3D Scanners - A guide to 3D scanner technology


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, thousands of companies are using 3D scanners and software to:

  • Create 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 health care, dentistry and fashion
  • Scan entire buildings to create accurate 3D models
  • And much more

This is not science fiction. 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 can be 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 I Need 3D Scanning Software?

Because scanners collect immense amounts of data, dedicated software like Geomagic is needed to process the output into something usable that other software can handle. Depending on what the scan data will be used for, Geomagic 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 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 (less than 1 meter focal distance)

Laser Triangulation 3D Scanners

Laser Triangulation 3D ScannerLaser 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 Blue Light 3D ScannerStructured 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 Scanner Types



Laser triangulation

  • Available in many forms
    • Area scanner
    • Handheld
    • Portable arm
  • Often more portable
  • Less part prep needed
  • Less sensitive to ambient light
  • Generally less accurate
  • Generally lower resolution
  • Higher noise

Pattern fringe triangulation

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


Mid- and Long Range (more than 2 meters focal distance)

Laser Pulse-based 3D Scanners

Laser Pulse Based 3D ScannerLaser 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 pulses of the laser 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.


Laser Phase-shift 3D Scanners

Laser Phase Shift 3D ScannerLaser phase-shift systems 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 systems 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. For reasons that are beyond this web page’s scope, phase shift measurement is more precise.



Mid- and Long-range 3D Scanner Types




  • Medium and long range
    (2m – 1000m)
  • Less accurate
  • Slower data acquisition
  • Higher noise


  • More accurate
  • Faster data acquisition
  • Lower noise
  • Medium range only


Learn More About

Scan-based Design

Reverse engineer with style. Geomagic Capture scanners work flawlessly with SOLIDWORKS® via a software plugins and connects via Geomagic Design X to Siemens® NX™, Solid Edge®, Creo®, Pro/ENGINEER® and Autodesk Inventor®. With the power to take scan data directly into CAD, you can design highly complex parts faster via one seamless workflow.


Geomagic Capture for Control is a powerful metrology solution that sits on your desktop, so you can check part quality quickly and fix problems fast. Get the precision and detail of blue light LED scanning, coupled with easy-to-use inspection software.


Our Scanner Partners

Geomagic scan processing and inspection software works seamlessly with all major 3D scanner manufacturers, so you can choose exactly the right scanner for your work but have the top-level software you need from Geomagic.

Click below to see descriptions and links to our Scanner Partners