3D scanning is a rather broad term that includes several different types of technologies and processes, but in general it is the process of capturing real world data and converting that data into a 3D model. It has been used for years in industrial and commercial applications ranging from surveying construction sites and taking accurate measurements of a room to preserving a digital snapshot of a crime scene and cataloging artwork and fossils. However, as 3D printing became more common, especially for makers and enthusiasts, the desire to capture real objects and transform them into 3D printable objects has grown.
The market has, naturally, responded and there are now more low- or lower-cost 3D scanner options available than ever. With prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, there are 3D scanner options available for just about every budget. When deciding which is the right 3D scanner to purchase depends entirely on what exactly it will be used for, and how much detail you need it to be able to capture. (You can also check out our 2016 3D Printer Buying Guide for more details on that side of the technology!)
The 2017 3D scanner guide is available here.
Depending on what you are looking to scan, it turns out that you may not even need to buy a 3D scanner. It is entirely possible that you already have the only tool that you will need to create a three-dimensional model right in your pocket. There are a few software options that can take still images, even from your smartphone, and extrapolate the data to create a fully three-dimensional model.
This process is called 3D photogrammetry, and it starts by taking several images of the same object from different angles. The more images that are used, the sharper the details on the final 3D model will be. The process can work with as few as three images, or for extremely detailed models, dozens of images can be used. Not only is this a less expensive option, but it is perfect for capturing a 3D object in public or out on the go when you may not want to carry extra 3D scanning equipment with you.
Because 123D Catch is part of the Autodesk cloud-based 123D ecosystem, Catch is perfect for loading onto a smartphone or tablet. That makes this the ideal option for capturing objects in public that can’t be 3D scanned in the studio, like artwork in museums, large structures and objects found in nature.
Pros: No 3D scanner needed, objects of all size can be captured, free software for most features, easy to use
Cons: Limited functions, quality dependent on lighting and number of images, can take several minutes to capture target object, not good for capturing people or animals
Agisoft PhotoScan is a standalone software package that has specifically been created to generate high-quality 3D models using 2D photographs. It is primarily aimed at museums or libraries for the purpose of archiving their collections of artifacts and artwork, and is capable of producing extremely detailed 3D models.
Pros: Capable of high-quality 3D models, one time license fee, easy to use, lots of options
Cons: Requires software installed on computer, requires high-quality camera
If spending several hundred dollars on a 3D scanner is simply out of your price range then there are a few lower-cost DIY options available.
Xbox Kinect with ReconstructMe
This is about as DIY as it gets when it comes to building a low-cost 3D scanner. Thankfully Microsoft has released a peripheral that is really an extremely high-powered depth sensor and RGB camera, and left it open enough to be used for other applications. In this case, pairing an Xbox Kinect (You can easily find them on eBay) with free software like ReconstructMe is all you’ll need to 3D scan people or objects.
Pros: Inexpensive, versatile, free software
Cons: Windows only, limited resolution, uneven quality
The Ciclop is an open source desktop 3D laser scanner that uses 3D printable components so it can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. There are also kits available, both assembled and unassembled, and parts list and free STL files can also be found online. Because a laser 3D scanner is a very delicate piece of hardware, assembling a kit yourself can be difficult, so results may vary depending on your level of expertise.
Pros: Open source, can be purchased as a kit, easily modified and improved
Cons: Quality depends on the user, no customer service or tech support, 3D printed parts may not be as strong as traditionally manufactured parts
A handheld 3D scanner will allow a much greater range of 3D capture than a turntable 3D scanner. These types of 3D scanners are typically used for capturing people and large objects, and even these low-cost models can capture a surprising amount of detail. Typically capturing an object the size of a person will take three to five minutes, however the more information that you capture, the higher the quality of the final 3D scan. These low-cost options are probably not ideal for high-end commercial use, but they can offer small businesses and individuals the ability to quickly capture 3D data, including colors, patterns and even texture.
The 3D scanner from XYZprinting is one of the first products to hit the market that includes Intel’s new RealSense image capture software. It is also the cheapest handheld on the market, and it is suitable for a wide range of applications.
Resolution: 1.5 mm
Pros: Low cost, Intel RealSense technology, small and portable
Cons: Only compatible with Windows, low resolution
While technically the Cubify ecosystem no longer exists, 3D System is still offering their 3D scanner options. This handheld 3D scanner is simple to use, can quickly turn scans into 3D printable files and includes support from 3D Systems.
Pros: Low cost, available tech support, proven technology
Cons: Part of defunct Cubify ecosystem, medium scan quality, only compatible with Windows
This 3D Systems 3D scanner is made to attach to an iPad and use the powerful processing power to capture some pretty decent quality 3D scans. This is a great option if maximum portability is required as it only needs to be attached to the iPad and no other computer is needed.
