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February 21, 2024

3D scans are practical but not yet feasible

By Ian Yu | May 9, 2013

3D printing is now starting to get into the realm of manufacturers, yet still retains a certain hobbyist appeal, so getting a design might get a little easier with an equivalent scanner. Currently there are two companies looking to break ground in the mass adoption of 3D scanning: Makerbot with their Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner and Matterform with their Photon 3D Scanner.

For the uninitiated, 3D printing works similar to your regular inkjet printer, putting ink onto a paper based on the file you want to print. Just as you have PDFs, JPEGs and TIFFs to print out a document or an image, 3D printers have several file formats that tell them where to put their ink, except instead of ink they can use plastic or another material with three-dimensional capabilities and they aren’t limited to the confines of a two-dimensional piece of paper.

Just as scanners can digitize an image into any one of those file formats, the scanners from Makerbot and Matterform set out to do the same in the 3D file formats. Makerbot has had success in the 3D printing sector and has only offered a glimpse of what the scanner will do, namely digitize your object of choice. In contrast, Matterform just started up and relied on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to raise its funds towards a ship date of November of this year.

While 3D printing has gotten a lot of popular attention lately, the scanning side has only received a portion of the spotlight because of Makerbot’s and Matterfrom’s attempts to bring 3D scanning to a much larger market. Other companies already have built 3D scanners for more “professional” users, although they have not yet achieved a marketable price, with one device reportedly costing over $20,000 just four years ago. On top of that, these earlier scanners were not geared towards a generation of 3D printers meant for the hands of the public at large, or even individuals willing to shell out some good money for these gadgets.

3D Printers are still in the price neighborhood of $1000 to $2000, but Matterform will probably set an early benchmark for other manufacturers by marketing their scanner in the $400 to $600 range during their crowdsourcing phase. This will put pressure on Makerbot to either deliver a scanner that can match that price range or deliver something extra. Integration with a printer, like the ubiquitous inkjet all-in-ones that a lot of college students personally use, is probably way too soon to be a viable ploy.

First they’ll need to tackle the more fundamental question that shapes the challenge of any similarly new technology: what exactly is the promise of 3D scanning? Well, as one might imagine, using the scanner in conjunction with a printer will make it easy to duplicate another reasonably sized object visually, although a clay garden gnome will probably wind up being printed in a vastly different material.

In their video pitch, Matterform’s co-founders Adam Brandejs and Drew Cox suggest that this allows for the design of a 3D printable object using tools in the three-dimensional world, such as sculpting a model that can be scanned into a computer. They show a sculpted model being scanned into a file that encodes the surface as a collection of points, which can subsequently turned into a mesh surface for digital visualization before printing the design. Presently, most designs for the 3D printer are made on the computer, creating a challenge for true appreciation of the full design before it is printed.

You won’t have to search far to see some of the unique examples of 3D printing that are coming into use, including smartphone cases in a new kind of manufacturing sector. Biological cells can also be used as the ink in making skin grafts, organs and other tissues for regenerative medicine. There’s even development of 3D printing for food.

Perhaps the day will come when your perfectly shaped holiday cookie can be scanned into a digital file and printed by friends and family for their enjoyment.

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