Makerbot, a leading 3D printer manufacturing company, announced a new 3D scanner prototype at the big tech trade show South by Southwest last week. It's called the "Digitizer" that can scan small objects and create a 3D digital design.
The digital design can then be printed out with a 3D printer. Basically, anyone with a Digitizer and a 3D printer will have a replicator. The picture below, from Makerbot's blog post on the digitizer, shows how it works.
This is exciting because while creating 3D designs is not considered hard in among product designers and engineers, it's very hard for non-technical types. I've tried doing it and let's just say the idea of having a scanner do it for me is something that makes sense.
3D printing has been getting a lot of attention of late and many are wondering if it is overhyped. Our view remains the same - 3D printing is and will continue to an excellent niche tool for making things as well as wonderful device for product designers.
But broad, mainstream industrial use of 3D printing is still at least 3-5 years away and general use by consumers even farther out. But advances like the 3D scanner show the industry continues to make steady progress.
BTW, this year's South by Southwest has a bit of a focus on physical products. GigaOm has a nice article summarizing this.