What is the Best 3D Scanner? Everything You Need to Know to Choose a 3D Scanner
As 3D scanning technology continues to develop rapidly, many types of 3D scanners are emerging to fulfill different needs. The good news is, there is a 3D scanner available on the market for nearly any kind of application you can think of, and often, you have at least a few choices. The bad news is, with so many options, it can become overwhelming to understand what to look for in a 3D scanner to meet your needs. In this blog, we'll help you understand what the best 3D scanner for your specific application is, so you can feel confident when making your decision.
Why is Choosing the Best 3D Scanner Important?
Choosing the best 3D scanner is important because in the digital world, data quality is king, and if your data is junk, you won't get very far. 3D scanning technology now comes in various forms that cater to purposes other than industrial use. For example, some smartphone applications allow you to use your phone as a 3D scanner for entertainment, enhance online shopping experiences, and do hobbies like 3D printing. However, just because you may be able to scan something with a simple and inexpensive 3D scanning solution doesn't mean that you should. Choosing the best 3D scanner is essential because it will make a significant difference in the outcome of your project.
What is the Best 3D Scanner on the Market?
The best 3D scanner on the market is relative to your specific application within your industry. Many different 3D scanning technologies are available, ranging from contact to non-contact, portable to automated, and laser to blue and white light structured 3D scanners.
Below we've outlined some of the common types of 3D scanners and their specific features:
- Smartphone apps: An advantage of using your smartphone as a 3D scanner is mobility. With many 3D scanning apps available, you can essentially access several 3D scanners within a single smartphone. You can also pair your smartphone with a tripod stand and great lighting to achieve inexpensive 3D scanning results good enough for a hobbyist project. However, because of the poor data quality and low accuracy, you're better off using a handheld 3D scanner if you're looking for something with metrology-grade quality and maximum portability.
- LIDAR: LIDAR, or laser radar technology, captures details on small objects. This type of 3D scanner provides high-resolution 3D images, providing an advantage for certain applications. This technology's inability to filter out ambient light is a major disadvantage for industrial uses where the environment can't be guaranteed; therefore, considering where data acquisition will take place should always be a key factor when determining the best 3D scanner.
- Laser scanners: Though laser scanners are a popular choice, they're not always the best 3D scanners for projects requiring high accuracy because they're susceptible to ambient light interference, resulting in noisy and less accurate data. If your project doesn't require high accuracy but you need to collect surface data and details quickly, a handheld scanner or laser scanner CMM attachment could be the right choice.
- Laser pulse-based 3D scanning technology: Laser pulse-based 3D scanning, otherwise known as time-of-flight scanning, utilizes the speed of light and sensors to measure surface geometry by sending millions of pulses to the object's surface for the sensor to reflect. The timing of the pulses from the laser back to the sensor enables surface data collection. A mirror rotates the laser and sensor hardware, allowing the software to collect 360 degrees worth of data. These 3D scanners can scan massive objects or structures such as buildings or capture environments during land surveying. If you need a 3D scanner for manufacturing purposes, this likely is not the best 3D scanning solution, mainly because these 3D scanners are slower and wouldn't meet a demand for high throughput.
- Structured light 3D scanning technology LED (structured light): Structured light 3D scanners are generally the best 3D scanner for rapid prototyping, research and development, quality assurance, inspections, reverse engineering, and other essential manufacturing activities. These accurate 3D scanners use structured LED light and the principle of triangulation to quickly collect millions of X-Y-Z coordinates producing a precise digital twin without ever touching the object. These 3D scanners don't need to touch the object, including to capture details and intricacies or to produce full-field data. Structured light 3D scanning eliminates the need for physical contact with the object, making workflows more efficient and delivering faster results with higher accuracy than many other types of 3D scanners.
