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3D Scanning 101

How to choose digitizing technologies.

How to choose digitizing technologies.

By Debbie Sniderman

3D Scanning 101

Figure 1. This physical object is covered with targets, ready for photographing. Photogrammetry software extracts geometric information of the reflective targets’ centers.

The 3D Imaging and Modeling Metrology Group of the National Research Council of Canada and InnovMetric Software, Inc., maker of PolyWorks software, studied 3D measurement hardware technologies and external frame of reference (EFR) monitoring techniques as a basis for research into developing 3D measurement standards. DE looks at some of their findings.

With multiple digitizing technologies available, it is often not obvious which might best serve your needs. This study looked at principles, characteristics and key advantages and disadvantages of both low- and high-density scanning techniques.

Low-density, Single-point Techniques

Single-point measurement tools target and measure one or more specific points at a time by mechanical contact or optical non-contact methods. There are five key reasons that both mechanical contact and optical non-contact, low-density methods are still relevant and important (see Table 1):

1. When combined with mechanical EFR tracking and controlling software, they can produce automated, rapid, repeated 3D surface measurements.

2. They are suitable for measuring parts with highly reflective or transparent surfaces.

3. Difficult-to-reach areas such as deep holes or underbodies may be easier to measure.

4. They can rapidly measure small objects or those with a small number of features.

5. In general, they provide very accurate measurements.

Mechanical measuring methods involve moving a spherical stylus or probe tip to contact an object’s surface and measuring the (x,y,z) position of the tip’s center.

Optical measuring methods project light generated from a lamp, bulb or laser, onto a surface, a reflective marker affixed to a surface, or other reflectors such as spherically mounted retro-reflectors (SMRs). The absolute or relative distance between the scanner and the object is calculated based on the speed of light and the travel time to and from the object (see Figures 1, 2 and 3).

3D Scanning 101

Figure 2. Simple and coded reflective targets.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 3. Known-length reference artifacts (the black bars and cross) on a surface.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 4. Fixed multi-axis coordinate measuring machine with probe.

Mechanical tracking for single point measuring techniques retains the same coordinate system as the scanned object. Fixed or portable CMMs’ base or zero does not change as measurements are made (see Figures 4 and 5).

Optical tracking for single-point measuring techniques involves either a laser tracker following the center of a reflective probe, or light-emitting or passive targets affixed to a touch probe mount. Again, these tracking technologies remain in the same coordinate system as the object.

Conceptually, this is similar to a camera pivoting on a tripod mount to take multiple photos of an object, but the tripod is not moved to a different vantage point (see Figure 6).

3D Scanning 101

Figure 5. An arm-mounted probe obtains coordinate information from multiple points across a surface.

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Figure 6. A laser tracker with a SMR scans multiple reflective targets mounted on a surface.

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Figure 7. The basic concept of high-density, non-contact digitizing.

External Frame of Reference

EFR hardware or software monitors the digitizer’s position in real time as it moves around an object, and aligns its many images into a common coordinate system to fully capture and assemble the object’s 3D geometry. EFR is used for precise measurements of large (>1 meter) or complex objects, and can be combined with either low- or high-density digitizing technologies. EFR is required whenever digitizing hardware is moved out of the coordinate system of the object—conceptually equivalent to moving a tripod-mounted camera to another vantage point.

High-density, Non-contact Digitizing

High density, non-contact digitizing methods provide a much faster option for measuring large numbers of points without requiring targets. Since the 1980s, non-contact methods have been preferred for large or freeform surfaces, objects with many features, flexible objects, or fragile objects, because surfaces are not touched by a probe.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 8. Overview of active, high-density, non-contact digitizing technologies.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 9. The basic geometric principle of triangulation-based laser digitizing uses a single static laser beam spot.

Active High-density Scanning

High-density digitizing can be active or passive, but active scanning is the more commonly used method. Conceptually, energy is projected onto a physical part, reflected, and viewed or sensed by an electronic detection device (typically a camera or sensor). Analyzing the position of the reflected energy’s image determines (x,y,z) coordinates of the object (see Figure 7).

Surface 3D digitizers capture an object’s external visible surfaces. Volumetric 3D digitizers capture both exterior visible surfaces and hidden interior geometries.

