Autodesk joins the 3D printing revolution

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

It isn't often these days that the launch of a new 3D printer captures the imagination. However, when the originator of the machine is one of the world's leading engineering CAD companies, then everyone sits up and takes notice.

And so it was when Carl Bass, Autodesk's CEO recently revealed ahead of an appearance at the MakerCon conference in California that Autodesk is launching two new technology innovations that he believes will accelerate a new industrial revolution built around advanced manufacturing processes such as 3D printing. First is an open software platform for 3D printing called Spark, which will make it more reliable yet simpler to print 3D models, and easier to control how that model is actually printed.

Second, Autodesk will introduce its own 3D printer that will serve as a reference implementation for Spark. It will demonstrate the power of the Spark platform and set a new benchmark for the 3D printing user experience. Together these will provide the building blocks that product designers, hardware manufacturers, software developers and materials scientists can use to continue to explore the limits of 3D printing technology.

Spark will be open and freely licensable to hardware manufacturers and others who are interested. The same applies to the 3D printer – the complete design of the which will be made publicly available to allow for further development and experimentation. The printer will be able to use a broad range of materials made by Autodesk and by others.

Carl Bass said of this latest development: "For years, I have been fascinated by the promise and frustrated by the reality of 3D printing... The world is just beginning to realise the potential of additive manufacturing and with Spark, we hope to make it possible for many more people to incorporate 3D printing into their design and manufacturing process. Over the coming months we will be working with hardware manufacturers to integrate the Spark platform with current and future 3D printers."

It is not clear which open licence Autodesk plans to use to license its platform or the price at which it will offer the printer, but the company has said that the details would be provided closer to availability, which is expected in the second half of this year.

Clearly, Autodesk feels He that, by giving away both Spark and the printer's design, it will still profit by driving demand for the firm's other products, with which there will obviously be interoperability.

Speaking to the BBC, Bass said: "If 3D printing succeeds, we succeed, because the only way you can print is if you have a 3D model, and our customers are the largest makers of 3D models in the world."

Of course, the big question is what impact it will have on the market as a whole and the take-up of the technology. It is believed possible that, by sharing the design the market could see a second wave of small start-ups creating stereolithography machines just as the makers did when the early material extrusion patents expired.

The machine itself uses stereolithography rather than the extrusion technique favoured by most existing budget printers. According to Bass: "We're making a printer that, rather than just being able to load in proprietary materials, you can load in any material you want. You can formulate your own polymers and experiment with those. That's an important next step because we think material science is a breakthrough that has to happen to make [the industry] go from low-volume 3D-printed stuff to where it really starts changing manufacturing."

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