Essentially, one of the biggest reasons these are among the best 3D scanners is that they give you the whole picture. The clean, crisp data they collect are illustrated visibly as color maps that are easy for anyone to interpret. The data encapsulates the geometric identity of the scanned object, creating a reliable digital twin and unlocking digital engineering capabilities beyond expedited analysis. Overall, these accurate 3D scanners make workflows more efficient and produce faster results than traditional contact-based metrology methods.
- Handheld 3D scanners: Handheld versions of structured light 3D scanners have become popular because of their ease of use, portability, and convenience. An accurate handheld 3D scanner uses structured light technology and achieves similar results by simply holding the scanner in your hand at a specified distance from the object. To complete data acquisition, you simply walk around the object while holding the 3D scanner as it collects millions of accurate XYZ coordinates from the object's surface.
While this type of 3D scanner sounds like it could be the best 3D scanner, it isn't the right choice for every application. For example, if you're scanning a large object like a jet, using a handheld 3D scanner would make it a very long and tedious task. Handheld 3D scanners are generally suitable for quick scanning sessions and capturing accurate measurement data from smaller objects.
What are the best 3D scanners available on the market right now?
The best 3D scanners currently available on the market use Triple Scan Technology— a high-tech method of employing the principle of triangulation that GOM developed. GOM's ATOS blue light 3D scanners are regarded as the best 3D scanners for diverse professional uses and are trusted worldwide for their accuracy, speed, and data quality.
For example, many manufacturers choose ATOS 3D scanning technology because it helps them resolve bottleneck issues and is compatible with automation, further increasing throughput. ATOS, which stands for Advanced Topometric Optical Sensor, uses proprietary structured blue light fringe projection technology to calculate fast measurements. ATOS is a dual camera sensor that operates by taking a series of 3D cubic volumetric scans. Each scan takes about two seconds to capture millions of data points that make up a part's geometry. Intelligent software automatically polygonizes the data, stitching together the results of each scan to generate a robust digital twin of the scanned object.
The captured as-built condition of the part, known as a mesh or "actual," looks like a CAD model on the screen— but it's actually a precise 3D point cloud of the part. That's how accurate and fast these systems are, and it's also why this method is frequently combined with automation when there's a need to increase speed and repeatability, particularly to resolve bottlenecks in automotive, aerospace, power generation, and medical OEMs and suppliers.
An accurate blue light 3D scanner unlocks some of the easiest to implement digital twin strategies that OEMs, aerospace, and automotive manufacturers already use, such as digital and virtual assembly. These methods enable the remote assembly of parts from separate locations worldwide, allowing OEMs to validate design fit without physically being there.
Here are examples of some of the most popular ATOS blue light 3D scanners currently available:
• ATOS 5 – The ATOS 5 is a powerful, structured blue light 3D scanner that delivers short measuring times and high-accuracy full-field measurement data. Engineered for industrial environments, the ATOS 5 comes in three configurations for maximum versatility– manual, automated, and semi-automated. Effective for first article inspections, reverse engineering, shopfloor, lab environments, and other applications, the ATOS 5 is one of the best 3D scanners for modern manufacturing and engineering processes.
• ATOS 5X – The ATOS 5X is a variation of the ATOS 5. The main difference is that it employs a powerful laser instead of structured blue light technology, making it the best 3D scanner for tool, press, and body shops. Due to the laser's power, the ATOS 5X works well as an automated configuration. For example, when applied in automotive production, the 3D scanner completes the process of scanning the interior and exterior of an entire car body in about 30 minutes.
• ATOS 5 Airfoil – The ATOS 5 Airfoil is the third variation of the ATOS 5 family. With technology explicitly engineered for the aerospace and gas turbine industry, the ATOS 5 Airfoil is the best 3D scanner for blisks, blades, and other critical airfoil components or other parts with intricate details like edges and fine ridges.
• ATOS Q – The ATOS Q is the newest 3D scanner in the ATOS family. The ATOS Q is compact and lightweight to maximize its portability. If you're looking for a mobile, accurate 3D scanner that excels in measuring very small to medium-sized objects, the ATOS Q is the best 3D scanner.
