How Does A 3D Scanner Work?

Ever wondered how museums can digitally restore and analyze the wear and tear on millennia-old artifacts without touching them? Or perhaps you’ve pondered how medical professionals, with impeccable accuracy, visualize and plan surgeries on complex anatomical structures. The answer to both of these questions is 3D scanning.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how 3D scanners work and the various applications of this incredible technology.

What is a 3D Scanner and How Does it Work?

3D scanning, also known as laser scanning or lidar (light detection and ranging), is a process that creates detailed three-dimensional models of physical objects by capturing their shape, size, and texture. It works by projecting light onto an object’s surface and measuring the distance from the scanner to points on the object’s surface. This data is then used to create a digital representation of the physical object, which can be manipulated and analyzed in a variety of ways.

Types of 3D Scanners

There are several types of 3D scanners available, each with their unique methods and applications:

Laser Triangulation Scanners

Laser triangulation scanners operate by projecting a laser beam onto an object. A camera, set at a fixed distance from the laser source, observes the reflection of this laser on the object. The scanner calculates the distance between itself and the object based on the laser’s position on the camera. What sets laser triangulation scanners apart from other types is their use of a laser beam. This allows for more precise measurements and the ability to capture small details.

Laser-based 3D scanners offer unparalleled accuracy in capturing details, making them the gold standard for precision. These scanners are especially effective for solid objects that possess a good amount of detail. However, they are the most expensive type of 3D scanner and are best suited for industrial or professional use like:

  • Quality control and inspection in manufacturing
  • Reverse engineering of products for design improvements or reproduction
  • Medical imaging and creating custom prosthetics

Structured Light Scanners

Structured light scanners utilize projected light patterns rather than lasers. Cameras attached to the scanner observe the shape and deformation of these light patterns as they map the object’s surface. The scanner then deduces the object’s shape by comparing the known pattern of light with its deformation upon the object. Unlike laser scanners or photogrammetry, structured light scanners rely on light patterns. The main advantages of structured light scanners are their speed and resolution, making them ideal for:

  • Creating custom footwear
  • Designing custom dental implants
  • Planning home renovations
  • Creating quick and accurate 3D models for video games or animation


Photogrammetry is unique in its methodology. This technique involves taking multiple photographs of an object from various angles, and automatically stitching them together to create a 3D model. Photogrammetry requires specialized software that analyzes the photographs for common points and uses them to triangulate the object’s position in 3D space. Unlike other scanners, photogrammetry does not require any physical contact with the object being scanned. It can be performed using a regular camera, even a smartphone, a computer, and specialized software.

Photogrammetry is commonly used in:

  • Architecture and city planning to create 3D models of buildings or entire cities
  • Mapping and surveying land for geological or construction purposes
  • Creating virtual reality environments for the gaming and entertainment industries

Photogrammetry scanners are the most cost-effective and quickest option available. They can capture large objects with minimal setup time and are suitable for scanning environments or landscapes. However, they are not as precise as laser-based scanners or structured light scanners.

Laser pulse-based 3D scanning

Laser pulse-based 3D scanning, commonly known as LiDAR, harnesses the power of pulsed laser light to gauge distances to an object. In this method, the scanner releases a laser light towards a target. When this light hits the target and bounces back, the scanner calculates the time taken for this round trip. This time measurement allows the device to determine the exact distance between the scanner and the object. LiDAR is celebrated for its remarkable precision, adept at recording even the most minute details and topographical variations. Given its ability to swiftly cover expansive areas, it’s a favored choice for the following:

  • Creating accurate and high-resolution topographic maps
  • Gathering data for aerial surveys or mapping terrain from satellites
  • Assisting self-driving cars with obstacle detection and navigation

Contact-Based 3D Scanning

Contrastingly, contact-based 3D scanning operates through direct interaction with the object of interest. Equipped with a touch probe, the scanner makes direct contact with the object’s surface. Every point of contact is recorded, resulting in a comprehensive map of the object’s contours and features. The tactile nature of this method imparts it with an incredible level of accuracy, allowing the detection of even the most subtle surface features. However, its strength is also its limitation; the need to touch means the scanning process is generally slower compared to non-contact methods, and there’s a risk when handling delicate or malleable objects. Despite these limitations, its precision makes it indispensable in industries such as:

  • Aerospace for inspecting and testing aircraft parts
  • Forensics for capturing evidence with extreme precision
  • Art conservation and restoration to document fine details and monitor changes over time

Applications of 3D Scanning

The applications of 3D scanning are vast and varied. It has revolutionized numerous industries and continues to do so as technology advances. Some examples of how 3D scanning is used in different fields include:


3D scanners are vital in manufacturing for checking the quality of products by comparing them to their original designs to catch any flaws or inconsistencies. They are also used to understand and copy existing parts, a process called reverse engineering. In the product development stage, 3D scanners are used to quickly and accurately refine prototypes, making the design process more efficient.