Destructive Volumetric 3D techniques slowly grind away a small layer of material, digitize what is seen, and repeat until the entire part has been fully digitized and destroyed. Destructive methods are typically used for smaller, low cost, mass-produced parts for which internal structure is crucial, and are rarely used.

Most digitizers used in industrial applications use non-destructive techniques. About 90% of close-range, high-density digitizers belong in the triangulation category enclosed in red (see Figure 8).

Table 2 summarizes principles and characteristics of high-density measuring technologies and associated EFR methods.

Table 1: Low-density/Single-point Measurement Technologies

Name of Method

Contact/Non-contact Method

Incremental or Absolute Distance Measurement (ADM) 

Detection Method

What is Measured or Algorithmically Extracted
Type of Tracking Along Surface

Traditional Fixed CMMContactAbsoluteCenter of Spherical Tip Contacts SurfaceProbe tip’s center (x,y,z) position is recorded, true surface calculated based on a compensation vector, displacement in timeFixed multi-axis coordinate measurement machine (CMM)Immobile technique requiring part be brought to the measurement tool
Portable CMM: Articulated ArmContactAbsoluteCenter of Spherical Tip Contacts SurfaceProbe tip’s center position is recorded, true surface calculated based on a compensation vector, displacement in timeSix-axis or a seven-axis articulated (jointed) armArm with many flexible joints, brought near the part to be measured
Portable CMM: Laser TrackerContactEither or both, Interferometer based or ADMCenter of a spherically mounted retro reflector (SMR) contacts surfaceLaser beam is locked on center of SMR; azimuth and elevation angles of laser beam are measured, distance between laser tracker origin and SMR is measuredLaser beam tracks the 3D coordinates of SMR’s centerPortable; tracker is brought near the part to measure
Portable CMM: Optical TrackerContactAbsoluteCenter of a spherical tip mounted with light-emitting or passive targets contacts surfaceCenter of all visible light-emitting or passive targets affixed on contact probeTracks reflective or emitting targetsPortable; tracker is brought near the part to measure
PhotogrammetryNon-contact (but targets do contact object)AbsoluteOptical: Digital camera photographs targets on a surfaceCenter of light-emitting or passive targets affixed or mounted on object’s surfaceTracks targets whose position are determined by photogrammetryPortable; cameras are brought to the part to be photographed
Table 2: High-density Non-contact Measurement Technologies

Technology Name(s)


Active or Passive

Surface or Volumeric

Type of Radiant Energy

Detection Method


Typical Beneficial EFR Technologies
Laser Flying Spot TriangulationTriangulationActiveSurfaceLaserOptical detection of a single laser spot by camera sensors or CCDsReflected light is focused onto a camera. Known projection and collection angles relative to a baseline determines the dimensions of a triangle and coordinates of surface point.Custom encoder-based translation or rotation systems, laser trackers, optical trackers, photogrammetry, articulated arm portable CMM, robots
Laser Line ScanningTriangulationActiveSurfaceLaserOptical detection of projected laser line by camera sensors or CCDsReflected light is focused onto a camera. Known projection and collection angles relative to a baseline determine the dimensions of a triangle and coordinates of surface point.Custom encoder-based translation or rotation systems, laser trackers, optical trackers, photogrammetry, articulated arm portable CMM, robots
Fringe-based Projection DigitizingTriangulationActiveSurfaceWhite light from halogen or other lamp sourceOptical detection of projected light fringe patterns on camera sensors or CCDsFringe patterns of light of various resolutions are used to uniquely determine projection directions over object’s surface. Reflections are collected in one or more cameras and analyzed.For areas <1m x 1m: photogrammetry, turntable and gantry, or best-fit alignment using overlapping areas. For large areas >1m x 1m: photogrammetry, optical tracker, mechanical tracker or robot
Conoscopic HolographyInterferometric techniqueActiveSurfaceLaserOptical detection of polarized light interference patterns on CCDsReflected light is diffused through a crystal and projected onto a CCD. Frequency analyses of the resulting diffraction patterns determines distance to the object, producing 3D holograms.Fixed CMM or 3-axis mechanical tracking system
Industrial Computer Tomography (CT)CTActiveVolumetricX-rayX-ray detectionAttenuated x-ray energy passes through a rotating object. Stacking 2D cross sectional images builds 3D image.No external EFR, included in turnkey system
Time of Flight (TOF),  Pulse-based Laser Digitzing, Laser TrackingTOFActiveSurfaceLaserOptical detection of laser beam pulsesPulsed laser light is sent to the object, and a portion of that pulse is reflected.  Absolute distance to target is calculated based on the time for the pulse to return to the detector.Center of reflective probe is tracked by laser. EFR using optical targets in the scene and post-processing software
TOF Phase Shift Laser DigitizingTOFActiveSurfaceLaserOptical detection of laser light’s phase shiftVarying wavelength laser light is sent to object; phase shift of reflected wave is measured to determine object’s position and intensity.Center of reflective probe is tracked by laser. EFR using optical targets in the scene and post-processing software
Dense Stereo Vision DigitizingNon-destructive PassiveSurfaceNone—ambient white lightOptical detection of white light using high-resolution or stereo camerasA point on the surface is located by analyzing the difference of multiple images of the surface taken by high-speed, high-resolution or stereo cameras placed around a part.Post-processing software

