing play a crucial role in healthcare. There is always a need for prosthetic limbs because of accidents, infections, and various other reasons. There has also been significant development in bio-printing and other innovative procedures with the help of this technology. Similarly, 3D scanning is being used in combinations with existing non-invasive tests like X-Rays and MRI to give doctors a better picture of their patient’s condition.

4 – Archeology

Preservation of historical artifacts is an important job, but the industry sustains a lot of losses due to the fragility of the items. Despite the numerous preventive strategies, many priceless artifacts have been damaged during investigations or transportation. This can be avoided with 3D scanning. As 3D scanning can take a perfect digital replica of whatever it scans, artifacts can easily be studied without any fear of damage.

5 – Construction

3D scanners have had a lot of impact on the construction management industry. Statistics indicate that about 15% of all construction projects go through reworks due to inaccuracies and related issues. This means a significant loss of time and resources for everyone involved in the process. Incorporating the 3D scanning technology can minimize the risk of such issues and allow contractors to ensure compliance with the approved design with minimal effort.

Apart from being a great help in structural analysis and development, 3D scanning can also help contractors with the addition of auxiliary components in the design. For example, a 3D scan of the entire building can help with planning a great HVAC system that is both energy efficient and takes minimal space.

6 – Entertainment

The versatile technology is not bound to product development and other industrial applications only. 3D scanning has turned into an integral part of movies and video games as well. The stunning visual marvels you see in cinema nowadays would not have been possible without the realistic results 3D scanning offers.

The gaming industry also uses 3D scanning for many applications. From creating avatars to improving the landscape and details in the gameplay, 3D scanning can make the process efficient, quicker, and more consistent for the developers.

3D Scanning Summary

Today, a lot of applications and feats that seemed impossible a few years ago are not only doable but only need a few minutes. The incredible technology has opened a lot of exciting avenues due to its unmatched potential.

With each passing day, 3D scanning technology is getting more versatile and easier to apply in many industries. If the technology continues to grow at the current rate, it will soon become difficult to find an application area where 3D scanning doesn’t plan an imperative role. We’ll likely see a deeper integration of 3D scanning with related technologies Additive Manufacturing and simulation models to facilitate industry 4.0 applications, real-time dynamic analysis, and other innovative combinations in the coming years.

What’s Next?

Many businesses have used this technology as an opportunity to optimize their workflows, increase their production capability, and come up with newer, risk-free, ways of retaining their customer base. You can also leverage 3D scanning to give a significant boost to your overall productivity without introducing too many changes in the existing process. The best way to do that is to collaborate with industry experts who can point you in the correct direction.

Tangent Solution is among the leading 3D scanning services in the United States with an untainted history of providing the very best to its customers at the most competitive rates. Our experts have been a part of the manufacturing industry for more than a decade and have worked on numerous private and government-funded projects. When you approach Tangent Solution, you’ll get to partner with an exceptionally skilled team. On top of that, you’ll get a group of dedicated people willing to do everything to give you the absolute best experience, which is impossible to find with any other 3D scanning service. 



Sean is head engineer with his previous career stemming from mechanical engineering, automotive dynamics, and aerospace. Pulling from real-world experience, he has over 15 years of experience as a designer and in fabrication. Before creating Tangent Solutions, Sean was the lead designer for many winning off-road race teams as well as mass-market production companies

About Tangent Solutions

Tangent Solutions offers the latest in 3D scanning technology paired with 15 years of CAD design experience, to bring your ideas to reality. Our team specializes in reverse engineering and data verification.

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