How to make 3D models
3D models are everywhere. Used widely across industries, they’re now behind many of the physical objects we encounter in day-to-day life. In this guide we’ll cover the most popular 3D modeling methods, from designing a model from scratch to digitizing a physical object with a 3D scanner.
If you've never thought about how many 3D models you're surrounded by, you're about to start seeing your environment in a whole new light. 3D models are on TV, in movies and cartoons, commercials, video games, social media, mobile apps, VR, and more. But they're not just virtual objects you see on a screen. The cup you're holding, the pen on your desk, the car you drive, and the chair you're sitting on? Many modern-day physical objects can be designed with 3D modeling.
But how were these models created?
In this article, we will cover the basics of the 3D modeling process and look at the most popular ways of creating 3D models — from CAD and polygonal modeling to 3D scanning. We’ll also discuss the most common modeling software and share tips on when it’s better to design models from scratch, or to use a 3D scanner.
Let’s get started! First things first...
What is a 3D model?
A 3D model of a mechanical part in modeling software
In computer graphics, a 3D model is a digital representation of a surface, or an object, created in a specialized software. It represents a physical body using a collection of points in 3D space, connected by various geometric entities such as triangles, lines, curved surfaces, and so on. In some cases, a 3D model can convey an object’s size, shape and texture. The process of creating this representation is called 3D modeling.
Where and how 3D models are used
3D models are part of many creative careers. Engineers and designers use 3D models as part of their design process, either to create new products or to redesign existing ones. Take Curtis Industries – since adopting Artec Leo 3D scanning, the aftermarket part manufacturer has been able to reverse engineer cab enclosures in just 4-8 hours, 38 hours less than before.
Architects build 3D models for visual demonstrations of buildings, landscapes and interiors instead of or in addition to creating traditional architectural models. In practice, they’re also used to optimize production by specialists like MU Form Furniture Design, who 3D scan chairs, stools, and tables with Artec Eva for prototyping.
In video game design, it’s widely used to create landscapes and characters, while movie makers deploy 3D modeling in the creation of ultra-realistic VFX. If you’re a fan of the Sleepy Hollow TV show, you’ll be familiar with ‘Wraith.’ Played by Alexander Ward, the demon was brought to life using a model created with Eva and Artec Space Spider.
Austrian actor Peter Simonischek inspects a 3D printed and lifelike bust of himself based on a 3D scan
Movie makers use 3D models for special effects, as characters, and for various objects in animated and live-action motion pictures.
The medical industry relies on 3D models to visualize anatomies, customize prostheses, orthotics and dental implants, and visualize cosmetic surgery results. At Turkey’s AVSAR Aesthetic Surgery Clinic, for instance, customizing plastic surgery masks with 3D scanning has become key to helping patients make informed decisions.
Preserving a Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur foot with a 3D scanner
Elsewhere, science and education sectors use them in a variety of ways, from archaeological preservation to the visualization of chemical compounds and geological models. You only need to look at initiatives like the Google Maya Project, where Mayan masks were digitized for exhibition, to see the potential of 3D modeling in these fields.
Two main ways to create 3D models
While there are a number of ways to create 3D models, most of them boil down to two basic methods: building a model in 3D modeling software, or taking an object from the real world and turning it into a digital model using a 3D scanner. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of both methods, and learn how to determine which method is best suited for your task.
Method #1: 3D modeling
An industrial designer working on a prototype of a new product
The first way to create 3D models is to start from scratch using specialized 3D modeling software. This method is widely used by professionals across various industries: engineers, industrial designers, architects, CGI artists, and many others.
If you need to design something completely new that hasn’t yet been created, 3D modeling is the perfect way to let your imagination run wild and bring your ideas to life.
What’s great about this method is that it allows you to design something that doesn’t yet exist – something completely unique like a new component for a car or a fantasy creature in a video game – or something that already exists but is not available for scanning.
For example, if you need a model of a world-famous building located remotely or far from where you are, it can be much easier and more cost-effective to create a 3D model from scratch, using reference materials such as photos and videos.
Or, if you need to design something completely new, 3D modeling is the perfect way to let your imagination run wild and bring your ideas to life.
There are different 3D modeling techniques and software where you can design a model from scratch. It all depends on the particular object you want to create, and its intended application.
Parametric 3D modeling is the No.1 CAD (Computer-Aided Design) method used by engineers and designers to build future parts and assemblies.
Designing a 3D model in CAD software
With this method, a designer creates a 3D model of an object that can have all of the same parameters as an actual physical object: material, weight, size, optical parameters, physical parameters etc. These models can be then produced via technologies like 3D printing and CNC machining, as well as used to run complex simulations. For example, you can create assemblies of parts to see how they fit together, test how they will react to forces applied to them, monitor how fluids will flow through them, evaluate how they will be manufactured using simulations, and more.