Triangulation-based Laser Techniques

Laser triangulation digitizers project a line or a single spot (projected as a line using mirrors) onto an object, which reflects and is imaged by a camera. Knowing projection and collection angles relative to a baseline determines a triangle’s dimensions and the coordinates of a point on the surface (see Figures 9, 10 and 11).

3D Scanning 101

Figure 10. Another form of triangulation-based laser digitizing, with a laser line projected on digitized object.

3D Scanning 101 Figure 11. A handheld laser scanner sweeps across a surface.

These close-range laser techniques offer excellent depth resolution on large parts, and can measure small detail such as borders, edges and cracks. They are more robust to ambient light sources, and less subject to noise from object color or luster.

There is a performance trade-off, however, for technologies with a baseline, such as triangulation. Larger baselines are more accurate, whereas smaller baselines exhibit fewer occlusion effects. The laser speckle effect (see Figure 12) also limits this technique’s accuracy on optically rough surfaces.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 12. An example of the laser speckle effect.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 13. The basic geometric principle of fringe-based projection digitizing.

Fringe-based Projection Techniques

Successive images of fringe patterns are projected onto an object, and one or two high-density cameras capture surface images. Enough fringe patterns are projected until a grid of object coordinates can be formed from intersecting reflections on individual camera pixels (see Figures 13 and 14).

3D Scanning 101

Figure 14. This fringe-based white light projection digitizer is combined with optical tracking EFR.

Detailed measurements can be made by taking a series of photos with different stripe pattern widths (phase-shifting), as shown in Figure 15. This technique is known as white light time-multiplexed pattern projection.

These close-range measurement techniques offer good accuracy and lateral resolution along two axes, and are fast to measure objects with low-curvature surfaces. Important limitations of fringe techniques, however, are that they lack the dynamic range needed to scan shiny finishes, are slow to measure objects with intricate details, and suffer from occlusion effects, requiring additional shots depending on the size of the object.

3D Scanning 101

Figure 15. Object to digitize with interference fringe patterns for coarse and fine depth measurement.

Before You Buy

Benchmarking involves evaluating sample scans and comparing results to known nominal values. It can highlight unpredictable or non-obvious issues, and can help the user gain confidence in a technique and its results. It can also help determine whether additional external reference hardware or software is needed for your specific application.Marc Soucy, president of InnovMetric, stresses that benchmarking allows a wide variety of software options, plug-ins and add-ons to be demonstrated, that can control digitizing hardware or reduce sample or evaluation time. He suggests that benchmarking should include repeated measurements of a known part before making a system purchase, and recommends benchmarking the digitizing and EFR technologies under consideration together.

Industrial Computer Tomography (CT) Techniques

These close-range, turnkey techniques produce a complete volumetric point cloud of an object, and in some cases, allow porosity and internal defects to be seen. They are very accurate techniques. Unfortunately, CT can be quite expensive, and calibrating and measuring parts made with different materials is a challenge.

Time-of-flight (TOF)-based Laser Techniques

Pulse-based and phase-shift TOF techniques are co-axial technologies with no baseline and therefore no occlusion effects. They are compatible with conventional surveying tools such as GPS, GIS and LIDAR. Their acquisition speeds are suitable for measuring objects such as cars, planes, trains or buildings. One disadvantage of TOF laser techniques, however, is that they are less accurate than close-range techniques.

