What are my Part Digitizing Options? Buy a Scanner or Use a Service

Most companies that have a need to digitize parts ask the “Make/Buy” question.  Do I purchase part scanning equipment and train staff (Make) or do I find a good service provider (Buy)?  Or are there levels in between this?

By digitizing, we mean scanning/probing parts to create a point cloud, STL file or voxel data set and then doing something with that data.  That something could be inspection or comparison work, reverse engineering, CAD model creation or something else.

Our service business is interested in working with our customers in any phase of their “Make/Buy” decision. We find that some customers that have worked with us for years have gradually learned the software and then purchased the equipment.  They in fact use our service fees as part of the equipment/software/training rationale to “Make” this capability for themselves.  As a business, I find that we rarely ever lose one of these customers.  They will typically come back to us as their capacity is over run or they have training needs for new staff or they do not yet own a different technology that we already possess and are experts at.  We accommodate that by providing them what they need when they need it.  We have a large staff of degreed engineers who are metrologists at heart.

Going Through the Options

Here are some options to consider.  Where possible I have given approximate costs and timings.  These are based on options that we have seen various customers of ours use over the past 14-15 years.

Immediately buy equipment, software and training to do this work independently


    • Full control of the process from beginning to end!


    • High initial equipment cost. This will probably be in the $70-$100k range for equipment, $20-$30k for good software and training costs (this equals time away for staff and training $ of probably around $10k).  Note as part of our business we train our customers in all the equipment, software and techniques that we currently use every day.  Our training is the best option as we come to your site and train as many staff as you can spare using your prints and your parts – no stock examples!
    • Experience. Newly trained staff can be much slower as they get familiar with the equipment and software.  This is compared with a service provider who does this kind of work every day and all day long.  If you have long term and high volume needs, then this is a must have and you pay to gain the experience.  We find that when we train engineering interns (high caliber and very smart people) in one piece of equipment for about 30 days of near continuous use, they become pretty proficient.

Purchase only the analysis software and have a service provider provide the raw data


    • Full control of how the data is handled. You are the masters of your parts and know exactly what you need from the data.  Often you can focus the data extraction efforts exactly where you need them.
    • Data collection is left to experts who use the equipment every day.
    • Travel – Use the service provider to travel to far away sites with portable equipment to collect data and keep your staff at home and focused on their other priorities.
    • Reduction in capital expense. The software is always less than the equipment. The equipment has to be maintained and calibrated periodically.


    • Software cost (probably $20k-$30k)
    • Training cost (probably around $10k)
    • Experience cost – Your staff has to take time to become proficient with the software which requires frequent use. If your needs are once per month or less, you will be basically training them every month all over again.  Consistent use with the software over a nice period of time (a month or so) will ingrain the software and then allow less frequent use.  We have customers who avoid software use because ‘their one trained guy’ uses it so infrequently, he loses confidence.
    • Yearly maintenance costs of software (usually 10-15% of original software cost)
    • By having only the software and not having the equipment, you cannot do troubleshooting at your convenience. This type of equipment is excellent for manufacturing troubleshooting purposes and having it available can be invaluable at times.

Purchase the equipment and outsource the analysis and modeling from the data


    • Full control of the quality of the scans.
    • Full assurance that the data you want collected is collected in the areas you want it collected
    • Outsource the data analysis to the experts who manipulate the data and create models from this specific type of data every day.
    • Avoid equipment costs: maintenance is usually 10-15% of original equipment cost (between warranties and calibration costs); Asset carrying costs can also make your other numbers look not as good.


    • High initial cost (usually $70-$100k)
    • You may collect data in a poor way which requires you to retake the data multiple times. We find that some customers take data on parts that are later shipped out and then later find that they have made some error in the collection process that makes the data not usable for what they really want.  When you ask us to use your data, we quote based on the condition of the data.  If it requires a lot of ‘clean-up’ you pay more.  If data you need is missing, we cannot quote that.

Outsource all the work of data collection, processing and/or CAD modeling


    • No Equipment, software or training costs
    • No ongoing costs for maintenance of the above
    • The world of the latest available technology, equipment and software is now at your fingertips through a service provider who must stay up to date on everything. This is opposed to buying a fixed depreciating asset that may or may not meet your every need.
    • Experts collect and handle the data and create the CAD models. You stay focused on your core business competences.
    • Your staff’s time is not impacted. You stay focused on your core business competences.


    • You must trust your service provider to capture the correct data and correctly create usable CAD data (parametric data using your preferred CAD package or NURBs data or STP,IGES or parasolid data)
    • You must find a service supplier large enough to not constrain your operation and receipt of your final data (reports or CAD models). Small organizations and ‘one man shows’ are not bad (and can offer services for less overhead), but are resource constrained (less variety of equipment, less experience variety, no accreditation and less raw man power).  If you are not their biggest customer, you may get lost or delegated to a late delivery date.


Our Recommendations

We are obviously biased toward using service providers and 3DES meets every requirement mentioned above.  However, what we have noted over the years is that customers who ultimately successfully purchase their own equipment tend to first use our service and become familiar with the techniques and deliverables.  They then will either first buy the software and become proficient or buy equipment/software simultaneously. We also note that within a couple of years the 1-2 guys who were initially trained leave the company for some reason and new people need to be trained (we create significant revenue from training our customers under this scenario).  If you are graced (as we are) with excellent and long term employees, this is not an issue.  If your business goes through expansion and contraction cycles, you could see this.

The equipment and software costs usually run 10-15% of the original cost (I understand this to be an industry standard).

If/when you purchase your own scanning equipment; you will find it useful for other projects.  Or you will find that is being used so much that you still have to outsource.  We have also experienced work from customers who own particular types of equipment and use it so much for production that their engineers cannot get time with the equipment for troubleshooting production or product issues.  We have seen these scenarios with several of our customers over the years.

We advocate the ‘crawl – walk – run’ model. Use an experienced service provider first to gage the quantity of need over a period of time.  Use that cost information to justify purchases for yourself or to justify keeping that service provider.  We have been to many customers who own similar or the same equipment that is now relegated to a ‘closet’ because of such low use and then is not used because the experience base is not there anymore.

As you consider some of the options mentioned above, please contact us for a free quote of your project!

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