SXSW: 3D Scanner Unveiling Gets Interactive Fest Buzzing

Bre Pettis CEO MakerBot - H 2013

The 3D scanner demo by Bre Pettis, CEO of the consumer-oriented 3D printer company MakerBot, shows how people can replicate objects a la Disney's "Tron": "This is kind of like when Flynn gets digitized."

AUSTIN -- Bre Pettis, CEO and co-founder of 3D printer company MakerBot Industries, arrived in Austin with a product announcement that kicked off the 2013 SXSW Interactive festival with a bang. In the fest’s 2 p.m. opening remarks at the Austin Convention Center, Pettis unveiled the MakerBot Digitizer, a prototype 3D desktop scanner geared for the consumer market that will allow users to create a digital file of an everyday object, which can then be recreated in plastic (either biodegradable or petroleum-based) via a 3D printer. “With the MakerBot Digitizer, now everyone will be able to scan a physical item, digitize it, and print it in 3D —with little or no design experience," said Pettis.

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The charismatic former schoolteacher, the subject of a Wired cover story in September, displayed a plastic garden gnome that had been created with the DIY-looking prototype, which employs a turntable, two lasers and a webcam. So far, the machine can replicate objects up to eight inches tall, though Pettis was in tune with the excited energy of the room when he said, “If you’ve seen Tron, this is kind of like what happens when Flynn gets digitized into the game grid. You’ve got the power of replication."

The Brooklyn-based company, which has been pushing to make 3D printing more accessible to the average consumer, sells its Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer for $2,199 and claims to own just over 20 percent market share for 3D printers. There’s no price yet announced for the Digitizer, due this fall, but it would be expected to come in considerably below that of industrial 3D scanners. Currently, anyone who wants to print materials on a 3D printer either has to work from someone else’s design (many of which are shared on digital-design hub Thingiverse) or have the capability to create their own original design on CAD software.

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As far as applications go, Pettis opened his remarks with a rundown of a number of things that have been made using MakerBot printers, including customized mobile-device covers, sleep-apnea monitors for children, prosthetic hands for children (prosthetic hands are not commonly made for children because kids grow quickly), prototypes for Broadway sets, artwork and spare parts. Pettis got smiles when he showed a photo of a young girl with two sets of orthotic shoe inserts her father made for her to wear on a trip to an amusement park. The printed objects "made her tall enough to ride on all the rides," said Pettis. The CEO also imagined uses in animation by making "Muybridge-style figures" in various stages of motion.

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While he aggressively trumpeted 3D printing as "the next industrial revolution," with the ability to disrupt design and manufacturing, Pettis -- who dressed the part in a laser-cut jacket by Reykjavik-based designer Sruli Recht -- didn’t address the troubling issues concerning copyright presented by the technology in his prepared remarks. During the Q&A portion of the talk, he responded to a question about the creation of a digital copy of a Lego. "We don’t want to mess with Lego. We want to be friends with Lego," said Pettis, who noted that it can take up to 15 minutes to create one Lego block on a 3D printer. "I made one recently. It’s not the most efficient way to make Legos." He also referred to designs on Thingiverse and stated, in a way that sounded dismissive, “We get the occasional take-down [notice] from people who think a copyright is being violated.”

Paging Hollywood: It looks like the experience of content piracy has been extended into the manufacturing realm.