In the vast realm of entertainment, 3D scanning has ushered in a new era of realism and creativity. Filmmakers extensively employ this technology, using it to transform real-world environments and actors into digital representations, making it easier to weave intricate CGI environments and characters. Video game developers, too, benefit immensely, from using 3D scans to craft detailed and lifelike game environments and characters. The advancements don’t stop there; as the lines between the real and virtual worlds blur in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), 3D scanning has been a cornerstone in building immersive worlds and realistic overlays, elevating the user experience.


Every component of an aircraft must be meticulously crafted and inspected. Here, 3D scanning becomes indispensable. It aids in rigorous quality control, allowing engineers to match manufactured parts with design specifications, ensuring every component is up to standard. As aircraft endure wear and tear over time, maintenance crews utilize 3D scanners to detect and assess wear patterns, leading to timely repairs and ensuring prolonged aircraft safety. Additionally, in the design phase of new aircraft or when refining existing models, 3D scanning offers engineers a precise tool to measure and optimize prototypes, ensuring efficient and aerodynamically sound designs.


In healthcare, 3D scanning technology has vastly improved patient care by allowing the creation of custom prosthetics and implants. By precisely capturing a patient’s anatomy, medical professionals can create personalized prosthetics and implants that fit better, reducing the risk of complications and improving overall patient comfort. 3D scanning is also used in medical research, where it aids in creating detailed models for studying and understanding anatomical structures. 3D scanners are also used in orthodontics to create accurate models for the fabrication of braces or aligners. In surgeries, 3D scans are used to create pre-operative plans and surgical guides, increasing accuracy and reducing risks. Speed, precision,  and customization are the key benefits of using 3D scanning in healthcare, making it an invaluable tool for medical professionals.

Art & Design

Artists and designers use 3D scanners to turn physical art into digital form for editing or displaying online. They also use 3D scanning for reverse engineering, allowing them to capture real-world objects and turn them into digital models. This technology has been a game-changer in the art world, providing artists with new ways to create, edit, and preserve their work. In the design industry, 3D scanning is used extensively in product development to create accurate digital representations of physical objects for refinement and prototyping. Additionally, it aids in creating customized products tailored to an individual’s unique measurements or preferences.

For example, a shoe design company can use 3D scanning to create personalized shoes that fit their customers’ feet perfectly. In architecture and construction, 3D scanning is used for site surveys, allowing architects and engineers to capture precise measurements of the terrain and existing structures. It is also used in building information modeling (BIM) to gather data for creating digital representations of buildings and structures. 3D scanning has proven to be an invaluable tool in greatly improving the speed and accuracy of these processes, leading to more efficient and sustainable construction practices.


In forensics, 3D scanning has been a game-changer, allowing for more accurate and detailed crime scene documentation. This technology aids in preserving evidence while providing investigators with an efficient method to create virtual reconstructions of the scene. It also allows forensic teams to recreate accidents or incidents for investigations, providing a better understanding of the events that took place. The precision of 3D scanning is critical in forensics, as even the smallest details can be crucial in solving a case.

Heritage Preservation

Historians and conservators utilize 3D scanning to create digital archives of historical artifacts and structures, ensuring they are preserved for future generations. This technology also allows for detailed documentation of any changes or deterioration over time, further aiding in the preservation process. Governments and organizations use 3D scanning to document and preserve culturally significant sites or artifacts, helping to safeguard the world’s heritage. Additionally, 3D scanning allows for the restoration and reconstruction of damaged or destroyed historical sites, providing a glimpse into the past for modern audiences.

From entertainment to healthcare, aerospace to art and design, 3D scanning technology has proven to be an invaluable tool in various industries. Its precision, speed, and versatility have greatly improved processes and opened up new possibilities for innovation. As technology continues to develop, we can expect 3D scanning to play an even bigger role in shaping our world and bridging the gap between the physical and digital realms. With its endless applications, it is clear that 3D scanning has truly revolutionized the way we create, design, and preserve in our ever-evolving society. So what’s next for this groundbreaking technology? Only time will tell. The possibilities are endless. So let’s continue to embrace the advancements of 3D scanning and see where it takes us next.

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