This modeling technique – which is at the heart of almost every video game or sci-fi movie you have ever seen or played – sees 3D meshes built from polygons: flat, two-dimensional shapes, triangles, or quads. Unlike CAD modeling, it’s more concept than measurement-driven. Animation and video game studios use polygonal modeling to design everything from movie and game characters, to 3D assets such as weapons, armor, vehicles and entire virtual worlds.
A polygonal mesh model of a car
This method, also used by 3D artists in the games and animation movies, works best for creating hyper realistic objects with organic and smooth shapes.
The process is very similar to sculpting with real materials like clay or stone. By using brush-like sculpting tools you can manipulate the polygonal mesh of an object, pushing, pulling, and twisting various parts of its geometry or adding extra geometry to mimic an organic structure. Digital sculpting requires even greater artistic skill and is more meticulous and time-consuming than polygonal modeling.
That’s why in many cases these methods are used together: first the object is modeled, and then sent to a 3D sculptor for detailing to then take its final shape.
Designing a TV show character in digital sculpting software
Whatever method you go with, it's important to choose the right modeling software that has all the necessary tools to help you create your 3D model.
Best 3D modeling software for beginners
If you’re just starting out and are looking for the best software for 3D modeling, we’ve got a few great recommendations for you.
First and foremost, give Blender a try. Besides the fact that it’s free, it also comes with lots of tutorials, a strong community, and is altogether an ideal software for beginners. This open source 3D computer graphics software is suited for everything from creating visual effects to printing 3D models, and interactive applications to video games.
For professionals and advanced users, software programs with specific functionalities for each step of post-processing may be best. Have a look at Autodesk Maya, more commonly known as Maya. Because of its highly customizable user interface, this software is a favorite in the video game industry, as well as for those in 3D modeling or 3D animation. You’ll be able to try it out for a month before you make any paid decision.
3D model of a dragon in ZBrush
Alternatively, try 3ds Max, which also comes with a one-month trial. Specialized in its application for character modeling, animation, and hyper realistic rendering of your scanned items, this one’s good for speed and ease of use.
If you’re looking for a software for digital sculpting, give ZBrush a try. ZBrush is best-known for its ability to work with high-poly models, and it’s great when paired with Artec Studio. Similar alternatives include 3D-Coat, or Autodesk Mudbox.
If you’re looking for CAD modeling software, consider SOLIDWORKS, the industry standard in mechanical design. SOLIDWORKS is used widely by engineers and designers for part and assembly modeling, and includes simulation features as well as drawing and assembly tools. It’s also worth considering AutoCAD, Fusion 360, or Rhinoceros 3D.
These options are also standard for many studios to use, and when you’re looking to create a 3D model, you’ll likely find yourself working with at least one of these names.
Method #2: 3D scanning
3D scanning the crankshaft of an internal combustion engine with a structured-light 3D scanner
The second way to create 3D models is scanning. Unlike CAD or polygonal modeling that allows you to design a model completely from scratch, this method allows you to create an exact digital copy of a real-life object, a person, or an environment, using a 3D scanner. This method can be used on its own, but more often as an add-on to your existing modeling workflow, i.e. to scan something that will be further uploaded into CAD software for redesign or inspection, or into polygonal modeling or sculpting software for further touch-ups and editing.
Unlike polygonal modeling that allows you to design a model from scratch, 3D scanning allows you to create an exact digital copy of a real-life object, a person, or an environment. This method can be used on its own, but more often as an add-on to your existing modeling workflow.
The process of 3D scanning varies based on the technology the scanner is built on. There are structured light 3D scanners, laser triangulation-based scanners, time-of-flight laser scanners, and others. Structured-light devices like Artec Leo emit beams of white light in a grid format, in a way that allows small-to-medium sized objects to be digitized in high resolution, with complete freedom.
Then there’s the light detection and ranging or ‘LiDAR’ Artec Ray II. Built around time of flight technology, which works by calculating how long it takes for beams of light to reflect back off an object’s surface, this scanner captures larger structures from up to 130 meters away at lightning speed.
Some smartphones and tablets today can also be used as scanners thanks to the built-in or add-on sensors that allow them to see the world in 3D. Regardless of the technology used, the final result is the same — a 3D model of a real object that can be used in a myriad of ways, from CAD to reverse engineering and quality inspection to heritage preservation, CGI and more.
Pros & cons of 3D scanning
Compared to traditional sketching, 3D scanning is considerably faster. In prototyping, where speed is imperative, switching to the technology means getting products to market more quickly. With the sheer accuracy of handhelds like Artec Leo, industrial designers can also ensure assembly parts will fit, well before they enter production.
