Making a maker: Turning reality into a digital file with an iPhone camera

While I’m working out my 3D printer connectivity problems with MakerBot (whose representatives have so far been very helpful customer service-wise), I figured I would experiment with another way to turn my broken water bottle cap into a printable digital file.

Bottle cap to 3D print

123D Catch is another Autodesk program that can be used to create files for a 3D printer. While 123D Design is digital from the start and resembles traditional CAD programs, 123D Catch starts in reality. It’s free and requires only a mobile phone camera, which you use to take photos that are then stitched together into a 3D model, much like a 3D scanner. That is a pretty good deal when most 3D scanners cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Catch’s website instructed me to take at least 20 photos in a circle around the cap, plus more from other angles if possible. It also said that adding newspaper or a sticky note at the base of the object helps, so I set the cap on a postcard.

Water bottle cap 123D Catch instructions

I took about 20 photos in a circle around the cap and a few more from above.

Water bottle cap 123D Catch photos

Then I loaded the photos into 123D Catch, which began processing the 3D model. It processed and then processed some more.

Water bottle cap 123D Catch processing screen

About an hour later, it turned out something…interesting. It looked more like an anteater tongue than a water bottle cap.

Water bottle cap 123D Catch fail


I googled. Turns out it was likely too dark for Catch to easily combine the photos. Not surprising; despite being able to work with low-resolution photos, Catch isn’t magic. It can’t pull details out of dark shadows. Somewhere along the way it got very confused. I decided to try again the next morning when there was more light.

123D Catch appThis time, I also downloaded the 123D Catch app. You take photos within the app, which then combines them in the same way as the browser version. I set the cap on a white surface and placed a stack of sticky notes around it instead of the postcard. It took about 10 minutes to process once I submitted the photos.

The result? Definitely a water bottle cap, but a very trippy water bottle cap that would not come out right on a 3D printer.Water bottle cap 123D Catch

The difficulty probably comes from the cap’s color, which is a uniform black. Autodesk advises that you use Catch for highly detailed objects. While the cap has lots of ridges and curves, it would work better if it was spotted or striped. Autodesk presents a toy dinosaur as the perfect example of what to capture with Catch. For now, I’m going to stick with printing my 123D Design version of the cap.