Passive High-density Scanning

Also known as dense stereo vision (DSV) digitizing, passive scanners capture high-resolution photographs of surfaces lit with high-lumen external or ambient light, instead of radiating light. DSV techniques use multiple cameras and processing software, and are useful for mid-range scanning. They are simple to set up, have rapid measurement times, and some commercial versions provide automated surface matching. Drawbacks include being less accurate than close-range techniques due to occlusion effects, and only working on parts with texture

Identify Your Needs

The following graphics present performance ranges to help you evaluate 3D scanning technologies appropriate for your needs.EFR techniques have their own performance specifications that are indicated separately. According to Marc Soucy, president of InnovMetric, EFR techniques can dramatically influence overall measurement results, and their performances should be taken into consideration as well.Other important factors to consider include:• number of operators required

• fixture requirements, system footprint and power

• setup, data collection and data processing time

• calibration procedures

• formats of output files and results

• availability of options such as continuous or energy-saving modes,wireless data transfer, remote controlsand the dynamic compensation for thermal expansion, temperature, vibration or other environmental conditions.

3D Scanning 101

Accuracy ranges of EFR hardware technologies. The volumetric capacity of the EFR determines the area the digitizer can capture.

3D Scanning 101

Accuracy ranges of non-contact digitizing technologies.

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Range of object sizes measureable by non-contact and EFR technologies.

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Portability of non-contact and EFR technologies.

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Range of surface materials, finishes, reflectances and transparencies measurable by non-contact digitizing technologies.

3D Scanning 101

Relative measurement flexibility of non-contact and EFR technologies, such as the ability to collect data in deep holes, view surface from different perspectives, offer a large depth of field, or gather islands of data only where needed.

3D Scanning 101

Typical minimum resolution of non-contact digitizing technologies, involving minimum lateral spacing between successive points or smallest depth difference needed to detect edge, surface and hole fidelity. All images courtesy of InnovMetric Software, Inc.

3D Scanning Terms
Single-point 3D measuring techniqueTargets and measures one or several specific points at a time in 3D
Contact-based probeSingle-point measuring technique that physically touches an object to produce 3D scans
Active non-contact scannerProduces 3D scans by emitting radiation that reflects on an object
Passive non-contact scannerProduces 3D scans by detecting ambient visible light using cameras or video, not radiation
Digitizer, probe or scannerGeneric term for a measurement tool that produces digital scans or obtains coordinates of an object
Close-range digitizerDigitizer with a standoff distance <1m
Spherically mounted retroreflector (SMR)One type of reflector used with laser trackers, also called a spherically shaped corner cube reflector
PhotogrammetryTechnique for obtaining geometric  properties of surfaces from photographs of reflective targets or artifacts
Coordinate measuring machine (CMM)A wide variety of mechanical systems that track a moving probe and provide its coordinates in space
Articulated armLightweight and portable six- or seven-axis mechanical CMM that records and outputs the location of a probe in 3D space based on the angle and length of each joint
Laser trackerLightweight and portable optical CMM that tracks the center of a reflective probe by laser
External frame of reference (EFR ) coupling methodsHardware and/or software algorithms that align multiple scans, images or a series of collected data points into a common coordinate system, and allow multiple measurements from different angles to be integrated into a single total view
Surface digitizerCaptures external, visual surfaces, edges and holes
Volume digitizerCaptures surfaces as well as hidden, internal geometries
Occlusion effect (optical)Surfaces, edges or features are not visible due to orientation
Conoscopic holography3D holographic distance measuring technique suitable for shiny surfaces and narrow, deep or small aspect ratio holes
Triangulation scannerDetermines coordinates of a point on an object’s surface based on knowledge of the angles among a light source, the object and a detector
Reference artifactA structure such as a bar or cross with a calibrated known length or scale
Retroreflective photogrammetry targetHighly reflective dot that returns light back to the source along the same light direction

More Info:

InnovMetric Software, Inc.

National Research Council Canada

Debbie Sniderman is CEO of VI Ventures LLC, an engineering, manufacturing and R&D consultancy. Contact her at

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