3D scanning solutions

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How to choose a 3D scanner

July 16, 2024
11 min read

Looking for a new professional 3D scanner? We know how hard it can be to find the right solution. That’s why we’ve created a checklist of everything you need to weigh up, from specs to practical considerations, to help you identify a product that meets your exact needs.

Structured light, blue light, LiDAR, photogrammetry
Scanner features
Accuracy, resolution, speed, range, connectivity, software
Key factors
Object size, tolerances, usability, budget, support

How to choose a 3D scanner

There’s now an ideal 3D scanning solution for capturing objects of all shapes and sizes

For the uninitiated, adopting a new technology can seem like a minefield. Choose the wrong device, and the perception is that you could be left with a pricey, difficult-to-master product that you don’t end up using. Paradoxically, a broad field can also make upgrading more daunting.

Take 3D scanning: a market packed with advanced technologies too varied to provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, you need to identify the approach that best meets your needs.

If you want to create a model or avatar that looks realistic but doesn’t require any geometry capture whatsoever, you may not even need a professional 3D scanner. However, only devices that operate using technologies like structured light, blue light, and LiDAR – which boast greater accuracy and range – can deliver the exact digital replicas needed for advanced engineering.

So, how do you know which brand, technology, or device to buy? Well, it’s actually best to start by thinking ‘what do I need 3D scanning for?’ and work backwards from there – just like reverse engineering, only with the device itself rather than an object!

Key point

Don’t choose a 3D scanner based on specifications alone. Take your exact application needs into account for best results.

Choosing a 3D scanner

How to choose a 3D scanner

With blue-light devices like Artec Space Spider, you can get ultra-accurate, high-res scans

To begin with, it’s worth taking the time to closely analyze your individual project needs. If you work with a team that already has 3D scanning experience, they’ll likely be able to get the most out of complex solutions quickly. If not, it’s worth making ease of use a high priority.

Then there’s accuracy – a necessity for reverse engineering or inspection – speed for getting projects finished quickly, and flexibility for working in tight areas. If you need ultra-realistic 3D models, resolution comes into it too. As opposed to 3D scanner accuracy, which is all about measurement consistency, resolution describes the smallest space between points on an object’s surface.

It’s also vital to consider scale, as this can vary wildly by application. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in construction, a field in which engineers need to capture huge sites for project planning purposes. Their needs will be completely different to those working in jewelry or dental, areas where precision and accuracy are more important than range.

Acing each of these aspects is critical to maximizing 3D scanning results. But how do you achieve this in practice? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Environment

How to choose a 3D scanner

If you’re capturing outdoors or at scale, the 130-meter range Artec Ray II could be ideal

Before making fundamental decisions like choosing capture technology, it’s vital to weigh up where you plan to scan. Digitizing complex objects often requires 3D scanner versatility, while working in remote locations necessitates the use of long-life batteries (and likely spares as well).

3D scanning indoors and outdoors is also very different. When capturing outdoors, lighting and humidity are an issue. Similarly, lengthy, large-scale scans tend to require a mountable solution. In extreme temperatures, scanners can even be vulnerable to overheating or losing accuracy. As such, it’s advisable to keep them out of direct sunlight and free from contaminants.

2. Ease-of-use

How to choose a 3D scanner

Portable scanners like Artec Leo allow you to move freely and ensure 100% data capture

There may now be plenty of professional-grade scanners on the market, but some are easier to pick up than others. So you can start getting the most out of your device straight away, it’s best to adopt something lightweight, versatile, and cable-free – like Artec Leo. By contrast, wired, target-based scanners require calibration before use, making them trickier to set up.

Another aspect worth considering is accessories. If it’s not wireless, your 3D scanner will require you to carry around some kind of PC during data capture. Ease of transport is also key to rapid deployment, with compact, portable solutions tending to perform best in this area.

Then there’s data capture and processing software. For the uninitiated, turning scans into usable meshes and CAD models can be the trickiest part of setting up a new workflow. But there are many tips and tricks you can use to optimize results. For example, you can adopt a platform that automatically applies the best data-processing algorithms on your behalf.

