Once a tool designed exclusively for trained technicians, 3D printers are now almost as easy to use as your desktop inkjet—except when it comes to designing and prepping the requisite 3D models. That step still requires an expertise with 3D modeling software, and is a barrier to 3D printing that MakerBot hopes to remove with its new Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner.

It's official, we live in the future now. And it's absolutely wonderful.

When combined with a 3D printer, the digitizer is almost like a Xerox machine for real-world objects. Need to replace a small part that's broken? Instead of contacting the manufacturer you can simply toss it on the laser-based scanner, generate (and repair) a 3D model, and then print it off on your 3D printer. The Digitizer was revealed for the first time at SXSW today, and while MakerBot does plan to put it into production once the hardware is finalized, at the moment they're only showing a prototype that is still undergoing extensive testing and refining.


And while the Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner will certainly be another big step towards making 3D printing more common, it's also sure to fuel the debate over the legality and copyright issues when it comes to duplicating real world objects.

But legal battles aside, this is still pretty awesome. Outside of the transporter, the replicator was one of the coolest pieces of fictional technologies introduced in Star Trek. And for a few thousand dollars, anyone will soon be able to replicate almost anything from their basement workshop. Mankind has passed through the iron age, the bronze age, and even the information age. And while the extruded plastic age doesn't have quite the same ring to it, the possibilities with these new technologies are still exciting. [MakerBot]