How do I Choose a 3D Scanner?
When choosing the best 3D scanner for your application, there are many facets to consider. Not every type of 3D scanner will be a good fit for every project, so understand your application and process requirements before shopping for a 3D scanner. Specific factors to consider when choosing the best 3D scanner for your project include part tolerances, part finish, part size, acquisition time, accuracy, cycle time needs, budget, repeatability, resolution, speed, part size, versatility, software features, maintenance costs, and ease of use.
Below, we explore more about some of the essential factors to consider when choosing a 3D scanner:
The data collected by 3D scanners provides valuable information to manufacturers about their parts, assemblies, and even their manufacturing processes, making the accuracy of your 3D scanner the most critical aspect to consider. The data your 3D scanner collects provides insights that serve as the basis for the design and quality decisions you'll make. Therefore, you need the most accurate data possible; accurate data is at the core of every successful decision. If you're working with applications with tight tolerance requirements, accuracy is the most critical aspect to consider.
2. Resolution/Data quality (camera quality)
Data density is another one of the top aspects to consider when shopping for the best 3D scanner.
Parts with tighter tolerances require scanners with higher resolution so that the scan data reflects the smallest details necessary for measurement, inspection, and more. Using a 3D scanner that isn't high resolution will collect low-quality data that will be difficult to understand and not clean enough use in downstream processes. If you need to understand what level of data quality you need to achieve for your specific application, request a demonstration of several different 3D scanners. More than likely, you will be able to observe the difference in data quality with your own eyes.
As long as you have the right measuring volume to produce high-resolution data, there's no limit to the size of the part you can digitize. The best 3D scanners can capture something as detailed as the grooves in your fingerprint to something as large as a full-size C130 airplane, as long as you have varying measuring volumes. If you need this kind of versatility for your 3D scanning project, choosing a 3D scanner with interchangeable lenses enables you to achieve a volumetric range. The best 3D scanners will allow you to quickly interchange volumetric range from 60mm to 1M cubed, which is a significant advantage depending on part size and smallest feature requiring inspection.
When evaluating the best 3D scanner, consider how long it takes to complete data acquisition, including the amount of time it takes to set up your 3D scanner and part, any required programming, and iterations. Low-quality 3D scanners require more time to collect the same amount of data that a high-quality 3D scanner can, which can cause a bottleneck in manufacturing production. If you need high throughput, make sure to consider the time it takes the scanner to execute a scanning session. If you have a project that requires you to 3D scan parts with high throughput, consider an automated 3D scanning solution.
Also, keep in mind that opting for a low-quality 3D scanner could cost you time because you'll need to repeat scans to achieve a satisfactory result. In many instances, it's best to select the best 3D scanner for the job, sparing yourself time lost and frustration gained.
4. Ease of use
A highly complicated 3D scanner does not necessarily signify a better 3D scanner. With advancements in metrology technology, it isn't difficult to find an accurate 3D scanner that is easy to use. The best 3D scanners require very little training to operate and are governed by intuitive software that walks you through the 3D scanning process, making it smooth, error-free. Ease of use is essential if you have more than one person in your shop who will use the 3D scanner because it makes it possible for various technicians to operate the 3D scanner interchangeably.
How you plan to use your 3D scanner is also among the most important factors to consider when shopping for the best 3D scanner. Critical details like part tolerance matter. For example, parts with tighter tolerances require higher accuracy. Part finish and material, such as shiny versus matte, are other features that make a difference. Part size is an equally important consideration because you'll need a sensor with a smaller measuring volume if you work with particularly small parts. Consider what you'll use that data for as well. For example, accuracy will be a key factor if you plan to use it for reverse engineering. If you're using it for inspection, having certain software features, such as GD&T checks, will matter.
