A new 3D scanner creates digital versions of physical objects in minutes.

The $1,400 Makerbot Desktop Digitizer 3D's two lasers can scan objects up to 6.5 lb and up to 8 in. in dia and 8 in. tall.

"For engineers, industrial designers and architects, this is huge," says Bre Pettis, CEO, Makerbot, Brooklyn. A scan cuts modeling time, he says. A scanned object becomes a stereolithography (STL) file that can be imported into "any digital design software," says Pettis. "It's the friendliest file format for CAD design programs." The STL file gives designers a base from which to work.

The company collects user-submitted designs and shares them online. Its website, dubbed the Thingiverse, has 3D "blueprints" for a wide range of designs, including a bust of Mitt Romney's head and a fully functioning, hand-cranked five-cylinder radial engine.

"It's great when you can hold a design iteration in your hands," says Pettis. He adds that 3D printers allow designers to create multiple iterations a day—a very recent possibility.

Makerbot's cheapest 3D printer, the $2,199 Replicator 2, uses polylactic acid (PLA), a thermoplastic made from renewables, such as corn starch. Pettis says the material is sustainable and durable.

But it isn't metal. To explore printing with other materials, Makerbot's Replicator 2X is designed for experienced users and allows for experimentation with different printing materials.

Other companies offer 3D printers with sub-$500 price tags. That number is dropping. A KickStarter-funded 3D printer, called the Peachy Printer, will sell for $100, the designer claims. The backers already have raised over six times the original goal of $50,000.