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Thursday, August 22, 2013

A 3-D Scanner Reaches for the Masses

The 3-D printer company MakerBot on Thursday entered the new market for scanning, introducing a desktop device called the Digitizer that could help push more of the public into 3-D printing.

The $1,400 Digitizer looks a little like a classic record player, but with lasers. It rotates small objects on a turntable near two lasers and a camera to create a three-dimensional model that can then be reproduced by a 3-D printer.

For MakerBot, which was acquired by Stratasys for $403 million in June, the Digitizer adds another component to its lineup of 3-D printing products and services. The company has Replicator 3-D printers, the online design library Thingiverse and a presence in Microsoft retail stores.

While desktop 3-D printing has become more widely available in the last few years, designing new objects can require specialized skills in 3-D modeling or engineering, which can be a barrier for novices.

Many in the industry say that the grand visions of a home manufacturing revolution will not happen until easy design tools are in place. Scanners are one way to simplify that process because they allow people to copy objects, or to just tweak, adapt or remix existing objects.

Still, the technology is in early development for consumer use. Shiny, fuzzy or reflective surfaces do not scan well, the company said, saying that “like any technology, 3-D scanning is limited by the laws of physics.”

“Expectations should be realistic,” the company says in F.A.Q. about the Digitizer. “You will not be able to, for example, scan a hamburger and then eat the digital design.”

The Digitizer is available for preorders, and the company said it would ship to customers in mid-October.

MakerBot is one of the leaders in the 3-D printing industry, but this is not the first scanner on the market. There are also more technically precise scanners, like the NextEngine 3-D scanner, which scans in color, unlike the Digitizer. The NextEngine sells for $2,995.

Other 3-D scanners are in development, some financed by online campaigns, like the Fuel3D, a handheld scanner that promises to cost less than $1,000, and a scanner from Matterform that was available to early supporters for just $599 and for which preorders will be taken starting in September.

As 3-D scanners grow in capability and drop in cost, their availability raises questions about copyright protections for physical objects.

Once the messy problem of design is out of the way, will people buy another Buzz Lightyear action figure when they can just scan one and make a copy?