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What Is a 3D Scanner?

By Maggie J. Hall
Updated May 16, 2024
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A 3D scanner measures and compiles millions of points on a real world object in a short amount of time by emitting and receiving signals. 3D software then assembles these points into a multidimensional image. Contact, active non-contact, and passive non-contact are types of scanners used for data collection. Health care providers, historical agencies, and product manufactures are some of the industries that make use of 3D scanner equipment. Companies also refer to 3D scanners as 3D digitalizers, laser scanners, LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scanners, and white light scanners.

3D scanner technology begins by emitting light, radiation or ultrasound signals which travel toward the object under evaluation. These signals reflect off the object and travel back to sensors contained within the device. The software receives this data as measured points and determines the distance from the time it takes each signal to leave the scanner, contact the object, and return to the sensors. The program then compiles these points into a point cloud or mesh and recreates the three dimensional image on a screen.

A contact 3D scanner requires placement of the object on a scanner bed. A robotic arm automatically or manually moves around, touching the item numerous times and compiling points of data based on the location on the object and various positions of the robot arm. Software then recreates the image using each point as reference. An active non-contact scanner emits signals which bounce off an object located within close proximity to the device. A passive non-contact scanner detects changes in infrared or visible light around an object from varied distances to create an image.

Industries use these 3D applications to obtain data from prototype model products. Using computer aided design (CAD) software, engineers make adjustments or modifications to the original design. Companies might scan numerous products, inspecting for imperfections or compiling information into a database. Manufacturers might also use information obtained from a 3D scanner for reverse engineering, which plugs the information into a computer-operated machine and creates a particular product based on 3D specifications.

Archeologists might use a 3D scanner to archive information gathered from ancient artifacts. The imaging devices commonly used by health care professionals, known as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are also types of 3D scanning technology. In these instances, the device measures signals that travel into the body, resonate off body tissues, and return to the sensors, creating multidimensional images of internal structures.

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