8 things you need to know about 3D scanners

You can 3D print almost anything. But having a scanner helps foster even more creativity. Here are eight things to know about digital scanners for 3D printers.

You want to get your dad a great birthday present. He loves his motorcycle. An idea pops into your head: a 3D model of that favorite possession, eternalized in plastic for his desk at work. You have a desktop 3D printer, so that's totally possible, and it's also pretty cheap.

So you take your handheld 3D scanner to his house and use it to scan a digital image that you can now manipulate and eventually print straight from your computer. Easy enough, and possible right now if you have the money for the equipment.

3D scanners are key to pushing 3D printing technology into the mainstream. When you can scan anything and turn it into a print — be it that motorcycle, or a spare part you need for your toolkit, or a new toy for your kids — the possibilities become endless, and 3D printing makes a lot more sense.

Here are eight things to know about the state of 3D scanning and the advancement of the technology. To sum it up: we're getting there.

1. 3D scanning is part of what's holding 3D printing back

We've written before about the fact that accessible, user-friendly software is one of the aspects of 3D printing that is underdeveloped, and is really what's been holding the technology back. Part of that issue is scanning, because it's difficult to figure out how to turn any object into a 3D model that can be manipulated, customized, and then printed.

As the technology develops and someone develops easier to use software systems for 3D scanning and design, and as 3D printers drop in price, hopefully the same thing happens with scanners. To catch on with the public, they have to be extremely user friendly. And, of course, cheap.

2. Most of them are still pretty expensive

That leads us to the next issue — how expensive 3D scanners are. Generally, most 3D scanners are too large and expensive to be used by consumers. That's at odds with the culture of 3D printing right now, considering most of the developments are in desktop 3D printers made for home use. Most of the 3D scanners out there are more than $1,000, which, when added to the expense of the actual 3D printer, is a huge extra investment.

One cheap alternative is the Peachy Printer, a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign for a $100 3D printer and scanner. It has its own software and scans using lasers, and then prints with the same machine.

3. Handheld scanners are now an option

Fuel3D developed Scanify, a portable, handheld 3D scanner that scans high res images for 3D printing, 3D art, and game development. It can scan high texture surfaces, the human form, plants and animals, and virtually any object. Scanify runs at about $1200 US dollars.

3D Systems also makes a handheld 3D scanner called Sense, which can scan objects of any size and shape. It's fully integrated with and the Cube desktop printers, so the entire process is fairly simple. Sense runs at about $400.

4. 3D scanning is a powerful educational tool

One of the most interesting uses for 3D printing is for education. The Smithsonian has been scanning and archiving its artifacts, and then releasing the designs online for people to download and print. It is a great use for educational purposes — teachers and students can combine engineering, math, and history together for lessons inside and outside of the classroom.

5. 3D scanning makes 3D printing much more useful

Most people use open source platforms like Thingiverse to download designs to 3D print. It's free, it's easy, and there's an infinite amount of weird stuff to print for fun. To move forward with the technology, however, 3D printing has to move past the novelty stage and become more useful in everyday life — think 3D printed parts, tools, or other objects that are easier and cheaper to print than buy.

Scanners open up new opportunities in 3D printing, because instead of having to search for something you want on an online marketplace — which in a way, defeats the purpose of being able to make anything you want from thin air — you can find whatever you want, or part of what you want, and scan it.

6. Matter and Form is a solid, agnostic choice that's popular

If you aren't sure what brand to buy, and you aren't married to any particular 3D printer company, Matter and Form's 3D scanner could be a good option for you. It was a crowdfunded product that now runs at $600, and is probably one of the cheapest laser scanners on the market. It uses a turntable to scan the object and create a three dimensional point cloud, and then it can be downloaded and manipulated on your computer.

7. Companies are beginning to patent 3D scanning

As the market continues to get more crowded, MakerBot has applied for patients for its Digitizer 3D scanner, which is now $799, to make 3D printing more accessible and simple to use — two things they've proven to be good at. One patent is about the way the Digitizer calibrates, and the second is for the software, which makes it easy for the user to choose settings for the scan. Time will tell if other companies will start to patent their system as well, but MakerBot is again setting the precedent for the industry.

8. Your smartphone may soon function as a scanner

Apparently, Caltech scientists have developed a laser chip that determines the distance and size of an object by measuring the laser light reflected off of it. Since it's only about a millimeter in size, it may be ideal for fitting in smartphones to 3D scan images with a camera — which makes 3D printing seem much easier and more efficient.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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