What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (2023)

3D scanning involves collecting data about the shape and appearance of a physical object, structure, environment or person and then using that data to construct digital 3D models. 3D scanners are used to analyze objects and environments, collect the data and construct the model.

  • We also have a ranking of the best 3D scanners.

3D scanning is used across a wide range of industries, from architecture and engineering to medicine and entertainment. By allowing workers in these industries to examine objects digitally,

3D scanning can help make their work more accurate and efficient. 3D scanning is also compatible with 3D printing and CAD (computer-aided design), and it can even be used for reverse engineering.

That’s a very basic explanation of 3D scanning, but there’s a lot more to learn about this important process. This guide covers everything you need to know about 3D scanning, including the different techniques, advantages, limitations, applications and how 3D scanning works.

  • We also have a ranking of the best DIY 3D scanners.

What is 3D Scanning? The Basics

While there are a variety of different 3D scanning techniques, they all rely on the same principles. All 3D scanners use a sensor, which may be a physical probe, laser or light, to measure the distance between a camera and an object.

3D scanners are able to identify 3D points, calculated from photos and depth measurement using triangulation, with each point appearing on the screen individually. Altogether, these 3D points form a point cloud, which appear like in the image below. The process of extrapolating the shape of a subject from points is known as reconstruction.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (1)

Once the scanner has created the point cloud, it then meshes it to turn it into a 3D model made up of surfaces. Meshing essentially means you are connecting the dots of the point cloud to produce a complete model. A mesh is a collection of vertices and faces, along with information of how the vertices make up the faces. Rather than valuing each point equally during the meshing process, you can deprioritize some of the points to create a mesh that isn’t extremely complex and therefore is easier to work with.

(Video) 3D Scanning 101 - Why You Should Be Implementing This Technology Right Now

Finally, the mesh is textured. In the context of 3D scanning, texture refers to an image painted upon a service, and applying a texture to a surface is called texture mapping or UV mapping. Textured images are stored in a special file where every pixel with U and V coordinates has a corresponding color. Many 3D scanners have a special camera for capturing texture that allows them to collect color information at each point. Bright and uniform lighting is required for optimal results, unless the scanner is equipped with a flash.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (2)

Generally, several scans are required in order to create a complete model, as the scanner needs to collect information from every side of the subject. Scans are brought together into a common reference system, a process known as alignment or registration. The scans are then merged to create a 3D model. The whole 3D scanning process is known as the 3D scanning pipeline.

3D Scanning Techniques & Advantages

There are a wide variety of different 3D scanning methods, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a look at the main 3D scanning techniques.

Contact-based 3D Scanning

As the name suggests, with this technique a scanner collects data on an object through physical touch. The object either rests on a surface plate or is held in place by a fixture as it is probed by the scanner, and the software used with the probe will detect how and where the probe touches the object’s surface and record the 3D location of the surface. A coordinate measuring machine (CCM) is an example of a contact-based 3D scanner.

Contact-based 3D scanning is often used in manufacturing, particularly for performing quality control of parts during maintenance operations or after fabrication. This technique is very precise and can be used to 3D scan transparent or reflective surfaces, but on the downside, it is slower than most other 3D scanning techniques and isn’t well suited to scanning freeform shapes.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (3)

Laser Triangulation 3D Scanning

This type of 3D scanning uses either a single laser point or a laser line to scan an object. The laser is cast by the 3D scanner and reflects off the subject, modifying its initial trajectory. The change in trajectory is recorded by a sensor and allows the system to calculate the specific angle of deviation using trigonometric triangulation. With enough laser scans, the scanner can map the subject’s surface and create a 3D scan.

Laser triangulation is a highly accurate 3D scanning technique that produces high resolution scans. Its main limitation is that it isn’t ideal for scanning objects with transparent or shiny surfaces. Laser triangulation scanners are often used to probe the environment.

(Video) What is 3D Scanning?

