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MakerBot honcho kicks off SXSW 2013

The frontman of MakerBot, the popular, sometimes-controversial 3D printing company, makes sure that the first official day of South by Southwest, the megamedia, music, and technology show, hits the ground running.

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis introduces his company's new Digitizer printer, which uses a laser scanner to grab a 3D rendering of an object to be replicated and printed.
James Martin/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--What's next for 3D printing? MakerBot founder and CEO Bre Pettis answered that question in all-capital letters during his opening keynote speech here at South by Southwest 2013.

"LASERS," read a slide with factoid about his company's latest 3D printer, the MakerBot Digitizer.

"It's kind of like Tron," Pettis explained, as a prototype of the new printer fired its laser scanners at a garden gnome.

Introduced by South by Southwest Interactive director Hugh Forrest as the "hero of South by," Pettis started this year's conference with a brief history of his company and what people have done with its printers.

As devout MakerBot and Pettis fans probably know, he started off fixing bicycles as a kid, and went on as a young adult to found NYC Resistor, a hacker collective that offered its members tools, "so we could make anything," Pettis said. That led to the invention of the MakerBot printer, a single tool Pettis and his cohorts created which could make anything.

He also noted that 3D printing used to be financially inaccessible to most people, as 3D printers were the size of computer mainframes and cost $100,000. MakerBot's current line of printers are far more cost-effective, in the $2,000 range.

The impact of the MakerBot printers can't be understated, Pettis argued. From children born without hands who were given prosthetics 3D-printed for them, to companies that use MakerBot's tools to prototype their prototypes before going to their larger prototype-making machines, to a set designer on New York's Broadway who prints out her sets overnight, 3D printing has taken the world by storm, he said.

Pettis was light on specifics about the MakerBot Digitizer that he revealed here, but he did provide some basic information as he demonstrated how it worked. It will be available this coming fall, and is ideal for scanning cylinder-shaped objects between 2 inches and 8 inches high. It will work under indoor light, which is important to note since it uses lasers to scan the objects.

The final products can be created to be watertight, he said, and added that its "high quality" scans can be completed in as fast as three minutes.

MakerBot will also be teaming up with AutoDesk, Pettis announced. The two companies will be working on an app called 123D Creature, which will allow people to create small figurines in the shape of odd or alien creatures.

Beyond Pettis' anecdote about a father printing orthopedic inserts for his daughter's shoes so she could go on the rides at an amusement park, the Twitter-sourced question-and-answer session at the end of the keynote addressed some of the more socially relevant issues that MakerBot faces, such as the impact of 3D printing on copyright, mass manufacturing, and consumerism in developing countries.

A topic that wasn't broached, despite at least one question about it, was what will happen when functional firearms can be 3D printed.

Correction, 7:43 p.m. PT: The name of the company MakerBot will be teaming with is AutoDesk. AutoCAD is one of AutoDesk's products.

Correction, March 9 at 2:36 p.m. PT: 123D Creature is not a version of the AutoDesk app 123D Catch, as originally reported in this story. It is a separate app.