3D Scanner Selection: Nine Essential Questions to Consider

By on July 20th, 2023 in learning, news

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A typical modern 3D scanner, the Mole [Source: 3DMAKERPRO]

So you want to buy a 3D scanner? These are the nine questions you should be asking.

3D scanners are becoming more easily accessible, mostly for two reasons:

  • There are smartphone apps the can use cameras or LiDAR sensors to act as a 3D scanner
  • The cost of low-end 3D scanners continues to drop due to intense competition

This has attracted many 3D printer operators to consider acquiring a 3D scanner for their own use.

However, choosing a 3D scanner is not so simple. Like 3D printers, the goal is to pick the right tool for the job, as there are several different kinds of 3D scanners in multiple price ranges. After using multiple types of 3D scanners, I believe choosing one is a far more complex question than choosing a 3D printer.

While we’re not going to list specific 3D scanner options and recommendations here, we are going to provide a list of key questions that should be answered before one shops for a 3D scanner. If these answers are known, the selection will become very clear.

3D Scanning Subject Size

How big are the objects you intend on scanning? Are they fist-sized? Microscopic? Car sized? Buildings? There are scanners designed for each size, and they don’t often work with other sizes: a scanner capable of capturing a car most likely won’t work to capture an item of jewelry, for example.

The reason for this is that the sensors used have a fixed number of pixels. If the optics are set up to place large areas on the sensor, then getting fine details is impossible. The same happens in reverse.

Most 3D scanners will indicate the typical size of the scan captured and ideal type of subject. Note that it is sometimes possible to create multiple scans of a large object and subsequently join them together to make a larger 3D model in software.

3D Scanning Subject Type

What kind of subject will be scanned? The reason for asking is that some subjects are rigid and unmoving, while others are wobbly and insecure, like living people or plants blowing in the wind. Some subjects are wildly uncooperative, such as small children or pets.

If these difficult subjects are the target, then the scanner should be able to operate very quickly. This is not always easy to determine, as it sometimes requires testing the device.

In extreme cases of motion one should consider using a 3D scanning booth. This is a small chamber where there are many cameras pointed towards the subject from different levels and orientations. The cameras all activate simultaneously and thus eliminate the motion problem completely. However, these booths are quite expensive due to the number of cameras and complex software processing required.

3D Scanning Frequency

How often are you performing 3D scans? Daily? Constantly all day long? Once in a long while? This is important to know because it will assist planning a budget. Occasional 3D scans don’t warrant a large expense on a fancy 3D scanner, so perhaps a smartphone app would suffice instead. On the other hand, if the scans are part of a production line where every part produced must be verified, then more expensive and sophisticated scanning solutions should be considered.

3D Scanning Location

Where are the subjects of your 3D scan? Can they be placed on the table in front of you? Or do you have to travel to a field location outdoors to capture the scan?

The reason for this question is that scanners sometimes have physical constraints. Some are clearly designed for office use, while others are more portable. Some require attachment to a PC, which could require a power plug. What level of portability do you require? Could a handheld device or smartphone app be most appropriate? Is a tripod required?

Many 3D scanners are unable to handle bright light from the sun, so if scans are taking place outside, it’s important to consider the brightness capability of the scanner option.

3D Scanning Detail Required

How much detail is required for the scan? All 3D scanners have limitations of resolution, which is a combination of the hardware and operator practice. Scans are absolutely never perfect: flat surfaces always have bumps and lumps, although these would be smaller when scanning resolution is higher. This is why 3D scans of mechanical parts are only used as a guide to rebuilding a CAD model. Meanwhile, “organic” subjects, such as a person, are more friendly to scan resolution.

If one intends on 3D scanning to precision levels, for example in an industrial or jewelry application, then more expensive solutions will be required.

CAD Skills

3D scans are usually problematic in some way. There could be holes, seams or other weird artifacts generated that must be dealt with before using the 3D scan. Typically this is done with a CAD tool, and sometimes it can be the most significant part of the 3D scanning workflow.

If you aren’t particularly skilled in CAD tools, it’s possible to seek 3D scanners that come with software that automatically cleans up the 3D scans. This is not a typical capability, however, so it may take some effort to find the right tool for your capabilities.

3D Scanning Color Requirements

Many 3D scanning solutions do not capture color and texture of the subject. This is acceptable if the intention is to simply capture the geometry of the subject, say, for reproducing a part or printing a subject in a single color.

If color is required, then this should be in the selected device’s specifications.

Operating System

What operating system is required? Most 3D scanners are a combination of a hardware item and some software. Almost always the software is compatible with Windows, and less so with other operating systems. It’s best to check what the requirements for software are for a specific 3D scanner if you happening to be running Linux or Mac OS, or you might find yourself buying a PC. Smartphone scanning apps don’t have this issue, as they just run on the mobile device.

3D Scanning Budget

How much do you want to spend? This is important because there is a vast range of possibilities in the 3D scanner space. At the low end there are multiple smartphone apps that are literally free or very low cost. At the high end it’s possible to spend near six digits on sophisticated 3D scanners and associated software.

Are you being paid to perform the 3D scans? If so, then the budget equation can change considerably. The cost of the scanner can be built into the price charged customers, opening up more possibilities for scanner purchases.

Recently there has been a wave of mid-priced 3D scanning options, some of which are pretty good. These are in the US$500-1500 range, which some may find affordable. However, the price doesn’t matter if the scanner doesn’t do what you require, so consider that as the final step.

Choosing a 3D Scanner

I can’t pick a 3D scanner for you, because everyone’s needs are quite different and there are countless choices in the market that constantly change. However, by answering the questions above you should be in a good position to evaluate potential models.

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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