Whereas other capture techniques like photogrammetry can be carried out cheaply with everyday smartphones, they’re a lot trickier to perfect. You’ll need to make sure you capture shots that cover an object’s entire surface – any gaps will be reflected in your end model. This is a far cry from the point and click functionality of 3D scanning.
In other cases, it may also be best to use 3D scanning in conjunction with traditional 3D modeling. Let’s look at a few examples.
3D scanning for CAD
One of the ways 3D scanning can be used is for capturing the exact geometrical information about an object that needs to be analyzed, reverse engineered, or inspected for any deviations from an original CAD model or sketch. It’s especially useful when you don’t have access to the initial 3D or 2D CAD files of a product. Instead of spending hours creating the model from scratch, you can simply scan it. It won’t only be faster but more precise than using traditional modeling techniques, or contact-based measuring machinery such as CMMs.
Scanning a mechanical part for reverse engineering using a turntable and a 3D scanner
Beside the ability to replicate an object in 3D, 3D scanners also allow us to create custom solutions which would not have been possible with traditional modeling. For example, doctors and medical professionals use 3D scanning to design solutions for their patients based on their individual body parameters, such as a custom wheelchair based on the patient’s spine scan, a custom sole, or a custom-designed prosthetic leg.
3D scanning for polygonal modeling and sculpting
3D scanners are also a go-to tool when you need to achieve a high degree of photorealism which is not always possible with polygonal modeling or sculpting. Many game studios that specialize in sports games use 3D scanners to scan the faces of famous athletes so their 3D characters look as realistic as possible.
Movie studios rely on 3D scanners when they need to design hyper realistic 3D assets such as weapons or vehicles or create a character based on the look of a real actor. Rather than spending hours on designing those from scratch, they scan real-life objects or people and upload the models for further editing in their favorite 3D design software.
Editing a 3D model of an FPS character captured with a 3D scanner
In certain cases, in addition to 3D scanning and 3D modeling, some professionals turn to another modeling method: photogrammetry. This method is close to 3D scanning as it allows users to create a 3D model of something that exists in the real world by taking multiple pictures of it with a camera (or multiple cameras) and stitching them all together.
An example of a multi-camera photogrammetry rig for full-body 3D scanning
This process compared to 3D scanning, however, is more time-consuming as you have to take hundreds of shots to capture the object from all sides. Also, it doesn’t build the model in real time like 3D scanners do, which leaves you unable to see if something went wrong, and then be able to change it on the go.
The main advantage of using photogrammetry is its ability to reproduce an object with an especially high quality of texture – better than most 3D scanners. However, the downside of this method is that it’s not as accurate. For the very best results both in texture and geometry, it is recommended to use 3D scanners and photogrammetry in tandem.
Additionally, for precision industrial applications, it’s possible to optimize results with the Artec Metrology Kit. Alone, the product works as an optical measurement solution, but it can be also deployed as a referencing tool for higher accuracy over distance – Artec Studio even has a plug-in for seamless 3D scanning and photogrammetry integration.
Marketplaces for storing and selling 3D models
Once your 3D model is ready, there are multiple ways to use and share it. If you’re creating a model for internal use, you can store it on your computer or upload it to a file sharing service, such as Dropbox. However, if you’d like to share it with someone who may not have compatible 3D software to view it, it might be a good idea to upload it to a website where you can not only store your models, but allow other people to view or download them.
There are many websites for storing and selling 3D models. Some, like Sketchfab or Kraken by Turbosquid, allow you to create your own collections of models both for private and public viewing. In Sketchfab, you can not only upload a model as is, but also adjust the lighting and other parameters, and get an embed code so you can post it on a website the same way you would with a YouTube video or a tweet.
Platforms like Sketchfab, Turbosquid and others including CGTrader, Quixel, Thingiverse, and MyMiniFactory, allow you to not just store 3D models but sell them. Gaming engines like Unity and Unreal Engine also have their own 3D model marketplaces where game developers can buy 3D assets for their games.
The developers of the most popular 3D modeling and design software such as Autodesk have their own 3D viewing sites where it is also possible to upload 3D models directly from the software. Similarly, it is possible to do the same with 3D scanning software like Artec Studio, which allows export of the final 3D model into its native 3D viewer ViewShape.
As you can see, there are various ways to create 3D models. In cases where you need to model something that doesn’t exist, or something completely new, you’ll probably want to design it in 3D modeling software. However, if you need to model something that already exists, consider 3D scanning. Not only you can save time and effort, but you’ll get precise results which you might never achieve with conventional modeling tools.