The Hub likes to highlight those groups that do things open source and cheap, but sometimes it's good to look at the people who at the high end of the price bracket. MakerBot can put a 3D printer on your desktop, Shapeways can make you a neat object in stainless steel, but it takes a juggernaut like Z Corporation to bring you 3D printing with 450 DPI resolution in full color. On the scanning side, Z Corp's latest models are hand held and self positioning at 50 micron resolution or better. If you've got tens of thousands of dollars to spend these devices would make a cool addition to your office. Or just check out some of the demonstration videos after the break.
While Z Corporation products are out of the price range for most individual users, they represent amazing technology that is commercially available to anyone. I doubt the average person even knows that 3D printing technology can produce color models in just hours. Likewise, 3D scanning an object is probably outside of the everyday citizen's concerns. These products are still in the early generation paradigm: expensive and used almost exclusively in industry. But they won't stay there. Technology gets cheaper and more democratic as it is improved, so we should look forward to a time when the kind of 3D printing and scanning we see in these videos would fit in anyone's budget.
As this technology becomes more widespread and powerful, the ways we purchase and exchange goods are going to be different. When you shop online for a coffee mug, the vendor could just send you the CAD file, allowing you to print the mug rather than have it shipped. Free information (like open source design specs) will translate to free objects.
Z Corporation 3D printing works using a fine powder laid down in a thin layer. Ink jet technology allows a bonding agent (which can be colored) to be applied in a pattern on the powder. Just like your paper printer, the resolution can be quite high (450 DPI or better). As each layer of powder is applied on top of the previous one, the 3D model is formed. The color models are really good looking. They should be, the entry level color printer comes with a price tag near $40,000 USD.
3D scanning is equally impressive. The 600 model from Z Corp can take 18,000 measurements per second, with 50 micron precision. Better yet, the scanner is hand held, eliminating the need for a tripod, and can handle objects of practically any size. Surface optimization algorithms, multi-scan refining, and real time surfacing allow a user to scan an entire object in one pass, greatly reducing post-scanning processing time. With two stereo cameras and some guidance/ranging lasers, the 600 looks something like a blaster from some hokey video game, but it comes with a very serious $29,000 price tag (as of September 15th). You can upgrade to a 3 camera scanner with 25,000 measurements per second, and sub 40 micron precision, but the price climbs up and up.
For most of us, 3D scanning isn't a daily requirement. Z Corporation products are really for businesses that need to scan to make a profit (like third party manufacturers). A much cheaper, and still really cool 3D Scanner from Next Engine ($3000) would probably handle any desktop applications you have. Or wait for Makerbot to bring out their scanner, we know they are working on one.
I like looking at Z Corporation products for the same reason I like looking at the Lamborghini Murciélago: I'm never going to use one, but it's cool to see what engineering can achieve. 3D printing and scanning, of course, are definitely more useful than sports cars and won't always remain luxury items. Like 2D scanning and printing, performance will be maintained or improved as costs come down. While not quite programmable matter, scanning and printing in 3D is an amazing way to convert digital files into physical objects. I can't wait until someone takes the performance of Z Corporation and sells it in the bargain bin.
[photo credits: Z Corporation]