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updated 3/8/2013 4:18:13 PM ET 2013-03-08T21:18:13

AUSTIN, TX — It’s not quite the Star Trek replicator — it can’t make food from thin air — but MakerBot’s new 3D Scanner prototype is a step in that direction. Company head Bre Pettis unveiled the gadget, formally known as by mouthful name MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner, at his kickoff speech for the South by Southwest conference in Austin TX today (Mar. 8).  

As a regular scanner can copy a sheet of paper, MakerBot’s 3D scanner can capture entire objects (up to 8 by 8 inches), using laser light and a camera. By pairing it with a 3D printer (such as MakerBot’s $2,199 Replicator 2), you can have a real-life copy of any (small) object you see — though it will be plastic.

3D printers (not just MakerBot’s) are amazing people in their ability to create all types of objects — but only if you understand how to use computer-aided design software. You can also download designs from Web sites such as MakerBot’s Thingiverse (which has free designs for 40,000 objects). But that let’s you make only what other people decided to design.  (Although there are a few custom options such as the new ability to customize smartphone covers.)

During his presentation, Pettis was able to scan a garden gnome in just a few minutes. As the scan was progressing, the 3D digital image appeared on a computer screen.

What he didn’t say is when the Digitizer Desktop will cost. But he did say it would be for sale in the fall of 2013. However, a press release from MakerBot stated that the Digitizer could be used in “businesses, universities, classrooms, and in the home.” The first three uses might imply at a high price, but the last suggests not.

MakerBot’s Digitizer is far from the first device that can scan a model in 3D. In fact, the company has such a device in its “3D Photo Booth” at the MakerBot store in Manhattan. But it hasn’t been technology available to a big audience. “This technology its been around for 20 years, maybe more,” said Pettis. “But it’s been hard. There was a lot of post-processing involved.” For example, a spec of dust on the object scanned would show up on the computer model and had to be removed.

Likewise, printers that use more exotic material than plastic, including metal, are for now beyond the reach of regular folk. Though you can order such objects from an industrial 3D printer company such as Shapeways.

The digitizer, and especially that ability to print objects in high-end material, raises an interesting question about forgery. In its press release, MakerBot mentions among the uses of the Digitizer making “artifacts, artwork, sculptures, clay figures, jewelry, etc.” Want to copy a ceramic statue? Shapeways can print a copy. It can also print sculptures or jewelry in sterling silver.

Will 3D printing companies someday find themselves in the business of intellectual property protection — having to turn down designs people submit for printing? That might be easy for a copy of celebrated David Yurman ring. But there are so many other pieces. [See also: 10 Incredible 3-D Printed Products ]

Time will tell. Meanwhile, many artists and “makers” will likely be excited to try their hand at the new gadget.

Follow Sean Captain @seancaptain. Follow us @TechNewsDaily,Facebook or on Google+.

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