While debate rages over using 3D printers to make guns or gun parts, technologies for other possible abuses are emerging — including the ability to cheaply copy and reproduce works of art and jewelry.
A few days ago at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, 3D printer company MakerBot introduced the other end of the equation — a device called the MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner that can create a computer model of any object up to 8 inches by 8 inches.
Makerbot founder and CEO Bre Pettis didn't name a price for the new gadget, which goes on sale this fall. But given the company's focus on home enthusiasts, it will likely be comparatively low-cost. (The latest 3D printer, the MakerBot Replicator 2, sells for $2,199.) [See also: 3D Printers at Maker Faire: Faster, Cheaper, Easier to Use ]
"This technology has been around for 20 years, maybe more," said Pettis of 3D scanning during his presentation in Austin. "But it’s been hard." He explained that, in earlier forms of the technology, once a 3D scan was made, it required extensive processing to remove flaws and produce a ready-to-print digital file.
With the new device, the process will be automated and accessible to anyone. The small dimensions of the scanning area rule out the vast majority of objects, but some of the most valuable items are small ones, such as jewelry and sculpture in precious metals.
There's no reason to think that MakerBot wants to enable copying and forging of valuable items; the company has said it is against printing guns. (It has banned all gun-part designs from Thingiverse.com, its online trove of user-submitted files to make 3D prints.)
But the company has said that such copying is possible. In a press release about the 3D scanner, MakerBot wrote that it could be used for "artifacts, artwork, sculptures, clay figures, jewelry, etc." When TechNewsDaily asked Pettis about the possibility of using the scanner for forgery, he said, "I haven't thought about it."
Forgery isn't yet possible with MakerBot's own printer — unless it's for items made of plastic, which the current printers are limited to. But industrial machines can also print in metal. And companies like Shapeways make their machines available for people who want to submit their own digital files. And recently, the company added the ability to print in sterling silver to its existing capacity for gold plating.
"It's going to happen … but our hope is that it isn't," said Elisa Richardson, a spokeswoman for Shapeways, who was wearing a 3D printed silver bracelet on her right wrist. Richardson explained that the company prohibits forgery, as it prohibits printing of gun parts. She also said that customers are enthusiasts who mostly print their own designs.
Shapeways also offers a wide variety of objects, some of them customizable, such as smartphone cases. And the company recently made it possible for developers to build apps that allow users to design their own 3D objects and send them to Shapeways to print.
But Richardson conceded that the company couldn't possibly check every user- submitted design to see if it matches a work of art or jewelry, and items are likely to get through.