Resolution makes a difference

3D scanning opens up a world of possibilities. Imagine being able to capture anything in the physical world and have a digital model of it in minutes.

You don’t have to imagine. Every day, companies use 3D scanners and software to:

  • Create and reverse engineer CAD models of real parts to capture lost designs, update existing products, and make new ones.
  • Verify product quality by comparing manufactured parts to CAD designs.
  • Make mass customized products for healthcare, dentistry, and fashion.
  • Scan entire buildings to create accurate 3D models.
  • And much more.

3D scanners and accompanying software are now within the reach of many. Scanners are faster, less expensive, and more accurate. 3D scan-processing software is more automated, creates better results, and works faster than ever before.

What Are 3D Scanners?

There are many different devices that are called 3D scanners. Any device that measures the physical world using lasers, lights, or X-rays and generates dense point clouds or polygon meshes can be considered a 3D scanner. They go by many names including 3D digitizers, laser scanners, white light scanners, industrial CT, LIDAR, and others. The common, uniting factor of all these devices is that they capture the geometry of physical objects with hundreds of thousands or millions of measurements.

Why Do You Need 3D Scanning Software?

Because scanners collect immense amounts of data, you need dedicated reverse-engineering software like Geomagic® Design X™, Geomagic for SOLIDWORKS®, and Geomagic Wrap® to process the output into something usable that other software can handle. Depending on what you will use the scan data for, reverse-engineering software can do many different things to the data. The most common applications for 3D scanning are reverse engineering, inspection, and digital archiving or 3D printing. Dedicated software like Geomagic reverse-engineering software and Geomagic Control X™ inspection and metrology software is the fastest, easiest way to unlock the full potential of a 3D scanner.

How Do 3D Scanners Work?

There are many different approaches to 3D scanning, based on different principles of imaging. Some technologies are ideal for short-range scanning, while others are better for mid- or long-range scanning.

Short-Range 3D Scanners

3D scanners with less than one meter of focal distance include laser triangulation and structured light 3D scanners.


Laser Triangulation 3D Scanners

Laser triangulation scanners use either a laser line or single laser point to scan across an object. A sensor picks up the laser light that is reflected off the object and, using trigonometric triangulation, the system calculates the distance from the object to the scanner.

The distance between the laser source and the sensor is known very precisely, as well as the angle between the laser and the sensor. As the laser light reflects off the scanned object, the system can discern what angle it is returning to the sensor at, and therefore the distance from the laser source to the object’s surface.


Structured Light (White or Blue Light) 3D Scanners

Structured light scanners also use trigonometric triangulation, but instead of looking at laser light, these systems project a series of linear patterns onto an object. Then, by examining the edges of each line in the pattern, they calculate the distance from the scanner to the object’s surface. Essentially, instead of the camera seeing a laser line, it sees the edge of the projected pattern, and calculates the distance similarly.

Short-Range 3D Scanners



Laser Triangulation

  • Available in many forms: area scanner, handheld scanner, portable arm
  • Often more portable
  • Less part preparation required
  • Less sensitive to ambient light
  • Generally less accurate
  • Generally lower resolution
  • Noisier

Structured Light

  • Usually more accurate
  • Often higher resolution
  • Less noisy
  • Limited to area scanner type
  • Generally not as small/portable
  • More sensitive to surface preparation (requires preparation)
  • May require specific lighting

Mid- and Long-Range 3D Scanners

3D scanners with with one or more meters of focal distance include laser pulse-based and laser phase-shift 3D scanners.

time of flight scanners image

Laser Pulse-Based 3D Scanners

Laser pulse-based scanners, also known as time-of-flight scanners, are based on a very simple concept: the speed of light is known very precisely, so if we know how long a laser takes to reach an object and reflect back to a sensor, we know how far away that object is. These systems use circuitry that is accurate to picoseconds to measure the time it takes for millions of laser pulses to return to the sensor and calculates a distance. By rotating the laser and sensor (usually via a mirror), the scanner can scan up to a full 360 degrees around itself.

3D Scanning with Laser phase-shift 3D Scanners

Laser Phase-Shift 3D Scanners

Laser phase-shift scanners are another type of time-of-flight 3D scanner technology and conceptually work similarly to pulse-based systems. In addition to pulsing the laser, these scanners also modulate the power of the laser beam, and the scanner compares the phase of the laser being sent out and then returned to the sensor. Phase shift measurement is more precise.

Mid- and Long-Range 3D Scanners



Laser Pulse-Based

Medium- and long-range (2m1,000m)

  • Less accurate
  • Slower data acquisition
  • Noisier

Laser Phase-Shift

  • More accurate
  • Faster data acquisition
  • Less noisy

Medium-range only