When it comes to frame rate and tracking, professional devices are generally the easiest to use. Cheaper alternatives may seem more appealing, but the productivity gains you make with higher-end 3D scanners will save you time and money in the long run.

Key point

Your ideal 3D scanner will be able to handle the size, material, and surface intricacy of the objects you plan to capture.

3. Range

How to choose a 3D scanner

With 3D scanning, you can now digitize entire facilities for site planning and optimization

With 3D scanning, it’s now possible to capture anything from tiny objects with microscale details to entire buildings and landscapes. However, it’s important to weigh up which end of this scale your use case belongs on – range often comes at the expense of accuracy after all!

If your workflow involves 3D scanning large objects – whether these be planes, trains, or automobiles – long-range LiDAR devices like Artec Ray II are your friend. On the other hand, smaller objects such as PCBs and compressors are better captured with agile handheld 3D scanners, designed for digitizing hard-to-reach areas in high detail.

Speed and field of view also come into play here. As you’d expect, the more points a scanner collects per second, the faster it can digitize large objects. Similarly, the wider a device’s field of view (or the area it picks up in a single scan), the more data it will capture at once. Large fields of view aid tracking but yield huge datasets that take longer to process – so this is a balance.

Lastly, it’s worth weighing up coverage. In 3D scanning circles, this refers to the ability of a device to tackle ‘line-of-sight’ constraints like deep holes and sharp undercuts. The inherent flexibility of handheld structured light-powered devices allows them to excel here.

4. Accuracy

How to choose a 3D scanner

Sub-millimeter accuracy 3D scanning is applied everywhere, from heavy industry to dental

Portable 3D scanners are often marketed as being accurate down to 0.1 mm or less, but what does this actually mean? Essentially, accuracy describes how closely they can recreate a real object in virtual form – or more specifically, how close the dimensions of the resulting model will be. When decisions need to be made on scan data, such sub-millimeter accuracy is a top priority.

This is especially true in reverse engineering and inspection applications with minimal tolerances. High data accuracy is vital to digitizing parts that will perform once remanufactured, as well as minimizing uncertainty during product analyses, a key concern of QI engineers.

How to choose a 3D scanner

Artec Micro II can digitize small parts with an accuracy of just 5 microns (0.005 mm)

Target-based 3D scanning is great for achieving the necessary accuracy, though it often doesn’t capture texture. In this regard, structured light holds a trump card – it captures both.

If you aim to digitize inventory or work in healthcare, accuracy is similarly important. Future spares won’t slot into assemblies if they’re based on bad measurements. Scan-based custom medical devices also need to fit perfectly, so patients don’t end up rejecting them.

When it comes to digitizing tiny medical or dental parts at your desktop, the 5-micron accuracy Artec Micro II is ideal. Handheld 3D scanners like Artec Eva are also widely used in healthcare due to their versatility. Eva boasts an accuracy of 0.1 mm – more than enough for capturing patients’ limbs – a popular 3D scanning application. So the level of accuracy that you need really comes down to your individual use case.

Key point

Only professional 3D scanners provide high levels of accuracy. Though they are pricier than lower-spec scanners, they’re almost always worth investing in.

5. Resolution

Next up, let’s talk about resolution. Though resolution contributes to overall accuracy, don’t confuse the two. It’s more about achieving the smallest distances between captured points and picking up the finest surface details than capturing geometry. In applications like animation, VR, forensics, and jewelry, resolution therefore takes precedence.

High-resolution data capture does yield heavier datasets that take longer to process (especially for those with less powerful PCs). 3D printers will also take longer to create models with intricate details – some may even struggle to keep up with users’ needs. If you intend to 3D scan objects for additive manufacturing, this definitely needs considering.

For peak 3D scanning resolution, it’s worth looking at blue-light-powered devices such as Artec Space Spider. While photogrammetry also captures high levels of detail, it does so at the expense of accuracy, limiting its metrology applications.