Structured Light 3D Scanning

Like laser triangulation scanners, structured light scanners also use trigonometric triangulation to create scans. However, rather than using a laser, this technique projects a series of linear patterns of light onto an object. Two sensing cameras analyze the light patterns, examining the length of each line to calculate the distance to the subject. The scanner can then calculate exact X-Y-Z coordinates to create extremely accurate 3D models.

As well as being highly precise, structured light 3D scanning is fast, produces high resolution scans, and is suitable for scanning people. On the downside, it is highly sensitive to lighting conditions, so it doesn’t work well outside.

Laser Pulse-based 3D Scanning

Also known as time-of-flight scanning, this method creates scans using the speed of light and sensors rather than triangulation. Laser pulse-based 3D scanners do this by measuring how long a casted laser takes to reach an object and come back via reflection. The laser and sensor hardware is rotated by a mirror, which allows the software to collect 360 degrees worth of data and capture the information needed to create a 3D model.

The main benefit of laser pule-based scanning is that it can be used to scan very large objects, structures and environments. It is, however, a slow method in comparison to other 3D scanning techniques.


Photogrammetry is a technique for obtaining measurements and other dimensional information of objects and environments from high resolution photographs. Photogrammetry can be done using aerial or handheld cameras which are used to take a series of overlapping photos of the subject. Photogrammetry software is then able to create 3D models by point matching the geometric intersection of light rays and using triangulation to decipher information like camera angles, locations and characteristics of the subject.

  • We also have a ranking of the best photogrammetry software.
  • We also have a more in-depth guide to photogrammetry.

This technique is used across a range of industries and is particularly important in land surveying, engineering, agriculture and forestry. It has numerous advantages, including high accuracy, affordability and the ability to access difficult locations, but it’s also affected by the weather and environmental restrictions.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (4)

3D Scanning Applications

3D scanning is used across a huge range of industries, and as scanning and software capabilities continue to develop, it is becoming ever more important across various sectors. Here are the main applications of 3D scanning.

(Video) [Webinar] Benefits of Advanced 3D Scanning Technology


3D scanning is used to create 3D models in the movie, television and video game industries. In TV and film, it is often used in virtual cinematography, where it can be used to quickly scan real-world objects Artists commonly sculpt physical models and then 3D scan them, rather than manually create digital models with 3D modeling software.

3D scanning plays a similar role in the gaming industry, where it’s used in the creation of characters, props and landscapes, but it is also used in the development of virtual reality gaming. It can be used to create lifelike 3D representations of objects, people and spaces, so it’s very useful for creating immersive and interactive virtual gaming environments.


3D scanning is becoming increasingly important in the medical world. One of the main benefits is that it can be used in the creation and customization of prosthetics, implants and wearable devices such as casts and braces. For example, prosthetics can be designed with great accuracy, increasing patient comfort, and 3D printing means they can be produced quicker and cheaper than traditional methods. 3D scanning is particularly common in dentistry for creating dental implants and other objects.

  • We also have a feature story on 3D printed prosthetics.
  • Check out our feature story on dental 3D printing.

Another notable use of 3D scanning in medicine is 3D ultrasound, where the technique can be use to create 3D images in obstetrics.


3D scanning can be used to scan and analyze entire buildings in precise detail, which is hugely beneficial to architects. Like in construction, the point clouds produced by 3D scanners can be used to highly accurate measurements and visualizations. Doing this via 3D scanning and CAD software is far cheaper and quicker than traditional methods. 3D scanning is also useful to architects for reverse engineering of aspects of buildings, from exteriors to internal future.

  • We also have a ranking of the best architecture software.
  • Also check out our general ranking of the best 3D CAD software.

Construction & Engineering

3D scanning has a wide range of use in the construction and engineering fields. Aerospace was one of the first industries to use 3D scanning, but now it’s used in most construction, manufacturing and engineering processes. For example, in construction it’s useful for site modeling, the documentation of historical sites and quantity surveys, while in engineering it can be used to inspect equipment and for reverse engineering.

  • We also have a feature story on 3D printing in construction.

