By Jason Vander Griendt

November 6, 2020 at 7:35 am

What is 3D scanning? How does 3D scanning with a smartphone work?

3D scanning is the process of taking a physical object and using one of several ways to turn that physical object into a three dimensional representation of it that can be manipulated in computer programs such as CAD software, or can be used for taking accurate measurements without having to do them all manually.

3D scanning has been around since 1960s, and there are different ways that 3D scanning can be accomplished, using lights or lazers for example. Up until recently however this process has been very costly and required specialized equipment that was usually static and could easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. This has meant it has been prohibitive for most people, unless they were willing to pay for a 3D scanning service.

The type of 3D scanning we’re going to talk about today however is called photogrammetry. Essentially the way photogrammetry works is that you use a camera to take lots of photographs of a static object from many different angles. These photos are then stitched together in 3D scanning software to create a 3D model.

While this sounds complicated, with the rise of high quality smartphone cameras and 3D scanning smartphone apps, with a bit of practice and a relatively new smartphone almost anyone can start 3D scanning!

Why would you want to 3D scan something with your phone?

Apart from the inherent novelty value of making cool 3D scans with something you can carry in your pocket, there are a lot of different uses for personal 3D scanning. Some people use 3D scanning to make realistic representations of themselves to use for avatars in 3D worlds. Others use 3D scanning to make house plans or take measurements that would be much more tedious to do manually.

What we’re really interested in though is the potential to use 3D scanning technologies for 3D printing applications, and to streamline the process of reverse engineering and prototyping products.

3D printing uses

The possibilities for creating 3D models ready for printing using smartphone 3D scanning are almost endless.

For example:

You’re basically only limited by your imagination. If you don’t have a 3D printer or the skills to clean up the file for printing that’s no problem at all, we can help!

3D scanning application: Check out how to use 3D scanning to create 3D printed chess pieces!

Reverse engineering uses

Not too long ago we were approached by the Ritz Carlton to create protective casings for a model cruise liner, because it had previously been damaged in transport, was expensive to fix, and they didn’t want to have that issue again in the future! This project used 3D scanning to create a 3D file for the model which we were able to use in negative to create protective foam sidings.

There are many similar reverse engineering uses for 3D scanning. Imagine that you work restoring old cars or furniture, where the parts you need are no longer available to purchase from anywhere. If you are able to scan the parts, you can then manufacture more of the parts on your own for any future restorations. It can even be used for one off pieces, for example cloning a missing part which is mirrored on both sides of an object.

You could even scan an object that you want to make an addition to – say for example a pot holder for a specific type or brand of pot – cutting out the guesswork and accurate measurements of the product that would be required if you were going to prototype your product idea from scratch.

Prototyping uses

For simple parts and products, all we need to get started with designing and prototyping your product is a sketch with some dimensions.

If you are working on a more complex project however, and like to begin with manual prototypes from cardboard, foam or other similar building materials, 3D scanning can be a great help. Make your physical prototype, and once you’re happy with it, then it can be scanned and turned it into a 3D CAD file ready for refining and 3D printing as a prototype, and then eventually for manufacturing.

How do you get started 3D scanning with a smartphone?

This isn’t a tutorial on 3D scanning with a smartphone – there are plenty of those online already, and once you download an app you can simply learn through experimentation with the software. But to get started it might be helpful to know where to look.

Some phones are starting to build 3D scanning technology into their operating systems. For example check out this promo for the Samsung Galaxy Note 10’s 3D scanning capabilities:

3D scanning software also comes as standard with Sony’s latest Xperia models.

There are also many standalone smartphone apps for 3D scanning available. Most of these come with a small fee, but the amount you’ll pay for the app is nothing compared to the cost of a complete photogrammetry set up (which can require many high quality cameras) or the use of professional 3D scanning services.

Here is a good example walkthrough of how to use a free 3D scanning app with your smartphone:

What to do once you have your 3D scan

Send it to us! Because your 3D scan, while good, may not be up to professional standards, it may need to be cleaned up if you want to use it to 3D print.

If you’re using 3d scanning to reverse engineer a part or to prototype a product, we can use that as a starting point to finalize your CAD drawings, and then to begin manufacturing your product.

Of course if all this seems like too much hassle for you, we can help you with all parts of the process. In most cases all we need to get started is a rough sketch with some dimensions on the back of a napkin or envelope 🙂

If you’d like to get a quote, give us a call on 1.888.202.2052, get in touch with us through our live chat, or send us more info about your project through our quote form. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Jason Vander Griendt

Jason Vander Griendt is a Mechanical Engineering Technician with years of experience working at major companies such as SNC Lavalin Inc, Hatch Ltd. Siemens and Gerdau Ameristeel. He is the CEO of JCAD – Inc., a company he started in 2006 after seeing a gap in the market for businesses who could assist clients through the entire product design and manufacturing process.

Jason has been featured in Forbes, has had his businesses analyzed and discussed in multiple start-up books, was a previous winner of the Notable8 Digital Innovator of the year award, and is a regular guest on business panels and podcasts. Email Jason at or follow him on LinkedIn.

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