The best 3D scanner allows you to quickly scan a real-world object, then turn it into a digital model. You can then turn that digital model into a work of art, animate it, analyse it scientifically, or recreate it as a physical model using one of the best 3D printers. With so many uses, 3D scanners are commonly found in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, entertainment, archaeology and art.
So how do they work? In simple terms, a 3D scanner uses lights or lasers to illuminate your subject. By controlling the light and positioning of the subject, you're able to take precise measurements, and not rely on software ‘guesses’ as to where the 3D positions triangulate.
In this article, we'll point you toward the best 3D scanners available today, which cover a range of budgets and support a number of different purposes.
The best 3D scanners in 2023
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Creality has been one of the leading manufacturers of 3D scanners for a number of years, and the Scan Lizard was originally and successfully launched on Kickstarter in 2022. It offers a set-up that allows the scanner to be used handheld, or for more accuracy on a table. Unlike some, there's no need to put markers near your subject before scanning, making it simpler to use.
There is a basic kit, but it may well be worth investing in the more expensive Premium kit that includes a motorized turntable and mini tripod; choose the Luxury kit if you want the facility to create 3D color objects (in conjunction with a DSLR or camera phone).
Want to try 3D scanning, but don't have enough cash for our number one pick, the Creality CR-Scan Lizard? The Creality CR-Scan Ferret was about half the price at time of writing. It won't work with iOS but if you're happy to use either Windows, macOS or Android, this does a pretty decent job of scanning medium-sized and large objects, with a scan speed of up to 30fps. It's not quite as accurate as its Lizard sibling, and its single capture range in more limited, but for this affordable price, that's fair enough.
If you're an artist, designer, animator or 3D modeller looking to get turn real-life objects into digital models, here's our top pick. 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.
It's easy to assemble. And in operation, 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.
Off on your travels? Here's a 3D scanner you can carry anywhere, easily and safely. 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. Plus it's both Mac and Windows compatible.
Here's our top pick for students and teachers. Supplied with a plastic stand, this looks more like a complete product than some 3D scanners, and that’s great news for reliability; especially in education. That’s because the scanner is hard-wired to the turntable, meaning the two are far less likely to part ways thanks to a knock once they’re calibrated – unless, of course, you’re going over the 200mm (7.9 inches) size for auto-turned objects.
The scanning is achieved via a projector built into the scanner. Unlike earlier models, the signal with the patterns of light is sent to the EinScan-SE using the same USB cable as the information is returned on. The only other cable to knock is the power lead, which is better than earlier systems from Afinia.
The software is easy to use, with on-screen guides through the process and – crucially – the repairing and assembling of the scan afterward. You can export a number of file formats too, including .3mf with color data.
Note, the EinScan-SP, the pricier model, approximately halves speed and doubles resolutions, as well as allowing specific coded targets to be added.
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) – 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.
What is 3D scanning used for?
3D scanning has an almost endless variety of applications. Firstly, it's used in the entertainment industry to capture actors' performances, props, and real-world objects for use in animation and visual effects production for movies, TV and games. In a similar way, it can be used by artists to capture physical sculptures or objects and transform them into digital models.
Industrial designers use 3D scanning to capture real-world objects or environments as a reference for creating new products. It's used by cultural heritage institutions, museums, and archeologists use 3D scanning to digitally preserve artifacts, historical sites, and monuments. And it's also increasingly used within medical fields for purposes such as prosthetics, orthotics, and dental applications.
How we choose the best 3D scanners
To choose the best 3D scanners we don't just consider technical information but also carefully consider what scenarios each 3D scanner could be used for. We judge each model on how useful it's likely to be in practice, taking into account factors such as the size of objects it can scan, how long it takes to scan, how accurate the scans are, how portable it is, and what operating systems it's compatible with. Finally, we consider the price of the 3D scanners to select options that cover a range of budgets and requirements. We use our real-world experience of 3D scanners to determine a final selection of the best 3D scanners that we can recommend today.