Reverse engineering is a particularly interesting use of 3D scanning. Parts produced several decades ago are generally only described via two-dimensional drawings, which can make accurate reproductions both difficult and time consuming. However, with 3D scanning, data of the shape of the object can be collected with great accuracy, and that data can then be used to create a new 3D model.

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This model can then be used to create new molds and tooling, allowing manufacturers to create brand new parts with the same dimensional characteristics of the original. These reverse-engineered models can also be used to 3D print duplicates of the original. For example, 3D scanning can be used to restore classic car parts that aren’t available anymore. As 3D scanning removes much of the guesswork and is much faster than traditional reverse engineering, the process is extremely streamlined and results are highly accurate.

Archiving & Historical Analysis

3D scanning is increasingly popular among historians, art historians and archaeologists as a method of documentation and analysis. 3D scanning creates reproducible, highly accurate 3D models of artifacts and works of art, so it’s an important technique in archiving and curating. In addition, it allows for the sharing of accurate copies across the research and teaching communities.

3D modeling is also useful for historical analysis; for example, it’s often used in the modeling of facial features of humans’ evolutionary ancestors by scanning fossils. Other examples of the use of 3D scanning of historical artifacts include the scanning of sculptures by Michelangelo, the Kasubi Tombs in Uganda and Cuneiform tablets.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (5)


Rapid prototyping and reverse engineering are very important to the design process of many products, so 3D scanning it a useful tool for many designers. When designers look to mimic natural materials, 3D scanning provides a fast, accurate way to study complicated arrangements and create new designs. In addition, 3D scanning provides great accuracy with complex parts and shapes, allows for shared web scans, and allows for coordinated product design using parts from various sources.


3D scanning is now also a very important forensics tool for law enforcement officials. It’s valued for its ability to create highly accurate models of crime scenes, accidents, bullet trajectories and then bloodstain patterns. 3D scanning is useful for both documentation and analysis in this context.

What is 3D Scanning? – Definition, Advantages and Uses (6)

3D Scanning Accessibility

If you’re interested in 3D scanning yourself, you’ll be glad to know that the technology is accessible to beginners, students and hobbyists, even if you’re on a tight budget. There are many small, handheld scanners suitable for home use which can be purchased for just a couple hundred dollars. Of course, the more you’re willing to pay, the higher quality scanner you’ll be able to get your hands on. The best 3D scanners, used by professionals, cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.


3D scanning is a technique for creating digital 3D models of objects, structures, environments, and even people. 3D scanners do this by collecting data about the shape and appearance of a subject, using calculations to construct a point mesh from the data, and then meshing and texturing to create a complete 3D model.

(Video) The Benefits of 3D Laser Scanning

There are several different 3D scanning techniques, including contact and laser scanning methods, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. However, all 3D scanners are able to create highly accurate 3D models. The fact that they can often do this in a faster, cheaper way than traditional methods means 3D scanning is used across a wide range of industries, from entertainment and medicine to architecture and forensics.

3D scanning technology is constantly evolving and the last two decades have seen it becoming of increasing performance across a variety of sectors, and its importance is sure to increase even further in the coming years. There have even been strides made to incorporate laser scanning technology with smartphone apps, and it’s likely that someday we’ll be able to simply record videos on our phone and create 3D models from then, so the future is certainly bright for 3D scanning.

Other articles you may be interested in:

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  • The best DIY 3D scanners
  • The best low-cost 3D scanners
  • Top 3D scanner apps for iOS and Android
  • Structured light 3D scanning vs laser scanning
  • 3D body scanners: a guide


What is the use of 3D scanning? ›

3D scanning provides the user with extremely accurate measurements and the ability to fully utilise, visualise and modify data with CAD. The ability to rapidly capture high accuracy information means vast savings in productivity and time, which of course is important when delivering results to a client.

What is 3D scanning and how does it work? ›

3D scanning is the process of analyzing a real-world object, person or environment to collect data. a 3D scanning machine, or 3D scanner will collect the shape and possibly appearance (like the color) of the subject. This data can then be used to get a 3D model, meaning a digital and three-dimensional object.

