Technology Explained

How Do 3D Scanners Work and Should You Buy One?

Briallyn Smith 14-10-2015

3D scanners seem like something straight out of science fiction, but they’re indeed real and already revolutionizing the day-to-day operations of several key industries.


But even though the technology is incredible and there are several fantastic benefits to using a 3D scanner — especially when partnered with a 3D printer’s impressive functionality What Is 3D Printing And How Exactly Does It Work? Imagine if you could print out three-dimensional objects straight from a printer in your home. When I was a kid in primary school, I thought it would be awesome if I could print pizzas out... Read More — the price point is still a little high for most consumers.

Because of this, it’s important to understand exactly what you can get from a 3D scanner today and whether or not the pros outweigh the cons for what you hope to accomplish.

How Do 3D Scanners Work?

It’s easiest to think of 3D scanners as intense cameras, but instead of creating photographs or videos, they create 3D renderings.

3D scanners collect information about objects within a set visual field, but unlike cameras, 3D scanners collect an information about an object’s position in space instead of its color and appearance. This is possible by calculating the distances between the scanner and various points of an object’s surface.



Generally, 3D scanners can be sorted into two different types: contact scanners and non-contact scanners.

Contact scanners, as the name suggests, require direct contact with the object that they are scanning while non-contact scanners use laser light or radiation (such as X-ray or ultrasound) to gather information about the object.

One current limitation of 3D scanners is that they can only capture information from visible surfaces of an object within the camera’s line-of-sight. In the video below, Ben Heck explores some of the difficulties when trying to get an accurate scan using a handheld 3D scanner:

Because of this, in order to get a full 3D rendering, many different scans from many different vantage points must be compiled into a single file. But thanks to recent advances in 3D scanning technology, the time it takes to complete a high number of scans is always getting shorter.


Most commercial 3D scanners are non-contact and often use laser light.

A laser is shone onto the object of interest (different models can use either a single laser point, a laser line, or a series of linear projections) which then reflects the laser back to the scanner. The scanner is also equipped with a sensor that collects data from the laser(s) about the object’s shape (calculated based on the angle of the returning light).

As you might expect, scanning a single object in 3D requires a huge amount of data, and this data needs to be processed through 3D scanning software. Lots of 3D scanning software packages are available online, and the one that works best for you will depend on what you’re hoping to achieve.

What Are 3D Scanners Used For?

3D scanners can serve a variety of purposes in large industries. For example, museums use them to offer 3D renderings of famous artifacts while manufacturers use them to create product parts. But even so, 3D scanners provide some great opportunities for at-home users, too.


The most obvious is to use them in combination with 3D printers to make accurate scale models or prototypes of existing objects. These models can be used for fun (e.g. a model-sized replica of one’s own car), to capture physical replicas of objects as souvenirs, to solve annoying everyday problems 9 Effortless 3D Printing Solutions to Annoying Life Problems Not all of us are clever lifehackers. But the ease and universal availability of low-cost 3D printing now allows us to solve life's annoying little problems with just a 3D design idea. Read More , or to plan out a future design project.


Even without a 3D printer, a lot can be accomplished with a 3D virtual model. Use a virtual model of an object, person, or location creatively in game design or as an avatar, for a visual design process, or to gather information you need about a physical space.

The only limitations to what you can do with a 3D scanner are your own creativity and the physical capabilities of your 3D scanner. Other than that, anything you can dream of scanning is basically within your grasp! (Seriously, anything. It’s already possible to print food with a 3D printer Will 3D Printed Food Remove Humans From The Kitchen? You probably know that 3d printers have been used to create everything from mechanical gears to prosthetic limbs and living human tissue. But did you know that they're also being used to print food? Read More , you know.)


Should You Buy a 3D Scanner?


When it comes to 3D scanners, it’s safe to say that it’s not a matter of if you should buy a 3D scanner, but rather a matter of when you should buy one — but there are two major factors that you should take into consideration before making the plunge.

3D scanner technology is still in a period of growth.

Expect regular jumps in specifications and capabilities over the next few years. That being said, consumer 3D scanners are quite proficient today and should let you accomplish most of the things you want to do.

Keep in mind, however, that new variations on 3D scanning technology are still being developed, including cool innovations like a 3D scanner laser chip that’s small enough to be installed in a smartphone.

The other consideration is, of course, price.

While more accessible than ever before, 3D scanners are still beyond most people’s budget. Some quality models can be bought for as little as $600, but most are still in the $1000+ range — not much more expensive than an upper-tier laptop, but still a little more cash than most people are comfortable dropping at once.

As well, if you don’t already own a 3D printer, then you may be limited in what you can do with your scanner. Of course 3D printing on a budget 3D Printing on a Budget: M3D Micro Review and Giveaway A fully assembled consumer friendly 3D printer is now within your grasp: the M3D Micro, available now for just $350. We've finally got our hands on one, and it's actually pretty good. Read More is always an option, but it’s still an additional cost. For reference, low-end 3D printers start around $350.

Which 3D Scanners Are Available?

MakerBot Digitizer ($1200)

The Digitizer by MakerBot has an impressive set of features. In just 12 minutes, the scanner composes thousands of points from all angles into a point cloud, which are then transformed into a 3D model. The information collected by the Digitizer is also converted into a format that can be read by your 3D printer of choice.