Pros: Low cost, portable, battery operated, works with iPad
Cons: Part of defunct Cubify ecosystem, medium scan quality, requires iPad
The Structure Sensor was one of the first low-cost 3D scanners on the market, and was a very successful product launched on Kickstarter. The technology was used for 3D Systems’ iSense 3D scanner, and the two products are virtually identical. The Structure Sensor is fully portable and only needs to be attached to an iPad.
Pros: Low cost, portable, battery operated, works with iPad
Cons: Medium scan quality, requires iPad
DESKTOP TURNTABLE STYLE
Most desktop turntable 3D scanners use laser triangulation to capture highly accurate details of small objects. This style of 3D scanner usually will not capture color or patterns, but is accurate enough to capture many textures and fine details. However there are a few models available that will capture full-color data and patterns using either Structured Light technology, or software options that convert the laser data back into colors.
The Matter and Form 3D scanner is one of the most popular desktop 3D scanners on the market, and has some of the best software available. Not only can it capture fine details and textures, but it also is capable of capturing colors. It takes about five minutes to capture a full object.
Pros: Good quality for price, captures color, portable, exports in multiple file formats
Cons: Medium scan quality, limited scan size, colors may be muted or imperfect
The MakerBot Digitizer is a basic desktop 3D scanner that can capture fine detail and textures, however it cannot capture colors. It is easily integrated with the MakerBot ecosystem, and users will have access to their tech support and MakerCare options.
Pros: Part of MakerBot ecosystem, lightweight
Cons: can’t capture color, will not capture reflective or transparent objects, expensive for scan quality, only exports STL files
The desktop EinScan-3 3D scanner is one of the best desktop scanners on the market. It can capture extremely fine details, as well as patterns and true-to-life colors. Unlike most desktop models, it uses Structured Light technology to capture 3D scan data, so it will result in much higher-quality scans.
Pros: High resolution scans, captures color, exports in multiple file formats
Cons: Captures small objects only, not compatible with Apple OS
These are the best 3D scanner options available within all categories without spending upwards of $10,000 – $30,000 on industrial 3D scanners. These models are ideal for a wide range of applications including capturing a person, large objects and highly detailed objects. They represent the best available technology and the highest rated performance reviews. However they are primarily for commercial use and a home user would find the technology overpowered for typical uses.
Unlike most handheld 3D scanners, the Fuel3D SCANIFY used an advanced photogrammetry process that combines several image processing technologies. This allows it to capture much higher-quality images than most handheld scanners, including full colors and textures. The device includes two 3.5 megapixel cameras, three flashes and three LED guide lights. The SCANIFY is also extremely fast at capturing data and it can take a little as one second to capture a single angle, so a very large object can be 3D scanned in only a handful of seconds.
Pros: High-quality scans, easy to use, captures true to life colors, single click option, fast, , exports in multiple file formats
Cons: Difficulty capturing dark, reflective, transparent or mono-color objects
The Ultra HD 3D scanner from NextEngine is the highest-quality desktop scanner available that won’t cost you more than a car. For the scan quality and features this is one of the very best desktop 3D scanners that you can purchase. Not only will it capture patterns, textures and fine detail but it can capture full true-to-life colors.
Pros: Best in class, high-quality scans, captures color, exports in multiple file formats, can be attached to tripod
Cons: Expensive, large file sizes
The RangeVision Smart is the most portable of the desktop 3D scanners and can be set up onsite to capture objects as large as a car while still capturing very fine detail. It also can be operated with a battery so it can easily be moved, and includes a versatile tripod attachment.
Pros: Runs on battery, large scan envelope, captures color, exports in multiple file formats
Cons: Large file sizes, pricey add-ons and accessories
3D Scanners from German company David are some of the best professional options available, with several additional accessories that make it extremely versatile, including turntables, a possible mounting arm and high quality software. The SLS-3 is the best available 3D scanner option before considering extremely high-end industrial quality scanners.
Pros: Very fine detail scans, full-color and texture capture, best in class, excellent tech support and customer service, exports in multiple file formats
Cons: Overpowered for casual use, expensive
A few notes on the 3DPrint.com 2016 3D Scanner Buying Guide. I’ve gathered my selections based on dozens of professional reviews, customer reviews, forum and internet chatter, and my own personal experience. I tried to include options that would provide users with a solid 3D scanning experience, and with a wide enough variety of useful features for whatever role the scanner will be playing, be it for personal use, professional use or a little bit of both. Good luck, and happy 3D scanning!