What is 3D image scanning? ›

3D scanning is a technology for creating high-precision 3D models of real-world objects. It works like this: a 3D scanner takes multiple snapshots of an object. The shots are then fused into a 3D model, an exact three-dimensional copy of the object, which you can rotate and view from different angles on your computer.

Why is 3D scanning good? ›

The rapid speed of data capture, from a 3D laser scanner, allows millions of data points to be recorded in seconds. This ensures that large environments can be surveyed in a short timescale and makes 3D surveying ideal for work on particularly time-sensitive projects, when a quick turnaround is vital.

How good is 3D scanning? ›

How accurate is 3D scanning? The accuracy of a portable 3D scanner normally ranges between 0.01 mm and 0.1 mm.

What are the two main types of 3D scanning technologies? ›

1. LASER triangulation 3D scanning technology. 2. Structured light 3D scanning technology.

How are 3D scans made? ›

The 3D Scanning Process:

Specialized software drives the laser probe above the surface of the object. The laser probe projects a line of laser light onto the surface while 2 sensor cameras continuously record the changing distance and shape of the laser line in three dimensions (XYZ) as it sweeps along the object.

When should you have a 3D scan? ›

If you decide to have one, the best time to have a 3D or 4D scan is when you're between 27 weeks and 32 weeks pregnant. Before 27 weeks your baby has very little fat under her skin, so the bones of her face will show through.

What is the difference between 3D scanning and 3D printing? ›

While 3D scanning is the process of scanning physical objects to create detailed, interactive digital models, 3D printing is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from those digital models.

When was 3D scanning invented? ›

The first 3D scanning technology was created in the 1960s. The early scanners used lights, cameras and projectors to perform this task. Due to limitations of the equipment it often took a lot of time and effort to scan objects accurately.

What are 5 benefits of 3D printing? ›

What are the Pros of 3D Printing?
  • Flexible Design. 3D printing allows for the design and print of more complex designs than traditional manufacturing processes. ...
  • Rapid Prototyping. ...
  • Print on Demand. ...
  • Strong and Lightweight Parts. ...
  • Fast Design and Production. ...
  • Minimising Waste. ...
  • Cost Effective. ...
  • Ease of Access.

What are the benefits of 3D modeling? ›

Design Competence – Simply expressed, 3D modeling aids in the reduction of design time and costs. Before going into production, 3D CAD software allows each component of a structure or product to be reviewed, tested, and updated. This keeps you from having to go back to the drawing board.

Can you 3D scan a person? ›

3D body scanning is the action of capturing in 3D the human body using a 3D body scanner. 3D body scanners can capture a human body, or only specific parts, to generate a very detailed 3D model within a few seconds. The result is a 3D model of the body or limb which was captured.

How long does a 3D scan take? ›

Depending on the object size, shape and complexity, the scanning process (together with post-processing of scan data) may take from half-an-hour to a few hours.

How accurate is 3D imaging? ›

Normally, to understand the accuracy of something, you'd need a common standard to work off. In 3D scanning, however, this standard does not exist. The accuracy spec for a tripod-mounted 3D scanner could be 2cm. Therefore, the scanner will return measurements within 2cm of the actual dimensions it is recording.

What is the most common type of scanning? ›

MRI. One of the most common types of scans is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. An MRI can detect nerve injuries, tumors, brain injuries, stroke, or even the cause of a headache.

What are the three types of scanning? ›

Scanning could be basically of three types:
  • Port Scanning – Detecting open ports and running services on the target host.
  • Network Scanning – Discovering IP addresses, operating systems, topology, etc.
  • Vulnerability Scanning – Scanning to gather information about known vulnerabilities in a target.
Jan 9, 2023

Who invented 3D scanning? ›

The first use of 3D scanning originates from the works of François Willème, a French artist who was born in 1830. Willème was a painter, sculptor and photographer. He developed and patented a process of producing a portrait sculpture using multiple photo projections. He called his invention photosculpture.