MakerBot’s software lets you seamlessly transition between scanning, editing, and/or printing, including the option to merge different scans together.

The main limitation to the Digitizer is its relatively small scanning field: 8″x8″ with a weight limit of 3kg. Objects need to be able to fit on its platform to be accurately captured. As well, the Digitizer is currently in the early-adopter phase, as some things still need to be worked out before its final consumer release.

Scanify ($1490)

Scanify is a handheld commercial scanner that allows you to create full-color 3D renditions of faces and objects in record time — a single image takes only 0.1 seconds to complete.

The handheld functionality offers greater flexibility in the scanning process, but also requires more control to achieve a perfect scan. Scanify’s speed comes at the cost of accuracy with certain objects, including mono-color objects, objects with sharp corners, and reflective objects.

Scanify’s pro software comes at a subscription cost of $99 per year, but offers many editing, stitching, and 3D printing options.

Matter and Form 3D Scanner ($600)


If the price points of Scanify and Digitizer have you a little scared, Matter and Form’s 3D Scanner may be more your speed. This 3D scanner was originally a Kickstarter project, but has evolved to become one of the best budget 3D scanners around.

It has a rotating platform and moving camera combination that quickly captures all angles and colors of an object in as little as five minutes with a quality comparable to the higher-price models.

As with Scanify, scanned objects are limited to a smaller scale — 7″x9.8″ with a weight limit of 3.0kg — but basic software is included that helps you to create watertight meshes for printing.

Matter and Form Bevel ($80)


Matter and Form has seen the demand for mobile scanners, and in response has introduced Bevel: a smartphone attachment that lets you scan objects in 3D while on the go. Bevel makes use of your existing smartphone camera and its external eye-safe laser light to take portable 3D images of objects. It connects through the headphone jack.

It’s currently in pre-order phase, but Bevel will be compatible with both Android and iOS and promises to offer 3D photos that can be shared like traditional photographs or used for 3D printing for a fraction of the price of a full-model 3D scanners. Bevel’s expected ship date is Winter 2016.

ETH Zurich’s 3D Scanning App

The only thing better than a tiny, external mobile 3D scanner? An app that turns your smartphone or tablet into a 3D scanner without any additional hardware!

There are a lot of apps that improve your phone’s ability to take photos Tested: Can The Right Camera App Make Your Phone's Camera Work Better? Did you ever stop to think that the right camera app may improve your phone's innate abilities? Is that even possible? Read More , but this app takes it a step further. ETH Zurich’s 3D Scanning App is still under development, but it promises to let users create accurate 3D renderings of their environment without requiring any complicated equipment.

Are 3D Scanners Part of Your Future?

With the incredible influence that they are having on the world’s industries, it’s unlikely that 3D scanners and 3D printers are just a passing fad 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping: Future or Fad? What went through your mind the first time you saw 3D printing in action? Did you think, "Hey that's moderately cool"? Or did you think, "Wow. I could build ANYTHING with that!" Read More .

Have you taken the leap and purchased one? Do you think that you are likely to own a 3D Scanner in the future? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Image Credits: Desiree Walstra via, Chesky via, A&I Kruk via

Related topics: 3D Printing, Technology.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. paul
    January 15, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    My company owns a Makerbot also and usable scans are virtually impossible. Makerbot definitely needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

    • Briallyn Smith
      January 16, 2016 at 3:44 am

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Paul! That's really good to know!

  2. Anonymous
    October 15, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    scan the human body then put it back together once it gets to the other side. HEY SUE ME IT'S JUST A THOUGHT. but you never know.

  3. Anonymous
    October 15, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    i see this as a start off to a real life beam me up scotty.

    • Briallyn Smith
      October 31, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Wouldn't that be incredible?! Sign me up for teleportation the moment it becomes a reality!

  4. Anonymous
    October 15, 2015 at 11:59 am

    The Makerbot Digitizer is not a good investment. My company has had three of them since January and last I heard we still weren't able to successfully scan anything more complex than a featureless cube. The usual line from the company is that lighting conditions are a problem, but we've also been told to try various different lighting conditions, that the scanner isn't on a level surface, that the platform is somehow vibrating etc.

    I'm not involved in the ongoing support debacle but the folks in my office who are basically abandoned their project until we can get better hardware.

    • Briallyn Smith
      October 31, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience – it's really good to hear from someone who has actually used them in a real-world environment!

  5. James Bruce
    October 14, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    I wrote about autodesk's 123d catch app back in 2012: //

    It's now got a free mobile app too. Works really well, at least it did when I tested back on Windows.

    There's also some Kinect based 3D scanner open source apps, I believe. I remember a Kinect toy from the Xbox store which let you scan your favorite teddy bear, then it would animate it. Actually, it was kinda scary 0_o

    I suspect 3D scanning will receive a resurgence in popularity next year due to Virtual Reality. Facebook will launch a VR metaverse and some people will want to scan their real bodies in. I think I'll leave it as the default avatar though ;)

    • Briallyn Smith
      October 31, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks James!! :) Those sound like fantastic options too - but, um, that Kinect teddy bear deal sounds like the scariest thing I've ever heard of. Who thought that was a good idea?!!?!?

      Oh man - the moment Facebook gets involved things are going to get way too weird in the 3D scanning world haha. 3D selfies everywhere.