6. Configuration Versatility
There are many ways you can operate a 3D scanner; however, in the modern manufacturing environment, the best 3D scanner is versatile. Think about it— since you're investing in a powerful piece of metrology equipment, you'll want to ensure that it can fulfill many needs. There may be projects when a simple setup with a tripod or camera stand is sufficient. There may be other circumstances where a semi-automated configuration, such as a rotation table, may make the most efficient solution. For smaller projects and quick scanning sessions, a handheld 3D scanner is ideal. Then, there may be projects when an automated 3D scanning solution is the best configuration.
Some examples of when you would want to apply automation include:
- When you need many parts scanned in a repetitive manner
- When you need the shortest possible cycle time
- When you need the 3D scanner to run independently without being physically present
Don't limit what you can accomplish by choosing a 3D scanner without versatility; the best 3D scanner offers multiple options to execute whatever you need it for at any point, giving you the ultimate 3D metrology freedom.
7. Software is key to bringing the data full circle
The best 3D scanners are accompanied by 3D inspection software that is equally as good. Since 3D scanners collect millions of data points, it's necessary to use powerful 3D measurement software that automatically processes the data for you. Beyond managing and processing the data generated during your scanning sessions, what you can do with that data is the next part of making your 3D scanner investment worthwhile. Software is key to bringing the data full circle.
Consider what software features are available and what capabilities those features unlock for you. For example, does the software import PMI/MBD easily? Can you perform GD&T checks within the software? Does it give you templates that provide the capability to measure multiple parts? Are you able to analyze trends? These are examples of the software functions the best 3D scanner should have to get the most value from your investment.
8. How to grow with the technology as your needs grow
The best 3D scanners come with more than just hardware and software— they come with training, a support team, and resources that help you grow with the technology as your needs grow. In addition, consider what kind of maintenance the 3D scanner will require to remain functional, how often it will need that care, and who will provide it. The best 3D scanning companies provide the support packages that offer everything you need to keep your 3D scanning solutions running smoothly— from implementation to repairs and beyond.
How Much Does a 3D Scanner Cost?
A simple handheld 3D scanner can cost as little as $200; however, these don't deliver the quality data needed for many professional and industrial applications. Since 3D scanners help verify and assure quality, allocating the additional budget to obtain a scanner capable of collecting accurate and high-quality data helps preserve the integrity of your results. For example, when scanning an intricate part or while working with tight tolerances, higher accuracy justifies the additional cost of a metrology-grade 3D scanner because it saves time and ensures the results are reliable. The best 3D scanners also have more robust hardware, high-quality optics, effective software capabilities, and a PC.
A fast return on investment also justifies the cost of obtaining the best 3D scanner. For example, the U.S. Army's Aviation Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) saved $100 million using ATOS 3D scanners, which pays for the cost of the ATOS system several times.
In many cases, the combination of more accurate, comprehensive data and time savings leads to money savings too. In manufacturing production, time is money, and producing a better-quality part in less time allows companies to sell more products in a shorter time frame with less design rework.
Another great example is a technician at Mann + Hummel who used ATOS for first article inspection during a tool tuning process went from four iterations down to one. Each tool iteration cost about $25,000 to implement. "One project alone justified the cost of the ATOS," he said.
When it comes to business, it's essential to keep in mind that poor quality is costly. Beyond losing money to time wasted and scrap generated, losing customers and brand reputation contributes to even more damaging costs. The bottom line is that when it comes to cost, don't sacrifice accuracy. Remember, the adage "Garbage in, garbage out" applies to 3D scan data too.
Start Using the Best 3D Scanner Now!
To truly understand what the best 3D scanner is, take your time to do initial research to evaluate the key factors we discussed within this guide. Ask your peers who also use 3D scanners for recommendations, and then contact the companies that distribute the 3D scanners that seem like the best fit. Experience a live demo and get a proof of concept using your specific parts to ensure you're getting the results you need for the investment you're making.
A great place to begin the demo process is here. Schedule a demo with a Capture 3D expert today to learn more about why ATOS 3D scanners are the best for accuracy, speed, quality, and ease of use. Our data makes a difference you'll have to see to believe.