Can you 3D scan with your phone? ›

Can you 3D scan with your phone? Yes you can scan in 3D with a smartphone app. In order to get the most uniform result, you need to walk around the person or the object you want to scan. If you try to 3D scan a face, you have to go from ear to ear.

How many photos do you need for a 3D scan? ›

To ensure you've captured an object well, you need generally from 20 to 250 photos. The higher the number of photos, the better you can recreate the photographs when you run it through the photogrammetry software. We will discuss this in the later part of the post.

How much does a 3D scan cost? ›

The basic pricing for medium objects like this with minimal processing starts from $800 and can go up to $1200 if for example, a customer needs more detail on smaller points that require the use of a more accurate and high-res 3D scanner such as Space Spider in addition to Eva scanner.

What is the difference between a CT scan and a 3D scan? ›

Differences between the two techniques could also be explained by their functioning. If we look at the 3D surface scanner, 3D models are directly created while scanning, but for the CT Scanner, 3D models are obtained indirectly from calculation after scanning.

Can you 3D scan a house? ›

Instead, builders working on renovation projects can use the laser scanner to measure the entire existing home and work with the generated 3D model to perform renovations. This ability allows contractors to get an accurate picture of the home compared to the existing drawings or hand measurements.

Is a 3D body scan worth it? ›

3D body scanning is a great way to get a comprehensive look into your body. It can help you determine where you're holding excess fat and muscle and how much weight you need to lose to be healthy. It will also show the areas that are most prone to injury.

How 3D scanner is used in healthcare? ›

3D scanning gives doctors an exact image of their patient and allows them to really study different solutions without testing them on the patient directly. With this technology, they are able to visualize inside a patient's body. No other technology has ever given doctors such a close look inside their patients.

How much does it cost to have an item 3D scanned? ›

3D scanning a part can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more. Our rates are between $100 and $200 per hour, depending on the 3D scanning technology being used. The cost is ultimately dependent on the size and complexity of the part being 3D scanned.

Who benefits from 3D scanning? ›

WHO CAN BENEFIT FROM 3D SCANNING? The quick answer is anyone in manufacturing, engineering, design, development, surveying or testing. 3D scanning technology can be applied at any point in a typical manufacturing cycle, saving time, money and material.

What are the benefits of a body scan? ›

Here are the top seven benefits of body scan meditation:
  • Helps lessen anxiety. You may not even be aware of the anxiety-based tension you're holding in your body until you do a quick body scan. ...
  • Decreases stress levels. ...
  • Improves sleep quality. ...
  • Reduces chronic pain. ...
  • Improves self-awareness. ...
  • Helps you relax. ...
  • Improves focus.

How is 3D used in medicine? ›

3D printing in medicine can be used to print organ models. These could also be helpful for patient education and pre-operative planning for surgeons. Just recently, scientists are using a combination of MRI and ultrasound imaging along with 3D-printing technology to help doctors prepare for fetal surgeries.

What are the benefits of 3D printing in healthcare? ›

3D printing is rapidly approaching a critical juncture in health care. The technology has shown success in improving surgical techniques through the development of organ models, bone and joint implants and precision instruments.

Can I use my phone to 3D scan an object? ›

Polycam is the best 3D-scanning app for a few reasons. For one, it works on both iOS and Android phones. That's because the data is sent to be processed via the cloud, allowing older, less powerful phones to take advantage of mobile photogrammetry. As long as your phone has a camera, you should be fine.

When should I do a 3D scan? ›

When Can You Get a 3D Ultrasound? While you can get an ultrasound at various points in your pregnancy, the best time to get the most ideal 3D images of your baby is typically between 26 and 32 weeks. Remember that a 3D/4D ultrasound is an elective one, meaning it is not medically necessary.

Is a 3D scan an xray? ›

Unlike 2D x-rays, three-dimensional x-ray imaging was developed to help create an understanding of the entire mouth by designing a 3D rendition of the oral cavity. The 3D image captures a true 3d image of the mouth and allows the dentist to study the mouth in slices, similar to a CT scan.

Is A MRI scan 3D? ›

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive imaging technology that produces three dimensional detailed anatomical images.


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