6. Speed

How to choose a 3D scanner

No matter how big or small the capture project, speed is likely to be of the essence

Let’s face it, time is money. With pretty much all professional users, this means speed is of the essence. Many popular 3D scanners are powered by structured light: a technology capable of capturing millions of data points per second. The speed of structured-light scanners can also be measured in frames per second (FPS) – the higher this figure, the better.

But this does depend on the technology. As a reference, white-light 3D scanners can capture 2 million data points per second, at up to 16 FPS. Top-end VCSEL-powered devices, meanwhile, can capture twice the amount of points at 80 FPS over the same time period.

If you intend to do a lot of 3D scanning (or capture large amounts of data), a professional device with rapid data capture capabilities will save you time and money in the long run – as well as boosting productivity. Rapid capture is also key when scanning moving objects like people.

7. Software

How to choose a 3D scanner

3D scanning software Artec Studio continues to add advanced QA and inspection features

It’s easy to get drawn into spec-by-spec comparisons between 3D scanners, but in truth, the power lies in the software. Rapidly handling incoming data and processing it for the best possible results requires a program with highly developed algorithms.

Take the resolution-boosting HD Mode in Artec Studio. Once activated, it makes digitizing sharp corners and difficult-to-scan dark, fluffy, and shiny surfaces much easier. After capture, the software’s Autopilot also automates, streamlines, and accelerates many manual steps. Those working in QA and inspection will even find many essentials built into the platform.

While users will need to invest in dedicated packages for advanced GD&T, 3D scanning programs continue to add new functionalities each year. This effectively sees devices upgraded long after release, to make them more efficient and open up new potential use cases.

Key point

Don’t forget, the power is in the software. 3D data capture and processing programs play a key role in your results.

8. Price

Custom marine

Professional users often find 3D scanning faster and less error-prone than traditional methods

Understandably, how much a 3D scanner costs is a sticking point for many would-be 3D scanning adopters. But it could be a case of ‘can I afford not to upgrade?’ rather than the other way around. Devices range from a few hundred dollars to over $100,000, yet they often deliver gains that justify the expenditure.

Take yacht decking developer TT Custom Marine. With Artec Leo 3D scanning, its team is now able to renovate boats four times faster than before, freeing them up to complete more jobs (and generate greater revenue for the company).

Compared to traditional measurement and other forms of digitization like photogrammetry, 3D scanning is faster and less error-prone, in a way that cuts lead times and guarantees results.

It’s an old adage, but you also ‘get what you pay for.’ Though less expensive 3D scanners might seem more appealing in the short term, professional devices are a better investment, offering greater reliability and delivering outstanding results for years to come.

Other expenses warranting consideration include installation, accessories, and insurance. The latter shouldn’t be written off as ‘extras.’ The last thing you need is an accident happening to your new 3D scanner. Spend a little extra to protect it, and you’ll reap the rewards in the long run.

Key point

Protect your new device with accessories and insurance to ensure you get the best possible return on your investment.

Finally, consider this before you buy

To round things up, here are our top buying tips. The first thing to look at when comparing 3D models is resolution. In many cases, this is the clearest differentiator. A more detailed comparison may be required to check accuracy – though it too is a key performance indicator.

Another top tip is to know who you’re buying from. Often it’s possible to ascertain if you’re investing wisely based on online reviews. It’s also worth weighing up support. Quality 3D scanners last for ten years or more. What support are they offering during that time? For example, is their software up to date? If not, your device could become obsolete.

If you’re still worried about getting your money’s worth, don’t forget that the proof is in the process. So, when you’re being demoed a device, get hands-on to make sure it’s easy to use. If not, you may have to undergo significant training before getting a return on your investment.

Don’t forget, the lowest price may not be the best. It’s not worth investing in a 3D scanner that doesn’t meet required standards – you’ll only have to go and buy another. Likewise, don’t focus on technology, choose what’s right for you. It’s easy to get swayed into comparing specs, but you don’t do the same when buying other tech. You simply care that it works!

As such, we recommend that you use the criteria above to find a 3D scanner that meets your exact needs and request a demo. From there, you’ll have all the information required to make an informed choice and make sure you invest in a quality solution that lasts.

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Paul Hanaphy

Paul Hanaphy

Content Writer

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