Using little more than a webcam and a laser, a young engineer has built a cheap 3D scanner that dovetails perfectly with the Makerbot and other desktop fabricators.

It could be used as part of a copying system that would allow hobbyists to duplicate solid objects at home.

"The technology exists to do this kind of thing, but it's much more expensive," said Andy Barry, a research engineer in the Autodesk Innovations Lab at NASA Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, California. "My goal is to make it really cheap, so we can build a million of them, and get it out to everybody."


Barry built the first model in only three weeks, during the beginning of his senior year at Olin College of Engineering. During his winter vacation, he constructed a second prototype. At Ames this summer, he has been using it to scan people's faces and then print plastic replicas.

That may seem impractical, but he pointed out that the same technique could be used to replace damaged plastic goods.


"You have a car part that's broken, you glue it back together and put it in front of the scanner," and then you can use that data to machine a replacement part, said Barry.

The scanner works by sweeping a red laser beam across any object that you can put in front of a webcam. When an object is close to the camera, the beam seems to shifted to the side. That provides a key bit of information about the depth of the point being scanned. With a bit of number crunching, a computer can use the position of the beam to calculate the thickness of that object.

Barry hopes to sell his invention through the MakerBot store for a price of around $200. It could be available early this fall.

Photo credit: Aaron Rowe