Not so long ago, the idea of pointing a device at an object and “cloning” it was the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. But today, 3D scanning technology makes virtual digital duplication of existing objects a reality.  Couple 3D scanning with 3D printing and “voila!” you can clone nearly any object.

This article addresses the input or scanning part of the equation.  See our post on Creating 3D Printable Files from CAD for information on the output, or printing side.

What is 3D Scanning?

3D scanning is a process that captures physical objects as digital 3D representations.  A scanner like you have in your office, or the camera in your smartphone captures a two-dimensional representation; but a 3D scanner captures height, width, and depth information and turns it all into three-dimensional models on your computer that you can navigate through, look around, and edit. This is magic.

While 3D scanning has been around for decades, advancements in both 3D scanning and 3D printing technology, have made both available at reasonable prices.

Uses for 3D Scanning

3D scanners can be used to duplicate and display anything, in full 3D. They are used to duplicate buildings, rooms, displays, machine parts, sculptures, prosthesis, teeth, human and animal organs and all kinds and sizes of objects.  3D scanning has applications in nearly every industry – from the arts to medicine and science, manufacturing and technology, gaming and entertainment.

Types of 3D Scanners

3D Scanners come in many different price ranges and technologies; some are so economically priced and easy-to-use that home hobbyists are beginning to make use of them.  Some, of course, are technologically advanced and highly accurate with price tags to match – these are used in medical applications or other fields where high accuracy is essential.

  • 3D Noncontact Active Laser Scanners – Non-contact scanners use lasers and/or cameras to scan physical objects.  By detecting millions of points on the objects, these kinds of scanners create data on an XYZ grid, with the distance ratios from point to point being measured and maintained to construct the virtual representation in the computer.  Included in this category of scanners are triangulation scanners, time-of-flight scanners, conoscopic holography scanners, and structured light scanners.
  • 3D Noncontact Passive Scanners – This lower-cost technology is also easier to use than the previous category and include photometric and silhouette systems, as well as stereoscopic systems.    Non-contact passive scanners make use of cameras to take pictures from many different angles around an object.  These images are then put together digitally
  • 3D Contact Scanners — 3D contact laser scanners use probes to acquire the coordinate data of an object, and have an arm for each axis (X, Y, Z). The probes can be light or lasers, but in contact scanners, they’re always mechanical.

The Future of 3D Scanning

3D scanning and 3D content are being used in many places, for many different applications — from games and movies to medical and manufacturing. One new use has been added to the latest version of Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat now has the capability to import and use 3D models generated by another program. The utility of this function is tremendous, as it can be used for distributable presentations or even patent proposals. A 3D model can be easily added to an Acrobat document.

With the manufacture of 3D laser scanners that enable direct capture of 3D point clouds and conversion of that data into PDF for 3D, some experts speculate that the Design, Manufacturing and Engineering sectors will move toward storing more and more information in a 3D format. Thus, one of the impacts of 3D scanning and the evolving use of 3D data may well be in the demand for 3D abilities in addition to 2D abilities in future document management systems, and an emerging 4th dimension of industries, such as medical, manufacturing and geo-surveying that absolutely require 3D data management. Time will tell what future magic 3D scanning brings.


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