The best 3D scanner enables you to do something quite magical: capture a 3D image of a real world object, in all its detail.
These devices use lights or lasers to illuminate your subject. By controlling the light and positioning of the subject, you're able to take more precise measurements, and not reply on software ‘guesses’ as to where the 3D positions triangulate.
In this article, we'll point you towards the best 3D scanner, to suit a variety of budgets and supporting a range of purposes.
• See also: Best VHS to DVD converters (opens in new tab)
The best 3D scanners in 2022(opens in new tab)
We'll start with our pick as the best 3D scanner of all. By building a structured light scanner into a 15mm thick Android tablet, Creality has produced an accessibly priced device that can also handle rudimentary processing and editing tasks without requiring a computer.
Featuring automatic turntable stitching via a Bluetooth-linked turntable, the scanner is easy to use once set up and calibrated. But the real beauty is the ability to place it in your bag like any other tablet.
There is a tripod mount in the bottom and a couple of hours battery (though you’re probably better off with mains power). This is a fun device for exploring the possibilities of 3D scanning, which might also be useful for retailers since it captures a 24-bit color texture of the surface. Brilliantly, the 3D scanning hardware is also able to act as a projector. (That’s right, there’s a video projector built in.)
Given that it’s possible to buy some tablets for more money than this one, it’s not hard to understand why this 3D scanner has encountered supply issues, especially with components tricky to source during the pandemic.(opens in new tab)
Want a 3D scanner you can carry anywhere? Here's our recommendation. By building this 3D scanner into a fold-closed housing, Matter and Form have made it both portable and robust. Inside that briefcase you can safely transport a laser-based scanner, and it's supplied with four interchangeable world power plugs.
If you’re accustomed to working with large or heavy models, the 3kg (6.6lb) limit may be an issue. But this system is well suited to smaller subjects and the MFStudio software (a download) is more than capable of generating full watertight meshes, with color surfaces, which can be opened in Blender, Max, Autodesk Maya or exported for 3D printing.
Regular 3D printers will appreciate the high-speed scan mode to test the ‘scannability’ of possible subjects before lights are adjusted and powder and other treatments are applied.(opens in new tab)
Here's an ideal tool for creatives looking to get real objects into their digital workflow. Part of what makes the SOL 3D scanner fit that bill is the fact it’s USB 3.0 and Mac-friendly. The software also has amongst the widest range of export formats, meaning it should have little trouble slotting into whatever your workflow; .obj, .stl, .xyz, .dae, and .ply are all an option.
In operation, too, it’s a more elegant design than others. The camera mount can be used to re-position the scanner’s height and distance and the black-out tent in the box is a nice touch too.
SOL also offers a nice glimpse at a potential world of 3D sharing, providing each of their customers with about 30 models' worth of space to share their models from. This is both a kindness not bestowed by others and has the nagging effect of making you want more.(opens in new tab)
The XYZscan Handy is – according to the chosen mode – able to scan objects, whole human bodies, heads or (presumably for the film memorabilia community), masks. This makes it a good deal more flexible and portable than others on this list.
It is pretty easy to grip and manipulate, though the process – perhaps inevitably – still takes a little longer than anyone would want. The on-screen warnings (like “Too Close” or “Too Far”) are useful, but it would be useful to have more and clearly labelled buttons on the device itself.
Don’t be surprised if you have to do a lot of post-production work with 3D scans from this device, but the XYZ software does include handy repair tools including a measure. On the other hand, at less than 1/10th of other handheld 3D scanners, and capable of scanning around a person (if they stand very still), this could be a useful tool. The wired design makes the system reliable, but doesn’t help with what’s already not as comfortable as the design could be, if it were a bit more forgiving of use angle.(opens in new tab)
The 3D printing community is one backed by a wave of enthusiasm, and so it’s only fitting that this scanner has made itself thoroughly at home with that customer base. It offers itself in pre-assembled and do-it-yourself kit forms; the latter for a significant saving as well as an educational experience to do or share.
Because this machine is built with the open source world in mind, there's also Linux software, as well as Mac or PC on hand. Open source will appeal to many, but not others, so we should also note that you’ll need to pick up a Logitech C270 HD (one of the best Logitech webcams (opens in new tab)) – the webcam the designer has used to scan hue and sit between the two (that’s right, two) lasers on the platform.
Construction is reasonably simple – a few M3 screws, nuts & washers. If you’re inclined to self-build though, as with all such projects, there is always the risk of imperfect parts.
How does 3D scanning work?
There are two distinct approaches to 3D scanning. The first involves moving a camera, smartphone or drone around your subject to create 3D triangulation points, using software such as display.land. While this approach doesn't require new equipment, it's not the most accurate.
The second approach involves use of dedicated 3D scanners, which are the devices we looking at the article above.
When you’re scanning a photo, the main job is capturing the color; it’s possible to get the 3D shape without any such tone at all depending on the device, so bear that in mind. (Game designers may not mind this, but retailers will certainly want accurate colors, so that their website visitors can rotate the product and consider it from every angle.)
That said, there's still a degree of imperfection in a digital scan. Just as a photo scanner has a limited resolution, there will be a limited gap between each laser trace on the outside of the subject. It’s useful to find software which can fill these gaps, creating ‘closed models’, though there might be some loss in surface detail. Repairing the mesh will almost certainly need a little hands-on activity, just like photo editing.
3D scanners have not, thus far, sold in the same numbers that 3D printers have, which rather suggests the world needs more 3D content creators. Owning a 3D scanner might even give you a marketable service, though don’t expect it to be instant.