How to make 3D models
3D models are everywhere. They are behind every physical object we encounter, and are widely used by various industries. 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 you can imagine were once 3D models, too.
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. Architects build 3D models for visual demonstrations of buildings, landscapes, and interiors instead of or in addition to creating traditional architectural models.
Game designers widely use 3D modeling as a way to create 3D assets and characters for console, computer, and mobile games.
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 body anatomy, create custom medical solutions such as prostheses or orthotics, dental implants, for the visualization of plastic surgery results, and so on.
Preserving a Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur foot with a 3D scanner
Science and education sectors use them in a variety of ways from preservation of historical and archaeological pieces, to visualization of chemical compounds, geological models, and many other things.
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, rather than traveling to that place and arranging a 3D scan (which could be a challenge in itself when it comes to historical buildings!). Or, 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.
There are different 3D modeling techniques and different modeling 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 or CAD (Computer-Aided Design) is the No. 1 method used by engineers and designers to build realistic computer models of future parts and assemblies. Nearly every modern-day product we interact with on a daily basis was created using 3D CAD modeling.
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 3D printed or CNC machined, 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 is at the heart of almost every video game or sci-fi movie you have ever seen or played. A polygonal model is built of polygons: flat, two-dimensional shapes, triangles, or quads which the artist is modifying to build a 3D mesh. Unlike CAD modeling, this technique is more concept-driven rather than measurement-driven. Animation and video game studios use polygonal modeling to design everything from movie and game characters to various 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 games and animation movies, works best for creating hyper realistic objects with organic and smooth shapes. It’s also used for creating prototype models for design, sketches and 3D printing. 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 more artistic skills – 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’d like to go with, it’s important to choose the right modeling software that will have 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 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 visual effects to printing 3D models, interactive applications to video games.
For professionals and more advanced users, software programs with specific functionality for each step of post-processing may be best suited to you. 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 with a ton of polygons, 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, industry standard in mechanical design software. SOLIDWORKS is used by engineers and designers for part and assembly modeling, and includes simulation features as well as drawing and assembly tools. Other CAD software to consider are AutoCAD, Fusion 360 or Rhinoceros.
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. 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 of any 3D scanner is the same — a 3D model of a real object that can be used in a myriad of ways from CAD to reverse engineering, quality inspection to heritage preservation, CGI and more.
Let’s look at a few examples of how 3D scanning can be used in conjunction with traditional 3D modeling.
3D scanning for CAD
One of the ways of how 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 defects or 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 and have it on your screen in a matter of minutes. It won’t only be faster but more precise than using traditional modeling techniques, or contact-based measuring techniques 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 when they need to create a character based on the look of a real actor. Rather than spending hours on designing those things from scratch, they scan real-life objects or people with a scanner 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.
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 of them, like Sketchfab or Kraken by Turbosquid, allow you to create your own collections of models both for private and public viewing. For example, 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.
Some of those platforms, including Sketchfab, Turbosquid, CGTrader and Quixel, allow you to not just store 3D models but sell them to people who may be interested in them. Gaming engines like Unity and Unreal Engine 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.