3D Printing Continues to Grow 3D Scanning (or is it the other way around?)

The new year is starting out rather interesting as it relates to news and change in our 3D scanning industry. Were not even half way into March and it would not surprise me if we had more news about 3D scanning already this year than all of last year which was already significantly more than the year prior. What gives? Why is 3D scanning making the headlines more often? Certainly this is a good thing more news means more interest and hopefully more business activity, which is what we all want for our 3D scanning world. Lets take a look at some of the more significant news items so far in this young year and see what is in common.

3D Systems Acquires Geomagic and Rapidform

First, on only the second business day of the new year we woke to the news that another one of the more venerable software firms in our 3D scanning space Geomagic was to be acquired by 3D Systems, one of the big OEMs in the far more news-garnering world of 3D printing. And this news came just a few months after 3D Systems acquired one of the other venerable 3D software firms in our scanning space Rapidform. The industry is still in the early stages of digesting this much news and change. Will these products remain on the market? Will they be combined or will one be killed?

While on the outside it appears confusing and sends a mixed message, the thinking behind the acquisition of two so similar firms is clearly strategic. As a long-time sales & support partner to both of these once fiercely rival software firms, I believe that with the resources and vision of 3D Systems, and the now combined highly talented sales and technical teams within both Geomagic and Rapidform, that these acquisitions are about connecting the generation of 3D content into the process of 3D printing. No question that one of the input methods into 3D printing is the creation of 3D models from reality real objects, parts, sculptures, and even buildings and facilities that are 3D scanned and then modeled using software like Geomagic and Rapidform. 3D Systems wants to control more of the vertical process that drives more 3D printing and clearly 3D modeling of our real world stuff is now part of their domain.

Autodesk 123D Partners with MakerBot

Since neither Rapidform nor Geomagic software are particularly known as low-end consumer level products, this statement by 3D Systems CEO at the recent closing of the Geomagic acquisition foretells the likely direction of how these products will move:

"This is an exciting development for us and our customers. With our combined portfolio, we are committed to enhance our customers’ processes and workflows, including capture, design, modify, inspect and interact," said Avi Reichental, President and CEO of 3D Systems."The completion of this transaction today marks the beginning of a journey to democratize access to our unmatched portfolio of powerful 3D content-to-print products and services for the benefit of professionals and consumers alike."

The word democratize is used frequently by many in the 3D printing space these days. The idea of mass adoption by all of us consumers for use at work, at school, and even at home is no question propelling the stock frenzy of the publicly traded 3D printing OEMs, including 3D Systems. Not to be left out of this tumult, another large publically traded company well known to our 3D scanning industry Autodesk has several toes in this same water. Its line of design tools aimed at the consumer, led by 123D Catch, provides a solution for 3D geometry capture for everyone by virtue of the camera on our mobile device. But thats not enough since now even Autodesk is getting on board with 3D printing by announcing a partnership between 123D Catch and MakerBot printing.

The MakerBot Digitizer and 3D Photo Booth

As if the 3D printing space wasnt on fire enough, just this week perhaps the most newsy 3D printing OEM firm of all MakerBot announced at the gigantic tech-fest South by Southwest (SXSW) the introduction of the MakerBot Digitizer. This is pretty big news in our 3D scanning space. A relatively low cost consumer grade 3D scanning device to accompany their relatively low cost 3D printer. I love it! How better to grow the demand for real 3D scanning then to have people all over the world clamor around this thing. I am sure it will do some decent things out of the box and given all the hacking that goes on with printing and scanning, I am sure it wont be long before we see this new thing adapted to all sorts of unintended uses for scanning all sorts of unexpected objects. Just like the Kinect, the MakerBot Digitizer will likely soon be shown capable of scanning larger objects than the little turntable looks like it can hold, and of course even people! After all, as the creator of the MakerBot 3D Photo Booth running every day in their retail store in Manhattan, I can tell you people love to not only scan themselves, but also their pets!

So here we go another major connection between 3D printing and 3D scanning. Like 3D Systems, MakerBot understands that to drive more printing, you need more content. Scanning creates content interesting content around us – our artwork and artifacts, our environment, and definitely ourselves. People are just about as interesting as anything to scan and print, hence all the news about people 3D scanning themselves with iPhone cameras, Kinects, and even our ShapeShot 3D Photo Booth. The idea of 3D printing little plastic heads of ourselves is just about everywhere. A few weeks ago, for example, we were asked to bring our ShapeShot 3D Photo Booth and a MakerBot printer to our state capitol in Annapolis for a demonstration to our Maryland State legislators. With all the talk following President Obamas State of the Union speech where even he boasted that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything, it seems everybody everywhere suddenly wants to know what this 3D printing stuff is. And again I love it. More interest and more demand about 3D printing drives more interest and more demand for 3D scanning. Or as in these cases, is it the other way around?

Maybe Gartner was correct in its August 2012 report showing 3D printing on the precipice of its famous technology hype curve sadly warning that there is no way forward but down. Hopefully this is okay because 3D scanning made the curve for the first time and if my hypothesis is correct we stand to get pulled up the curve no matter what happens. I love that.

About the Author

Michael Raphael

Michael Raphael ... Michael earned a BS degree in Engineering Science and Mechanics from Virginia Tech, followed by a Masters of Engineering Administration from George Washington University. During his 10 years at Lockheed Martin as an engineer responsible for solving aerostructures manufacturing quality problems, Michael co-developed the FaroArm portable CMM and became the first user on the planet! In 1995, he founded Direct Dimensions, Inc., providing rapid solutions to 3D problems!