Scan objects you want to print.
Credit: Spencer Higgins / MakerBot

If you don't want to go through the sometimes arduous process of designing new objects to print from scratch, you can also use a 3D scanner to capture real-world items and create models automatically. Then you can choose to simply replicate them like a 3D photocopier, or customize the object to alter it to your preferences, or even mash up one object with other models to print something completely new. MakerBot's recently introduced $1,400 Digitizer is one of the first push-button, soup-to-nuts scanner units available. It's a desktop-friendly unit that combines a laser, a camera, and a turntable and is capable of scanning any object up to eight inches square and generating a 3D file in about 12 minutes. Previously, 3D scanners were each focused on individual applications (a boat scanner, a car scanner, and so on). The Digitizer is unique in that it can handle all kinds of objects. Like the entry-level printers, it is also reasonably priced. "You can spend a lot of money on a scanner," says Pettis. "The nice ones start at 20 grand and go up." A scanner is purely an optional item, but for artists, creative types, or the design-challenged who want the instant ability to have a 3D model of an interesting object they'd want to replicate, it's an invaluable resource.